Sunday, November 26, 2006


Christmas in my house was always very quiet. My brother and I had learned how to walk on eggshells at a very early age around the holidays and not to expect the classic Christmas that everyone else seemed to be experiencing. My mother always seemed to be angry and stressed and the holidays only provided a bigger fire to fuel regarding her moods.
The day after Thanksgiving I would wake up to the same ritual every year for 20 or more years. On top of my mother’s blonde bureau in her bedroom stood the three foot white Christmas tree decorated with one string of blinking red lights with the tree yellowing from the Pall Malls my mother and step-father chain smoked. After a couple of years the tree would smell of cigarette smoke. Below the tree sat a cardboard fireplace sitting four feet high and three feet wide. It had a black cardboard mantle, where two glass snow globes that when shook, snowed on Santa and his reinder. The other snow globe was the Nativity Scene complete with the Three Wise Men and a cow. The face of the fireplace had a red brick-like facade and inside the fireplace was a cardboard cut out of orange and red flames. Over the “flames” hung “Merry Christmas” in red foil.I remember as a kid thinking that it was a good thing that the flames weren’t real, otherwise the “Merry Christmas” foil greeting would catch on fire. I never really thought about the entire cardboard display becoming a blazing inferno.
Every single year, the day after Thanksgiving, without waking anyone, my mother would get up during the night or very early in the morning and arrange this Christmas scene. It just appeared. No conversation, no ritual of helping decorate the tree or “build” the fireplace. It was her job, her duty to decorate without help from anyone.

I had my own ritual following Thanksgiving. After Thanksgiving you could find me on Henry Street, at the age of ten, pulling my old red, squeaky, rusty Radio Flyer wagon up and down Henry and Orchard Streets. I was preparing for my own Christmas treat after realizing that Santa didn’t exist anymore at the age of 7, thanks to an older brother.
I would dress myself with courdoroy pants, flannel shirt and blue leggins’ over the pants , the kind of pants in the 1950’s that you could hardly move in and were waterproof, keeping your pants dry in case of snow and warm for playing outside, which also came along with a matching blue jacket and attached hood. I don’t think my face was very visible in this get-up, but I was warm.
My goal was one thing and one thing only. Collect soda bottles from neighbors and cash them in for two cents each. Soda in cans hadn’t yet been invented and redeemable empty bottles were a treasure. I knew who to get the most bottles from. Joany McCarthy lived on Orchard Street and her family drank a lot of Cott’s ginger ale. She was good for at least five bottles, especially after Thanksgving. Joany always washed out the bottles before giving them to me. Even though she lived on the third floor of the Orchard Street apartment house, it was worth the two or three trips up the steps. Joany would also alert me to the fact that she saw some “good bottles” in the trash bin in the back of the house.
I didn’t mind poking through the trash too much. I had mittens that clipped onto my blue snow jacket and didn’t care about getting them sticky or dirty. I could usually find three or four bottles to take back.
After getting my stash from Joany, the trash bin and other residents of 755 Orchard Street, I would appear at the local deli store, Sherman’s Corner Store at Henry & Orchard. Sherman would sometimes see me coming down the street with my red wagon full of bottles and point me around to the back of the store, where Sherman would count the bottles and give me the cash. A good Saturday would find me twenty cents richer.
I would continue this routine until I had a total of at least fifty cents. That’s all I needed for my Christmas.
With the fifty cents in hand, I would board the bus, heading for lower Chapel Street into downtown New Haven, deposit my five cents into the money machine and take my seat waiting for my stop, State and Chapel to be called.
Getting off the bus at State and Chapel I wouldwalk across the street to the most beautiful Christmas window display in Shartenberg’s Department Store. I would gaze at this display which was a huge house topped with snow with puppets in the windows looking out for Santa and his sled. The puppet children would gaze out up at the sky and watch Santa and his reindeer fly by in front of a big white full moon. The lighting was spectacular. Make believe snow fell with distinct snowflakes. Noses on the reindeer blinked, Santa’s head kept nodding and smiling, the puppets mouths opened and closed with what seemed like oohs and ahhs and all the puppet kids were smiling along with their parents who were standing behind them.
The talk around town was that even though Mr. Shartenberg was Jewish and didn’t celebrate Christmas, he loved kids. Worked for me!
I would just stand outside for what seemed like hours watching what a real Christmas should be like.
But inside Shartneberg’s on the 3rd floor was where the real magic was. I would take the elevator up to the third floor with other kids and their parents, all hoping to snag the catch of the day.
For upstairs was a round wooden fish pond maybe ten feet in diameter, draped around the insides and outsides with Christmas paper and inside the fish pond were small Christmas presents wrapped, stacked about three feet high with some kind of plastic hook attached to the bow. All you had to do was pay your twenty cents, grab a fishing pole and start fishing for your present. After paying the “Fisherman” I hung up my snow coat on racks made just for the height of a kid and proceeded to the Pond.
I waited to fish in this pond all year long. There were several methods you could use to find your catch. Sometimes I would wait and watch the other kids to see what they got and what location they got it from or you could dive right in with the fishing pole hook a present and see whether it was heavy or not. The one rule of the Fish Pond was that once the present was reeled in and you touched it, you couldn’t throw it back. It was yours.
Careful consideration went into this plan. Should I just plunge in and see what I got?
Should I scout out the area like a real fisherman would to see where the big catches of the day were or should I hook one and see how much it “weighed"? Most times I plunged in after scouting out the areas.
The two favorite toys of my entire life were caught that one day and reeled in. Spending the forty cents I had saved from the bottle deposits and fishing out just the right presents, I went to the second best attraction, the Santa Claus train that took you around the Christmas shop for free.
There on that train while riding through Christmas Town I opened my catch of the day, a Slinky and Silly Putty. I couldn’t have been happier. Two things I really wanted were mine and I had earned them.
Whatever I didn’t get for Christmas would fade into the background. I had learned how to make myself happy even back then.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

