Thursday, March 22, 2007


When we were growing up disease was still a real presence. On the way home from my grandparents outside Philadelphia, as we passed through Camden, my mother would make us hold handkerchiefs over our faces to protect against Polio. Smallpox was a real disease. Later in life one of my high school teachers bore the marks all over his face.
The janitor of our school was found to have tuberculosis. This prompted a mad scare. We were herded en masse to the nurses office and tested. He was sent to a Sanitarium.
It's odd. I can remember the disease, the fear, the sanitarium but the poor man's name is lost to me. Just as the names of the children in first grade were lost to me. Or the name of our crossing guard. You'd think names would be the thing we cling to, like a lifeline but instead I cling to something else. Second grade was pleasant enough but unchallenging. We moved past Dick and Jane, I guess we had arithmetic but I can't recall any of it. I was by now socialized and spent a good deal of time playing with my friends. This was probably the last year of my life that was centered in my home.
The center of my family year, after the trip to Ocean City, was Christmas. Christmas was our special time. My father bought the tree two weeks before, roughly around the time of his and my birthdays and put it by the side of the house in a bucket of water. The same day he'd put the lights up around the porch.
Of course Christmas began for us in October. That was when the Sears and Roebuck catalog came to the house. My brother Mick and I would spend hours looking at the toys, the sets of army men, the plastic guns, the bikes, all the promises of Santa Claus' visit. And of course we were watching tv now so we'd badger our parents about toys we saw on the tv. This process became more intense as we grew older and now in 2nd grade it was somehow still innocent and filled with joy.
On Christmas Eve my father would bring the tree into the house in the morning and put it up. Wires were strung to keep it from falling and then we'd settle in to wait.
After dinner the ornaments came down from the attic. Old european glass balls, thick glass lights, tinsel. My father was a stickler for proper Christmas tree protocol and taught us well how to put the balls and decorations on the tree. Lights first a few hours before the rest, then smaller balls at the top, medium in the middle, and largest at the bottom. Variation was key. You couldn't have too many red balls or green balls in one place.
After the tree was decorated my mother would sit down on the couch with me and my brothers, and later my sister, and read. First an abridged version of the story of the birth of Christ and then "Twas the Night Before Christmas". She did this every year until the year before she died. It's my sister's fondest memory of her and I must admit it was a wonderful moment in our lives. In my Senior year in HS my friends, Suzy and Gary, came over to hear as well. It was worth it.
Then it was time to bed although first my father would tune the radio for the reports of the movements of an unknown flying object originating over the North Pole.
I don't think I ever slept more than an hour on Christmas Eve. My brother Mick and I shared a bedroom till I was in 7th grade and we'd lay awake and talk and speculate as to what would be under the tree and when Santa would come.
Then at around 7 in the morning when we could take no more my father would allow us to leave our rooms and sit at the top of the stairs while he went downstairs to make sure everything was ok. It always was and we'd race down to find our toys, Santa's cookies and milk devoured, and a tree rich with light.
This was the last Christmas I believed in Santa Claus though I knew in my heart it was a fantasy. I'd find the truth the following year along with multiplication and To Kill a Mockingbird. No Santa. Just my mother and father frantically assembling toys into the night.
Just as they'd assembled us and the tree. Without much of a guide or instruction. Just memories of how their parents had done it and conversations with friends and co-workers. No wonder the tree needed wire to keep it up.

1 comment:

BLT said...

Wasn't the janitor named, "Nick"? Obviously shortened from something else... but as I recall he was Polish and had a heavy accent... Came to the US after WWII - perhaps some sort of refugee.