Saturday, October 16, 2010

Early Christmastime Memories


For me, Christmas always starts the week of Thanksgiving and ends January 6. I write my Christmas card list in mid-November and celebrate well past the New Year, keeping my decorations up sometimes through mid to late January. It is a joyous time in which people get together more often and give just a little more than they usually do. The following recollections of my early childhood into young adulthood are scattered from Novembers into Decembers through a pack of years, but they're the ones about me and my growing up that have stuck in my brain and seem to mean the most.
I loved my mother and I loved Christmas, in that order. My two favorite decorative items for Christmas, apart from the tree, have always been the Advent calendar, with a piece of chocolate tucked under each unopened day of December, and the glass snow globe. My favorite holiday foods are turkey, egg nog and homemade X.Mas cookies. The personal recollections, scattered below, I humbly offer for your enjoyment, dear reader.

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             Santa Claus?
I think I was 4 or 5 when I first realized that Christmas was a big deal. I mean, parents practically pushing you into bed early on Christmas Eve, and then the sudden array of presents under the tree the following morning had to signify something. Did Santa Claus bring them? I was a curious kid. I had to find out, so I pretended to be asleep in my bed, and when my dad closed my bedroom door - which faced the kitchen; to the right was the living room - I lived in a small 2-bedroom apartment - I crept out of bed, opened ever, ever so gently the door and peeked through the crack. I was amazed to see my parents rushing to and fro, opening one closet, closing another; my mom scurrying with wrapping paper and bows, and my dad opening heavy cardboard boxes - what about Santa?

And the weird thing was - the next morning, the first comment that came out of my mom was: "Get up! Get up! Merry Christmas, honey! Look what Santa brought last night!" I acknowledged with a "Wow!" I knew the truth, but - who cares!? - that train set running at full speed around the tracks of Don Grigware Central Station under that tiny tree circa 1950 was enough to make me happy, no thrilled ...for another 12, well, at least 2 or 3 months!!!
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The Christ Child and Choir
Was I religious? I was brought up a Catholic, which means, when my mother went to church, I was dragged there from as early an age as I can remember, for novenas, obligatory masses and confessions. I hated watching folks wait in line to tell their sins to a priest. I thought it was so silly, and when it finally was my turn to do it at age six or seven, when I finally got to the box and had to talk, I stuttered for about three minutes, unable to think of a single thing I had done wrong. I was hardly perfect, but a sinner? Silly! And how this man - that I couldn't even see -had the power to forgive me! Who was he anyway? Just a man, another human being like me, who probably swore and missed daily prayers and had impure thoughts...Ugh!!

I did love mass though when it was said in Latin. There was so much pageantry and ceremony about it. It was great to look at ... and the choir. I loved to listen and even more to sing and from an early age wanted to be a member of the choir. This didn't happen until I was a teen, was already singing in the choir and glee club at school. Midnight mass. I thought there was no better place to be during Christmas Eve ... than at midnight mass. Part of the choir loft was hidden from public view, so when you were not singing - you could go over to the pews in the shadows and talk to your friends during the boring sermons and even laugh at a funny hat a lady was wearing below or at the priest when he made a mistake or just fumbled through what he thought was an interesting anecdote about devotion to Christ. 
I did love to pray in front of the manger at the altar too. It was so much bigger than our Nativity at home. Life-sized statues of the infant Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and Wise Men, angels of every shape and size - and of course, those beautifully docile sweet stable animals. I was in awe of this sculptured beauty!  This was an aspect of Christmas that has stayed in my mind throughout my adult years, even though I am no longer a practicing Catholic. I'm glad my mom dragged me to Church when I was a mere tot and that I learned discipline and a love of the aesthetic, for in that time the church was pure art and theatricality. For me, it was my Louvre, my Prado stage where I never ceased performing!
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The Annual Gift Exchange
I lived in Massachusetts - Holyoke, to be exact - so when a parcel arrived from New York, it was a big deal, except when it came a month before Christmas from Aunt Margaret. We all knew it was our annual Sears catalogue gifts. My mom would get a dress or bathrobe that was always too small - "I was never petite. Who can she be thinking of?" My dad would get a plaid workman's shirt - "She knows I work behind a desk. When in hell will I ever get the chance to wear this? We don't go hunting in Holyoke!" 
And I would always get a shirt or sweater that was either too small or too big - "I've lost weight, but this is ridiculous, a teeny baby couldn't fit into this - plus it's such an ugly plaid!" Aunt Margaret worked in Sears on Long Island where she lived. Her heart was in the right place, but every January without fail, the parcel would have to be sent back for exchanges, or my mom would just give the stuff to the Goodwill, at the suggestion of my grandmother. Grandma's gifts weren't that hot either; they were consistently practical too, but at least they fit or she'd give you the money to buy your own - I liked that even better, 'cause I'd go out and get something ridiculously impractical like Fanny Farmer chocolates, or the latest toy or contraption that managed to get broken within a week and had to be thrown away.
I have always loved gifts with imagination, even though I don't think I ever got one, at least from my relatives. It's never too late! I'm still hoping!
1. Something totally impractical or obscene.
2. ...
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Mom the Neatnick
Every year without fail my mom would start her fall cleaning in early to mid October. She'd send out the Oriental rugs and change the paper that lined every shelf of her kitchen cupboards. Does anyone still do that? I bet most people leave that paper under their dishes until they die! Mom was a neat freak! Our apartment had to be spotless for the holidays. "In case company stops by" she'd say, but usually it was my grandma and grandpa for Christmas; we went to their house for Thanksgiving. My aunts and uncles had their Christmases with their own families. My mom had nine brothers and sisters; I couldn't even count my cousins, I had so many. We saw them rarely, but my mom called all of them regularly. I'd help my mom with the cleaning so she wouldn't have to climb high up on a ladder and change the paper on those shelves. "Ma, there's just a little dust here, nothing more!" "Oh no, it all must come off! Fresh paper, like fresh veggies, fresh fruits, fresh meat, you wouldn't put dirty food in your mouth. Fresh smelling clothes, you wouldn't put on dirty clothes!" Fresh, fresh, fresh! Moms! They always want what they want and get things done the way they want them. "If you don't want to help me, I'll do it myself!" "OK, Ma, hand me the paper and let's be done with this!" I needed the exercise anyway. It was the only stretching my poor little fat body got in those days.

