christmas eve

Childhood Christmas still exists, if only in my dreams

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 21, 2014.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams)” was a Top Ten hit for Bing Crosby after its release in the midst of World War II. Written by lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent, the song resonated with soldiers and their families, though Gannon reportedly once said he was thinking of anyone who is separated from loved ones at Christmas.

That was me back in 1980. I had spent the fall at school in Ireland and, thanks to my grandfather’s generosity, traveled to the continent after finishing the semester. On Christmas night, I stood in a Florence phone booth waiting for an operator to connect me to my mother’s apartment on Federal Hill.

I heard my mom’s faraway voice — “John?” — and then the hurrahs of my family and relatives. Closing my eyes, I could see the dining room and the Christmas lights and everyone gathered around the table. The mix of happiness and sadness I felt made my heart clench.

I couldn’t wait to speak to my younger brother, James. When he got on the phone — “Hey Johnny, what’s happening?” — it wasn’t the same voice I had left behind. Puberty had intervened and my little brother — born five years after I was — suddenly didn’t sound so little any more.

The last time I had seen him, in early September, he was speechless. We were standing with my mother by the railroad tracks at Union Station in downtown Providence. After two years at Brown, I was heading to the School of Irish Studies in Dublin, leaving my hometown — and family — for the first time. As the train approached, I kissed my mother goodbye and turned to James. His eyes were flooded with tears, and when I hugged him, his arms hung limp at his sides.

I, too, ached at the parting; James and I were tight.

When our parents had separated, my father left me a letter that said, in part, “Continue to be good to James. He’s the nicest little boy in the world and relies on you very much.” At the time, James was 3-1/2 years old. My mother, who would go back to work at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, was more succinct: “Look after your brother,” she said, staring me in the eyes.

So I did, and it seemed as if James and I were always together. We shared a bedroom; his space was mine and mine was his.

When we played basketball in the basement — shooting mini-balls at a bucket on a barstool — James was Walt Frazier to my Willis Reed. When we huddled up for football in the back yard — drawing plays in the dirt — James was Fran Tarkenton to my Ron Johnson.

And when my younger brother once asked why our father’s Saturday visits ended before our mother got home from work, I did my best to explain.

The last of 13 cousins, James always made a grand entrance at our extended family’s boisterous Christmas Eve gatherings. Amid the smoke and cocktails and holiday din, someone would yell out, “Hey, Santa’s here!” and down the stairs my brother would come, pillows bulging under his red robe, fake white beard masking his smiling face. Everyone cheered as our diminutive Santa handed out gifts — wine for the aunts, scotch for the uncles, pajamas for the girls, colored underwear for the boys.

As he grew up, James acquired a worldliness that came with being the “baby.” A cousin let him drive her car before he was a teen. And once, while visiting me at Brown, he disappeared into the night and discovered zombies at a fraternity bar.

My return from Europe confirmed what the sound of James’s voice had announced over the phone: he was taller, stronger, a boy no more. Two years later, after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Coast Guard. I admired his guts; boot camp made my English degree seem like a trifle. On December 19, 1983, James boarded a bus for the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, N.J.

At Christmas dinner six days later, my grandfather rose at the head of the table, held up his glass, and said, “Here’s to our youngest family member, away serving our country.”

Glasses clinked, and my mother and aunt dabbed their eyes.

The Coast Guard launched my brother on a maritime career far from the life we navigated growing up.

That “home” of our childhood, both beloved and bittersweet, still exists — but only in our dreams.

Gifts From My Grandfather’s Store

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 24, 2013.

“John! Lock the door!”

I had waited 364 days to hear my grandfather say those words. He stood behind the register at Vincent’s, his children’s-wear and baby-clothes store on Federal Hill. It was five o’clock on Christmas Eve — the only day of the year when the store closed early. I dashed to the door and turned the key. The dead bolt hit the doorframe — pop! — and another exhausting selling season for our family had ended.

As a 10-year-old in 1970, I was too old to believe in Santa Claus, but not old enough to be aloof about receiving presents. I had asked for Pro Bowl Live Action Football, which I had seen advertised on TV. The ad touted the game’s “king-sized playing field” and “complete pro-type teams.” I hoped “Santa” would deliver.

As I turned away from the door, a woman swooped in from the Atwells Avenue sidewalk and pressed hard against the door’s glass — a would-be, last-minute Santa. The lock resisted. I hoped my grandfather would, too.

I recalled a story that my mother had told me many times. When she was young, my grandfather had brought her a fancy winter coat from his store. The following day, he took the coat back — a customer needed it. “Don’t worry,” he said to my mom. “I’ll get you another one.” (He did.) At Vincent’s, you always took care of the customer.

So, I wasn’t surprised on that Christmas Eve to see my grandfather unlock the door, to the woman’s great relief. Christmas Eve — at least my idea of what it should be — would have to wait.

*           *           *

Everyone who worked at Vincent’s was a relative or seemed like one. It was years before I realized that Auntie Gerry technically wasn’t my aunt, but by that point it didn’t matter. At Vincent’s, everyone was family.

My grandfather opened the store in 1927. It thrived through the Great Depression and became known statewide as the go-to place for baby clothes, christening sets, and communion suits and dresses. At the corner of Atwells Avenue and Acorn Street, Vincent’s had spectacular wraparound showcase windows — merchandising gold.

Each night, those windows presented a parade of brightly lit mannequins adorned in the latest fashions. During the day, my grandfather’s hand-painted paper signs beckoned to drivers and passersby: Layaway Plan! Winter Coat Sale! Christmas Gifts!

This was my first year of working on Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. I cut up boxes, picked up pins, retrieved layaways, ran out for coffee, killed time. The days were long, especially when I thought of my friends playing touch football or pick-up basketball.

Some Saturdays, Auntie Gerry would save me from my restlessness: “Let’s have Caserta’s for lunch,” she’d say, handing me a $5 bill. Twenty minutes later, I’d return with a cheese and pepperoni pizza.

I loved Auntie Gerry.

One Saturday, my grandfather gave me a welcome break from my routine. A group of guys was going to be renting the apartment upstairs for a nightly card game. My grandfather gave me two leftover gallons of paint from the store basement. Hands of poker would soon be dealt in rooms freshly coated in soft pink and baby blue.

*           *           *

For a second time, I heard the magic words: “John! Lock the door!”

This time, no last-minute Santa intervened. Outside, my grandfather set the alarm and Vincent’s was officially closed for Christmas!

At my Aunt Rita’s house that night, my mom and aunts sipped Manhattans and smoked cigarettes, my uncles drank scotch, my grandfather played the violin. Older cousins drank beer in the basement; my little brother and I, the youngest grandchildren, wolfed down Italian cookies in the kitchen. At times, just about everyone was talking at once: the familiar din of Christmas Eve. Then we all crammed into the living room to exchange gifts. At the end of the night, my grandfather handed white envelopes to my mom and aunts. Each of them thanked him with a kiss, and I somehow knew that the amount of cash inside was not insignificant.

On Christmas morning, Pro Bowl Live Action Football was waiting for me under the tree. But the game was not nearly as much fun as the ad had promised. It took forever to set up the teams. And then the plays were over in an instant. After trying it a few times, I never took Pro Bowl Live Action Football out of the box again.

It would be years before the memory of my disappointment about the game brought an epiphany. The best gifts from my childhood — the security provided by a grandfather’s store, the embrace of a big Italian family — didn’t come once a year. They were there every day.

 
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