Thursday, December 25, 2008

"Christmas 1951," a narrative complete in posts and images, below.
Christmas 1951: An Introduction

What follows (in a series of posts punctuated by images) is the latest version of a fictional account, "Christmas 1951."

It is set in 1951 mostly because of the age of the protagonist. It is his last Christmas before starting first grade. But it turns out to be a year for certain other innocences and connections with the past to end, or begin ending. The trolley he rides on will no longer be running by the next Christmas, for instance. Even the city buses will be gone by decade's end.

In 1951, television was becoming part of life. Among the first childhood heroes were Howdy Doody, Captain Video and the cowboy Hopalong Cassidy. William Boyd played Hopalong in movie serials, but hung on to the TV rights. He added scenes and made new episodes, and became the first TV western hero. He also became the first to have lots of products available with his name and image. But even so, there were few if any television commercials for children's toys in 1951 (though lots of premiums you could get by sending in boxtops or the inner seal of an Ovaltine jar). That would change in a big way in a couple of years. There were no chain toy stores, either, and there wouldn't be for quite awhile.

But television was beginning to provide children with narratives, with ways of organizing the life we observed and experienced, and ways to act and think about our actions, in addition to what we learned from parents and family, and later the widening circles of peers and neighborhood, school, church and town, etc. That's beginning to show up in this story.

In western Pennsylvania where this story takes place, it was a time when extended families and ethnic identities were still strong, particularly among Italians. The family is basically my own, and the families of my family. Flora Severini, my mother, was born in Italy, but her younger sister and brother were born in the U.S. My father's family origins are more obscure, but his father and grandfather (first generation American) had been coal miners, and that side of our family had weaker ties to ethnic traditions, though they kept the Christmas ritual of sharing the kind of bread used as the host in the Catholic Mass, which is probably Polish. No one seems to know where that side of the family came from, but Poland had been partioned several times and borders in eastern Europe were fluid, so it's all pretty mysterious still. My father's mother (who died years before I was born) was not Polish, with roots in Slovakia I believe.
The fictitious events and streams of consciousness are informed by memories (mostly but not wholly my own) and by knowledge acquired later, especially about food, games and other rituals of the Christmas season. It's part of a larger narrative, which at this point is seen through the eyes of the young protagonist. That's reflected in the vocabulary as much as anything.  But this version is detailed and not really edited as part of a larger piece, to preserve as much as possible of times and places gone by, and the people in them.
Christmas 1951

Flora had some last minute shopping to do before going to Arnwood to help Mum with Christmas Eve cooking, so Walt came home for a few minutes in the afternoon to pick them up. He was working at the store on Main Street today. She told Billy to call and remind him, and watched as Billy asked the operator for 409, which was the Singer store number. He knew that number and their home number (5329-M). She noticed again that when he put the heavy black phone receiver to his left ear he immediately switched it to his right. She was going to have to ask Dr. Spino about this.

Doris who answered the phone told Billy that Walt was already on his way. Billy went to the picture window to watch for the Singer truck. Sometimes he could spot it at the bottom of the hill, at the corner where they got the green city bus to go into town, or the orange bus that took them to Arnwood.

The window was ringed with the new Christmas bubble lights that Walt bought and that Billy and Kathy would sit and watch. Kathy would soon tire of it, since she was not quite two years old, but Billy could sit there watching for a long time. The lights came on when Walt plugged them in, but it took awhile for them to warm up so that the bubbles started moving, and that’s what the kids waited for. There were green, red, yellow, blue and orange lights, and they began bubbling at different times, so the kids had a good time watching them.

She was getting Kathy into a dress when Billy shouted that daddy was home. Soon she heard the front door open and Walt came into the bedroom. She told him they would be just a few minutes. He took off his coat but didn’t hang it in the closet. He draped it over the back of the couch in the living room. He was wearing his good brown suit today because he was working the floor at the store, and he had on a brown tie only because Flora had prevented him from wearing a blue one. His color blindness was only a problem with dark shades, she noticed. He seemed to be in a good mood, but as soon as he got home he always started feeling tired.

Flora succeeded in getting Kathy’s dress, white socks and white shoes on her before she started fussing, but getting her arms into her winter coat was a struggle. Kathy had worn braces on her legs for a very short time, but when she started walking it was clear that she didn’t need them and her legs were healthy and strong. So already this was a happy Christmas.

Flora got Billy into his coat and hat and gloves, and Walt carried Kathy down to the truck. They didn’t have real steps yet, just piles of big rocks that were flat but ridged, and some moved a little when stepped on. Walt and his brothers and one of the neighbors had built the walk last summer, using rocks the bulldozer had scooped along the hill from the street to just beside the house. Someday this would be their driveway, though now it was just dirt on a hard rocky surface. There was a little snow on the ground, but Walt had brushed most of it off the walk with an old broom this morning, and no more had fallen since.

Flora and Billy went around to the passenger side of the gray panel truck with the red Singer insignia on the side. Billy climbed in first, crawling over the seat and down between the two front seats into the back of the truck, where he sprawled on some old blankets. Then Flora stepped up and sat down, while Walt came around and then handed Kathy to her.

The road down the hill passed bunches of trees and a scattering of houses, then the gas station and the Hudson-Nash showroom, until they came to the corner of Hamilton and West Newton Street, where the many houses were close together and the city of Greenbriar really began. The first few blocks of West Newton Street past the Hamilton corner, still lined with trees but now just a stately single column of them, was a mix of some big stone houses and other smaller wood frame ones, all of them built many years before the war.

Then West Newton Street merged with Pittsburgh Street at the top of the hill that led deeply down and then sharply up like a roller coaster dip, cresting at Main Street, before another steep drop on the other side. There were fewer trees as they started down the hill but they were very tall and pretty. Rich looking, Flora thought. She noticed a little snow on the large rolling lawns in front of the big stone buildings, formerly the mansions of the town’s rich coal barons before they left town altogether, now converted to funeral parlors and the headquarters of an insurance company. There wasn’t much snow, but enough to ensure this would be a white Christmas.
When Billy saw the golden court house dome at the top of the hill he knelt on the hump between the built-in seats of the truck to look at the gray stone courthouse itself, the largest building he had seen so far in his five and a half years.

Just before Main Street, Walt pulled a little ways into an alley to let them out. Once she and Kathy were down, Billy climbed out and watched the truck continue down the alley.

“Where’s daddy going?” he asked.

“Just back to the Singer store,” Flora answered. “We’ll see him there in a little while. We’re going to Royers now. Don’t you want to see the flying bottle?”

For a moment he didn’t know what she meant but the idea urged him forward with her. Kathy wanted down from her arms, and so their progress was slowed by Kathy’s walk. Now Billy was impatient and skipped ahead until he reached the entrance, and waited for them to go in together.

Royers was the smallest, smartest and most expensive of the Main Street department stores, so Flora only bought there what she couldn’t find elsewhere. She’d seen a cashmere scarf she liked on a previous visit and had decided to buy it for her brother Carl. She guided her children to the correct counter and made the purchase. Billy, who was looking at the lit glass cases and holding onto his sister’s hand, heard the sound and quickly looked up, remembering.

