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A Christmas Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Posted on 24 December 2009


Christmas Tree in Brooklyn

Most kids anticipate Christmas with a growing sense of wonder and glee.  I wasn’t one of those kids.  Very much aware that my parents did not have much money, I dreaded the inevitable Christmas mornings when I had to appear at my friend Kim’s house to exchange presents with her, awed as her mom’s hot pink carpet was lost beneath a sea of glittery paper and ribbon (not a trace of fuscia carpeting to be found!).  I hated walking into certain sections of department stores, knowing that the gifts I’d longed and asked for would never appear under my Christmas tree.  Most of all, I nurtured a not so small horror over the thought of having to line up outside the Church the first Sunday after Christmas with my schoolmates (a mandate of the nuns), compare what we’d all received for Christmas, and get taunted for yet another year.  I’d sooner have plummeted down the proverbial hole leading to China.

 

Now that I am an adult with a so-called disposable income, I would trade nearly any one of my grown up Christmases for a single one from my childhood.  Tom Wolfe told us that we can never go home again, but I think Tom was a bit off the mark.  If memories live vividly in our hearts, we can return again.  And at this time of the year, I return often, to the modest house I shared in Brooklyn with my parents, sister, and grandparents.

 

For cleaning the entire house as best we could as children, my sister and I received a weekly allowance of 50 cents.  The sum was so paltry, I just lied to my friends, telling them that I got no allowance whatsoever.  But in those days, 50 cents saved up over the course of weeks and months bought a lot at the Five and Dime.  They bought shiny pins and earrings for my friends, greeting cards with the sweetest-faced angels (I have kept one, all these years, for her face touches me still and recalls those days of innocence).  My meager allowance also bought bright wrapping paper, glittery ribbon, and small seasonal corsages for my mother, grandmother, sister, and myself: de rigueur accessories of the day on every female’s coat.  

 

I always got a little frisson of fear whenever I bought a new corsage, for the very first corsage that I remember met a most untimely end.   My mother had bundled little three year old me into her winter coat and had pinned the corsage to it, explaining what it was and wishing me a good time.  My dad took me by the hand and we walked around the corner to the Lutheran Church, for the Lutherans were either richer or more resourceful than we Catholics.  Every Christmas, they hosted a live manger scene outdoors, replete with animals such as goats and sheep.  One of the goats thought my corsage looked like a tasty little morsel and as I bent over the fence from my orange crate to pet him, he plucked the thing right off my coat and crunched it down his gullet!  I wept piteously, wondering how I might explain its loss to my mother, for it had been a gift, while my father laughed so hard and so quietly, tears coursed down his own face as well.

 

Snow of any significant depth heralded not a day off from school but an afternoon of work.  My sister and I were pressed into service to shovel the snow, along with any and all handy adults, and we were expected to do it right, so that the sidewalk was clean after our handiwork.  We actually enjoyed this chore and oh, the follies of youth!   One year, my sister, who was deemed the non-creative kid, built a solid and freestanding little igloo and invited me in.  I thought it an architectural marvel.    After what seemed hours of shoveling, my dad would brew us up a special hot cocoa and pour it into the little mugs my aunt had given us, bought from John’s Bargain Store on the avenue.  The cocoa was special because it was decorated with colored marshmallows or little candy canes, the latter of which turned the chocolate all minty.   We’d stare at the candy canes, watching in fascination as the red stripes disappeared magically into the hot milk.

 

The only real Christmas tree I remember was in my very early childhood.  It smelled wonderful but dropped pines all over the place so that my mother, the neat freak, found herself vacuuming daily.  Most years, we had an artificial tree, but it was a nice one as were the decorations lifted carefully and lovingly out of their compartmentalized boxes.  My parents had met in a fine department store, where they had both been sales clerks, and with their employee discounts had purchased beautiful ornaments made in Germany.  There were the Seven Dwarves, angels with pastel wings and stiff, golden lace skirts, and my favorite, the gold-glitter ball that screwed open to hold some small surprise that my sister and I took turns finding and secreting there.

 

The baking that took place under my roof bore no resemblance to Betty Crocker or even Fanny Farmer.  It came straight from the boot of Italy, on recipes brought over by my grandmother and recorded nowhere but in her heart and head.  As she and my grandfather had embraced Equal Opportunity long before our government adopted that term, we all pitched in, “all” being my reluctant mother and sister, who detested the kitchen, yours truly, who grew to love it, and my grandparents.  Heaven cannot possibly smell better than my house did just before Christmas when we made struffola and creamy semolina grain pies from scratch.  The struffola had to be made production line style, for hundreds of them were made.  They starred at our table on Christmas Eve, mounded like small golden Christmas trees.  Each of my mom’s three siblings and families took home their own tower of these confections, along with the cream pies, as did my family, to our apartment above my grandparents’.

