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Posts tagged ‘New York’

I saw Mommy dissing Santa Claus

Ho ho...no (Wikipedia)

Ho ho…no (Wikipedia)

Prepare yourself for a special holiday memory.

I’m seven years old. It’s Christmas time. My mother is leaning against the butcher block in the kitchen.

“I have to tell you something,” she said to me. She paused. She struggled to suppress a laugh. “There’s no such thing as Santa,” she said. And then the laughter came pealing out, like Christmas bells.

I think I said, “All right,” and then went on with my childhood. After all, we lived on one floor, so I could see the Christmas tree, and my parents putting presents under it, from my bed at night. Spoiler alert! If that was something people said in 1982.

And Christmas went on, too. We always hung stockings, got presents, and listened to worn cassettes of my father’s favorite carols. We drove around in the evenings to look at the neighborhood lights; we went to Rockefeller Center to see the big tree. My father decorated a meticulous tree; my mother made Belgian waffles on Christmas morning. Glad tidings, comfort, joy, all of that.

I asked my mother about this special memory recently, to see if she would admit to it. “Oh yeah,” she said. “If I couldn’t have Christmas when I was little, why should anybody else?” she said in a sing-song voice. Her sense of humor saves her from being the cynic of the Western world.

My mother emigrated to New York from Italy when she was five years old. She was born in a tiny mountaintop town, in Calabria, one of the poorest southern regions. The house she was born and lived in was built, like much of the town, around 1450. Dirt floors; smoking fires in the hearth; animals in the courtyard. There may have been a manger.

“There was no Christmas over there like here. We didn’t have much. Definitely no Santa,” she said. “Christmas was about going to church, the presepio [the Nativity scene], and the food.

“We didn’t have these endless supplies of food, everything was very limited. So whatever sugar or honey you had, you saved for Christmas.” My grandmother made Calabrese Christmas sweets, things we still love to eat, mainly variations on fried balls of dough dipped in honey or sugar: scalidi, struffoli, zeppole, turtiddi. And Christmas cookies. My husband likes to joke that cookies in my family are basically hard pieces of bread with sprinkles on them. But when you think about how getting sugar would mean walking an hour to the market town, it doesn’t seem so strange.

“And then, La Befana would come for Epiphany.” La Befana is the Italian equivalent of Santa Claus, in the form of a witch, left over from Pagan times, who comes on Epiphany Eve in January and fills stockings, certainly not plush ones with Snoopy on them like mine, with oranges, nuts, and candy. These things, part of my own children’s daily lives were cherished treats in Calabria. If you were bad, La Befana brought you coal. So that part translates. It’s the only part that does.

“When we got here, we didn’t speak English. We just didn’t get how Christmas was done,” my mother said. “The first year, we didn’t have a tree. We certainly didn’t have presents. Later we did have a tree, but Christmas was always a hard time. Your grandfather worked in construction, remember, so he was out of work all winter. So things were very lean until he could work again in the spring.” My mother was the youngest of five, with two sisters who were much older. “When they started working in the factory [they were seamstresses], I would get a doll, or they would make me a dress or a sweater. But still, the presents were the least of Christmas.”

Even in New York in the booming 1950s, where they had come to escape the want of the isolated villages of the Italian South, they still would hold sugar and honey in reserve till Christmas. I can see why the idea of Santa – even now, when we can dump entire pots of store-bought honey on trays of scalidi – would make you laugh, a little bit.

“But when we got married and you guys were little, we did Christmas the usual way. Your father always had that kind of a Christmas. Your grandparents would put up the Christmas tree on the 24th after all the kids were in bed, so they would wake up to a big surprise on Christmas morning. It was special for him. And Christmas was always special for you, too. But as for Santa, I don’t know. I just could never get into it.”

We gave Santa Claus lip service growing up, but I don’t have any memory of really believing, waiting for him to materialize in our house in the night. We didn’t have a chimney, so that didn’t help either. The presents, in my mind, were always from my parents, even though they kindly wrote “from Santa” on the labels. I have a friend whose parents did not go in much for Santa either. “We worked hard to buy those presents,” her mother told me. “Why should Santa get all the credit?” A fair point.

As for my all-American kids, two boys, ages six and three, are excited about Santa Claus. As is their privilege. And I encourage them to believe. But what I don’t want, especially when I think of how Christmas used to be for so many in my family, and how it still is for so many people, is for the focus of Christmas to be receiving gifts.

