Santa came to our house on the eve of Christmas Eve each year, the night before December 24th, a whole day earlier than for everyone else I knew. My mom explained to us that there were way too many people in the world for Santa to visit on one night, so he had a special Christmas Eve list and we were on it. We also opened our presents ahead of tradition on Christmas Eve night, right after dinner, not the next morning like everyone else. But we didn’t ask for an explanation for that difference, not after waiting an entire day, from dawn to dusk, with unopened Christmas presents in the house.
Yes, later when we were older we learned that mom had practical reasons for breaking with tradition. She wanted to avoid squirmy children at church on Christmas morning. She had learned that, whether presents were opened right before or immediately after church, they danced too much in the eight wee little heads she needed to keep calm through Christmas morning mass.
Nelson Mandela’s death reminds me of all the great men and women who put their lives on the line for peace and justice, especial those of my childhood.
As a kid in Catholic grade school in the 1960s I was very aware of what the “reason for the season” really was. It was something more powerful than Santas kneeling before a manger, a fish on a bumper sticker, or a fight in a mall parking lot over being wished the wrong happiness.
We were taught that the message of the first Christmas was the longed-for good news of the coming of peace and justice to those who needed it most: the poor, the war-torn, the oppressed, and to ourselves when we recognize our humble role in the story. The great messengers of my childhood were not just from MY church or MY country, but from all over OUR world, and these men and women literally risked their lives for it.
The first little paint stroke of Mercurochrome to my upper lip seemed like an interesting idea at the time. I, after all, had grown my first mustache and beard over the summer of 1972, between eighth grade and my freshman year of high school. To my adolescent mind, it was a badge of maturity that went with leaving behind Catholic grade school and the redneck bullies I had endured for eight years. The next day would be my first day at Rockhurst High School, Kansas City’s Jesuit high school, several miles and mindsets away from the Hickman Mills area where my family lived just at the edge of where the suburbs met the cornfields and hunting woods. Grateful to be moving on, I had spent the summer gearing up for what I hoped, if not was almost certain, maybe, would be a new life, and part of the passage included not shaving for three months just to see what kind of beard I could grow.
Years ago, when one of my sisters and her husband were visiting New York, she returned after a long day of tourist activity still wearing the little tin Met button from her morning visit to the museum.
“Do you know what the ‘M’ stands for?” I asked.
“Metropolitan Museum of Art,” she replied cautiously, aware that the question was too elementary.
“No, that’s inside the museum,” I insisted, “but do you know what it means outside?”
My dad would have been 97 years old today. To remember him, I’m posting a piece (more an anecdotal memory than a story) that I wrote several years ago before his death. Happy birthday, funny man!
This morning while plucking a hair from my earlobe as thick as a chin whisker I recalled my childhood visits to the barber with my dad. Saturday mornings belonged to my dad and me during my grade school years. He and I got out of the house, where my mother and six sisters ruled the roost, not to go fishing or hunting or do little league or some other typical father-and-son activity, but to do the weekly household grocery shopping.
The handsome Italian flight attendant unfolded the cloth napkin and rested it across my lap, with big smiling Caravaggio eyes that toyed with me for the moment. Bob and I had left Verona at 4 a.m. to race through the foggy Northern Italian countryside in our rental car and arrive at Milano’s Malpensa airport just short of two hours ahead of departure, only to find that Alitalia had overbooked our flight and we might not have seats.
Bob was miserable. He had picked up a cold in Verona, or Modena, or possibly even in my favorite Bologna. So driving through the dark and the fog to arrive at an airport that seemed to be accessible only by a series of farm roads with foreign names like “deviazione” and “non accessibile” had been stressful, to say the least, and multiplied when we learned at the ticket counter that we might not get on the plane at all.
My sister Sally’s return address stuck out on the corner of the padded parcel envelope that someone had crammed into my mail cubby in the faculty lounge. I removed my gloves and carefully extracted the package from its tight squeeze, fearing that Christmas cookies, or what have you, might have been crushed. It was that time of year again. From Thanksgiving to New Years, my large family sent small gifts and packages to my work address in the City (the postal service in Brooklyn was not to be trusted), and most times the people at the elementary school knew better than to cram a package of cookies into a five-by-five-inch cubby.
As I freed the last corner of the envelope from the metal rim of the mailbox, I could tell that the contents were not crumbly at all. Rather, whatever was inside felt soft and pliable, like a small quilt or pillow. Continue reading “working-class heirlooms”→