St.Anne's Oil

It was one of those summer days that I was told I was spending in downtown New Haven instead of staying at home. My mother had been called in to work an extra shift from 11 am to 7 pm and decided I would drive in with her and stay there until she finished work.

As Mary got ready for work, I immediately dressed in a clean plaid short sleeve shirt, long pants, and my little white socks with my Ked sneakers.
I combed my Beatle haircut that Johnny the Barber had just cut and waited in the car.
Never ever, keep Mary waiting. Igniting her short fuse would only lead to yelling, a slap in the face or threats to just “leave me alone forever.”

Driving to work with Mary was the same every time. She had a 1954 green and white Chevrolet Bel Air, four doors. As she sat there driving and smoking her Pall Mall cigarette, her black plastic pocketbook and her newly starched and ironed red and white polka dot apron sat in a place of its own on the front seat beside me in between the two of us.

I sat silently in the front, with my legs dangling off the seat. I wasn’t more than 10 years old and I barely could see out the big passenger window.

I loved riding in the car. It got me out of the house, away from my brother and his friends. I was happy to be spending the day downtown. I was lonely, sure. But there was also a strange freedom that accompanied this. I was completely on my own. The choices of how to entertain myself were mine, with no one watching me or telling me what to do, who to talk to, and no one pushing me around.

Pulling into the parking lot on the side of the glass plate windows of the White Tower, she would immediately spew out an order to me of, “make sure you’re back here by the time I finish work at 7 and don’t make me wait. If you want lunch, get the money from Big Frank. He’s at the parking lot until 10.” With that exit line, no goodbye, no hug, no kiss, no anything, she was out the door and into her “White Tower Mode,” the happy mode, the pleasant mode, the dutiful working mother mode.

As usual I was off on my own again looking for something to do to pass the time. Wandering down College Street I would pass the familiar people and places of my childhood. The Stage Door Bar and Grille wasn’t open yet, and besides, it was no fun during the day. Not many customers packed the bar until at least 5 or so. The Roger Sherman Movie Theatre and the College Movie Theatre wouldn’t be open until 2 so that was out until later.

Turning the corner onto Chapel Street right on the Corner sat the Owl Tobacco Shop with it’s assortment of fresh imported cigars, cigarettes, and fresh pipe tobacco that was mixed by hand. My mother and step father’s habit of chain smoking even while we were eating, always made me cringe as I walked by even though the shop was clean and the guys who ran it were nice.