Instead, let it be sweet treats, bright lights on cold nights, being good to each other. My three-year-old is thrilled to screaming at the sight of Christmas lights glowing in the dark; I would rather him hold on to that wonder than the mystery of a man in red bearing judgment, and Legos.

That’s not to say those two will wake up on Christmas morning to a house full of nothing but the smell of good cheer. I look forward to treating them at this time of year. What I don’t want is to dangle the old man in front of them as a threat, and tell them he’ll turn the sleigh around if they are not good; if they don’t stop yelling; if they don’t pick up their toys, or eat their vegetables. That doesn’t seem right.

So, how to handle Saint Nick? Short of calling the boys into the kitchen to deliver some bad tidings?

“Am I a good boy?” my six-year-old asked me the other day. I could see he was apprehensive of the judgment that was coming, the ups and downs of his behavior that year dancing through his head.

“Listen to me,” I held his face, looked him in the eyes. “You are a good boy. Let’s end the suspense. Santa is coming for you.”

His eyes widened. “But can he see what I am doing? Can he see me when I do things that aren’t good?”

“Santa can see that you have a good heart. You are a good brother. You are a good friend. Even good boys make mistakes sometimes, and he knows that. Everybody makes mistakes. But he knows you are good. So just keep showing him the good boy you are inside, OK?”

I guess the best thing about Santa is that it gives you something magical to believe in, in the bleakest nights of midwinter. So let him believe. But also let him believe in the good within himself, year round.

And let him believe that Santa uses the same wrapping paper as us. And has the same handwriting as me. Wouldn’t that be magical?

 

Cringing and typing: the blogger at age 15

Facebook. How you dredge up the past. I mean, this is pretty harmless, but it’s still dredging. A few months ago, a friend from a camp I attended in the summer of 1991 contacted me on Facebook, and sent along a pdf of a two-page essay I wrote when I was 15. I guess I was pretty proud of this essay if I was handing out to camp friends. Jesus.

English: Barnard College, New York City

Barnard College, New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was a camp for young suburbanites to experience the splendor of the big city: a month living in a dorm and taking classes at Barnard College, in New York. It was paradise for the slightly awkward, slightly arty teen. We traipsed up and down Broadway like we, as many other fresh, eager-types before us, owned it. We dicked around campus, and museums. We were self-proclaimed masters of the M4 bus. We ordered Chinese takeout to our rooms like big shots, stayed up late, socialized on uncomfortable common room furniture, and amused ourselves with an endless series of inside jokes.  They must have been OK jokes, though; several of the people I lived with at 49 Claremont Avenue are still my good friends. And I mean in the real world, beyond Facebook. PCP ’91!

We bought ten-packs of subway tokens in tiny plastic bags and went way downtown on the 1/9 to Greenwich Village, which is still my favorite place on earth. Sometimes we messed up and got on the express and just hung out at Chambers Street, whatever. Everything was exciting; as much fun as we had going to Shakespeare in the Park and a Violent Femmes concert at the Beacon Theatre, we had roaming the aisles at Love’s Pharmacy. We were old enough to shop for our own shampoo, old enough to decide when to go eat at Tom’s Diner, when to go the dining hall, and when to sleep through class.

I wrote the essay in question in high school, in 1990, for a writing contest (which I won, that’s right!). My friend found it at his mother’s house as she was clearing out old things.  And if I have the stomach for it, one day I’ll go through my parents things, and find the rest of the things I wrote at this brash and hopeful time, which I think even includes poetry inspired by Sylvia Plath (yikes), and my college essay, in which I described my love for the mysteries of New York, and why I wanted to go back, across the street from Barnard, to Columbia. Which I did.

As punishment to myself, I will retype the entire essay, resisting to the urge to correct anything or insert commentary on poor turns of phrase, or missed opportunities for jokes, and let it be. I am not sure why anyone would want to read it, although I still think it’s kind of funny, but if a blog ends up being nothing but a chronicle of one’s self, to be read at a future date, and wonder why, then this needs to form a part.

The Origin of Soul: The Story of Creation

 

In the beginning, there was James Brown.

That’s all there was. No glinting silver moon, no life sustaining sun. The stars were not the watchful eyes of heaven, and no beavers built their dams on the nonexistent churning blue streams. No pine trees shaded the eyes of prancing human beings. There was no life, no universe.

