Saturday, December 20, 2014

An Acre Memory- Christmas (The Finale)

All during the day and for the weeks before the record player droned out the tunes of the season.  We had a pile of 45’s that we played over and over.  You could stack about 5 records on top of each other and each would drop down onto the player.  The needle arm would move over and play the tune.  I mostly recall the Harry Simone Chorale’s rendition of the new hit, “The Little Drummer Boy.”  My mother loved that tune and when it came on the radio she would reach over and turn up the volume.  There was always Bing Crosby’s I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, Perry Comeau’s Do You See what I See?, and other songs and hymn whose singers mostly dating from the 1940s.

My parents explained that Christmas was much different when they were young growing up in the Lowell of the 1920s.  My father said he remembered very little except the deep snows of the seasons and actually seeing horse drawn sleighs still in use on Broadway Street.  Ice skating on the Merrimack River was something every Acre kid looked forward to.  When he was young there was an annual package delivered from Scotland.  It was something his parents always looked forward to.  Inside were tins of shortbread and oatcakes.  He also remembered letters from cousins in Glasgow who asked for money to be sent home and requests for sponsorship so they could come to America.  He also recalled the throngs at Midnight Mass and how people would keep warm for the long walk to church by having a few drinks on their way.  My mother’s memories were more clear.  Gifts were usually very limited.  A scarf or hat.  A small bisque doll.  They used their own stocking to hang for Santa to fill.  In it were wrapped candies, nuts, along with oranges and coins.  A thing like an orange was very precious in this time.  She kept that tradition up with my sister and me.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found out reading in a history book that since the earliest days Canadian children were given fruits and coins to wish them health and wealth in the New Year.  Their tree was never decorated until Christmas Eve and often was set up by her parents after all 13 children had gone to bed.  Midnight Mass for my mother was at St. Jean Baptiste Church on Merrimack Street.  A behemoth of an edifice it had a triple choir loft that reached to the very rafters of the church.   She recalled the thrill of being so high up in the church and singing the hymn Minuit Chretiens (O Holy Night).  Minuit Chrétiens c'est l'heure solennelle; Où l'homme Dieu descendit jusqu'à nous. Pour effacer la tache originelle; Et de son père arrêter le courroux.  Right into her final years at some point in the season she would break into song, you could see her eyes fill as she returned to the joys of her youth. 

One year we awoke to a scene directly out of a Hallmark card.  Overnight we were blanketed in more than a foot of snow.  Nothing was moving on the streets.  At dinner time I had to make my way down Walker Street to my grandparent’s house to deliver their meal.  In the freezing cold my mother warned me to hurry not so I wouldn’t get frostbite, but so that the meal could remain hot by the time I got there.  The mince pie!  Don’t drop the pie.  My grandmother met me at the door and sure enough the pie was the first thing she checked on.  Memere always had a sweet tooth.  My mother would often catch her sneaking a brown paper bag home from the store which must have contained black and whites or maybe even a napoleon or a bismark.  My mother would get on the phone and let my grandmother know she was caught red handed.

What was a perfect day was ruined when my mother announced that in the subfreezing Arctic cold snow laden blizzard we had to go to Mass.  She knew there was a 5:30 Mass and it was a holyday of obligation which meant the fires of hell were promised to us who committed a mortal sin.  The church was over a mile away.  We bundled up for the long track.  The four of us hit the streets.  They were still covered in white.  The lights of the candles in people’s windows reflected in the snow piles in front of people’s houses.  I swear that not even one car passed us on the road during our journey.  Looking in windows you could see families celebrating and sharing the joy of the day.  We walked down the middle of the street in the dark since most people hadn’t gotten a chance to shovel yet.  Even Cukoo O’Connell’s bar on the corner of School and Broadway was closed up.  Probably the only day of the year it was.  I imagined the street light turning from green to red were that way to celebrate the season.  Don’t stop.  Keep going.  It’s Christmas.  Just as the last of my energy and heat escaped my body we reached the church.  My Dad grabbed the metal handle of the massive green wooden door.  Locked!  Locked?  Locked!!!  The four figures turned around.  No one said a word.  Maybe it was the sacredness of the moment or the fear of catching my mother’s wrath.  We walked home.  I felt the cold night through my black rubber boots with the dozen impossible buckles.  My thoughts now are of the drum set waiting for me in the good room and the candy cane that hangs on the tree that’s ready to be eaten.  I look up.  There is my father looking up Broadway Street.  He’s on my left.  Next to me is my sister with her white rabbit fur muff to keep her hands warmed, probably thinking of attacking those same candy canes.  On the far right was my mother with her fur lined black boots.  Hat on her head as every good church going lady had at that time.  She was probably saying her prayers for missing Mass knowing that dragging her family out on this special night was the right thing to do.  The crunch of the new fallen snow the only sound to be heard.