He saw the clerk in white shirt and tie wrap the sales slip and its carbon copy with a rubber band and put it in a dull gold colored metal cylinder. Then the clerk opened a lid on a pipe that was the same gold color. As soon as the lid was opened, the cylinder was immediately sucked up and sent whooshing and clattering through the pipe that went up the wall and across the ceiling. “The flying bottle!” Billy cried. Flora smiled as Billy watched for the sales slip to come back through the pneumatic tube and clunk to a stop.

Back outside, they walked past several small shops--Nancy’s, the La Rose Shop, Robertsons-- and the big Joe Workman store. Billy knew which one was Nancy's by its orange facade, because of the radio commercial that fascinated him: several men, singing "That's Nancy, with the orange face," slightly off-key.

Billy asked where they were going next and Flora told him, “Bon Ton’s. Do you know where it is?” Billy looked past the McCory’s five and ten (almost as big as Murphy’s across the street) and the Masons building, and saw the big sign that hung over the sidewalk, with a clock in the first O and a temperature gauge in the second. “Right there!” he cried, pointing up at the sign. Billy knew the sign, a conspicuous landmark on Main Street, but he could also read it. He didn’t quite know how to read, Flora had decided. He knew his letters, and he knew certain familiar words, like Bon Ton and Singer, but she didn’t think he had put the two skills together yet. But he was close, and he wouldn’t start school until next fall.

Flora thought about sending him to kindergarten, but there was only one nearby, and she didn’t know anyone who sent their child there. Since Billy seemed to be learning on his own, and also since he still got upset and sometimes uncontrollable in a crowd of children--who could forget the monumental tantrums he threw at his surprise birthday party in Arnwood last year-- she decided against it. It wasn't worth the money. Her mother agreed, as did Doctor Spino, and so did Walt. Of course, Walt thought nobody needed kindergarten—it was just another way of taking their money.

South Main was the level part of the street that stretched through the middle of town. North of the Court House it began a steep uphill climb, cresting at Holy Sacrament Church and Greenbriar High School, before undulating out of town to become Route 66. But fortunately for Flora—with two kids in tow--most of the stores were down here, between the Court House and the trolley and bus station. That was great for the many shoppers out today, but it wasn’t so good last summer, when Jack’s Run overflowed again. It was hard to even imagine that in August there was so much water farther down South Main that people paddled rowboats in the street. That was all forgotten today, with all the people bundled up in the cold, warmed by each other, smiling a little guiltily because they hadn’t finished their shopping yet, as they hurried by the Christmas lights and decorations in the store windows.

By the time they got inside Bon Ton, Kathy was fussing. Royers had been pretty crowded but it was always kind of quiet in there. But the Bon Ton was very crowded and loud. There were no rugs on the shiny wood and stone floors, and the ceilings were higher. She promised Billy some ice cream if he would help her with Kathy while she looked at lined leather gloves for dad. She talked with a clerk at the men’s gloves counter while Billy stood nearby with Kathy looking at the lights on a Christmas tree, telling her the colors. He would point, say the color, and she would repeat it. Then he pointed and waited. She cried out the names of colors. Flora looked back once in awhile. Kathy seemed to know red but her other choices were guesses, and when she was wrong and Billy laughed, she would repeat the guess to make him laugh again.

But they both soon tired of this game, and Flora hadn’t found what she was looking for, at least not at the price she thought reasonable, so they crossed the short side street to Troutman’s, the biggest department store in town. She thought about taking them up to the third floor to see Santa, but Kathy had been frightened by the big man in the bright red suit when they were here a few weeks before, so she didn’t mention it, and they stayed on the first floor.

While she held Kathy and bought a pair of gloves--they weren’t much cheaper or any nicer than at Bon Ton’s but she was ready to give up--Billy stood looking through the glass doors across Main Street where he saw the Singer sign. She thought this would entice him, but when she started to move that way he reminded her about the ice cream. She sighed and changed direction, going back out the side door and down some steps to the little diner below street level called “The Chat & Chew.” She immediately regretted it, for the narrow diner was crowded and so hot that the glass windows were steamed up. But Billy was fascinated with the idea of being below the street and wanted to stay. He was just starting to work up to a tantrum when a booth became available and they all sat down.

Flora was impatient. It was silly promising ice cream when they would all be stuffing themselves for the next couple of weeks, and they would have cookies and candy within all too easy reach most of the time. Besides, it would just make them cold. And it was getting late. Mum would be beside herself trying to get everything done.

She tried to urge Billy along but he was still more interested in looking around in the diner, and especially looking up at the legs of people walking by on the sidewalk. His dish of chocolate ice cream sat melting, but when she mentioned it, he attacked it with intent to finish it all. Kathy was also absorbed in looking around, so a few spoonfuls seemed enough for her.

At last she got them buttoned up and ready to go out again. They crossed Main Street to the Singer store. As soon as they got inside the door, Kathy ran across the carpeted floor. There weren’t many customers and everyone who worked there knew them. Doris, who seemed to be there all the time, made a fuss over Kathy while Billy stood quietly looking around. Walt wasn’t out on the floor. He could be downstairs in the shop or more likely in the back with a favored customer, sipping some holiday whiskey. But Doris’ loud praise and Kathy’s laughter must have alerted him, and he came out. Billy, who had been so eager to come here, hardly moved. Flora exchanged greetings with Ronnie Walsh, who said he and his wife Reenie would drop by, probably on the weekend. This would be the first Christmas season Flora was able to entertain visitors in her new home. Although she and Walt had spent an evening at the homes of a few of his coworkers and their wives, like Ronnie and Reenie, they had not yet hosted any. Now they could.

They would still do a lot of visiting between now and New Year’s. All her mother’s friends expected it. The kids didn’t seem to mind. They liked going to Ronnie and Reenie’s for some reason. Kathy seemed fascinated with their fish tank. Well, it was different.

Flora talked quietly with Walt. He confirmed that he would have to stay to close up, since the manager had the day off and the assistant manager left early. Ronnie, the only other salesman there today, had the longer drive home. She reminded him that they were eating early so that they could go see his family afterwards. She gave him her packages to put in the truck, and gathered her children for the trolley ride to Arnwood.

They walked down past the public library and crossed South Main Street again to the trolley and bus station. Billy wanted to go inside—he seemed fascinated with the large waiting room—but the trolley car came right away, Number 220. She picked Kathy up and hurried Billy along, asking him if he knew what the words on the side of the trolley said. She thought he might know “West Penn” but he pretended he didn’t hear her.

But both kids liked riding the trolley, and the six mile ride didn’t take much longer than by car. After awhile the trolley ran alongside the railroad tracks, which Billy really liked. He loved trains, and wished aloud that they would see one go by. Flora was just as glad none did, for she was grateful for the quiet. There were enough seats for everyone on the trolley, and it was a quiet ride. Snow streaked the grass and clung especially to the trees higher up the hills they passed. The route itself was very flat. Soon they started passing standing coal cars and box cars that meant they were nearing the rail yards of Arnwood, and soon after, Depot Street.

When the trolley stopped near Depot Street, Billy wanted to stay on long enough to see the conductor take him stool from one end of the trolley car to the other for the return trip, but Flora told him they had to get off now or they would have to go back, and he wouldn’t get any of the jumbalones grandma had made this morning. So they got up and walked in the cold and cloudy afternoon across the black coal cinders, onto the short border of grass and then onto the sidewalk, up Depot Street.
Billy Boy!” grandma cried and gave him a big hug and kiss. First it felt warm and then too hot and he wriggled away. Pup pup was standing behind her at the door and he laughed. Pup pup's face was scratchy when Billy kissed him. He smelled like his after shave, Old Spice, which came in a white bottle that they got him for Christmas. Daddy's aftershave was in a green bottle, it was Mennen.