No universe, that is, until that something, that supreme, superior being, that godfather of all creatures, James Brown, felt good. He felt so good, so powerful, just as he knew that he would, that he was sparked with the divine inspiration to create the Earth out of soul, a sharp scream, and brown polyester.

The Earth, soul kitchen, sea of raving fans soon to be, and James Brown’s dance floor. A quick dance step, a quiver of his hips, and there was his glowing disco ball, pure and simple, ready for him to adulterate. What magic, what wonder! That was the first day.

On the first night, Mr. James Brown threw a party, a bash for the masses of nothingness. To decorate and shine proudly upon his new world like his white teeth, he created the sun, the moon, and a myriad of twinkling stars. Hallelujah!

On the second day, James Brown felt nice. So, hence appeared an abundance of humans, sugar, and spice. There were plenty of women, and no jive. The party continued, as it always will, and this time the decorations were the forests primeval, and the oceans blue and teal. Mr. Brown wore his earth brown suit to match his Eden.

On the third day, James Brown did another nifty little jig and created the party animals to follow him and worship him like no other. The panthers, cheetahs, and cockatoos loved their Creator with all their dancing hearts.

And the earth was complete! Glory be, James Brown created Grooveday (now called Sunday, as the term “groovy” is passe), to rest in his yacht in the gleaming Pacific and recover from hangovers. He had now earned the much deserved title of “The Hardest Working Man in Creation.” So be it!

But, as nothing is perfect except the master himself, evil–sinning, blade-sharp evil–began to spawn and grow within the Godfather’s own sideburns. Wars wreaked havoc across the earth, and the globe, once crystal blue, was now tinged with black, stinging crime.

English: James Brown, February 1973, Musikhall...

February 1973, Musikhalle, Hamburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Why, oh why,” the people wanted to know, “did James, the Man, thrust this upon us?”

As they did not want to take responsibility for their own actions, James Brown’s sons and daughters sent him to the jail cell to purge all the world’s sins. Heartbroken and stained by his own blood, The Almighty Brown sent M.C. Hammer, musician in disguise, to rule in his place.

“That will show them!” he thought, as his feet were bound and halted from grooving. “The fools know not what they do!”

And lo, show them it did. During the years our James, our Creator, was sadly incarcerated, the world was driven to tears by the horrid sounds of the Hammer. Finally, the people broke through the clogged-up tunnel, saw the light, and praise Soul! James Brown pounded the pavement once again! He forgave everybody.

And the world, and James Brown, and all the party animals in the forest, felt good once again. Amen! Hallelujah!

If you can make it there…10 things to see and do with kids in NYC (and Brooklyn) at Scary Mommy!

Hot chocolate at BAM: better than Cats

Hot chocolate at BAM: better than Cats

Why not head over to Scary Mommy and check out The Scary Mommy Travel Guide for my recommendations for 1o Things to See and Do with Kids in NYC? I’ve included some classic sights, some sights more off the beaten path, and omitted the time when C had a screaming tantrum all the way to Rockefeller Center from my sister’s apartment and then fell asleep when we got to the tree. Also omitted how one of my favorite ways to see New York is sans-kids, with wine, and the boys tucked up at my parents’ house in Long Island.

UPDATE: I’ve also written 10 (More!) Things to Do with Kids in Brooklyn - because, you know, Manhattan is so limited.

English: Looking north across 8th Avenue and 1...

The old neighborhood: Park Slope’s 14th Regiment Armory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have had so many fun visits to New York with our Manhattan-raised cousins, and though we live deep in Red Sox Nation, I’m raising C and T to think of the city not as a tourist destination, but as another hometown. Because NYC gets all the better on repeat visits. We’ve been the the Met several times, and tested the patience of security guards in many a wing:

This is very old! In the Greek and Roman Galleries at the Met.

This is very old! A couple of busters in the Greek and Roman Galleries at the Met.

Also featured: the Intrepid, the food of the Lower East Side, and Central Park, which could be an entry unto itself. And in fair Brooklyn: the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Prospect Park, and what’s Brooklyn without decent pizza? I couldn’t resist mentioning my old joint near my apartment in Park Slope: Pizza Plus. Whether that nice lady with the bouffant still works there I leave to you to discover.

