Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Holiday Story

The pictures below are some of the hand painted ornaments I inherited from my grandparents.   They are all well over 60 years old; we estimate they are from the 1940s.  They are very fragile and quite thin.  I seem to break one a year just holding it in my hand.  I'd love to know their story: when they were bought, who picked them out, where...

This is the mighty white fir I cut down last weekend with Dublin's help.  Dublin is asleep on the floor.  I seem to put the tree in front of a window every year.  I know it is from growing up in the city; everyone put their tree in front of a window, plus decorated their windows.  

So in honor of the upcoming holidays, here is a little story about where those antique Christmas ornaments came from.  I may not know their entire history, but I do know the people they spent a lot of their years with:

Everyone on my mother’s side of the family has some roots to Italy.  For many, those roots are firm and strong.  They run from South Philadelphia up I-95 to the New Jersey turnpike and directly into Ellis Island.  From there, a not so straight shot across the sea to Reggio Callabria, Italy.

When our families settled here, they worked the difficult jobs.  They took their classes and jumped through the American hoops to citizenship.  They fought in the wars for the country.  And they had children and raised them in modest row homes.  They walked to work.  They walked to the store.  They lived together.  On top of each other.  Around each other.  With each other.  They became one large extended family living next to another large extended family next to an infinite collection of extended families.  Great grandpop and great grandmom lived on, around, and with grandpop and grandmom who lived on and around and with pop and mom.  And the children.

An automobile was a dream.  Tables were crowded, cabinets were emptied faster than they could be filled.

The Jersey Shore was the one vacation spot for all.

When the children grew and wanted to start families, the row home was not big enough anymore.  Great grandpop and great grandmom passed.  Grandpop and grandmom were left alone.  On either side, familiar faces began to leave.  Some to heaven.  Some to Jersey, but that was good too.

Even though life changed, and circumstance shifted, and the family spread out across the interstates, some holiday’s brought them together again.  

They came back to the neighborhood.  In droves.

Our Beppa, everyone’s Beppa, forever 80 years old, yet she lived made it to 100, baked pizzas all day every New Year’s Day.  She cut irregular slices with scissors.  Some were uneven squares, some were round and almost triangular at the same time.  And they were delicious.  On any New Year’s day Beppa would feed pizza to at least 50 people.  Beppa’s house was just a pit-stop though; everyone in our family gathered on Broad Street early in the morning near the Methodist Hospital because that is where the string bands would stop and play their music.

Tens of thousands of sons and daughters of immigrants gathered with their fathers and mothers, who would drag along with them their fathers and mothers.  No pocket was empty: flasks, rolls, plastic bags of cheese, peppers, sandwiches, anything and everything consumable.  It came.

Some arrived with shopping carts full of a bounty to share with anyone.

Everyone hugged.  Everyone was bundled thick in warmth and family.  Everyone was happy to everyone.  I never remember an ill word or look from one person to another.  It was New Year’s Day.
Forget the past.  Eat, sing, and dance.

I found myself involved in the New Year’s Day parade for one year.  I was in 9th grade in high school and one of my friends hooked us all up.  We pulled a float from Broad and Oregon, straight down to city hall, and then made the right and continued to pull it to storage down on Penn’s Landing, a distance of about five miles.

We volunteered to do it because it would be fun, and because we knew we would have the opportunity to kiss girls in the parade with make-up on their faces: the performers.  We weren’t performers, we were pullers.  Nevertheless, we procured a tube of white face and smeared it on at 5 in the morning.  And so, in our regular old street clothes, and rope in hand, 8 adolescent boys pulled a float which weighed a couple of hundred pounds just so they could kiss some girls.

I kissed 6.  A little more than one girl per mile.

It was nice, but I have to say that even then I knew that was a lot of work just to kiss a few girls.

While New Year’s Day was the seminal holiday on our street, it was not the only one which brought family raining down to it.  Christmas was also special when I was younger as I remember long dinner tables in Beppa’s dining room.  The long table, overstuffed with ravioli, turkey, ham, and all seven fishes: calimari, smelts, shrimp, clams, baccala, scungilli, and crab.  Traditional fried dough mounds (like funnel cake) with powdered sugar piled up in dishes; one batch held sardines inside which I didn’t even look at when I was 10 and I can’t say I’d look at it now.  The same long table, overstuffed with food, was also over stuffed with family, friends, and neighbors.  

I sat sideways once because there were so many of us.

It was at that table where I learned to unbuckle my pants before eating.  An uncle showed me that was how you made more room to eat.

Those immigrants thought of everything.

Yet, beyond the meals and the fellowship shared around the tables, the one thing I carried with me was the demonstration of respect.  I saw the men hug the old women.  I heard them say thank you.  I witnessed expressions of love and heard “I love you” from everyone: man to woman, woman to man, woman to woman, man to man.

They made time to see each other.  They made time to reconnect.

That is respect.

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