Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Music

I’m listening to Christmas music on Pandora today.  Just seems like a good thing to do on a quiet slow Christmas day.  Our festivities were last night.  We had a wonderful time.  The day ended with making potato candy with my youngest daughter.  She is off with friends today and wanted a treat to take with her.  It was fun.

Christmas music really sets a mood, doesn’t it.  I love Silver Bells because it reminds me of Christmas in New York City.  I sure hope I get to see the tree at Rockerfeller Center at least one more time.  I used to love to go see it with my dad.  I’ve even been there when it was lit.  What joy, what excitement!  After that, a trip across the street to the magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral to see the crèche, followed by some steaming hot chocolate made the day complete. 

Our first Christmas in Tennessee I was so homesick for New York and the East coast one of our daughters gave me some silver bells.  They still hang on our back door.  She told me when you see these bells think of Christmas in New York-I do.  However, now I miss her when I look at them. 

But Silver Bells is not my favorite Christmas song.  When I’m asked, as one is this time of the year, what is your favorite Christmas Carol, I hesitate.  My favorite is one that almost no one knows.  I usually answer that my favorite “popular” Christmas Carol is Joy to the World.  My favorite verse is the last one:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

I love the harmony of this Carol.  It just gives me the Joy that it declares. 

So what is my favorite?  One of my best Christmas presents was a record player.  I guess then it was like getting an mp3 player.  I also got some 45’s to play on it.  On one of these 45’s was an obscure ancient Carol, Good King Wenceslaus.   

The tune is wonderful and can be done fast or slow.  I like it both ways.  The tune is even more ancient that the song dating back to the 13th Century.  But the words – the words tell a wonderful story.  The Saint, King Wenceslaus went out in the snow of December 26 (the feast of St. Stephen).  He saw a poor man gathering sticks in the snow.  Moved to compassion the king orders his servant to help him feed this poor man.  He wants to “dine” with the man.  The servant grows tired in the cold.  He is told by the saint to step in the saints footsteps.  The warmth of the footsteps revives the servant and we are told that we are to bless the poor.

I am pondering this message today.  I am thinking about the homeless and those alone.  I am thinking about the poor with children who wanted to give their children so much more this Christmas.  I am thinking about God sending the greatest gift to earth, His son. 

Following in the footsteps of Jesus means we go to the poor, it means we go to the outcast, the foreigner, the stranger.  Who can you still bless this Christmas and throughout the year?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas at Tante Bitta's

Heavy snow is coming down today.  It is reminding me of a Christmas in Brooklyn.

One of my favorite people when I was a child was my “Tante Bitta.”  She was actually not my Aunt or Tante, she was my cousin.  However, like all of my first cousins on my father’s side, she was an adult when I was born and had children my age.  Out of respect, I called her Tante.  When I was little I couldn’t say her name Birgit; in my childish pronunciation she became Bitta.  We saw her and her family only occasionally until they moved within walking distance.  What a happy day that was!  Her eldest daughter and I became best friends.

So many things I could write about her daughter and I.  After putting 75 cents in the cigarette machine, we’d puff away for a few hours.   Believing we’d rather “fight that switch” after a brief usage of Marlboros we became Tareyton smokers.  Doused in perfume, with gum in our mouths we'd try to cover the smell.  My mother would be angry and yell, always snooping in my things to find evidence.  Birgit would just get a twinkle in her eye and shake her head.  Fortunately, my smoking “habit” was intense but very brief.

Like me, Birgit had a large family.  Like me, she had plenty of pain in this life.  If I think of a strong woman, I think of her.  She was witty, smart and beautiful.  She was hardworking and a survivor.  As a child, I loved her more than any other Tante or cousin.

The apartment she lived in on the second floor on 60th street was way too small for her family.  One of my earliest memories of visiting that apartment includes seeing her seventh and last child Paul, in a bassinet.  I loved seeing new babies.  Paul was no exception. 

My dad loved his niece.  I don’t know if he sponsored her when she came to the US.  I do know he looked after her in ways long forgotten.  At times he would take some of her brood with us on the explorations of NYC, the museums, the Statue or Central Park.  Our home was quiet as I was the only child there.  Birgit’s home was full of life, energy, and chaos.