Thank you to Scary Mommy for including me. I really like this site, and founder Jill Smokler’s refreshing nonjudgmental, honest, and very funny take on parenting. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the Scary Mommy Manifesto!

So, go to NYC with your kids! If they can behave there, they can behave anywhere!

(By the way, when I was researching this online, it reminded me of how many of our favorite NYC sites (like the Intrepid, and many areas of Brooklyn) are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. So because I love New York, can I ask you to please join in and help the neighborhoods come back: at The Red Hook Initiative, Robin HoodAmeriCares, or the American Red Cross. Thank you!)

Space travel uphill in the snow both ways

Last week, my New York relatives looked out their windows to see the space shuttle Enterprise take a farewell flight past the Manhattan skyline. It was headed for its new home (or final resting place) at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. They all declared it awesome, and I looked out my window in Greater Boston at some commuter cyclists and a dazed possum and was jealous.

C loves playing astronaut – I often find him loafing about dressed in a NASA shuttle commander’s uniform, mumbling something about rocket boosters. He also has a whole collection of space shuttles and rocket ship models he likes to zoom around the house. But it struck me –  every toy, every notion C has of the space program is now a thing of the past. Space was the promise of the future when I was young, now, it’s become nostalgia.

While C watched the farewell flight of the space shuttle on the evening news, I realized I was only a little older than he is when the first shuttle was launched in 1981. The whole enormous effort is gone and done in less than a lifetime. In that short time, it demonstrated to all of us, especially children, both elation and despair. In 1986, the Challenger disaster became a set-piece of memory – I can still smell the bleach they used to wipe cafeteria tables as I think back to when my friend came to tell us about it as lunch was ending. And I can remember the sick feeling I had as I looked in the newspaper at the plumes of smoke in the sky, and the faces of the astronauts that died. I still remember their names. Then there’s the poem I wrote to commemorate the event: “The very first teacher to go up in space/Many teachers wished they were in Christa’s place….” Thank you. It’s a gift.

Now, how does C connect to space, and its possibilities for greatness? Besides the fact that if you pass Level 20 of Angry Birds: Space (Yes! He did it, dear readers!), it provides you with a link to the NASA website if you want to learn more about space travel, beyond just how to kill a green pig with a purple bird at 3 g’s.

I know space is still a source of awe and fascination for him. There is a brand-new planetarium at the Museum of Science in Boston, and he, though offered admission on a weekly basis, refuses to go in and see the show. I think he thinks he’s really going to blast off, and he feels he hasn’t taken the proper astronomy classes to prepare. And there aren’t even as many planets to worry about as there used to be.

One of my favorite things to do with C, when we visit the ancestral home down in Long Island, is go to the Cradle of Aviation Museum. The museum is located in a row of former airplane hangars at Mitchel Field, in Garden City. Mitchel Field was a military training center going back to the American Revolution, and is adjacent to Roosevelt Field, an airfield used by Amelia Earhart, as well as Charles Lindbergh for his solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Roosevelt Field is now a mall.

The Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, ...

The Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also in the row of hangars is the Nassau County Firefighters Museum (love it), the Long Island Children’s Museum (which we haven’t even made it to yet because we love the fire trucks and the airplanes so much), and the fulcrum of my childhood nostalgia, the old Nunley’s Amusement Park carousel, bedecked with images of old-timey, sea-breezy Long Island, and removed from its former site in Baldwin which is now a Pep Boys.

We go to the museum mainly to sit in the cockpits of old war planes and helicopters and play with the controls, which look more like typewriters than instruments to help you guide a flying machine across enemy lines. While C battles his imaginary Red Baron, I look at the exhibits, with yet more nostalgia: Long Island, home to the Grumman Corporation that built the F-14 Tomcat (featured so prominently in Top Gun) has an incredible history in aviation that, like the space shuttle, is gone. In addition to the F-14, Grumman built several World-War II Navy fighters, the common mail truck, and the Apollo Lunar Module.  You can see one, up close, at the museum, and many of the volunteer guides that work there were former engineers for Grumman. You ask them where the bathroom is and then they’re like, “It’s over there. Oh, by the way, I built that.” When my boys are a bit older, we are going to sit up and listen as these guides recall this Long Island, and this future, that has, for now, like the space shuttle on its way to the Intrepid, passed us by. Because Grumman is now called Northrup -Grumman, and is located in Virginia. In a mall. Next to a Pep Boys.

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