Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tales of Xmas Past

Our family's 1940 Season’s Greetings card (Dave with Santa, V.A.L. photo)

Dear George,
I’ve written about our family Xmases on a couple of occasions.  Those childhood celebrations have to be among the most thrilling times of our lives.  But post-childhood Xmas holidays are important too.  Some elements remain stable over the years, e.g., Santa, gifts, the Xmas tree, “Jingle Bells”, eating too much fruitcake.  But other aspects of the holiday season change dramatically.  Once you reach that post middle-age era, you’ve accumulated a lot of Xmases.  Here are a few personal tales that illustrate the striking discrepancies in holiday experiences that can occur as one moves through the life course.

I started college in September 1955, so Xmas of that year was the first time that I’d been living away from home.  My freshman hallmate Newt, who was from Walla Walla, traveled to Menominee with me from Yellow Springs. I arranged dates for us for the Holly Hop, the annual holiday dance held at Menominee High.  We all went to dinner first at the Cholette Hotel in nearby Peshtigo.  When Newt tried to pay his bill with an American Express Traveller’s Check, the clerk had never seen such a thing and refused to honor it.  None of us had sufficient cash in hand.  After a lengthy, heated negotiation, the clerk finally reached the hotel owner by phone and reluctantly accepted a twenty-dollar traveler’s check.  Newt, disgusted, decided he had truly entered the wilds of rural America.  After the dance we went and parked under the light of the moon in Henes Park.  A police car pulled up behind us moments later.  Nervous because we were under-age teens with open bottles of beer in the car, I started the car, slowly backed up, and crept through the park at its ten m.p.h speed limit with the police car following closely behind.  We managed to escape without further incident.

My younger brother Peter and I in our driveway with my first car (circa 1957)

December 1957 was the first time that I didn’t come home at all for Xmas.  I was on a coop job in New York City.  I lived on 163rd St. in Washington Heights, and I decided to spend Xmas eve at an Irish bar in the neighborhood.  After three or four shots of whiskey, I called home to exchange holiday greetings before my speech got too slurry.  A little while later some of the men in the bar decided from my newly acquired accent that I’d recently come from Ireland.  Another guy disagreed saying I sounded more Scottish.  I admitted to being from Scotland rather than Ireland, and, as the questioning from my barmates unfolded, we determined that I had jumped ship in New York harbor and was in the country illegally.  Two of my new Irish friends said that they had contacts in the criminal underworld and that they could arrange to get fake papers to keep me in the country.  At that point I decided that I’d enjoyed enough Irish Xmas cheer and bid my farewells.

In 1958 my college friend Arnie P. came to visit our family.  Arnie was from White Plains just outside NYC, and he was curious about visiting the U.P.  He’d jokingly referred to me for some time as coming from Menominee, Mishigas (Yiddish for “craziness”).  A major winter storm moved in as we drove north from Chicago.  Shortly after we’d passed through Milwaukee we were stopped at a state police barricade shutting down Highway 41, the main highway to the U.P.  A policeman explained that the roads were impassable, and all the roads heading north from Milwaukee had been closed except one county highway.  He cautioned us not to risk it, but we decided to try it anyway.  With at least two feet of freshly fallen snow on the ground, we couldn’t see the roadway at all, so I just steered the car straight ahead through the open space between the trees. We rarely saw a house with a light on, and we didn’t see a single other car between Milwaukee and Green Bay.  It was a long, tense, probably dangerous trip, but we did eventually make it.  I think Arnie enjoyed his Mishigas visit.  He and my dad had a spirited debate about the military.  Arnie described his Army Reserve military experience as a thoroughly unpleasant waste of time, while Vic considered his experiences in the Pacific in World War II as the most meaningful of his life.  Their discussion may have marked the beginning of the generation gap.    

Arnie P. at river house in Menominee    

Though we’d been dating for two years, Katja didn’t make her first Xmas visit to our house until Xmas of 1959.  Vicki was 12; Peter, 14; Steve, 18.  They and my parents took to Katja immediately, and she to them.  She remembers Peter getting a barbell set for Xmas and embarking on his teenage body-building career. We went with my dad to cut down an evergreen tree on our back lot and then take it to town to have it spray-painted (perhaps yellow or red) at Van Domelen’s auto body shop.  Katja and I walked across the river to Pig Island and spotted a mud puppy through the ice lying on the river bottom, looking like the prehistoric creature it was descended from.  All our extended family came for dinner on Xmas eve, Uncles Kent and Ralph distributing cosmetic samples from the Menominee and Marinette drugstores and bachelor Uncle Karl bringing extravagant gifts from Neenah-Menasha. As she did each year, my mother made a delicious turkey Xmas dinner, topped off with her famous cherry, pineapple, whipped cream molded jello salad.  Katja couldn’t get over the parade of wonderful friends who came through our front door throughout the holidays. All in all, it was a memorable Xmas.

Katja playing cards with David, Vicki, and Peter (circa 1959) 

Katja and I graduated from college and got married in 1960.  That year was our first Xmas in Menominee as a married couple.  The main thing I remember is that my parents turned over their bedroom to us, and I was totally embarrassed to come out in the morning, having spent the night there with a strange woman.  Thanks to my parents subsidizing us, we started flying up to Menominee for Xmas on North Central Airlines, the line of the Grey Goose.  North Central had smallish, propeller-driven planes.  On one of our trips Katja had a bad cold and her ears felt like they were going to explode.  She asked the stewardess if there was anything she could do, and the stewardess recommended swallowing deeply.  Five minutes later, the stewardess came back and asked Katja if she were feeling better.  She said she was, and the stewardess explained that the pilot had dropped the plane’s elevation by 3000 feet.  We decided North Central was the best.

