Monday, November 29, 2010

Christmas is coming

The Christmas season has begun.  I knew nothing of the first Sunday in Advent as a child.  We had no Advent wreath or theme in the Norwegian Pentecostal church I attended.  The first Sunday of Advent meant the distribution of our Christmas “pieces” in preparation for the Christmas program.  As I’ve mentioned before, I always seemed to be expect to have the longest piece, or be a narrator.  To this day, I attribute my lack of fear of public speaking to those days.  I don’t ever remember being nervous about getting up in front of people to talk.  I’ve been doing it since before I can remember.

It was officially Christmas, I had seen Santa at the Parade on Thanksgiving Day.  Lights were twinkling from the houses in my neighborhood.  As you went toward 5th Avenue, the smell of pine mixed with a small coal fire filled the air.  Miraculously Christmas trees were lining the path to the wonders of 5th Avenue.

No I am not talking about the 5th Avenue that you normally associate with New York City.  I am talking about MY 5th Avenue, 5th Avenue Brooklyn.  Without crossing the street I could shop for shoes at Thom McAn’s shoe store, junk at the variety store, eat at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s, or go to the bank.  Streets were understood in terms of “long streets” and “short streets.”  A long street was the distance between one avenue and another.  Short streets were the distance between “streets.”  The long streets were predominantly residential while most short streets had some commercial activity. 

Crossing 5th Avenue I could consume pizza.  To this day, I have found none to compare to King’s Pizza next to the fire station between 52nd and 53rd.  There was nothing you could not buy on 5th Avenue.   While 8th Avenue was all Norwegian, 5th Avenue had variety.  There were plenty of Norwegian shopping on 5th Avenue as well as Norwegian stores.  There was a Norwegian fish market where my mother would purchase fresh mackerel.  Something I dearly loved to have for supper.  

With my brother’s no longer home, my father declared that my mother needed a break.  On Sunday we’d climb the stairs to the second floor of 5414 5th Avenue to eat our Sunday dinner at Promenaden Restaurant.  My menu choice was Torskerogn with boiled potatoes and peas.  For dessert I’d have a delicious tytteb√¶r shortcake.  If we were lucky we’d be seated near one of the large windows overlooking our 5th Avenue.  To me it was as glorious as eating at the fanciest restaurant at the 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

I am not sure why we stopped going to Promenaden for Sunday dinner.  I do remember that it was followed by TV dinners on TV trays.  While it seemed the “modern” thing to do, I missed those trips up the stairs for torskerogn.  Nevertheless, fiskaboller and torskerogn were staples in our home as well.

A new outfit for Christmas was mandatory.  Not only would you wear your Christmas outfit on Christmas day, it was necessary for the Christmas program.  Some years, that outfit would come from Lerner’s.  Some years we’d take the bus to Downtown Brooklyn to shop at A&S.  Rarely did it mean a trip to Manhattan to purchase an outfit at Macy’s or Gimbel’s.  Clothing was my mother’s domain, trips to Manhattan were my dad’s.  Usually preparation for my Christmas attire meant a trip to Woolworths to look at patterns and fabric.

I loved looking at the patterns.  I loved imagining how I would look, picking just the right fabric.  On a small Necchi sewing machine, my mother would create out of raw materials the most wonderful of Christmas outfits. I remember crushed velvet dresses and jumpers.  I remember plaid suits and satiny skirts with a flocked bodice.  Later I would create a denim jumper on this machine.  I would walk the halls of Pershing Junior High in my own creations made on this ancient Necchi machine.

But Christmas was weeks away, an eternity for a small girl in Brooklyn.  There was so much yet to be done.  School programs, church programs, my mother’s sewing and baking, the annual trip to my father’s work for the Christmas program, the tree at Rockefeller's Center... Christmas in New York was magical… later would come Juletree fests as we rotated around a Christmas tree with a little song pamphlet with Norwegian flag on both sides.  Yes, there was much more to come…and more to be told.



Friday, November 26, 2010

A Thanksgiving Morning Constitution

Memories of my father seem to be on my mind so much of late.  I miss him.  That seems odd in some ways.  I was a mere 19 years old when he died.  Old enough to have some very solid memories of him.  Old enough to have known him as a child knows a father.  But not old enough to know him as a person.

On those very rare occasions when my family of origin would gather for an hour or two.  That was all we ever did.  We were never close.  My brother's estranged themselves from my mother and I over thirty years ago.  At first it seemed just the way life was, family, moving and such.  But now I know it was deliberate.  They had no use for their mother and they never took the time to know or care for their sister.

When we would meet together, the bond between my brothers was solid.  They would laugh and joke and reminisce about a father I didn't know.  Often I thought them cruel and disrespectful, a strong characteristic of my eldest brother. I suspect their stories were filtered by their emotions.  However, my father was a different person by the time I came along in his early 50's.  Having passed 50, I know that the woman I was at 50 was not the woman I was at 30.  Our birth certificates all name the same man, but we didn't not know the same father.

On one of those occasions my older brother told me a story about our father.  Now this was the type of man I remember.  It is a Thanksgiving story.  It was either before I was born, or when I was very little.  There were no trips to the parade with me that year.  That Thanksgiving morning my father took a walk instead.  There was nothing unusual about my father taking a walk.  He called it his "constitution."

