nostalgia

Fake tree brought pure Christmas joy

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 20, 2015.

My brothers and I were home alone, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on our black-and-white TV when the doorbell rang. It was Mrs. Ricci, bundled against the cold, here to drop off a fake Christmas tree from the store where she worked.

We lugged the large cardboard box through the doorway.

“Your mother’s going to love it!” Mrs. Ricci said before disappearing back into the night.

I wasn’t so sure. My grandfather had suggested we get an artificial tree from Mrs. Ricci the previous Christmas. She lived downstairs from him in his double-decker, three blocks from our house in Providence. But my mom had declined. Instead, we had gone to the farmers’ market on Valley Street and picked out a lopsided balsam fir, as we had always done — except now my older brother, Rob, not my father, tied the tree to the top of our blue Ford Maverick.

At 14, Rob did a lot of things that our dad used to do when he lived with us.

I sensed my mom, along with Charlie Brown, didn’t like fake Christmas trees. I also sensed she didn’t like being told what to do — least of all by her father. But she had apparently relented because now there was this artificial tree in our living room.

“Let’s put it up!” Rob said.

“Without Mom?” I said.

“We’ll surprise her.”

My stomach tightened. I was wary of surprises, especially ones that involved my mother. Hers was a house of rules, many of them posted on the refrigerator at eye level. And I was adept in my compliance. I made sure to get home in time for supper, loaded the dishwasher, and looked after my younger brother, James, then age 6 — all to avoid incurring Mom’s wrath.

Rob had no such anxieties.

“We’ve got an hour and a half before she gets back,” he said, pulling the fake tree out of the box.

Our mom was at her class at Johnson & Wales, where she was pursuing an associate’s degree in fashion merchandising. We didn’t know it then, but she had visions of opening a women’s clothing boutique someday.

She hadn’t gone to college after graduating from Mount Pleasant High School. At that time, her father said she had to go to work at his childrenswear store on Federal Hill — she would replace her oldest sister, who was starting a family. My mom sold christening sets and communion dresses until she turned 23 and got married. And now, after the divorce, she had gone back to the store, working six days a week.

James and I ran to the chilly basement to excavate the Christmas decorations from some cabinets near the washer and dryer. Upstairs, Rob positioned the tree in the corner by the hi-fi.

We draped the synthetic branches with colored lights and hung all the familiar ornaments. Our favorites were the ones that we had made: a Table Talk pie tin graced by a glued-in illustration of the Nativity; a Popsicle-stick reindeer with a red-gumdrop nose; a construction-paper chain lovingly looped by one of us at Robert F. Kennedy School.

James set up the manger scene, careful not to inflict further injury on the plaster donkey whose broken leg was held together by a Scotch-tape cast. Rob and I put the electric candles in the windows, igniting their orange bulbs with a twist.

We turned off the overhead light. The living room, with a faint scent of plastic, glowed. The artificial tree suddenly felt a lot less fake.

We were back in the den, watching TV when the front door creaked open.

“How nice to see the lights in the windows!” my mother called out.

We ran to the living room.

“Oh, my,” she said, gazing at the tree. “It’s absolutely beautiful!” She looked around the room, her face beaming. “You boys did all this for me?”

“Yes!”

Our mom stood motionless and silent for a moment, and then wiped one of her eyes. We hadn’t seen her so happy in a long time.

Christmas had come early.

Fake tree brought pure Christmas joy

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 20, 2015.

My brothers and I were home alone, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on our black-and-white TV, when the doorbell rang. It was Mrs. Ricci, bundled against the cold, here to drop off a fake Christmas tree from the store where she worked.

We lugged the large cardboard box through the doorway.

“Your mother’s going to love it!” Mrs. Ricci said before disappearing back into the night.

I wasn’t so sure. My grandfather had suggested we get an artificial tree from Mrs. Ricci the previous Christmas. She lived downstairs from him in his double-decker, three blocks from our house in Providence. But my mom had declined. Instead, we had gone to the farmers’ market on Valley Street and picked out a lopsided balsam fir, as we had always done — except now my older brother, Rob, not my father, tied the tree to the top of our blue Ford Maverick.

At 14, Rob did a lot of things that our dad used to do when he lived with us.

I sensed my mom, along with Charlie Brown, didn’t like fake Christmas trees. I also sensed she didn’t like being told what to do — least of all by her father. But she had apparently relented, because now there was this artificial tree in our living room.

“Let’s put it up!” Rob said.

“Without Mom?” I said.

“We’ll surprise her.”

My stomach tightened. I was wary of surprises, especially ones that involved my mother. Hers was a house of rules, many of them posted on the refrigerator at eye level. And I was adept in my compliance. I made sure to get home in time for supper, loaded the dishwasher, and looked after my younger brother, James, then age 6 — all to avoid incurring Mom’s wrath.

Rob had no such anxieties.

“We’ve got an hour and a half before she gets back,” he said, pulling the fake tree out of the box.

Our mom was at her class at Johnson & Wales, where she was pursuing an associate’s degree in fashion merchandising. We didn’t know it then, but she had visions of opening a women’s clothing boutique someday.