It was Christmas Eve.  It was snowing very hard.  As we walked to Birgit’s with gifts in hand the snow stung our faces.  It was 7 blocks to their house.  At each curb we crossed, the piles of snow were deep.  My mother fell into one of them and was covered with snow.  We trudged on.  Finally, a snowy Virgin Mary was seen.  She graced the front of their house as the owners and first floor dwellers were Catholic. 

Birgit’s house smelled of turkey.  She had a large turkey in the oven of that tiny kitchen.  The table sat between the kitchen and the small living room that I think doubled as a sleeping area for some of the kids at night.  There was no fancy table setting, just the warmth of Christmas.  Wet cold clothes removed, we sat down where ever we could find a place for the delicacies she had lovingly prepared.

I don’t remember all the details, but somewhere Birgit had found a Santa Claus costume.  My dad would play Santa Claus for the Birgit’s children.  My dad had no natural beard and didn’t have a particularly large stomach.  The costume wasn’t very good.  But the kids were still small enough to believe and that was all that mattered.  I imagine like me, most of the people in their life had a Norwegian accent.  A Norwegian accented Santa was not difficult to believe in.

I knew it was my Dad.  I wish I had a picture.  I wish I could even in my mind see the look on Birgit’s face as her Onkel Olav who loved her so much came in with a Santa costume to delight her children.  I imagine my dad was there when Birgit entered heaven to welcome her just like he did when she came to America.  All the children of Johannes and Siri Jonassen were already there waiting for her.

Many years later, long after my father was gone I visited Birgit.  She lived in a much better house and life was better for her.  Over a ham sandwich at her kitchen table, she told me in Norwegian how Onkel Olav always left money for her to buy milk for the children.  I was now the young and struggling mother with many children.  She gave me some cash for my children’s milk. 

It was a long trudge back through the snow to our own apartment that Christmas long ago.  Like the song, the street lights twinkled bright red and green through snow covered lights.  Our neighbor was blaring Christmas music through a speaker attached to his house.  It was a snowy Christmas in Brooklyn. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Men Norsk Mor -- My "Norwegian" Mother

The smell of Norwegian baking just reminds me of Christmas and home.  At Christmas, my mother would bake for weeks filling the little railroad flat at 434-53rd Street with smells of cardamom, almond, and butter.  In that small kitchen in an old gas oven she worked her magic.  My mother had a well-worn stained Norwegian cookbook.  She was an American girl from Waynesboro PA who was transformed into a Norwegian speaking, acting and cooking woman when she said "I do" to a former Norwegian sailor from Arendal.
By the second grade I was allowed to cross streets by myself.  I would walk home  from school with Barbara.  Once in the vestibule I’d ring the bell.  The buzzer would sound to unlock the inner door.  Like going into the inner sanctuary of a holy place, an aroma better than the finest incense would greet my little nose.  Sniffing as I walked the hall to the kitchen, I would try to guess what had been baked that day.  If there was a yeasty cardamom smell, it meant Julekake.  Sometimes she was in her second or third batch; the yeast was doing its magic.  I was just in time to wash my hands and punch it down. 

Other times, the krumkake iron was on the stove.  These were the most coveted and delicious of all Christmas creations.  They were strictly rationed.  They were mostly for the company that would ring the bell announcing their arrival during Christmas.  The coffee pot and a platter of Norwegian deliciousness was always ready for serving.  

My mother hid the Christmas cookies from my little hands.  I always found them.  I would count the krumkake and judge if I could sneak one without being caught.  If questioned, I would lie leading me to lay in bed worrying that Jesus would come and leave me behind since I lied. One year, she hid them so well she didn’t find them until spring cleaning.  The ants had already found them, she took a brush and brushed them off.  We ate them.

My favorite cookie was fattigmann.  Fattigmann are a fried cookie.  We all know everything is better when it is fried.  Fattigmann, means poor man – translated these are “poor man’s cookies.”  My mother would say the same thing every year – “I don’t know why they call them poor man’s cookies, they take nearly a dozen eggs and lots of butter.”  I guess for a Norwegian farmer who had plenty of eggs and butter, these were cheap to make.  But when you got your butter and eggs from the local A&P, they were no longer for the poor.  She used the same pink pastry wheel to cut these diamonds as she used to make her doughy dumplings for Pennsylvania Dutch Slippery Pot Pie.

The reason why these were my favorite had nothing to do with their taste.  They are good, very good.  But they were my favorite because they were the only cookie that wasn’t rationed.  We always had an abundance of fattigmann.  I could eat as many as I wanted.