Mummy and Kathy were coming in behind him. “Close the door, close the door!” grandma said to them. “You want all the cold get in and all the warm get out?” She looked at Billy, so he shook his head. Then she laughed and hugged him again, until he ran ahead.

He ran down the hall, and looked into the living room when he heard voices. The room was darker than outside except around the lamps, the big one standing by the chair and the radio with the red shade, and the lamp on the table in the corner with the orange shade that looked like an umbrella with pictures on it. One of the end tables was gone and in its place was a Christmas tree. Billy was looking for Uncle Carl but he didn’t see him. He looked especially at the big black piano. Instead there were three people standing looking at him. He knew them. They were sort of aunts and uncles but older like grandma and pup up.

“Who’s that?” Mr. DisPasquale said. "Is that Billy? Hey, Wolule--que ce dice?”
“Look at him! He’s so big!” Mrs. DiPasquale sang. “And so fair! Look at him!”
“He still looks like Flora,” Mrs. Gelfo said.
“Oh, yes,” Mrs. DiPasquale agreed.
“Have you been a good boy?” Mrs. DiPasqaule said. “Are you going to get lots of Christmas presents from Santa Claus?”
“Or just a lump of coal?” Mr. Depasquale said just as pup pup came in, and they laughed.
“Of course he’s a good boy,” Mrs. Gelfo said.
“He’s my Billy boy!” grandma said. She looked like she would hug him again but he got away, and they all laughed. But by then they were all making a loud fuss over Kathy, and saying how big she was, too.

He left the noise and looked around the dining room. It was dark, too. All the wood was dark and shiny--the doors, the big dining room table, the cabinets and the wood around the fireplace--and he could smell the polish. There was a string of Christmas lights across the mantle, but they weren’t on. There were just the little gas flames of two lamps with their curved glass covers, up on the cabinet with the drawers he could now reach.

But in the small kitchen the big light was on, and it was bright. Billy looked in. There were trays and dishes on the table but it was all stuff grandma was getting ready to cook.

Now everyone was coming into the dining room so Billy turned around and stood by the table.

Grandma was saying something in Italian and Mr. DePasquale--his name was Vince, Billy remembered--said something back and shook his head. “No, no,” he finally said. “We have to go now. You’re busy, everybody’s got to cook, so we go.”

“We just dropped by to bring some olive oil we got in Pittsburgh,” Mrs. Depasquale explained to Flora. “We weren’t gonna stay. But you come by on Wednesday, we’ll be home.” Flora nodded and smiled. Today was Monday and Christmas was Tuesday. They were for immediate family. The day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, was the day for visiting friends and relatives.

They were all standing near the small doorway to the hall so Billy outsmarted them like Hopalong Cassidy and went past the dining room table and into the living room the other way, through the big opening, past the big radio. He headed straight for the candy dish on the coffee table. But mummy saw him.

“Just one!” she said. So he took one silver wrapped Hershey's kiss, unwrapped it and ate it as they all kept talking and walking towards the front door. Mrs. DiPasquale and Mrs. Gelfo were nice but they were big and their flowery dresses smelled like lots of perfume and powder. He had been to Mr and Mrs Gelfo’s house. They had a bowl with goldfish in it. Mrs. Gelfo wore thick glasses so her eyes were real big, and looked like two brown fishes swimming in a goldfish bowl.

As soon as they left, Billy asked grandma, “Where’s Uncle Carl?”

“Up the street,” she said. Then she turned to Flora and said something in Italian.

“He’s up at the high school playing basketball,” Flora said. “He’ll be home soon.”

“Maybe you like some jumbalone?” grandma said, and laughed when Billy nodded his head vigorously.

She took Billy into the kitchen and pulled down the silver cookie jar from atop the refrigerator. Inside were the jumbalone. More Italian foods were being sold in stores now, but Flora still hadn’t seen anything like her mother’s jumbalone. They were cookies but with a cake-like quality, shaped like figure eights and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Jumbalone could also be made like a cake in a pan, which is how Ant liked to make it. She put chocolate chips in hers. Flora made hers like this, but no one could get the shapes exactly as mum did, nor did anyone’s taste quite like hers. She suspected that when mum passed on her recipes she always left something out. One evening as they washed dishes Flora suggested this to mum. She didn’t deny it. “ Maybe I want people to like mine best,” she’d said.

Flora put Kathy in the high chair that was kept there for the latest grandchild to need it--first Billy, then Ant’s boy Dickie, then Kathy, and now Ant’s second child, also a boy, also named Billy, after his father. Dad would watch the kids as they had their jumbalones and milk, while Flora went down to the basement with mum to finish preparations for dinner.

As she made her way down the linoleum covered wooden steps, the smells from below rose up to meet her. These were the smells she’d known since her childhood-- flour and the other ingredients of the pasta in the big bowls on the table, the tomato sauce simmering on the stove, the fish baking and broiling in the two ancient ovens. She couldn’t remember very much as far back as when she was Billy’s age--her first clear memories were of the house on Stone St. in Greenbriar, and mostly of this house--but these smells were eternal.

This was the Christmas vigil dinner, and no meat was served, and it was the one day of the year when mum served seafood in such profusion. In quick Italian Mum brought Flora up to date on the progress of tonight's dishes, while she rolled out pasta dough on the wood table in the center of the room. She’d already made the spaghetti for tonight that would be served with fish sauce, and now it was time to make the ravioli for tomorrow.

Thin strips of cod were in the roasting pan soaking in water to draw the salt out. By the time they swelled to a half inch thick, they would be ready to broil to make baccala. This was Flora’s first task--she saw they were ready and so she got rid of the water and put them in the broiler. At the same time, she put in the spots of black cod for the antipasto.

The calamari was already made, and no one but mum touched the eel. Almost no one but mum and dad ate it, either, but she always made it. The cod dipped in batter and fried was served cold, so it was also done and in the refrigerator upstairs. There was cod baking in the oven, some in red and some in white sauce. More cod would be fried in bread crumbs and herbs, and this would be served hot. Flora set about cutting the cauliflower which would also be fried in bread crumbs. So would the smelts, the smallest and tastiest of the fish. Mum checked the sauce for the spaghetti--it was almost done, and ready to be flavored with tuna instead of meat.

By the time Flora went back upstairs to see to the relish trays, the kids were in the living room with dad. He had the record player on, playing a Sousa march which was his favorite music, and he was holding Kathy while dancing a little dance. As Flora got closer she saw that he had a red cherry wrapped behind each ear by its stem. This man who was so modest and dignified, and except for his occasional flares of rapid and seemingly angry speech, so quiet, was showing a side of himself to his grandchildren that even Flora had forgotten.

Billy sat in his grandfather’s chair, trying to keep his grandfather’s curved stem pipe in his mouth while laughing. Kathy was ecstatic. Flora checked herself from worrying about Billy choking and Kathy becoming overexcited and unmanageable. It was Christmas, after all. She watched for a moment from the dining room and then went into the small kitchen and turned on the bright florescent light.