Our son J was born in September 1969, and we made a big deal about Xmas from the outset, even though J was only three months old.  Once he reached two or three we’d take him to a big local toy store to look over the merchandise (in order to get clues for Santa).  J would get very excited seeing all the wonderful things, but after twenty minutes he would invariably wind up in tears because of the over-stimulation.  I always enjoyed Xmas morning at least as much as J because I got to play with the new toys too.  Usually I was more of a playmate than a dad.  One December I went to the Digby tennis courts and cut down a sumac tree on the forested hillside.  I made dozens of paper mache ornaments over balloons with painted faces, hanging them from the sumac’s branches.  It started out as our Xmas tree, but became a permanent year-round decoration in our dining room.  As J got older we began making snowmen in our side yard each Xmas, then switched over to snow rabbits.  They were the hit of the neighborhood.

J in his Xmas cowboy outfit (circa 1973)

With our families living in opposite directions, we decided in the early 70s to go to Menominee each summer and to Katja’s family in Philadelphia and New York City each December.  Katja’s parents, Helen and Buck, lived on Sherwood Road in west Philadelphia, and her sister Ami and brother-in-law Bruce lived in Manhattan.  We’d drive the turnpike to Philadelphia four or five days before Xmas.  We’d typically do the Art Museum, the Franklin Institute, the Italian market, Philly cheesesteaks at Pat’s, the Wanamaker tearoom, supper at Howard Johnson’s, a great G.I. surplus store, Bookbinder’s downtown bookstore, Katja’s shopping expedition to the suburban Lord & Taylor’s, sometimes a visit to the zoo, sometimes Independence Hall.  Bucks’ relatives would have a big family gathering at Aunt Miriam and Uncle Moe’s, along with Aunt Beatrice and Uncle Joe, Aunt Sophie and Uncle Nate, Katja’s aged grandmother, and various cousins.  Katja’s parents didn’t celebrate either Channukah or Xmas, so we were always eager to move on to New York for Xmas eve.    

Buck and Helen enjoy a holiday hug in their kitchen on Sherwood Road (ca. 1972)

We’d set off on the New Jersey Turnpike on the morning of Dec. 24th in order to exchange gifts with Ami and Bruce at their Upper West Side condo.  Bruce, J, and I would go out on Broadway and bring home a Xmas tree (always over-priced by Cincinnati standards).  Katja and Ami were both extravagant gift-givers, and they’d shower us all with numerous presents.  Ami would usually invite friends for Xmas eve or Xmas day dinner, and we’d get together with Bruce’s Bronx family as well.  We’d go to the Met, to MOMA, and to the Whitney or the Guggenheim.  Ami and Bruce would treat us to dinner one night at a cutting edge Manhattan restaurant.  We’d do Rockefeller Center, St. Pat’s, Soho, Canal St. and Chinatown, the East Village, sometimes South St. or the Battery, Madison Ave. galleries, Times Square (mostly of interest to J and myself), the Metropolitan Opera, and one or more Broadway shows.  As J got older, he and I would spend a lot of time walking about the city while Katja and Ami went shopping at Bloomingdale’s or ABC Carpets and had lunch at the Grand Central Oyster Bar.  J loved the city so much that it was the only place he wanted to go to college, and he wound up at Columbia as a result of our Xmas trips.  On one of our visits our car trunk was broken into and all our Xmas gifts were stolen.  We went to the district police station to report the theft.  The officer on duty explained that they didn’t investigate car robberies, saying simply, “Welcome to Fun City.”  Another time J and I were walking along the edge of Central Park East in the 90s, talking and laughing, and I noticed an attractive woman in a fur coat watching us and smiling.  I looked more closely, and it was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.  I blushed a bit and looked away, but was privately pleased that Jackie seemed to be enjoying our father-son camaraderie.

Ami at Xmas in NYC (ca. 1973) 

When Katja’s parents moved to Cincinnati in 1992, we began staying home over Xmas vacation.  Our son J and daughter-in-law K would join us occasionally, but more often they were away in Michigan, New Orleans, or California, and we’d communicate by phone and electronically. When we’ve been in town over the years, our long-time friends Eleanor and Sam Minkarah have made us a part of their family for the holidays.  Their son Jay and his kids and daughter Randa and her spouse come in from New Hampshire and Washington state, and it’s a festive gathering with a Xmas eve cocktail party and a family dinner on Xmas day.  This year Randa held a  50th birthday dinner party for her brother at the Cincinnatian Hotel.  Jay was ten when we first started sharing Xmas with their family, so it was a noteworthy and nostalgic occasion.   

Katja with the Minkarah women: Maria, Randa, Grace, Katja, Eleanor (2011)

Looking back, Xmas has been a significant event every year since we were teeny kids. What amazes me on reflection is the enormous changes that we’ve experienced over this time span – running the gamut from being little kids in the family awaiting Santa to being young adults, honeymooners, then parents, empty nesters, and now grandparents ourselves.  I’m glad we’ve hung around to enjoy it all.  Despite the constant change, I’m pleased to say that all our Xmases have been good in their own way.  That’s what the spirit of Santa will do for you. 

G-mail Comments
-Donna D (12-27): how wonderful!
-Linda K-C (12-26):  What a great great letter.

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