I never feel ready for it. I am often baffled by it. I am uncomfortable with certain aspects of it. I am also fascinated by it. It? Christmas.
In Key West this year, Christmas manifests itself with over the top displays of lights, displayed on the unquestioned assumption that more is better, particularly if it’s a zany hodgepodge of Christmas clichés. Happy tourists walk the shopping streets wearing exaggerated Santa hats and necklaces of glowing Christmas lights Our neighbor’s holiday lights give our small street an aura of nostalgia and warmth. I briefly get caught up in the spirit and consider doing a few strings of white lights across our front porch, but then catch myself and decide it’s not at all necessary. The admonitions of childhood are hard to escape.
It’s a relief to see nary a crèche in sight on public land fought about and argued over. I no longer feel it necessary to explain to well-meaning strangers who wish me Merry Christmas that I don’t celebrate it, at least in their whole -hearted traditional way. Their shocked and saddened faces put an end to that little experiment years ago. It’s much easier and nicer to wish them Merry Christmas too, even if it sticks a bit in my throat on its way to being expresed.
The only piece of Christmas I missed the year was hearing my favorite carol sung by Johnny Mathis,Oh, Holy Night!. Of course, I can play it anytime I want with today’s technology, but that feels like cheating and doesn’t bring the thrill of hearing it suddenly come on the radio or of catching it on the sound system in a store.
And, whatever happened to shimmery tinsel and the magic of spray on artificial snow? I used to love that stuff, although it was always easier to find something to spray the snow on rather than drape in tinsel.
These days, I can go along for the Christmas ride more easily. I’m not sitting inside the car with the deliriously happy passengers, more like riding/clinging on the hood, observing and often enjoying it, but forever on the outside looking in.
Father’s Day becomes bittersweet once your father has passed away. Sweet memories are combined with the ache of deep loss.
This morning I watched a CBS Sunday Morning segment with the ever-smiling Jane Pauly about a young father who’s committed to splitting half the parenting time of his two-year old daughter with his wife. That arrangement has been going on for a while and is nothing new, but it got me to thinking about what a remarkable departure it is from the world in which I was raised. I didn’t really become “close” to my Dad until I was an adult and I was able to let him know I wanted a more affectionate father.
Dad worked 6 days a week, minimum of 12 hours a day. After work, he came home, poured himself a drink or two, ate dinner with us, then vanished to the den to read the paper, watch tv and doze off. Occasionally, he’d call me into watch something with him, usually a Western or some dancers on Ed Sullivan. I never refused his invitation, because it was one of the few interactions we had each day.
The most serious conversation I ever had with him regarding my behavior occurred when I began dating a non-Jewish boy. “There’s too many other problems you can have when you’re married, without adding religion to the mix,” he told me seriously. Since I was nowhere close to considering marriage, I was nowhere close to worrying about religious differences. I guess I was not too responsive because he added, “Besides, it would kill your mother.” That was more melodrama than I’d thought he was capable of, but because it was so rare, I respected and filed his opinion. I made a note to do a better job at covering my tracks.
Sunday was his golf day whenever the New England climate allowed for it. He was long gone by the time I woke up on my own on Sunday mornings. My mother liked to call herself a golf widow, but since they worked together, it was one of their few times apart. Dad always told me I had a natural swing in the hope that I would share his passion for the game. It never happened.
He attended all my dance recitals, more out of a sense of duty than a love of dance, I believe. He never spoke to me about a career. Nor did we discuss where I should go to college. I think he just assumed I’d get married and it didn’t much matter.
When I brought my future husband home to meet my family, Dad dutifully played his patriarchal role by calling Danny into the den to inquire how he planned to support me. Danny answered truthfully. She’s going to support me, because he was headed for graduate school. My Dad said a quick ok and then poured them each a drink to seal the deal.
In my early 20’s, I remember screwing up all my courage to ask my father if he loved me! He had never told me. He acted surprised by my question but gave me a resounding yes. He let me know that he never learned that from his father. After that exchange, he needed no more prompting. He frequently told me how much he loved me and vice versa, of course.
Many years passed before we would spend much time together once more. He was a wonderful grandfather, sending the kids into peels of laughter at his antics and always carting them off for ice cream. Staring contests became a dinnertime ritual when we were all together. He never failed to win.
When my mother grew seriously ill, he and I became a team, consulting on her care. He took care of her at home, and only acquiesced to putting her in a “home” when it became impossible for him to take care of her. Their’s was a deep love.
I would try to visit my parents as much as I could when my mom was declining, although I still had children at home and I lived across the country. Saying goodbye to each other became particularly harder as the years went on. I distinctly remember having to wake him up very early one morning when I had to depart for the airport. He sat up in bed and began to sing to me, You Light Up my LIfe!
Lyrics: And you light up my life / You give me hope to carry on / You light up my days and fill my nights with song…Never has anyone expressed their love for me more beautifully.
On the occasion of his 90th birthday, we held a big celebration luncheon for him at a nearby golf club. At first, he didn’t want the fuss of planning a party, but he soon warmed to it. I made up the guest list, which just began with a few people. Each day I would be asked to add another and another guest. Without exception, everyone we invited came to the party. It was an amazing assortment of former customers, golf buddies, friends and family. In the end, we had 100 guests, which was quite a testament to his popularity at age 90. Former customers told me stories of how my Dad extended credit to them when times were tough. With his help, they fed their families. It was then I understood what it meant to lead a meaningful life.