When the front door opened she thought it might be Walt but then remembered that he always rang the doorbell first before walking in. It was Carl, who bounded upstairs to wash up.

As Flora washed the vegetables and the fruit, she heard the marches stop and the radio go on. Perry Como was singing “The First Noel.” Mum and dad didn’t have a television set yet, though mum was talking about getting one. At the Gelfos last night she had seen “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a new opera by Menotti written especially for NBC television. “Ah, Flor, so beautiful!” But of course she talked about getting the TV so the grandchildren could watch.

Then she heard Frank Sinatra singing “White Christmas.” So many Italians on the radio, and now on television. Even some songs in Italian, like that Julius LaRosa song that mum sang with Billy on her knee. Or Rosemary Clooney--she had a big hit with “Come on a My House” which wasn’t in Italian but she used an Italian accent. And she wasn't Italian either but at least she was Catholic. Now that Flora knew neighbors who weren’t Italian or even Catholic, and some of the couples from Singer’s, she was more aware of how their close world was getting to be part of the bigger one, even as more of them were moving away from it.

Billy wandered into the kitchen just as Carl came downstairs. Carl ruffled his hair as Billy looked up at him. Uncle Carl was the tallest man Billy knew. He watched in awe as Carl filled a tumbler full of water from the sink and drank it down without stopping. Then Carl showed mummy the elastic band pup pup made for his glasses so they wouldn’t fall off when he played basketball. Billy wanted to ask Uncle Carl if he was going to play the piano, but his mother and his uncle were talking and he knew he shouldn’t interrupt. Flora saw Billy standing in the kitchen doorway looking doleful and suggested that he go downstairs to help grandma.

That was a good idea so he headed that way--”Don’t run down the stairs!”--mummy called after him. “I won’t!” he cried. The steps down to grandma’s cellar were a little big and hard anyway so he took them one foot at a time until he was almost at the end, then he hopped the last two steps and down to the floor. On the way down he saw the green bottles of Seven Up lined up along the dark wall next to the crooked stairs.

“Billy boy! You come help grandma?” He said yes but there was nothing to do but watch. He wondered at how this dough became the ravioli he would eat tomorrow, so he watched carefully. But it took too long and he got restless.

“Be careful, no touch the stove or oven,” she warned him. “Very hot. Burn.” He looked at the big black and white ovens and walked carefully by them. He climbed up the big step to the part of the cellar where the furnace was, and even though it was pretty dark in there he could see the cubes of black coal, with little gleaming spots coming from some of the top ones. He hopped right back down again and went to look in the part on the other side of the big center room, which was where the lawn mower and other tools were, and the door to the outside and the cement steps up to the little backyard and the long garden. It was too cold to go out without a coat, and the door was shut tight.

Billy came back into the center room and looked up at the big cabinets that held row after row of big jars. Grandma put stuff in the jars and kept them there, so she wouldn’t have to go to the store all the time. That’s what mummy said. He couldn’t see what was in the jars and they scared him a little.

“So you watch Christmas story on television?” she asked him. “With Baby Jesus, and Wise Men sing to him?”

Billy shrugged.

“No? You no remember? Last night? Maybe was on too late for you, huh?”

“I remember--a little bit.”

“So, you see, yes? Beautiful sing. What else you see? You see Santa Claus?”

“Yes. On Howdy Doody.”

“ Oh, boy! You see Santa Claus on Howdy Doody?”

Billy nodded and told grandma the story. “Howdy and Buffalo Bob and Clarabell went in a rocket ship to Santa’s workshop, but there was a bad guy--Ugly Sam--and he had Santa tied up.”

“Oh! No.”

“But he didn’t know it was Santa. He thought it was the Bearded Bandit. But it was really Santa. And Clarabell fell down and hit the Jack in the Box, and Howdy showed Ugly Sam that it was really Santa and he untied him.”

“So Santa okay now?”


“You think he come tonight?”

Billy was startled. Wasn’t he supposed to come tonight?

“I think he come tonight,” grandma said as she cut more dough with the little roller she had. “Bring presents to good girl and boy. You been good boy this year? Listen to your mother?”

“Yes, I guess,” Billy said, but he wasn’t sure what being good meant. Did it mean all the time? He wasn’t good all the time.

“Sure you good boy,” grandma said. “I know. Santa Claus gonna come.”

Even in the basement they could hear the doorbell ring.

“Who do you think is?” grandma asked. “Go see.” She wiped her hands on her white apron. “I come, too. Pretty soon we eat. You hungry?”

Billy shook his head up and down and made his eyes big. Grandma laughed.

When Billy got upstairs, daddy was in the kitchen with mummy, but when he saw grandma coming he went into the living room. Billy followed him. Daddy said hello to pup up and got the newspaper and sat in pup pup’s chair to read it. Billy went and sat on the couch with pup pup and Kathy. Kathy was sleeping. He and pup pup talked quietly about what to leave for Santa that night. Pup pup said if he left a cup of cocoa and some cookies, Santa would be grateful because he had a hard night going around to all the houses on his sleigh and going down chimneys and back up again. Billy thought it was a good idea and went to tell mummy.

Flora was setting the table and smiled when Billy asked her if they could do what pup pup said. “Yes, that’s what we used to do,” she said. “Although I’m not sure Santa likes cocoa anymore.” When she said that grandma laughed. She was putting dishes of food on the table.

“Is it time now?” Billy asked.

“Yes, I think it is,” Flora said. She saw that Billy was already standing in front of the china cabinet and looking inside. She opened the door for him and he reached in and took the small silver bell. He stood by the table and rang it, back and forth, back and forth. It was his job.

Flora put the bell back in the cabinet as Walt came in from the living room, followed by her father who was carrying Kathy, now awake. Billy found his place at the table. He was left-handed so he sat at the far left side, nearest his grandfather. His grandmother sat on the opposite end. Walt sat next to Billy, then Carl. Flora sat on the other side, nearest the kitchen, with Kathy in the high chair next to her. Carl said grace and the meal began.

Pup-up and daddy drank red wine out of little glasses. Billy had the same kind of glass but he drank 7 Up. Plates and bowls began to circulate, but Billy didn’t eat much of what was in them. Grandma had made him a special napkin to wear, with two strings that tied around his neck. Now she brought the big bowl of spaghetti and he ate plenty of that. He was still eating spaghetti when the plates of different kinds of fish were passed around. He liked the kind that was in the spaghetti sauce, although that wasn’t as good as meatballs. He didn’t like what was in the other kinds of sauce, but he ate some of the cold fish and especially the fried fish that tasted like the fish sandwiches daddy brought home sometimes on Fridays. The kind he liked best were the little fish, so mummy cut them up and took out the bones.

Daddy didn’t eat much fish either, not even as much as he did. The others teased him.

“Come on, Walt,” grandma said. “Why you no like?”

“That’s squid, mum,” he said.

“He doesn’t even eat fish usually,” Flora explained, then said to Walt, “It’s mostly breading inside with some spices, it's in tomato sauce. It doesn’t taste like fish. ”

“No, it tastes like squid,” Walt said.

“Hey, Walt, you work today?” pup pup said.

“That’s right, worked in the store.”

“They make you work on Christmas Eve?” grandma said.