It is like a photo in my mind.  The four of us making our way home.  We’re on Broadway Street right at the gate house over the canal.  In the distance I see the candles in the windows of our apartment.  Frost is making its mark on the glass panes, and if I squint the orange glow almost makes the electric candles look like stars.  The street lights cast our shadows before us.  I can see it now.  I am right there.  Our little family was together and we were going home.  In my head I hear,
Silent Night, Holy Night,  All is calm, All is bright.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

An Acre Memory- Part 2

That being said and done the next day was tree decorating day.  A day I hated and feared.  We used the large bright bulbs with the old fashioned wiring.  It was my job to test the lights before trimming the tree.  The problem was that if one light went out the entire string went out.  Children of today have no idea how gifted they are to have the lights they do.  Each individual light had to be unscrewed and tested until the faulty perpetrator could be found.  On top of that, the lights would heat to a searing temperature that would burn the fingertips.  You could tell who had the job of being the light tester in each family because of the band-aids on each finger tip.  My mother demanded that there was an even distribution of colored lights.  The pattern had to be followed and could not be broken.  This often necessitated an emergency trip to the 5 and 10 to buy replacements.  That’s until she came upon what she thought was an ingenious idea.  If she had too many blues and not enough red, she would scrape the blue paint off of one bulb and using red nail polish she’d paint the scraped bulbs.  Now if you don’t believe in guardian angels this may convince you.  As I said the bulbs would literally burn at a very high temp and using the nail polish only a Christmas miracle saved us from the vapors of the nail polish igniting the dried out tree into a Christmas bonfire.  One often picked up a copy of the Lowell Sun to find that a home was burnt to the ground because of faulty wiring and a dried out tree.  I was constantly reminded of this since it was my duty to climb under the tree daily and fill the reservoir.  And if the house was to burst into flames it would have been all my fault.

Some of my friends had those new sparkling aluminum tree with the color wheel that spun around.  Their ornaments were the fancy, Styrofoam ones wrapped in colored silk thread.  Not us, we had old fashioned glass ornaments, some 10, 15, or 20 years old.  There were delicate glass strawberries , enormous red balls, beautifully painted shapes that mirrored the colored lights.  We had some very old ones from memere’s.  I especially remember a little cloth Santa that had its place on the tree.  The icicles.  We had dozens of these hard plastic white icicles that were placed ever so gingerly on the tips of the branches.  Then came the tinsel.  They don’t even sell tinsel any more.  I think it was one of the causes of global warming.  My mother bought boxes of it.  I would throw gobs of it at the tree.  In frustration my mother would tell me to leave as she went about adding her piece de resistance.  Every individual strand had to be placed just right.  In my memory I can see it now the entire tree shimmering and shining, the tinsel making the tree look like an ice glazed wonder.  The star we used was another ancient piece dating from WWII period.  It was white with a slight outline in red.  When a bulb was inserted in the base the glow was soft and tranquil and set the perfect image of peace on earth, goodwill towards men.  All of that was so until the cat ate a piece of tinsel and we had to pull it out of her rear, or until my mother would topple into the tree as she was trying to perfect her already perfect tree.

While the tree was the focus of our decorating frenzy there were other additions to our attempts of making our Christmas Wonderland.  Probably the first sign of the season to appear would be the wreath on the door.  Today’s Martha Stewart hyper stylized self important foo foo wreaths paled in comparison by what hung on the doors along Broadway Street.  There were the white tissue paper wreaths that were made from bent coat hangers with dozens of tiny torn pieces of tissue wrapped around the form.  The good Sisters at Saint Patrick School began the project early in the season.  By early December students brought them home in many stages of completion.  Some homes displayed full rich wreaths that must have taken a tree’s worth of tissue paper to fill.  Other looked half done and hung sadly from a nail.  The worst tragedy is if we had a wet snow and then dozens of toilet paper wreaths met their doom.  On other doorways wreaths were made of folded computer cards (which was accompanied by the infamous folded TV Guide Christmas tree that matched).  Of course there was the economical plastic wreath that barring a nuclear explosion could last in a state of preservation into the next millennium.  One of my mother’s pride and joys was the gold sprayed pine cone wreath made by my Aunt Nita.  It was by far the largest and most luxurious of wreaths in the neighborhood.  It lasted many years and even though each year one or another of the pine cones would fall off or disintegrate it hung until it breathed its last many years later.