Further down on Chapel Street on the corner of Chapel and High Street stood the Waldorf Cafeteria. It boasted of 24 hour cafeteria style dining, but the shabby interiors showing through the dirty street windows where some of the downtown New Haven street people sleeping inside, smoking, or just finding a place to stay, made people think twice about going in. I would walk by and wave to the customers I knew.

Next to the Waldorf sat my two favorite 2 stores in New Haven, The Pen Shop and the St. Thomas Moore Gift Shop.

The Pen Shop was a small well lit store front with all the latest pens and mechanical pencils in the window. Not only did they sell pens. They actually fixed them. This was no Bic pen store. This was the best of the best. Schaeffer fountain pens, Esterbrook fountain pens, Parker Pens, Waterman Pens. Ken could fix anything from a broken nib to a clasp to the refill barrel itself. He was a magician.
Walking in the front door of the Pen Shop a bell would chime and I would be immediately greeted by Ken the Pen Man. Ken would have made a great father. He was handsome, tall, always wore a white shirt and tie and smoked a pipe. After Ken appeared, Dorothy his wife would come out from the back.
“Hi Sweetie Pie” Dorothy would say. How I loved those words, probably more than I loved the pens. Ken and Dorothy always bought coffee to go from the White Tower.
They were the perfect couple. She was tall with dark brown hair, always wore a shirt waist dress and was pretty. More than that, she liked me.
Ken would grab a stool from the back and place in right in front of the 2 large display cases. He would then turn and say, “Well, madam, what pen are you interested in today”? Each pen sat in its own little box nestled among a pillow. Some pens were even initialed in gold. I would pick out a pen from the vast array in the display case and Ken would gently remove the case, lift out the pen from its elastic clip and hand it to me as if it were a newborn baby. I would sit there for hours trying out the different pens, with their different points writing my name over and over.
I used to wish that Ken and Dorothy were my parents. They had no children.
Too bad. They would have been great.

The store front window of the St. Thomas More Gift shop displayed the religious articles of the season. In the summer the window was dressed in celebration of the August 15th , Holy Day of Obligation, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is when the Blessed Virgin Mary ascended bodily into Heaven after her death.
The decorations were white and gold lace covering the bottom of a very large statue of the Blessed Virgin,, like the blanket surrounding a Christmas tree. Roses were placed all around the blanket in her honor. Angels hung from the ceiling surrounding Mary accompanying her on the way to heaven.
Opening the door would make a bell on top of the door jingle, like the bells rung at the Eucharist of the Mass.
Entering the gift shop was like walking into an old quiet church. The wooden floor creaked. The smell of the votive candles burning hung the air. Soft haunting Gregorian Chant music would be coming from a scratchy record player somewhere in the back.The shelves were lined with statues, crosses, holy cards, missals and rosary beads, all within reach to touch and hold.

A huge sign hung above the religious articles that said,


Everyone knew that if you didn’t have these things blessed by your priest they just wouldn’t work the same. His blessing was mandatory.
Off to the side of one of the shelves, near the cash register was a special podium.
On this podium sat the blessed of blessed articles, St. Ann’s Oil.
This tiny bottle of oil sat next to a drawing and a statue of St. Anne, mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Legend had it that if you had any ailment and you rubbed this liquid on it, you would immediately be healed. Testimonies on pieces of paper sat next to the drawing of St. Anne. Testimonies that verified how people had their eyesight restored when applying the oil on their eyelids, while others reported healing of paralysis when rubbing the oil on the affected limbs and people with severe arthritis reported pain subsiding when the oil was applied.

It was a tiny 2 or 3 ounce bottle that contained a thick yellow liquid. It was a magic liquid. I was familiar with it because this same bottle sat on my mother’s bureau next to her bobby pin box. I’m not sure how my mother came to own it, but it was a "hands off policy” at home. No touching the oil. Interesting. There were so many ailments in my family, but not of the physical kind. I even wondered as a kid if maybe, just maybe if I applied this oil to my head, would I be smarter? Or my face, prettier?

I’ll never know.

If I had known then what I know now, I would have swallowed the whole bottle.

Might have saved on some therapy bills.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Love this guy....

Here's a great article for kids and writers