“ People shop on Christmas Eve,” Walt said. “So somebody has to work. What am I going to do, say no? Truman fired General MacArthur, mum.”

Flora gave him a funny look. “What’s that have to do with anything?” she said.

“Anybody can get fired, “Walt said.

“T’a me,” was all that grandma said, but they all knew--even Billy--that it was short for poveta me, or ‘poor me.’ “I no think Truman fire you.”

Uncle Carl didn’t talk much, he just ate. Then he got up, said goodbye to everyone and disappeared upstairs.

“Where’d Uncle Carl go?” Billy asked.

“He goes see his friends,” grandma said. “You see him again tomorrow.”

Mummy took Billy’s plate away and grandma asked who wanted Jell-o with whipped cream on top, and Billy said, “Me! Me!”

Billy was still eating his Jell-O when everyone else left the table. Walt took Kathy into the living room while Flora hurried to help her mother with the dishes. Pup pup came back with a deck of Old Maid cards, and he and Billy played for awhile. Then grandma hurried into the living room and turned on the radio. It was seven o’clock and time for the rosary.

The radio was big and brown like the furniture, and the record player was inside it. It had lots of buttons on the front all in a row, and a dial that glowed when the radio was on. There was a kind of ribbon of wood underneath the buttons and he liked to rub his hand along it like it was a real little fence, and his finger rode along the bumps. He wasn’t allowed to touch the buttons because he might change the station, but he was allowed to touch the wood, so he did.

But now everybody had to be quiet for the rosary. All the lights were out in the living room except for the little candle glowing red—it looked like Billy's Seven-Up glass except a little smaller. Grandma sat on the stool near the radio and turned it up loud so they all could hear the priest saying the prayers. The priest said part of every prayer and a lot of people said the second part together. The priest had a funny way of saying Jesus at the end of his part, but he said it the same way every time: Je-ZUZ. Then the people in the church would answer.

After the rosary was over pup pup turned on all the Christmas lights. They were red and green, white and blue. He turned on the ones outside, too. There were three candles in the window that were really electric lights, too.

The big people drank coffee and mummy told Billy it was time to go to United so he should go up to the bathroom now, but he said he didn’t have to go. They got their coats on and Billy kissed grandma and pup pup goodbye. While he stood in the hallway and waited for mummy to finish talking to them, he looked back at the Christmas tree. Tomorrow there would be presents under it for him.
They rode through the dark to United, along winding roads with rounded hills occasionally outlined in dimly seen snow. Billy watched the roads and tried to recognize where they were going, but apart from the darkness he didn’t take this ride enough to remember it. He knew the route to Arnwood pretty well but not this one. When they suddenly slowed down and turned down a road with houses around it he was surprised. When they got out of the car, mummy pointed high behind them. “Look, Billy,” she said. “You can see the coke ovens.”

“Where? Where?” he cried and then he saw the orange glows in the distance.

“You can see them better on the way home. We’ll pass a little closer.”

They were parked on the hard black coal dust in front of Uncle Bug’s yellow, one- story wood frame house. But only the Christmas lights were on there. Instead they walked up the dark brick walk to the tall gray wood house where Aunt Beatty and Uncle Joe lived with his other grandfather, granpap. Inside were Uncle Bugs and Aunt Rella and their daughter, Beverly, who was Billy’s age. Uncle Bill and Aunt Carmella were there, too. They had a baby, a girl, named Carmen. Aunt Beatty had a baby, too, another girl, also named Kathy. Everyone said hello to him, and said how big he was getting.

Uncle Bugs and Aunt Rella were the nicest ones, though Aunt Rella talked really loud sometimes. But she laughed a lot, too. Uncle Bill and Aunt Carmella talked a lot, and so did daddy when he was with big people, but Aunt Beatty and Uncle Joe were quiet. They kept their heads down and didn’t move them much, they just moved their eyes.

After a little while, Walt took Billy down to the basement where granpap was. Granpap was very glad to see him. He had shiny black and gray hair, and when he smiled Billy saw gaps in his teeth. He looked at Billy a long time, his eyes shining and his face all bright. Then he joked back and forth with Walt while Billy looked around. There wasn’t much to see, and the ceiling was even lower than upstairs. Pretty soon they went back up.

The adults sat and stood in the kitchen talking with one another and it was not long before Billy was restless. He sat for awhile by himself in the living room, looking up at the low ceilings. His cousin Beverly didn’t talk to him but stayed with her mother and the babies. There was nothing to do and no one to talk to. By now he had to go to the bathroom, but it was a long time before his father would take him out to the outhouse. It was dark and cold and he was a little frightened, but he was glad he only had to do number one.

Daddy said he was old enough to go by himself but he would watch him from the door. He had his coat on but it was still cold. The porch light didn't go the whole way but almost. He opened the outhouse door and it was dark and smelly inside. He went as fast as he could. On the way back up the walk he could see daddy in the door, looking behind him and then looking out towards him. When he got back inside he noticed the pump that was now inside the house. Grandma in Youngwood had a pump outside in the back, but it was just for watering the garden. Here it was where all the water came from.

The adults were sitting around the kitchen table playing canasta and talking. He watched them for awhile.

“So does Santa know you’re living upstairs now?” Uncle Bugs asked him.

Billy wondered that, too. “Yes, he does,” Flora said. “We wrote to him, didn’t we, Billy? And now we have a real chimney for him to come down.”

“Is Father Stephen coming around this year? I mean, the Star Man?” Uncle Bill asked as they played.

“Father Stephen isn’t here anymore,” Uncle Joe said. “Not for a couple of years. The new one doesn’t do it.”

“He scared the hell out of me when I was a kid,” Uncle Bugs said. “With that big hat and long robe. I never knew the answers, either.”

“Well, he shoulda asked you about rabbit hunting, not religion,” Uncle Bill said. “You got the candy anyway, didn’t you?”

“He scared me, too,” Aunt Beatty said, “but still, it was kind of nice. The altar boys carrying that lantern with all the stars, you know, cut out so the light came through.”

“Hey, Billy, what does your other grandfather tell you about--whatshername--Befana?”

Billy looked at his mother but she was looking at Uncle Bill.

“Just what are you talking about, Bill?” Aunt Carmella said. “What do you know about Italian things?”

“I work with Italians,” he said. “This one guy told me that when he was little his mum and dad used to scare the shit out of him talking about Befana--or something like that. A witch. An old witch who comes down the chimney and leaves sacks of ashes and coal for bad kids.”

“That’s terrible,” Aunt Rella said. “Terrible thing to tell a kid on Christmas.”

“So?” Uncle Bill said. “I didn’t make it up. This guy told me.”

“Well, he must be Sicilian,” Flora said, and they all laughed.

Then Billy’s grandfather came up from the basement where he stayed most of the time and everyone gathered around the kitchen table, even Beverly. They all had little glasses and drank a toast. Billy’s glass had root beer in it. Then a big, very thin white wafer was passed around. Everyone wished each other a merry Christmas as they broke off a little piece of it and ate it. They said it was bread but to Billy it tasted like cardboard.