She hadn’t gone to college after graduating from Mount Pleasant High School. At that time, her father said she had to go to work at his children’s-wear store on Federal Hill — she would replace her oldest sister, who was starting a family. My mom sold christening sets and communion dresses until she turned 23 and got married. And now, after the divorce, she had gone back to the store, working six days a week.

James and I ran to the chilly basement to excavate the Christmas decorations from some cabinets near the washer and dryer. Upstairs, Rob positioned the tree in the corner by the hi-fi.

We draped the synthetic branches with colored lights and hung all the familiar ornaments. Our favorites were the ones that we had made: a Table Talk pie tin graced by a glued-in illustration of the Nativity; a Popsicle-stick reindeer with a red-gumdrop nose; a construction-paper chain lovingly looped by one of us at Robert F. Kennedy School.

James set up the manger scene, careful not to inflict further injury on the plaster donkey whose broken leg was held together by a Scotch-tape cast. Rob and I put the electric candles in the windows, igniting their orange bulbs with a twist.

We turned off the overhead light. The living room, with a faint scent of plastic, glowed. The artificial tree suddenly felt a lot less fake.

We were back in the den, watching TV, when the front door creaked open.

“How nice to see the lights in the windows!” my mother called out.

We ran to the living room.

“Oh, my,” she said, gazing at the tree. “It’s absolutely beautiful!” She looked around the room, her face beaming. “You boys did all this for me?”

“Yes!”

Our mom stood motionless and silent for a moment, and then wiped one of her eyes. We hadn’t seen her so happy in a long time.

Christmas had come early.

Saying goodbye to the family beach house

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 19, 2015.

I spent my summers as a boy at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett, thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to get the country out of the Great Depression, and my Auntie Tina’s powers of persuasion.

The popularity of Fords and other automobiles prompted the paving of Point Judith Road in 1928, easing access to the shore. FDR’s Public Works Administration developed the beaches at Scarborough and Sand Hill Cove in the 1930s, accelerating the transformation of Point Judith Neck into a popular summer vacation spot. Modest cottages sprang up in increasing numbers.

As for Auntie Tina, her husband, Frankie, purchased a tiny house three blocks up from Scarborough in 1951, and she convinced her brother-in-law, sister, and uncle – my grandfather – to buy adjoining lots. (Technically, Tina was a first cousin once removed, but that translated into “Auntie” in my mother’s large, close-knit family.)

My grandfather built a three-bedroom cottage on Elizabeth Road in 1957, three years before I was born. It was a study in funky woods: vertically grooved plywood siding (known by its trade name, Texture 111) and knotty pine interior walls. The house, painted vibrant red with white trim, faced south, allowing sunlight to pour through its big picture window. Relatives and friends poured in, too – the front door was always open.

Going to Scarborough as a kid meant curling waves and salty skin, hot sand underfoot and frozen Charleston Chews in hand. Someone would invariably ask Uncle Harry if he was going to swim to League Rock, which juts out of the ocean almost a quarter mile off the shore.

“Water’s too cold,” my uncle would say, as if that were his only reason for deferring.

Lifeguard whistles turned my head often: Was someone being swept away by the perilous undertow that my mother and aunts warned me about? Crackly PA announcements sounded a common refrain: “Attention please, we have a little lost boy …”

Fortunately, I was never that lost boy. At the beach, I always had family close by.

When it rained, we played cards back at the house – rummy games on the porch for the kids, canasta in the kitchen for the adults. My cousin Anne usually won the penny pool, while Auntie Etta was forever ruing the cards she was dealt: “What rotten paper!”

On August 2, 1975, temperatures in Providence reached a record high of 104 degrees. My grandfather closed his baby clothes store on Federal Hill, and just about everyone in the family streamed to Elizabeth Road. At 10:00 that night, some of us were still down at the beach, soothed by the cool caresses of the ocean, like a great, moving well of ink beneath the hazy moonlight. Amid invisible splashes, I tried to block the opening scene of “Jaws,” the summer’s blockbuster movie, from my mind. It didn’t work.

The entire family came together again the following Sunday to celebrate my grandfather’s birthday. Papa stood in the backyard, smoking a cigar and smiling as the party swirled around him. I never asked, but I was pretty sure this is why he had built the cottage – to have a place at the beach where his children and grandchildren (and, someday, great and great-great grandchildren) could gather.

The house stayed in the family through 2014, when we lost the last of a line of legendary matriarchs, sweet Auntie Marie. A “For Sale” sign went up, and someone from New York bought the property in a blink.

This past June, I headed to Narragansett, and Scarborough, for the first time since the sale. When I turned the corner at Elizabeth Road, I gasped: the house’s familiar red paint was gone, covered now with grey vinyl siding.

My reaction surprised me, and then I chuckled. What had I expected – for the cottage to stand unchanged forever, like League Rock out in the swells off a beloved stretch of beach?

It will always be my grandfather’s house to me. Vinyl may have buried its grooved wooden siding, but it can’t obscure the memories I have of summers spent there.

What a blessing they were.

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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