This is our old house in Clinton, N.Y., right around Christmas time in 1935, I think. It looks as if there's a thaw on, and I can't imagine whose car that is. I surely never rode in anything that historic-looking. We had only lived there a couple of years, having bought it and 40 acres for about $7,000 (and sold it 15 years later for $28,000 thinking we were pretty shrewd; today, with a pool and tennis courts and a new horse barn and its white-fenced acres, it must be close to a million), when we moved out from Utica.
The front upstairs windows on the left were my sister Gioia's room; the middle one was the hall and the right hand pair were for my parents' bedroom. When I was sick I spent the days in my father's bed overlooking the front yard and the whole valley, down off to the right there out of sight.
I would have the cathedral radio brought up and would follow the soaps, 15 minutes apiece then: "Our Gal Sunday" (Narrator: "Can a girl from a small mining town in Colorado find happiness with England's richest, most handsome lord?" music up ... ) and "Lorenzo Jones," about an inventor whose voice cracked to show that he was a codger, and "Vic and Sade," a desultory family dialogue in "the little house halfway up the block" where nothing happened, nothing at all. There were always some time slots "To Be Announced" in the schedule, and to these I looked forward breathlessly. It sounded like a wonderful surprise, a secret to be revealed. What it was was organ music.
Anyway. I was sick that Christmas. I was 8. Flu or something. The school nurse had driven out to take my temperature, an act that irritated my mother no little, suggesting as it did that I was some sort of truant or, worse, that she couldn't tell if her own kid was sick or getting out of a math test.
The great thing was I didn't have to go Christmas shopping but could lie there and listen and read and wait for the sound of the lunch tray coming up the stairs.
Everyone but the cook had gone through the driving snow to Utica, 10 miles away, to shop.
What a day it would be I knew from experience: trudging through the slush up and down Genesee Street, blundering into Kresge's or Wicks & Greenman or the Boston Store with the whish of the revolving door, feeling the hot, heavy, popcorn-smelling air descend on you, elbowing through the crowds to the toy section or Accessories, whatever they were, or the Juvenile Shop.
Then back outside, to the incessant dinging bells of the Salvation Army Santas, the increasingly thick snow, the cold and the gloom of evening in a winter city. The crowds bustled by as fiercely as ever, everyone clutching paper bags, everyone rustling and crackling like a house afire on the radio.
Maybe, as the afternoon wore on, my father would lead the way to Fritz Heim's wonderful noisy pickle-smelling German lunch place, all dark wood paneling with high stools facing long counters. Maybe my mother (who couldn't stand Fritz Heim's and particularly Mrs. Heim the manager, buxom, brisk, voluble and savvy) would take us to a miraculously quiet drugstore for hot chocolate served to us at a tiny round marble-topped table surrounded by wire-backed chairs.
Then at last, as night closed in and the snow swirled like a young blizzard, the family headed for the old Chevy and started home.
I was missing all that, and it was great. I gave my gift orders for my sisters to my parents and vice versa, and eventually it all appeared on my bed -- not quite right, to be sure -- without my having to lift a finger.
Better yet, I didn't have to do the Christ Child Society thing either. That alone was worth a case of flu.
Every year my mother volunteered to bring Christmas presents to the poor who had requested them from the society. She would be given a list of names and addresses and toy orders and a large carton of neatly wrapped packages. We would drive to the most rickety tenements of Bleecker Street and hunt for the numbers.
This was Depression poverty of the '30s superimposed on basic Northeastern urban immigrant poverty. Nearly all the families were immigrants, and few seemed to speak English. My younger sister and I would tramp up three or four flights of outdoor stairs and venture into dark wooden corridors, stinking of urine, onions and stale bodies, the walls sagging and spavined like some German Expressionist movie set, and try to find the "apartment" numbers penciled on the filthy walls.
I remember being appalled at the gratitude the people showed for these pathetic dolls and paint sets and games, and the flimsy cardboard boxes bright with poinsettia designs, containing terrible cheap crumbled ribbon candy that not even I would eat. The boxes were apportioned carefully, one, two or as many as five to a family.
I was even more appalled at the rage radiating from those gaunt jobless fathers when we showed up in our warm coats and round cheeks. We had better luck without my mother, who had not the slightest concept of tact. Once when she was along a rather jolly family offered to share lunch with us from a great tureen of spaghetti that dominated the center of the bare table with a tumblerful of forks and some tin plates. It was all they had.
Instinctively I accepted. But she was horrified and yanked us out of there as fast as she could.
Another thing I missed was the Christmas Eve party at the big house on Rutger Street in Utica, a massive Victorian pile that still stands but is now owned by the Teamsters. All the Kernans would be there -- the Manhattan branch, the Long Island branch, John A., John B., John D., Syracuse Frank, Mary Frank, Frances, Frankie and others, cousins I had never heard of before, Aunt Marge the mother superior in her habit, the young marrieds, wary out-of-town kids, several old ladies with canes and dear Uncle John, my father's oldest brother, who blinked a lot and stuttered and talked to himself in quite a loud voice and handed out shiny 50-cent pieces. (At 80 or so, after his wife of many years died, he would stalk the Utica streets wearing his new outrageous checked jacket, scowling and talking.)
We'd stay for a toddy or two and a slice of smoked turkey, and then my mother would pull my father away. She didn't get on with the Kernans all that well, and in truth a houseful of them could be daunting. On the other hand, perhaps it was the toddy she was pulling him away from.
Of course I didn't get to go to midnight mass either, with the excitement of staying up so late, the bright lights and warmth of St. Mary's, the hushed expectancy on people's faces. And up in the choir loft the famous grating voice of Mrs. Horace Seely Brown soaring off-key above the rest. (Years later it was discovered that she was the anonymous donor of the superb new organ.) After she died the family turned grand and became Seely-Brown.