Over the years, I learned some very important lessons just by being near him. He never did teach me how to throw a ball. But there were much more important lessons. Dad taught me the power of humor, integrity, love, generosity and the not to be dismissed value of a good gin and tonic.
Disclosure: I’m Jewish. Food and its consumption are a part of my culture. That might have something to with the attention I’ve paid to food most of my life. Taking it to another level, I married a Jewish man whose Jewish Mother wanted to know when we visited, what we wanted her to cook for dinner. This was before we finished breakfast.
Although my father was a grocer, the food choices in mid-century New England were a far cry from what I’ve now come to expect since I’ve been living in CA. New England gastronomy was strongly influenced by early waves of immigrants from England, Ireland and Poland, not nations known for their culinary prowess. I grew up working in my parents’ store, surrounded by food, much of it canned, bottled, some of it frozen, with a produce section that only drew my attention when local fruit and vegetables became available for a brief few months between the last freeze and first frost.
My mother worked in the store with my father most days. For dinner, when I was growing up, I’d put 4 Idaho potatoes in a 350-degree oven about an hour before my parents were expected home for dinner. A most typical dinner included the potato I’d baked, a broiled a piece of meat, and a side of once frozen, Birds Eye vegetables, usually green beans or peas, maybe canned corn. A side plate held a salad wedge of iceberg lettuce, topped off with Wishbone Italian dressing. The meal would often be kicked off with half a Florida grapefruit, if they were in season. If Mom felt daring, she’d occasionally broil the grapefruit with a melted brown sugar topping. Oh, I forgot to mention a usual side of applesauce. Continue reading “My History of Eating, Part One”→
It’s all been debated so many times. It’s a holiday rife with conflicts as well as delights. Natural/vs. artificial tree? Merry Christmas vs. Happy holidays? A crèche scene on public property? Kwanza? How does Christmas measure up against Chanukah? (It doesn’t, nor can it. Only thing it shares is a winter date of celebration.) (my opinion)
For a Jewish child surrounded by the signs its annual arrival, it’s fascinating, forbidden other. Look, but don’t touch. The idealized 1950’s Christmas world was a constructed make-believe land, irresistible to most children, blanketed in perfectly white snow, inhabited by a perfectly white smiling attractive families, accompanied by a cute puppies wearing an oversized red bow. In this perfect world, a sleigh is outside your door, your mom is in the kitchen with a cute apron on, baking ridiculous amounts of perfectly formed, baked and cleverly decorated cookies. Every house has a wreath and candles. Good will abounds. It was Norman Rockwell painting come to life. Escapism at its finest. The Norman Rockwell image below, however is what Stockbridge Mass. looks like! Ah, nostalgia.Continue reading “Tree Deprivation Syndrome”→
Hard on the heels of Passover, Easter would arrive. The window of our downtown Woolworths would herald the holiday’s arrival by placing a few dozen pastel downy baby chicks inside the store’s front window to spend their early and most likely final days milling about with their doomed brethren. I was too young to understand the long term implications of this tradition, so each year I would be invariably charmed and delighted with their appearance.
It would not be incorrect to say I craved a lavender chick of my very own. When I shared my desire with my Mother, never doubting her opposition to letting this small animal into her immaculate house, she would ask me what I’d do with it when it grew up. Stymied for an answer, her question made me back off. As I got older and continued to raise the cute -chick-as-pet idea, she switched tactics to matter of factly state, that Easter chicks all die if brought home. A sobering thought. I wasn’t prepared to deal with a dead chick.
Oh, but the Easter baskets! Another visual delectable. The stiff pink cellophane that made the inner world of the basket look like a technicolor dream, the woven baskets, the shiny green cellophane grass in which the goodies nestled. The perky marshmallow chicks. The sugared eggs that held a pastel world within. The hollowed out milk chocolate rabbits. All forbidden. Why? Because it was Passover too and Jewish children were supposed to make due with disgusting red, orange, yellow and green jellied candies, not-so bad chocolate matzohs, and horrible Manischevitz canned coconut macaroons, which might have been delicious if they had been baked freshly. At some point it became ok for me to create an Easter basket for my brother. As I remember, I put together some wonderful creations. I also remember, that I never got to eat any of the candy I put in, nor was my brother ever thankful or impressed by my creativity.
My home town always had an Easter parade on Easter Sunday, called the drag. Each year of my childhood, I was allowed to walk in it with my cousin. We’d get all dressed up in a new dress, hat and spring coat. If I was lucky, I’d get a fresh corsage to pin on my coat. This being Massachusetts in late March or early April, it was always too cold or too windy for comfort, but that did little to deter us as we walked up and down Northampton Street masquerading as Christians, but forbidden to eat the candy that everyone else was enjoying. We’d be sorely tempted to “break” the covenant, but rarely did so. Such good girls.
It now seems obvious that the conflicting messages I got at the Christian holidays were because my mother, coming from an Orthodox Jewish home, was herself conflicted. She tried to give me a taste of the mainstream culture, which I’m sure she never had. It was confusing, yet tantalizing for a child. Kind of like saying, look but don’t touch. At Easter, I got to dip into the world of the majority, probably more so than most Jewish kids, however, I never lost the feeling that I was in disguise, waiting to be called out as an imposter. These days, I eat whatever I want, but somehow the forbidden marshmallow bunnies have lost most of their appeal.