My mother used her cookbook to fill our house with Norwegian-ness.  In addition to the Julekake, fattigmann and krumkake, she would make dreams, sandbakkles, waffles, spritz, berlinerkrantz, sirupsnitter, pepperkake, and even American sugar cookies.  She made pretty good lefse too. But, the most curious of the Christmas delights was hjortetakk. 

Looking like a small unfrosted and unadorned brown donut, the most curious thing was one of the ingredients.  It calls for Harts horn.  You know the stuff from the antlers on a deer.  Where do you get that in Brooklyn?  Somewhere my mother discovered that Harts horn was also known as ammonium carbonate.  Evidently the druggist on 4th Avenue was what we now called a compounding pharmacist.  She would go each Christmas for a little envelope of ammonium carbonate from him.  This was one weird science project that tasted wonderful. 

She’d saved her grocery money for months to buy the almonds, cardamom, eggs, butter, flour, sugar and Harts horn.  She labored for weeks.  My father would smile as his Norwegian friends would come into the little living room and sit on the couch that she had also slip covered herself.  All our senses were alive with the taste and smell of a Norwegian Christmas, lovingly made by my “Norwegian” mother.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Coming of Age at Christmas

As I look back on that day, it was a real coming of age type of day.  I remember clearly standing by the front window of the subway as we rode back to our home in Brooklyn.  We lived for two years on Fort Hamilton Parkway.  I didn’t like living there.  I missed PS 94 and 53rd Street.  It was the world I had always known.  I knew each house and at least a little something about the people who lived there.  I knew to walk fast when I passed the tenements and to walk near the curb if I walked past the bar on the odd side of the street near 5th Avenue.  I suppose it was because we never had alcohol in the house and because of how my parents felt about it that I was always nervous walking past a bar.  I think I thought someone might reach out and grab me and I’d never be seen again. 

It was a lonely trip back to Brooklyn.  I don’t remember why my father wasn’t with us.  I was at an age where I was beginning to have those inevitable conflicts one has with their mother as they are approaching adolescence.  It wasn’t her fault.  It really wasn’t mine either.  It too was part of coming of age. 

We happened to secure a place on the front car of the subway.  In the little cubicle the engineer was steering the subway on its tracks.  The window in the front of the car allowed me to see the pillars and dark channel we traveled on.  There was a certain place there was an S in the tracks.  I remember saying something to one of my friends about the S in the track one time while riding that route, they thought I was talking about a four letter word starting with S and teased me forever about it.  I had ridden many times on that route and in the front car, I just meant the track formed an S.  Sometimes you’d see another subway coming toward you on the parallel track. 

My father knew the subway system like a master navigator.  He knew whether you should be in the front of the car or the middle or back to ease your exit or your transfer.  His last job in NYC put this skill to great use as he worked as a messenger delivering items around the city.  It was a perfect job for him.

This day, as I rode the train home, I was thinking that growing up had its draw backs.  For as long as I could remember, part of our Christmas joy was a trip to Manhattan to the annual Christmas party for the children of employees of Morgan Guaranty Bank.  It seemed this activity knew no class boundaries.  It was probably in the 3rd grade I realized my father was not a banker.  He worked at a bank.  When asked at school, what does your father do for a living or where does he work?  I would reply he’s a banker.  He worked at a bank that made him a banker, right?  No, he was a janitor that worked all night cleaning up after the real bankers.

There was no distinction on those glorious Saturday mornings at Morgan Guaranty Bank.  Like Catholic mass, there were time slots.  We usually went early as my father was excellent at making sure we had tickets for this event.  A trip on the subway, dressed in Christmas finery would take us to Wall Street or some other foreign area.  Arriving at the huge imposing bank, a friendly face would show us to a room where a magician or clown or other type of children’s entertainer would put on a most magnificent show.  When I was about 3 my joy graced the cover of their January employee magazine.  There I was, with my mom and my dad the immigrant janitor on the cover of a banking magazine. 

Once the show was over, we’d go to the cafeteria.  Free food served by smiling employees!   I don’t remember what I would eat, but I do remember the dessert.  It was a roll of vanilla ice cream, the shape of Swiss roll topped with thawed frozen strawberries.  It seemed so decadent to have strawberries and ice cream in early December.  After lunch we would walk through room after room of the most beautiful dolls.  I think back now and think how boring that must have been for the boys.  But for me, a lover of playing with dolls, it was like heaven.  I wanted one of those dolls but I wasn’t disadvantaged enough to have one.  The staff, mostly female staff, of this great bank would work for weeks to dress a doll to give to a somehow disadvantaged child.  I knew I should be thankful I wasn’t that disadvantaged, but at times I wished I were.  I wanted one of those beautiful dolls.