Everything looked and smelled immaculate in our home for Christmas. We had a small table tree-an artificial one, but green. I hated my aunt Mary's white one! Yuck, talk about artificial! At least ours was green and pine. I used to smell the needles and pretend they had an outdoor fragrance. Out of the closet it would come two weeks before Christmas and the decorating would begin. 

A pretty wreath for the front door,  plug-in electric candles for every front window that really lit them up and made them look festive from the street! My mom also insisted on hanging a tiny wreath in each window that would catch the golden light from each candle. Unique sight you don't get to see much anymore!
We used the same lights and ornaments every year for the tree - my mom had been collecting them for years - every year a new ornament was added. And underneath the tree on the cotton - that was supposed to be snow - she put the nativity, the manger and all those Hummel figurines, that my cousin had brought home for her from her sojourn in Germany. I accidentally dropped a shepherd one year, it broke in half and my mother broke into pieces right along with it. "I'll glue him back together!" "It's not the same" she said tearfully. "You're so damn clumsy!" under her breath. My mom was a piece of work. Any anger we had toward each other lasted but a short time, though. She remained positive and happy about everyone and everything. "It's OK, dear ...  with one less shepherd."
Those Hummel figurines represented perfection to her. She was an ardent Catholic woman, said a rosary every night and well... I can't complain about her. She was a great, beautiful woman, my best friend; all her flaws, imperfections amounted to little when I compare her to modern women and all their silly selfish issues... my dad used to work day and night, so as a kid, I saw a lot of my mom, as I was her only child, and yes, she did spoil me rotten. But I didn't turn out so bad! 

Every year now when I admire my small artificial tree with its built in lights, I think of my childhood and the pretty small tree that we spent so much time decorating ...  and my meticulous brings back a lot of happiness and makes me smile...

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To Grandma's House for Pumpkin and Mince Pies

"Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go!" 

Hardly; it was in my dad's Dodge and it was from Beech and Sargent Streets to Nonotuck St., about a ten minute boring drive across town. Holyoke was a small city, at least when I grew up there. Grandma and Grandpa owned a two story home. My grand-aunt Sofia, my grandpa's sister, lived on the first floor - a sweet quiet lady who lived by herself and never partook of Thanksgiving dinner with us. For a woman that lived in the same house, she kept rather aloof, very private. no wonder I've become so isolated as I've gotten older. I'm taking after Sofia. She eventually moved to San Diego and died there and never kept in touch with her brother Frank or Alice, my grandparents. I live in LA now, and through no fault of my own - or is it? - do not connect with my cousins who remain back in Holyoke. My parents have passed and all of my aunts and uncles. So sad, I force myself not to think about it too often. It depresses me.