Then it was time to go. Flora got Kathy from the bed upstairs where she’d been sleeping. Kathy cried a little when Flora got her into her coat, but she fell asleep again as soon as the car started up. Billy was almost asleep himself when he suddenly looked up to see the coke ovens glowing on the mountain. It was like orange fires in caves, but all the same size. He watched until he couldn’t see them anymore. He felt himself falling asleep for sure now, but before he did he reminded mummy about the cocoa and cookies for Santa. She said she would remember.
Billy awoke early the next morning in his own bed in his own room. He wondered if it was too early, but he was awake right away. He had a double bed, his mother had told him, because someday he might have a brother. Kathy had her own room, too, but she slept in a crib that mummy said had been his. Kathy is still a baby, just learning things. He has to help her once in awhile because he is older. She is too little to understand what today is. He is going to go to school after the next summer. He thought about that more and more.

The sun was on the other side of the house, but he could see out his own window that it was day. He got up, opened his door and listened. Everybody else was still asleep. He went into the hall and towards the light coming through the picture window into the living room. He saw the tree in the corner, the same as yesterday. And he saw what was different: the packages under the tree.

His eyes immediately went to something that wasn’t wrapped. That meant it was from Santa Claus, mummy told him. It was large, a kind of box, yellow, with blue and red lettering. He knelt down to touch it. The surface was slightly rough. He opened the top. Inside the cover had a red and white stripped picture of Howdy Doody, and then he saw what it was: a phonograph. A Howdy Doody Phono-Doodle.

He ran to get his records. His big record, Tubby the Tuba, was already scratched and worn from use. He had other little records, some bought for him but most that used to be mummy’s and she gave him or let him play. But when he got them he couldn’t play them. Everybody else was still asleep.

He stood up, not knowing what to do. It was then that he saw it on the coffee table: an empty cup with a brown ring around the inside, and a saucer with a little bit of a cookie left on it.

Flora heard Billy in the living room, and not wanting to miss his discovery of his presents, she poked Walt once and got up. To her surprise, he started getting up, too.

As she wrapped the robe around her she glanced out the picture window. It looked cold, but there weren’t as many clouds as yesterday. It was going to be a sunny Christmas.

As Billy found more toys—a Hopalong Cassidy gun and holster set, a cowboy hat and a tin painted gas station--he turned around to see his mummy and daddy in their robes sitting down on the sofa. Mummy smiled at him, and daddy did too, sometimes.

He watched mummy show Kathy her toys—a big yellow duck on a string caught his eye, but mostly he was waiting to open his packages from mummy and daddy, and the ones that Ant Toni had sent. They were mostly all clothes. He went through them fast but mummy wanted to see everything. Then mummy gathered up the paper and put it in a bag. “Are we going to have a fire in the fireplace?” Billy asked. “Not today,” she said. “But sometime this week.” At Thanksgiving, daddy made a fire and put something extra in it that made colors in the flames, like green and blue. He liked looking at the fire anyway, though he was careful not to get too close. But he liked looking for those colors, flickering bright and disappearing.

When mummy went into the kitchen to make coffee, daddy showed him how to work the phonograph. Pretty soon he was playing a new little record, all red, of Gene Autry singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He wanted to play more but mummy said it was time to eat breakfast and get ready for church.

There were mostly big people in church, and they stood and knelt and sat at different times, all together. Billy had been to church before but he was more interested today because he understood that the church they went to was downstairs from the school where he might be going. Sometimes Billy could see the priest and the altar boys and sometimes he couldn’t. But he could always see the six candles lit above the altar, and he heard the organist singing. She sang in Latin. He didn’t understand her, but as the Mass went on and on, he began to make up a story to the way the words sounded. It was about a mother telling her boy to do something. First she called him--
Agnus Dei
I thought I told you, she said:
qui tolis pecatta mundi
and the boy answers no--
me say ray ray no bis
--maybe because he didn’t hear her.

They went from church down to Arnwood. The sun glinted off the snow, though there were patches of brown peeking through. Flora listened as the radio in the Singer truck said there was more snow was on the way, maybe even tonight. She would keep an eye on the weather and try to get them home before it started. She didn’t want to get stuck on the road with two sleepy, stuffed and cranky kids.

The big meal on Christmas day was just after noon. Although Christmas Eve was more elaborate, there was still plenty to do for Christmas Day, especially since mum saved the best desserts for then. They would be eating all day, but first everything had to be made ready.

But mum and dad had presents for the kids, and they stopped their preparations to watch them. Billy was so completely amazed by the Hopalong Cassidy cowboy outfit mum and dad gave him. There were pictures of Hopalong Cassidy on the western style shirt, and a picture of him on his horse with a lariat that spelled out Hoppalong Cassidy on the chap-style pants. They even got him a pair of black cowboy boots to go with it. Knowing this, Flora had brought along his cowboy hat and guns and holster set. Billy ran upstairs to change out of his church clothes and into the cowboy suit.

When he came downstairs, his grandfather greeted him. “Hey! It’s Hopalong Que-ce-dice!” Everybody laughed, as Billy drew his guns.

Her grandmother held Kathy, who gripped her new stuffed doggie and kicked her legs in excitement. She wriggled until she got down, and pup pup got his camera. Walt pulled the piano bench in front of the Christmas tree. Billy sat down with Kathy on his lap. Billy held her with one hand, and pointed a gun at the camera with the other.

Mum asked her about the morning. Flora told her about the phonograph. “He knows the names of all my records,” she said, explaining why she got it for him. “Even the instrumentals. I don’t know how.”

Uncle Carl came downstairs and after they had opened all their presents, Billy asked if he was going to play the piano. So he sat down and played some Christmas carols. His hands and long fingers moved fast across the keys. Somehow they were making the music he heard but he couldn't keep up with Uncle Carl's hands. Sometimes it looked like the keys were still moving by themselves after Uncle Carl's fingers were already gone.

Then after he stopped, he and Kathy were left alone in the living room for awhile until mummy came back in from the kitchen and told them pup pup was taking them for a walk and when they got back it would be time to eat. She bundled them up and they went outside with pup pup. They were going to walk down to the railroad tracks. They went slow because of Kathy. Pup pup kept hold of her hand so she couldn’t try to run after Billy, but pup up didn’t want him to run too far ahead either, so he kept circling back. That was until they got to the end of the street, past where Timmy and Mary Ann lived.

Then pup pup said Billy had to hold his other hand because they were crossing over the railroad tracks. Then they got to the trolley tracks but to Billy’s amazement they didn’t turn back. They were going on to the stone bridge over the little creek. They stood on the bridge and Billy looked down, but mostly he looked beyond. On the other side of the bridge there was only the road disappearing into the trees. There was heavy brush there. In the summer when he stayed over at grandma’s he could hear strange sounds that grandma said were frogs. Those frogs lived in the brush there, pup pup said. Billy looked at it, trying to imagine what wild animals might be in there and in the woods beyond. This was as close as he had been.

As they walked back to the house Billy wondered if they would go past it, and up the street to where the drug store and the other ice cream places were. Pup pup took them there in the summer, when his cousin Dicky was here. But this time when they got to the house they went inside.

Dinner began with mum’s soup, the only kind of soup she ever served. Some people called it wedding soup, but hers was a little different, and it was another one of those things she never gave a completely accurate recipe for, Flora thought. She knew it had egg, endive and little meat balls, but Flora never attempted to make it herself. Her mother was just too vague about how it was done.