At last we came to the main event.  It was time to see Santa.  As a small child I marveled at the majesty of this Yule King on his throne.  This year, I was 12.  It was my last time to see Santa.  There would be no more Morgan Guaranty Children’s Christmas Parties.  I was officially no longer a child.  I got a board game from Santa.  Gone were the dolls and the toys.  He looked at me and I looked at him.  We both were uncomfortable.  I was becoming a woman.  I had pimples on my forehead and emerging breasts.  Later that day another sign of womanhood visited me.  It was a coming of age day.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

I’ve seen a lot of snow in my life.  As a child, the wonder of snow was real.  It seemed magical as the flakes of white would fall from the sky.  I remember making paper snowflakes in kindergarten.  How magical it was as Mrs. Pellegrino, one of the first pregnant people I ever saw on a daily basis, showed us how to cut with those blunt stubby scissors and make the designs of a snow flake.  She told us that in nature every snowflake was unique.  

She might have even uttered the forbidden word God as she told us this scientific fact.  In those days, we still prayed in school.  Yes, even in NYC we bowed our head and said a generic prayer at the beginning of the school day.  During weekly assembly we would also recite a Psalm from the Holy Bible.  The Psalms were common to all Judeo-Christian faiths.

There was something ethereal about the snow of my childhood.  Full of life and vitality, Brooklyn was noisy.  The cars, the buses, the sounds of the nearby subway, the chatter of people, the sounds of stickball in the street created a cacophony of sounds.  They all stopped or slowed as the snow mounded deeper and deeper.  Cars would disappear under a blanket of white.  The buses would slow and even the subway was muted and hushed. 

Anxious to hear the news that school had been cancelled, the TV or radio would announce the glorious news.  No school today in NYC.  I understand that is a rarity now, but it seemed to happen several times each year when I was a child.  Outside, bundled individuals with shovel in hand would begin digging out.  My father would start with the top of the stoop.  For those of you not from NYC, the stoop is the steps in front of your house.  We had four.  They were broad and wide.  I could jump from the top step to the pavement.  Then would come part of the “arey.”  An arey is the area in front of your house, sometimes bounded by a hedge, other times a fence.  It marked off the area where your living area began.  

Once these areas were clean, the sidewalk was shoveled.  Unlike where I live now, within hours of a snowfall you could safely walk the sidewalk to get to the bus or subway.  It was the law. I never saw the snow police or even heard of them.  People just did what was right.  On many blocks however, there’d be an empty lot.  That patch would remain ice until God melted the snow, or someone decided it was time to chop it away.
In wonder I would watch cars being uncovered.  Completely covered the tank like vehicles of the 50’s and 60’s would slowly reappear, engines started and cars moved.  After a storm alternate street parking was suspended.   Of course one didn’t need their car during the storm, nor did they ever need one.  Thousands of New Yorkers still find a car an unnecessary item.  My parents felt that way and never did we own a car.  What we couldn’t walk to, we could find a bus or subway to take us there. 

I was a sissy child, never one for confrontation or rough play.  This included snowball fights.  I remember building snow forts.  I liked that.  I would occasionally build a snowman in my arey.  Unfortunately, after the snow fort was built the inevitable snowball fight ensued.  I couldn’t throw so my snowballs always missed their intended target.  Worse was, I always got hit.  Usually in each fight someone would be a master at ice balls.  An ice ball is where you put a chunk of ice in the middle of the snowball.  This dangerous weapon would usually involve blood flowing on the fresh white snow and someone taking a trip for stitches.  Fortunately, I avoided that fate.

No this isn't my class nor am I in this picture
Eventually school would be open.  Brooklyn would resume its hustle and bustle.  I would trudge the 6 blocks to PS 94 and have to remove layer upon layer of clothing before reciting the pledge, praying and singing My Country Tis of Thee.  The room was warm; the kindly face of Mrs. Pellegrino told us it was time for work – the work of playing house, building blocks and other such wonders of Kindergarten play.  The windows were decorated with snowflakes made with chubby hands.  It was wonderous.