Anyway, back to grandma's and the Thanksgiving Day feast. The moment you entered the front door you could smell the pies baking - apple, blueberry, pumpkin and mince. Mince? Yes, mince meat. It was my dad's favorite. To me it tasted very weird, and the pumpkin was never sweet enough to suit me, so I stuck to apple and blueberry, sugary sweet with a delicious scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. I was a pie a la mode kid. A fatty, no small wonder! Grandma cooked a turkey with all the trimmings - mashed potatoes, stuffing, giblet gravy, squash and peas, cranberries - we actually ate them whole in those days. It was all too good, and after at least two or three helpings, I had to follow my grandfather, who napped after eating. Tryptophane, a little amino acid involved in digestion, that makes you sleepy! Never heard of that in those days - a nap seemed natural like a snowfall in December. Grandpa laid flat on the living room hard floor, which was fine with me, 'cause I took my grandparents' soft cushioned bed strewn with all the coats. I'd roll over and land plop dab right in the middle of my dad's heavy winter topcoat that smelled like moth balls or on my mom's long coat with the brown fur collar that smelled sweetly of Emeraude by Cote. I'd nap for an hour or so and then up and back to the table for dessert or to the kitchen to pick at the leftovers. I'd pretend to help with the dishes just to be near the leftover food.Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm! Those were the days! Plenty of good homemade food - made with the best ingredients - that you are hard pressed to find anywhere today!

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Flying Saucer From Hell  or
What It's Like to Have a Pain in the Ass
When I was 10 or 11, I remember wanting a toy - well, contraption - for riding in the snow. Apart from my sled, that is! It was circular, you would sit on it at the top of a hill covered with packed snow, spin yourself around - or ask someone else to do that and PUSH - and you would wend your way down the hill and land exhilarated at the bottom. Sound like fun? Well, it looked like fun! What I did not take into account was that it was a good idea to be coordinated, which I definitely was not - and still am not, for that matter! Meaning? I'm a klutz and not the least bit athletic in any way, shape or form. My parents refused to buy it for me "Are you crazy?" said my mom. "You'll be black and blue from head to toe!"  Boy was she right! This was one of those gifts I bought myself with grandma's or an uncle's money. It was small, lightweight  and easy to carry.
OK, so I get on this 'saucer' thingy at the top of the small hill directly across the street from the apartment where I lived on Beech St, and before I could even attempt to spin around, I would tip over - literally - land on my head and roll down the hill with the saucer over my head, or during one of those terribly unlucky times, land on my head without the thingy, and of course, I was not wearing a helmet. Heavy clothing, a woolen cap and gloves, but not a helmet. The saucer? It would go flying out of control in the complete opposite direction. Sh--!  As much as I tried to convince myself that I was having fun, I was so friggin' sore, that I could hardly stand up, let alone make it back up the hill to begin again! One day, I did this very thing twenty times, before I had the sense to stop. Yep, my mom was right: I was b & b from head to toe. Eventually, the saucer stood in my room against the wall like battle armor as a painful reminder of my folly - and let me tell you, it also made a disgustingly ugly decoration!!!

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The Ice Capades: Sick or No Sick!
Every year my dad used to take me to the Springfield Mass. Coliseum between Thanksgiving and Christmas  to see the Ice Capades. It was a night off from work for him, a rarity, and he looked forward to our going together. This is probably where my love of performing originated, as well as my desire to skate. I loved to watch the skaters and marvel at how easily they glided along, doing summersaults, twists and the like. It was impossible for me to stand up on skates let alone do acrobatics. My dad loved the show more than I did, and wanted to see me take a stab at ice skating, and so this explains his present of ice skates a few years later. I remember one year, I was starting a head cold the day of the Ice Capades; my mom thought I should stay home, but I really wanted to go and my dad had bought those tickets - they were not that easy to get. "He'll be OK" said daddy. I was so excited when the show started but little by little I started to feel sicker and sicker. I was feverish, but did my best to keep my head up without saying a word to my dad. How could anyone not be moved by the Ice Capades! I loved the clowns and the skating snow men! It should have made me feel better. That night I hit the pillow and slept off that fever and in my dreams the show kept going...and lo and behold, I was skating right up there with the best of them! I can dream, can't I?
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Ice Skating? Stay Up? 
You've Got To Be Kidding!

My friend Bob Ezold, whose mom Helen was organist and choir director at Sacred Heart Church - our parrish - had an ice skating rink in his back yard and loved to show off his fancy footwork. I would guess that this was probably when I approached my teen years at John J. Lynch Junior High School. I had coaxed my dad into getting me ice skates as a present - another faux pas - and at Bob's encouragement "A two year old can skate! Don't worry, we'll support you!" I was an ardent Ice Capades fan, so I forged ahead. Anyway, I was petrified! I put on heavy socks and then tied up the skates and could barely walk on them. "What will happen when I hit the ice?" I queried. 