Christmas morning at last, and the rituals began in earnest. My sister and I (deathly sick as I was) scampered down to the living room to harvest our loaded stockings from the fireplace.
After breakfast I was allowed to come down in my bathrobe, for a crackling fire had been lit, and we sat -- my two sisters and I and our parents -- beside our respective piles of presents. We opened them in rotation, each in turn being the center of attention for a moment. My mother kept track on a note pad. This was important because we had 11 uncles and aunts, all on my father's side, and all gave us something, and all expected a thank-you letter.
(My mother had been a little rich girl, unwanted, she always said, by her elderly parents. They made such a lavish guilt trip out of Christmas that she hated it all her life. Happily, she managed not to pass this on to us.)
I got my sled, but it was not a Flexible Flyer. I showed no disappointment. My parents had been born in the 1880s, for goodness sake, what would they know? The extra-long Flexible Flyer with its big red and gold logo of a hunched eagle and the name in large black script had an authority all its own. It was a serious sled.
Maybe they thought I wasn't old enough. Maybe they thought it would go too fast. I forgave them because I knew that parents are a separate race from us.
I did get the Big Little Book I had been campaigning for: Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo, the one about Ming the Merciless. I had spotted it in Woolworth's weeks before. There was strangely little resistance to my fascination with Big Little Books. My collection would eventually run to several hundred, and when I would have a birthday party we would all sit in my room for the whole afternoon reading Big Little Books. I wish I had hung onto them. They cost 10 cents, but you can get $20 and up for them now.
I forget what else I got. A lot of stuff. I went back to bed, leaving the living room awash in tissue paper. My father drove off to fetch Grace and Plowden, two of my many aunts. Grace was a widow and Plowdie had never married. She always brought a basketful of witty little presents and wrote a jingle to go with each, for she was a poet who had published a book called Hawthorne Time in Ireland.
I had to wait forever for lunch. I could hear the aunts arrive with a great burst of laughter and confusion and excited talk. The gust of cold air came all the way up the stairs, and the aunts soon followed, peering in and waving from the doorway. By this time I was deep in Flash Gordon, but I could follow the hilarity from the living room (there would be sherry and fancy salty crackers that somebody always sent us, or those terrible stuffed dates) into the dining room and out of earshot.
Hours later, it seemed, my mother appeared with the dinner tray. Not much turkey, no stuffing. Lots of vegetables. Oh well. I wolfed it down and went back to Flash Gordon. (Years later Flash's girl Dale was to bother me no end with her high-thigh bathing suits and low-cut blouses, but not yet, not yet.)
The pumpkin pie came separately, with an overcautiously small slice of mince pie and a mere spoonful of the vanilla ice cream that Beulah made. (Ah yes, I had escaped turning the freezer, too, a job so boring that as I sat on the bottom step of the cellar stairs winding the crank and listening to the soft, endless and rather musical crush of ice, I would practice my knife throwing by hurling the ice pick at the new wooden door of the cold-cellar, upon which I had drawn a human target. Knife throwing was one of the life skills I had set myself to master, along with ventriloquism, top spinning, lariat twirling and knitting.) I finished the pie and thought about everyone down there laughing over Plowdie's jokes and my sisters making music with the rims of their champagne glasses, the table gorgeously littered with nutshells and rumpled napkins and bits of stuffing.
The day wore on. My father took the aunts back to Utica, and my mother went with my sisters to visit our neighbors the Westers, prosperous young farmers who never knew how to deal with our gift basket of Beulah's cookies. There were three sons, all set up on farms of their own by their hard-driving father. Red was the oldest, a muscular grinning giant, "the biggest man west of Schenectady." He had built a magnificent barn which overawed his modest clapboard house.
(Red died young. When I went back a few years ago his cornfields had turned into a suburb, and where his house had stood were two neat split-levels. The barn was still there, its roof caved in, a romantic ruin. I couldn't believe it could get so old so fast.)
The house went silent. My mother would be napping on the living room sofa, her silk shawl over her knees. My sisters would be in their rooms. Gloom settled in. Napoleon crept upstairs and into the room and onto the spare bed, where he went to sleep with all four muddy legs in the air.
I finished my book. Some Christmas. Outside, the snow was starting again, and the wind whipped it in clouds across the white steppes. You couldn't see the valley at all. Even the room looked gray.
The wind rose, howling and shrieking, bending the stark bare branches of the Washington Elm out front. Beyond, the corn stubble poked up from a field of white like dead gray bones. Christmas. Great. I felt awful.
I couldn't understand it. I had looked forward to it for weeks. Had got some fairly good loot, even if not a Flexible Flyer. Or a leather helmet with detachable goggles. Or a throwing knife.
In fact, what did I get? Anything I really wanted besides the Big Little Book, which I had now read? Pencils with my name embossed on them. Terrific. A dumb jack knife I couldn't open the blades of. A scarf.
The radio was playing organ music again.
And at that moment I had an insight.
I remember it quite distinctly. I remember thinking what a very adult insight it was, though now I suspect it was something I had picked up from a book.
The insight was this: I haven't done any of the Christmas things. Except for wrapping my presents, I haven't thought about giving at all. And that is really the fun part, because at least you know you're giving someone something they like. Something they had always wanted or maybe didn't know they wanted.
And all that other stuff, the parties and rituals and hunting for just the right thing for your sister, all that bustle and conspiracy: That's what it's about.
Next year, I thought, I will wait till January to get the flu.
Besides, I had known from the beginning I would never get a Flexible Flyer. My parents didn't have a clue about brand names.