Then came the homemade ravioli with homemade sauce. Some were filled with cheese, others with meat. Billy cheerfully had several helpings at the smiling insistence of his grandmother. Anything less than several helpings she treated as an insult. Plates of meat balls and roast beef in the same meat sauce were passed around and then kept on the table. Another plate of meat balls without sauce made the rounds.

Then the roast chicken, roast potatoes and carrots. Side dishes appeared. Of these, Billy liked the breaded veal cutlets the best. He also liked salad, which he especially enjoyed with his chicken and cutlets. He didn't eat much of the cooked vegetables, Flora noticed.

Then came the coffee and the sponge cake, the Christmas pannettone, a yeasty, egg cake that Flora’s mother still made herself, even though you could buy it now. There were piles of pizelles, which they had spent hours that morning making downstairs with two large black pizelle irons held over the burners of the stove. There were single pizzelles, some brownish, some light and crumbly. Some had an almond taste, some tasted of vanilla, and some of anise. Some were made into sandwiches with a fig paste between two pizelles.

But now specialty cookies could be more easily bought in nearby stores, some baked in Pittsburgh or closer, and some imported from Italy. The hard and the soft biscotti were easy to find, and assortments of small cookies that appeared at various times of the year. But the imported cantuccini sapori-- the chocolate covered cookie with hazlenuts inside--and the torrone--nougat candy in flavors of vanilla, lemon and orange--were only for Christmas.

And of course, the jello. Even after all that food, Mum was still insulted if everyone didn’t eat the Jell-O.

All day the cookies and candies stayed on the dining room table. Flora put some of her cookie out, too--the snicker doodles, the Christmas sugar cookies in different shapes decorated with icings with different food coloring. Ant was even represented with the nut roll she’d made and sent through the mail.

Late in the afternoon and in the evening they would crack walnuts and hazelnuts. There was always fruit--pears, apples, oranges and tangerines. Billy liked the tangerines best, and then the pears. The relish tray also reappeared, with a special addition next to the celery: fresh anise, which looked just like celery but had its own particular flavor. Billy tried it, and seemed to like it.

He also liked to look at the pictures on the little torrone boxes, of the hand colored cameos of women with the blue ribbons in their hair and men with red vests and bow tie, and the scenes on the other side, of statues and buildings against white clouds and blue sky, or a scene Billy said was of pirates, but that was because the man wore an open blue shirt and white pants with high black boots that Billy only knew from pirate tales on TV.

After dinner, as dad and Walt dozed in the living room and Kathy had her nap while Flora and mum cleaned up, Billy was sent off to the movies with two neighbor kids, Timmy and Mary Ann. Pup pup gave him a nickel for his admission, and he gave nickels to Timmy and Mary Ann for taking him. They walked up the street, and down to where Billy had never been except to go to the movies, though it wasn’t far to walk.

“What they see today?” mum asked as they washed and dried the dishes.

“Cinderella,” Flora said. “ The Walt Disney cartoon.”

“Yes, I hear about it,” mum said. “suppose to be good. Lots music.”

“Yes, that ‘Bibbety Boppity Boo’ song is in it. I hope they don’t make it too scary. When Billy saw “Sleeping Beauty” the witch and her poisoned apple really scared him. That’s when he started imagining the mirror upstairs was a monster’s face.”

When Billy got home from the movies, his eyes full of color and head full of songs, everybody was in the dining room playing a game. He thought it was cards but it wasn’t. Everybody had a cardboard square.

“It’s called Tombala,” mummy explained. “It’s like bingo. You’ve never seen it before--or you don’t remember seeing it--because we only play it on Christmas.”

Kathy was sitting on mummy's lap watching but then she tried to get down. Mummy held her and began to bounce her up and down and sang to her:
How much is that doggie in the window
Woof! Woof!
The one with the scraggily tail?
How much is that doggie in the window
I do hope that doggie's for sale.

Kathy laughed. When mummy stopped to play the game Billy began singing, imitating Jimmy Durante shaking his head and singing Inka Dinka Do. Everybody in the family liked Jimmy Durante. Billy watched him every time he was on Colgate Comedy Hour (though he usually hoped for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.) Jimmy Durante always did a big number at the end with his friend Eddie who wore a big top hat, when they marched all around the stage, waving their hats. Then at the very end Jimmy put on his rain coat and hat and said, "Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are," and walked away through pools of light. Billy wondered if he ever would say who Mrs. Calabash was. He didn't want to miss that.

When they laughed he tried to roll his eyes all around like Eddie Cantor. Kathy looked at him for awhile but turned away. He started singing to her like Vaughn Monroe. He did it by putting his tongue at the roof of his mouth way in back. "Silly Billy," mummy said, smiling.

They were all waiting for Aunt Toni to call from Maryland, so when the phone rang the game stopped and pup pup turned down the radio. Everybody took turns talking to Ant Toni, though not for very long because it was long distance and cost a lot of money. Billy tried to imagine how far away Maryland was. He got a turn to talk to Aunt Toni and to Dickie. He told Dickie about going down past the railroad tracks and Dickie said he wanted to do that when they came up in the summer. They were just getting used to talking on the telephone when Billy had to get off.

It was getting dark when they were all in the living room. First Billy bounced on pup pups knee, pretending he was Hopalong Que ce dice going after bad guys. Grandma had Kathy on her lap, playing patty-cake. Then they switched, and Billy and grandma sang:
ting a ting un violino
pling a pling un mandolino
toot toot toot la saxaphona
tippety tippety top!

But when Billy played the drum he got for Christmas, daddy told him to stop. “That’s enough now,” he said. But Billy looked around and nobody else got mad, so he stopped for awhile and then started playing it again. Nothing happened so he kept playing, and this time daddy really yelled. “I told you stop that now!” Billy started to cry. His father got even more mad. “Stop that or I’ll give you something to cry about!” he shouted.

Billy ran upstairs and lay down on the bed in the middle room and cried. Later he went back downstairs and stood out in the hall. Grandma saw him and told him he could go sit at the desk if he wanted, and later pup pup would get out the viewmaster. He nodded solemnly and went to the desk next to the living room windows. He turned on the desk lamp. The desk was very shiny and clean, not like the rough, banged up desk at home. He usually wasn’t allowed to sit there or ever to play there because it was good furniture. But he could sometimes if he was careful. Grandma gave him some paper and a pencil and he sat drawing for awhile. He drew a man standing on the ground, with the sun above him, and a house behind him. He drew a tree and a bird in it. Trees were where birds live. Maybe the bird was a robin. They were called robin red-breast in the Book House books, but really they were orange.

Then pup pup got out the viewmaster. It was black and heavy, but not too heavy for Billy to hold up to his face by himself. Pup pup put one of the white flat circles into it and Billy put his eyes to the two places to look, and when his eyes got used to it he could see a color picture of mountains. He pushed the clicker and another picture came on.

By the time grandma’s rosary came on the radio, Billy was very tired. When it was over, he lay down on the sofa. Just then the doorbell rang, and a big man in black came in. It took a minute for him to recognize Father Derrick.

“Flora, Merry Christmas,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you’d still be here, but I was up at Holy Cross today--one of their priests went home to see his parents and I was filling in. So I thought I’d stop, but I got held up until now. How’s Walt? How are the children?”