I did just that; my entire body went down and hit the ice; I'm surprised I didn't make a hole in it. Yuk! More bruises! I tried and tried but could never master ice skating. I just had no control whatsoever over my balance. I think it was in 5th or 6th grade I had a horrible ear infection which kept me out of school and home for a month; after that my balance was never quite the same! A few years later, however, I had to prove to myself that I could stay up, so I forced myself into going out alone to a public rink and did manage to stay on two feet for a while, as long as I took small strides and didn't push too much! I kept looking around to make sure nobody was staring at me. Two little kids chuckled, but that was nothing new. A big fat man was always the butt of jokesters! Good God how I wish I had been more athletic! Bob Ezold and his little sister Evie certainly got a kick out of my falling on their ice pond; they told everyone and even took pictures of me fumbling! Ah well, what seemed horrible then is laughable now...
Scott Hamilton I wasn't, but how I yearned for that form and grace... and incredible style! In another lifetime, I tell myself!
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Andy Williams or Perry Como?
The Nice Choice

Both Andy Williams and Perry Como had the greatest TV specials at Christmastime. We would plan our calendars around those dates and times.
Andy Williams (top photo), as of 2010, does his show live at his theatre in Branson, Missouri and at 83 is still going strong. I'm happy to have seen the live show on tour a couple of times in the 80s. Andy was such a family man. His brothers, his wife were always there like the Crosby clan.
Unfortunately, crooner Perry Como is no longer with us, but what class! Both men had the most colorful shows and guest stars on TV in the 60s and would sing, sing, sing Christmas carols alone, in duets and in chorus. This was television in its finest hour! A very special time that no longer exists. Yes, we have musical programs like Dancing With the Stars and American Idol, but they both move at breakneck speed. Como and Williams were relaxed and in their element - what true artists!
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Mahalia or Barbra for Christmas?
That Was the Question! 
My favorite Christmas albums of the 60s were those of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson ... and Barbra Streisand. To hear Jackson sing "O Holy Night" sent chills down my spine - now I weep - and to hear Streisand sing anything, except trilling her r in "Ave Maria", is a thrill. It's Maria, not Marria - a small detail, but my Catholic training taught me my Latin sounds! No one else cared whether the diva mispronounced a consonant; they probably didn't even notice; she called the shots and still does. Unfortunately, Miss Jackson has left us and I never saw her perform live; Miss Barbra, I saw in Funny Girl on Broadway in '65, at the Hollywood Bowl - but she didn't sing there -  and she's still recording! What a blessing!

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The Lucky Grigwares Win a Turkey!
We never usually won any prizes, but one year at an annual company holiday  party, my dad won first prize. A fresh turkey with all the trimmings. I helped him carry it home to and from the car, and that basket weighed a ton. There was everything from soup to nuts - literally. We weren't poor, and I felt somewhat guilty that we had won this and not some poor starving homeless people - yes, they existed in the 60s as well! My dad said "We won it and it's ours! We don't have to spend money on food for Thanksgiving this year. Save more money for ChrIstmas presents!" At first, I thought my dad's reaction was selfish, but the more I thought about it, it was ours and he was right to want to keep it. I think in today's world I would want to cook the turkey and bring it to a shelter so that less fortunate folks would have something to relish and really give thanks for on Thanksgiving Day.
I must admit, though, everything tasted extra special on Thanksgiving Day that year. It was like getting a reward for a family life well lived!
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Santa Becomes a Reality - Twice!
As a kid, I always thought it must be a lot of fun to wear Santa's wardrobe, like a king. Well, in my late twenties, as an actor pursuing a career in Hollywood, I took a department store Santa Claus job for about a month from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve.
I couldn't believe how little it payed - minimum wage - and how hot the costume was, especially the beard, wig and hat. I'm a sweater - I sweat - and couldn't wait for a break to get it off my face, if only for 15 minutes. Yes, it's a hot job! But I cannot stress enough how truly wonderful the experience is in having a small child come up and sit on your lap, pull your beard and whisper "I love you Santa Claus!" When a small child with Down Syndrome said that to me one day, I was reduced to tears and knew instantly why I had taken this job. I maybe wasn't a king, but it made me feel so special, loved and needed. There are a million things that happen when they take a picture of you holding a baby - the child cries from anticipation, among other things, the parents whine and complain - the whole scene can become annoying and even ugly - I won't go into that here, there's already a play written about it: The Santaland Diaries, about an elf and his trying times! The elf costume is perhaps a little less confining - no padding and more comfie on the face, but a similar experience to be sure! The little lesson in pure love from a child was enough o make we want to do the job again and I did. One funny note, as a kid - and now - I wouldn't need padding, but when I played Santa I was too thin to fill the bill, so I needed lots of padding. Ha, ha, ha!        I mean Ho, Ho, Ho!