 

Stuffola are small, light balls of dough deep fried, then drizzled with honey infused with lemon and orange peel, and decorated with almonds, colored jimmies, candied cherries, and citron.  I got the job of rolling out the dough, and from my grandfather’s exhortations against overworking it, learned early on the secret to making a tender dough.

 

As I rolled out the long strands of raw dough, using my hands as a rolling pin, I’d watch my grandparents at the stove, moving in an un-choreographed ballet, their backs to me, my grandmother in her faded printed apron, my grandfather ever proper in his trousers and long sleeved shirt rolled up to the elbows.  There was no bickering between them; indeed, there was a rustic kind of precision, as well as a rhythm and a quiet joy.  The snow was falling softly outside and the wind blew cold. Inside that small kitchen in Brooklyn, the oil bubbled and the honey steamed fragrant upon the stove besides pots of chocolate and vanilla cream born of dark chocolate chunks, long black vanilla beans, and a drop or two of rose water from its little cobalt blue bottle.   If anyone could bottle that scent, they’d have a best selling perfume on their hands.       

 

One Christmas season when I had just begun high school, and had long since begun my perspective as a cynic, I came down with a very bad case of bronchitis.  I’d been sent home from school.  Too weak to change out of my Catholic school uniform, I had collapsed on the couch in our living room, which opened directly onto our dining room.   Medicated to the gills with some lovely codeine-based elixir sent over by the pharmacist, I’d fallen into a deep sleep from which I roused myself groggily at the sound of a sweet, strange voice.

 

Rolling over, I spied a beautiful young woman at my dining room table, a girl a few years older than myself and totally unfamiliar to me.   Drugged, I murmured a “Hello, and who are you?”  I sensed that she was truly a stranger, for her manner was refined and her voice bore not a New York accent but the barest trace of the South.   “I’m Lindsay,” she explained.  “I’m in my first year of college and am selling magazine subscriptions to earn my tuition. I’m from Maryland,” she added brightly, thus solidifying the fact she was indeed a stranger in a strange land.   Scornfully, I laughed, “Forget it, Lindsay; my mom’s not buying any.”

 

And so, my mom did not.  We did not have money for such frivolities, and Lindsay badly needed the sale, for she had gone door to door all day long without a single subscription sold. But perhaps my mother had given Lindsay something better that Christmas, as she did me, when I realized what had happened.

 

Our little Brooklyn neighborhood was besieged that day by a nasty winter storm.   I’d gotten pelted with hail and soaked by a thick wet snow, just walking the four blocks home. Lindsay had rung the bell during my stupor, peddling her magazines that no one wanted and no one could afford, so close to Christmas.  My mother had taken one look at that girl and ordered her to get upstairs, as she’d catch her death of cold.  My mom had then brewed the girl a cup of tea, placed some cookies in front of her, and had draped her wet coat atop one of our warm radiators.   Beside the radiator she’d laid Lindsay’s boots, as they had gotten water-logged in the storm.

 

And then my mother, the anal-retentive woman who had a part time job, two kids, a husband, and never enough hours in her day, sat with this strange girl and spoke with her about what she was studying in college (nursing, I recall), allowing the girl to share her dreams aloud.   Lindsay left bereft of a sale but a lot warmer than when she’d crossed our threshold.  When I think of Christmases past, I am reminded again of my mother’s small kindness and what it must have meant to a kid peddling subscriptions nobody wanted, door to door to door, as Old Man Winter raged outside.  Along with the tea and cookies, my mother had given this girl, whom we never saw again, a little hope.  A ray of light in the cold and darkness.

 

And that, after all, is what Christmas is really all about.





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3 Responses to “A Christmas Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

  1. Damian S. says:

    This is a great article. My wife’s family is Italian. The old timers are gone now, but I remember that wonderful smell of baking and frying struffola that the author takes about. Thanks for the nice trip down memory lane.

  2. Janis says:

    This is such a beautiful story. The best part, for me, was the end with the college girl. Thank you!

  3. Carmela R. says:

    Oh, my goodness. My family is originally from Brooklyn. The sight of that arch in the photo, where Prospect Park comes to an end, was always a familiar sight to me whenever I visited the library at Grand Army Plaza, which was often, in my school days. Oh yes, and the article was very nice too.


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