Every day when he'd awake from a few hours of daytime sleep (he worked nights), he'd get dressed and go for his afternoon constitution.  A brisk walk, regardless of the weather would often include a trip to the library.  My father would go to the library to read the newspaper.  He was a frugal and practical man.  He would buy the New York Daily News because it was tabloid size and easy to read on the subway.  He would go to read the large awkward pages of the New York Times at the library.  There was no need to buy two newspapers when the library provided them for free.
The view.  The campanile of St. Michael's and the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
The Fifth Avenue Entrance to the Park - the grand steps to paradise.
 Thanksgiving morning the library was closed.  This was before the consumerism of Black Friday so there were no ads to study either.  He went to the park.  Our local park, Sunset Park was glorious.  The playground was at the top of a hill.  The lawn started at 5th Avenue.  At Sixth was the playground and at 7th Avenue you had the entrance to the pool.  It is a beautiful park.  I learned to swim there.  I could see the Statue of Liberty from the playground.  And I would swing to the clouds.
The entrance to the pool facing Seventh Avenue.
The only place to be on a summer afternoon in Sunset Park.
For more pictures of Sunset Park, see here.

My father found a lonely man at the park that day.  I understand he was Norwegian. He lived in a boarding house alone.  He was an alcoholic.  Perhaps moved by the Spirit of God, or just human kindness, my father, ever friendly and relational, talked with the man.

 A walk on a winter's day, perhaps on one of these benches sat the man.

In the spirit of thankfulness my father brought the man home with him for Thanksgiving dinner.  Oh was my mother upset.  I wasn't there but I can imagine.  My mother always tried so hard to cover up her feelings of inferiority.  Having an alcoholic Norwegian at her table for Thanksgiving was not acceptable.  I never remember seeing my parents fight, but I do remember long silences and icy stares.  I imagine that was a very quiet meal.  I imagine the next day there were words and icy stares.

My father persisted.  The man enjoyed a good meal, perhaps with the grapefruit appetizers I mentioned yesterday.  That Sunday found the man in church with my father.  My father gave him a suit.  I am sure that it was a sacrifice for my dad.  Money came hard on a janitor salary.  Fine attire and suits were necessary to worship in those days.

The man came to faith.  The man gave up drinking.  The man got up and testified in broken English that if it hadn't been for Brother Johannesen, he didn't know where he'd be.  After finding a new life in his new suit, the man died.  I don't know what he died of, my brother didn't say.  He died within six months of that Thanksgiving Day in Sunset Park.  He died at peace, with a church family to mourn his passing, dressed for burial in a hand-me-down suit, all because a man took a walk and saw beyond appearance, smell and misfortune.

I am reminded of the movie Blind Side with Sandra Bullock.  It was a blockbuster at the movie theater but how few of us are like my dad and the woman in the movie seeing with eyes that truly see the worth of another.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving in Brooklyn

When I was a little girl it seemed my mother had been up all night.  As soon as my eyes opened, and my nose awoke, the smell of turkey would fill my senses.  My mother was not a great cook, but she could do Thanksgiving very well. 

As soon as I had a bowl of oatmeal to stick to my ribs and keep me warm, my father would tell my mother to dress me warmly.  I would don a hat and scarf and leggings.  No they were not the footless tights we now call leggings.  These heavy wool leggings matched my coat.  They were held up by suspenders.  I routinely wore suspenders as a little girl.  Now that I think about that, it seems odd.  At the time, it didn’t.  They must have weight 10 pounds but they were necessary to keep my legs warm.  If there was snow on the ground, I would also put on my galoshes with the buckles on the side.

With my hand in my dad’s, I’d walk down 53rd street to 4th avenue.  In front of Johnny’s candy store, was the entrance to the subway.  Token in hand, we’d turn the turnstile.  Sometimes my dad would tell me to just go under it.  I did. 

It was always an adventure to go down the stairs of the subway with my dad.  It meant a trip to a museum or to the zoo.  I loved going anywhere with my dad.  This time, we were on our way to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  We’d find our place behind a police barricade.  While others were forced to stay behind the barricade, I would sit on the curb with my feet in the street – I was not behind the barricade.  Somehow that felt like I had an advantage.

I was so excited for the parade to start.  I loved the marching bands and the colorful floats.  I would watch the giant balloons come around a corner, first Snoopy, and then Mighty Mouse and of course the giant turkey.  But I was waiting for Santa.  I believed in Santa.  But I also believed that the only true Santa was the one at Macy’s.  The other Santa were fake.  Those bell ringing Santa, three to a block, were fake.  But Macy’s Santa? He was the real deal.  I waited impatiently for my first glimpse of Santa.

Then the band would turn the corner playing Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.  I couldn’t sit on the curb any longer.  I would jump up so excited for that first glimpse of Santa.  There he was, like a king on a throne.  The microphone to his mouth broadcast the names of the children he was going to visit with Christmas delights.  He said it.  He said JOYCE.  I heard him.  I was blessed.  I was special.  Santa knew I was there. 

The trip home on the subway seemed so quick.  I could hardly wait to tell my mother about Santa.  I would dream for weeks about his coming on Christmas Eve.  As other children waited for Christmas morning, Santa came early to our house since we were Norwegian.  

My mother had worked her magic.  Our table in that very humble railroad flat looked like something out of a magazine.  It was the only time of the year we had an appetizer.  Usually it was grapefruit.  She would scoop out the sections, sugar them, and flute the sides of the peel to make a cup for the fruit.  The fruit would go into the cups made from the peel, sprinkled with brown sugar, it would go into the oven.  A cherry would grace the middle.

Missing the fluted sides but you get the idea.
The feast was served on her "fine china."  The fine china was a free premium when my parents bought their first television set.  The dishes were trimmed in 14 caret gold.  Usually the amber salad set they'd received as a wedding present also graced the table.

Christmas seemed so far away and yet I knew it would be special.  Santa had seen me on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.  Among all the tall buildings, he knew I was there.  Turkey consumed, it was time to watch the black and white rerun of Miracle on 34th Street.  I’d already had my Macy’s miracle.  It was going to be a wonderful Christmas.