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Struggling to Keep the Faith
As Thanksgiving and Christmas draw near and the end of yet another year, I can't believe how quickly the years have passed. I'm as old now as my parents were - they were younger in fact - in my previous stories. I've met a lot of people and wouldn't trade a second of any of it, but yes, life is hard. It's not easy for anyone in this day and age to be happy. I still believe in hope though. There's always tomorrow  - and they'll always be a Santa Claus and a Christmas to look forward to. Yes, my parents have both passed. I miss them, but their spirits are alive and well - in me!!! And I'm convinced, it's not money that counts, but ...
creativity, imagination, and love.

The beginning of the rest of my life.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Short Story

Pumpkins Unite!

Once upon a time on October 23, 2009 in Lala Land ...
As usual, to the side of the floral displays at Littlebottom Florists there was a pumpkin patch like every October, replete with pumpkins large and small. Ichobod Littlebottom converted his garden annually into the patch, not because he had a taste for pumpkins, but there was a humongous profit coming his way by Halloween.

Adults loved to come by and gaze, take their time and ponder just how big a pumpkin they would carve that year to place on their front stoops or in an upstairs window.

 "Cut in, cut up - it's destruction and disfigurement - that's what's really on their pitiful minds! They don't give a hoot about the sweet, gentle pumpkin but only about the scary look of Hallows Eve. They turn
us into frightening creatures, against our very will."

Sorrowfully, some little children didn't even bother to look; they would immediately and unashamedly pick out one of the tiniest gourds and then one of the biggest and engage them in frenzied battle on the spot. Bashing, kicking or tossing against the back fence or side wall was a reckless sport for these abusive tykes whenever Ichobod turned his back.

"Wait just a gall darn minute! Precious plants should be treated with care and respect."

If only gourds could speak. If only they could defend themselves or assist the aid of someone who would step in, protect, and appreciate the sheer eccentric beauty of the pumpkin patch. Row upon row of mellow squash, an array of  splendiferous orange delicacy diminished, hacked, reduced to pulp and ruined forever.

"The time has come for action. Yes, it is time. We have had enough! Look at that goof coming closer. Oh no, he's about to pick me up and ... Help me! Elphaba, are you out there hovering nearby? ...  Jumpin' be- elzabub! ...Ouch! Put me down!"

All of a sudden as if out of nowhere a strong hurricane wind blew across the pumpkin patch - only through the pumpkin patch, as onlookers at Ichobod's shop looked on with horror. The little tyke fell backwards to the ground, picked himself up and ran towards his parents, "Mommy, mommy, help! That pumpkin just attacked me!"

Without explanation, all the gourds in the patch began to move forward as if they could walk ... as if they were marching in a parade. "One, two, three ... forward, march! One, two, three..." The lead pumpkin was making the call and every gourd was following the command, all in line, one behind the other, right off the lot, onto the street and down the block to the corner, then left and out of sight. It was an incredible happening.

"Ichobod, what the hell is going on?" asked one man. "I can't believe my eyes", cried a little old lady. All Ichobod Littlebottom could do was stand in amazement at what he was witnessing. Out he went, bought a new batch of pumpkins that night, set them in the patch, but...the next morning, they were GONE, every last gourd had disappeared. Stuck in the ground was a sign with big lettering for all to see:

Pumpkins Unite! We will no longer serve a mankind that cuts us up for food or decoration. We have our own special beauty and want to be revered for that and that alone. Until that is understood, we will no longer stay around long enough to let humans manipulate and abuse us.

Of course, news spread fast throughout Lala Land, and it soon appeared that pumpkins everywhere in town had taken heed. In 2010 patches are extinct. There is not a single pumpkin in sight. Where have they gone? Who is ultimately responsible? Did Elphaba or some wicked witch cause the hurricane and the sudden exit of the pumpkins from Ichobod Littlebottom's patch? No one can figure it out. But the word is that similar occurrences happened all over the world. And from what we hear there was not a single pumpkin pie to be had in this country last Thanksgiving.

Windows and stoops in Lala Land are barren this year. Without pumpkins to serve as decorations, and due to the severe lack of imagination of the townsfolk, everything looks pretty dull and dismal.

And the pumpkins? Where are they?

Well, rumor has it ...