It seemed almost every family put electric candles in the windows.  The meaning of this ancient sign of welcome may have been unknown to the residents of the Acre but the effect it made on the snow-covered streets was spectacular.  Almost everyone used orange or red.  That may have been one of those unwritten rules of Christmas that was enforced by peer pressure.  Those who could afford it may even have a 3 candle candolier.  Soon followed the 5, then 7 candle condoliers showed up in widows  Even in the 1960s people tried to outdo their neighbor.  There were always the renegades who used blue or white lights, or even God forbid multi-colored lights!  The ladies of the tenement neighborhood would remark that while everyone in the block had orange Mrs. So-and-so wanted to defy standards and put green bulbs in her electric candles.  Soon enough the malcontent would do her penance and change her bulbs to the right color.  Peace was restored to the Acre. 

Stamps must have been far cheaper in that era because the Christmas card was a major decorating item in that period.  The mailman often made two trips to the mailboxes and even worked on the Sunday before Christmas.  Lord knows who sent all those cards, but we received dozens if not many dozens of Christmas cards.  I had no idea who many of the cards were sent by.  They were cousins of cousins and then there was the frantic, “Oh my God I didn’t send one to them!!!”  This was followed by a mad dash to the mail box in front of Dostaler’s Market.  With tape in hand my sister and I would line every door jamb with the season’s greetings.  “Be sure the horizontal cards were along the top and the verticals went along the side.”  It was a contest with my cousins who had the most cards hanging.

In between the living room and the “good” room was always displayed the red paper tissue folded bell.  These were inexpensive items that were picked up easily at the local Woolworth’s, Kressge’s, or Green’s. Other items of décor included an illuminated Santa with a bubble light in his hand.   Again, I have no recollection where the item came from or why poor Santa carried a bubbling light bulb in his hand but the Santa was used as a night light on the kitchen table during the season.  My sister had the Frosty the Snowman light.  With a blue bulb inserted in the back it was just like a real snowman, that in your dreams may come alive and march through the house.  I never liked that figure.  My mother also bought 4 Santa Claus mugs from Stuart’s Department Store on Market Street.  As the years passed the poor Santas lost their paint until finally he looked like a victim of the plague.  Advent calendars were opened daily revealing little pictures as the big day approached.  Every now and then my mother would buy one that when the window was opened there was a Bible verse.  Why would someone put Bible verses on Advent calendars?  The meaning was lost on an 8 year old boy.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

An Acre Memory- Christmas (Part 1)

Christmas on Broadway, 1955
When the skies turn grey and dry leaves do their winter dance, thoughts return of another time. A time of simple pleasures and innocent wishes. They come to me like Dicken’s ghost of Christmas past, haunting in a way that invites you to return. Sometimes it is the notes of a song that lives in the recesses of my mind. Other times a whiff of cinnamon or an orange peel. My soul has passed through five decades and four Christmases. Each leaving its impression upon me and building in my collective memory. How much is true and how much is dream has become blurred over time. The expectations of a young boy become the memories of an aging man. Christmas. Just the word makes me think of putting on black rubber boots with those impossible metal clips before going outside into snow mounds made by the passing plows.

The tenement I grew up in was located at 761 Broadway Street in Lowell, Massachusetts. Weeks before the holiday preparations began. Dostaler’s Market next door would start stocking walnuts and Gorton (pork scrap sold in cardboard tubs), would once again be found in the cooler where the meats were kept. In the back large pieces of beef would hang where Paul the butcher would cut the meat to the various needs of the neighborhood mothers. The Dostalers’ sons would be busy delivering the groceries to the neighborhood. Cans of SS Pierce vegetables would fly off the shelf. Don’t forget the Bradt’s crackers and be sure to include some bread that would be left out to stale for the stuffing. Mr. “Ovie” (Ovid Dostaler) was a kind soul who along with his wife would offer credit to his patrons. To a six year old the sight of the glass enclosed wooden case filled with penny candy was a feast awaiting. Armed with the nickel my memere gave me for carrying her laundry I would have to choose between the peach pits, which were such a bargain at three for a penny, or maybe a black licorice record, which was as strip of rich chewy delight with the little red bead at the center at the end. But oh there were so many other choices, squirrel nuts, mint juleps, malt balls, flying saucer, which we used to give make-believe communion to each other. Don’t forget the candy necklaces, wax bottles filled with sugar water, and straws filled with colored sugars which would make our tongues turn colors. God only knows the chemicals we ingested. If I was dutiful perhaps I saved 2 nickels and was able to get a package of Stoddard’s Twins, better known as black moons, two delicious, decadent, delightful, delicacies of chocolate cake with icing equal to the nectar of the gods inbetween. But I digress.

