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.


  1. Thanks Dave for sharing another well-written story about you boyhood in Acre. Although my grandparents had moved out of the Acre well before I was born, the memories you shared were similar to mine living in "The Grove" & later Centralville. Your "Acre Christmas Story" had the late Jean Shepherd coming back from the dead to narrate your story as he did for the movie "Christmast Story." Merry Christmas to you and family! Nollag Shona Dhuit!

  2. My mother saved the plastic bags from the Wonder bread so we could put them on over our shoes before we tried to slide our feet into those rubber boots with metal buckles.