Years later I learned that Mr. Ovie was often the voice of Santa on the telephone. With the constant threat of Santa not coming to our home that year, my mother would swear she would call Santa if we did not behave. Since our apartment was on the first floor and the Dostalers lived on the second floor across the street, Mr. Ovie could see directly into out kitchen. Upon my mother’s cue the phone would ring and Santa would begin the litany of faults my mother had previously snitched. Santa even knew what we were wearing and where we were standing. There really was a Santa! We were convinced and well into junior high I knew that though my peers laughed at the absurdity of such a folly, he did exist.

If my memory serves me correctly at some point my mother was barred from the quest of getting the tree. Since we had no car, as did most in that neighborhood, it was a traipse to the several neighborhood dealers. Somehow we always picked the weekend when snow and the temperature had fallen to the point of frostbite. My mother demanded the perfect tree. Not too short, not too tall. Not too narrow, not too full. A skimpy tree meant there weren’t enough branches to hang the ornaments. A tree too full wouldn’t allow the ornaments to hang just right. After my mother commanding my father to try this tree and that, and then back to this tree and finally deciding on that one, only to find someone had bought it, there was an unspoken decision my father would play hunter-gatherer and get the tree himself. And so, wearing double layers of socks, a pair of woolen leggings, the mandatory hat with earflaps pulled down and strapped under the chin, accompanied by the god-awful black rubber boots with the gazillion impossible buckles, we would leave the safety of the primeval cave and enter the world of the Christmas Tree Man.

Now finding a tree was not a matter of shape or form to my father, but being the son of a Scotsman, was all about the price. I truly believe in the whole time we lived in the Acre we never paid more than $3 for a tree and more likely $2. Ahh, it was a dance that was performed between my father and Tree Man. Banging the tree stump on the ground to proclaim the needles falling off. The shaking of the head at how poor a selection Tree Man had. The proverbial question of, “Is this all you have?” Many times this was enough for Tree Man to give in and acquiesce to the Great White Tree Hunter. But every now and then Tree Man held his ground. That’s when my dad would pull out the big guns. I think subconsciously my dad hoped he could pull off this coup-du-gras. It had to be timed perfectly. The hand gestures, facial expressions. When Tree Man did not bite my Dad’s bait of “I’ll give you 2 bucks for this one,” my father would shake his head and say “Come on David, let’s go.” I would lower my head and follow a few steps behind. Inevitably just as we were leaving his lot, Tree Man would call out, “Wait!” Though Tree Man couldn’t see it my father’s face would beam. The hunt. Now the kill. With my Dad taking the lead, we would carry our catch down Broadway Street hill. I taking two steps to his every one. The crunch of the snow beneath our boots helped keep the rhythm to our steps. As the door opened to our house Dad would again tell the story of how once again Tree Man dared to take him on, and the victory of getting a two dollar and fifty cent tree. To complete the annual expedition my mother would proclaim once again that she had no idea where was she going to hang the ornaments on such a skimpy tree.

Once the tree was brought home it had to be put into its stand, which consisted of a green metal bowl in which water would be poured to keep the tree moist. Three red metal legs had to be attached to keep the stand steady. A degree in engineering was needed to assemble the device. Only the most delicate of maneuvers would hold the legs together in such a state to put the stump in the tree without it falling apart. Placing of the tree was also of major concern. “Move it to the right. More. More. Too much. Left. I said left. Put it back where it was.” The Commanding Officer, my mother, would bark out the orders never content believing that turning it just the right way would make the difference. There was an unwritten rule in the house that the tree had to “stand” for 24 hours. It was the belief a lot like “no swimming for one full hour after eating before going in the water.” If you decorated the tree before that time the needles would fall, and Christmas would be ruined forever and all time.