They talked some more and then suddenly Father Derrick was in the living room. He looked huge standing above him. Billy didn’t know what to say, so he answered Father Derrick’s questions very quietly. He was just starting to get interested when he felt a big hand on his head and saw that Father Derrick was saying a prayer and making the sign of the cross over him with his other hand. Then he squeezed his shoulder hard, and he was gone, into the dining room.

Billy dozed until mummy told him quietly they were going home and to get his coat on. Daddy had already put all his presents in the truck. He kissed grandma and pup pup goodbye and said thank you. They hugged him and said Merry Christmas once more.

The truck was cold but he could lay down in the back, and the thrum of the engine put him to sleep again. He awoke once and for a second he didn’t know where he was. He was confused and a little mad but then he realized he was on his way home, and soon they would walk up the steps in the cold night, he would get ready for bed, his mother would kiss him goodnight, and nothing else would happen, he would be asleep in his bed in his room in his home.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Jane Austen in Hollywood: celebrating her birthday with a DVD (see post below.)
On Jane Day

It's Jane Austen's birthday. We recently saw two of the Austen-themed movies on DVD. Becoming Jane was ostensibly about Austen, puffing up what biographers consider a brief acquaintance into a major love affair. Apart from that, it was somewhat true to Austen's life. We see her madly writing Pride and Prejudice in response to this affair. Though she didn't publish Pride and Prejudice first, she probably wrote the first version of that novel before the first version of her first publication, Sense and Sensibility. She did not write under her own name, and so her identity was unknown to her reading public until after her death. Her family was larger than in the film--in fact, her older brothers helped support her. Though she made some money from her books, it was not enough to make her financially independent.

The movie itself is well done, lush to look at, and despite the fairly predictable romance, it was well written, acted and shot. The Jane of the film was interesting, and her process as a writer was better than the usually embarrassing idea of how a writer writes in films, especially biographies. But it wasn't Jane Austen, and in the end it seemed fairly forgettable. The special features of the DVD are ok, though the Austen bio is mediocre.

So having seen this, I suppose I didn't have particularly high hopes for The Jane Austen Book Club, which had the air of gimmickry in its contemporary story of what I assumed would be those madcap mismatched people and their romantic lives, linked by the slender thread of being fans of Austen. So this film surprised me, and even beyond the pleasant surprise, I really admire in particular the work of Robin Swicord, a veteran screenwriter whose adaptation of the book by Karen Joy Fowler was deft, creative and inspired--and she also directed the film (her first) with great sense and sensibility.

In matching the stories of the characters to Austen novels in often subtle ways, she managed to be truer to Jane than Becoming Jane was. The acting in this ensemble movie was terrific, so together with the writing the characters were absorbing and dimensional. The tone was Austenly austere--dramatic but not over the top, romantic ditto--with bits of Jane's wit and social satire.

The DVD extras were also generous and excellent, including a far better Austen bio. So if you're in the mood to celebrate Jane, I'd choose to see The Jane Austen Book Club over Becoming Jane. Particularly since the Book Club movie is more likely to send you back to Jane's books.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Pema's Progress: Before her original discovery of laps, Pema enjoyed sunbathing and philosophy. Click photo to enlarge.
Pema's Progress

My last Pema update was nearly two years ago, and I said that our previously semi-feral cat was near to discovering laps-- optimistically, as it turned out. Because she only became clear on the concept within the last couple of months. And of course, she now owns it.

I think it may have happened because we got rid of our old couch before we got a new one, and substituted two chairs for the ritual evening DVD/recorded TV show hour. Suddenly she had nowhere to sit. She was comfortable sitting behind Margaret on her chair at the kitchen table, but that didn't work in the living room. So that's probably what led to Pema's discovery of the lap.

First Margaret's, then mine. She favors mine at the moment, probably because it's easier for her to jump up to and jump down from my chair, and because Margaret is often knitting, while my hands are free to be dedicated solely to Pema. Though it took her three years to discover laps, I now barely am seated before she jumps up on mine.

Pema goes outside and has learned her circumscribed permissible area--mostly where she's visible from the back door. She's a bit more curious about other people when they're in the house, though she tends to reconnoiter quickly before retreating to her safety zone. Otherwise, she's retained some curious ways. She still won't drink water, except as part of a soupy mixture with soft catfood. And when her soup dish is picked up for filling, she still goes out of the kitchen and sits under the dining room table (she is never fed anywhere near there) for reasons still mysterious to my poor human intelligence.

The next step is for Pema to get comfortable being picked up. She's a little more relaxed about it now, but she still won't allow herself to be held. Tess didn't like it much either, except by me: she liked to rub her head on my beard. I don't know about Pema. Maybe by next Christmas.

We don't know anything about Pema's family background. I doubt this photo off the web is it--but it could be...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

So far, so good: in their first big test of these final five games, the Pittsburgh Steelers used opportunistic defense and offense to dominate the New England Patriots, 33-10 at Foxboro. Considering that the Patriots have routinely dashed the Steelers' playoff hopes in past year, this one was especially sweet. The Steelers stay atop their division at 9-3, while the Patriots may have lost their playoff chances.
Update: The second test, passed. Down by 10 points with 7 minutes to go at a frigid, windy Heinz Field, the Steelers engineered two drives and an interception and defensive touchdown to shock the Dallas Cowboys (and there's no team I enjoy defeating more), 20-13.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Steeler Update

Despite injuries to key personnel, a sub-par year for (injured) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and a schedule that is acknowledged to be the toughest for any team in the NFL this year, the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers are currently 8-3 and leading their division.

I pause to note this now, because this could be the high point of their season. The toughest part of that tough schedule is coming up, and it is conceivable that they will win only one of their remaining 5 games. They play New England on Sunday, followed by Dallas the following week--two talented teams that looked beatable earlier in the season, but are coming off their most impressive performances. Then Baltimore, their division rival that always plays them tough, and Tennessee, which has lost only one game. Even their last game with Cleveland is not a total lock, given the inconsistency of the Steelers offense this year.

Of course, they could very well win 3 of those games, and possibly all five. They have the top rated defense in the NFL, and if key personnel stay healthy (which was a problem last season), they can keep games close. The offense is a bigger problem. Injuries to offensive line players, running back Willie Parker and the nagging shoulder injury to Big Ben, make the offense truly unpredictable. Ben and other skill players (including back-ups in newly prominent roles) can make brilliant plays, but it's hard to count too much on improvization.

The coaching has also been inconsistent this year: seemingly brilliant at times, and pretty bad at others (the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles the most obvious case in point.)

The Steelers were inconsistent in their 05 Super Bowl season as well, until they got healthy at the end of that season, just in time for their incredible post-season. That seems unlikely this year, but they do appear to be a better team than last year, and if they can win their division, anything can happen.

As for my sportitude, I find myself less patient with the aggravations of broadcast games--the inconsistent officiating, as well as the frequent and long commercial breaks--and the injuries impinge more and more on the game. So I've mostly recorded the games, read the accounts so I could isolate the parts of the games I want to see, and I watch those. I haven't watched a game live all season, though I've kept up with the score via computer. I will say in my own defense as a fan, most of the games have been pretty ugly. Steeler defense can be fun to watch, but that can turn grim if the offense isn't clicking.

So to sum it up: the Steelers could still end up with a mediocre record, but they have enough potential and proven ability that, with some luck, they could go all the way.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Math Misapplication

I'm not exactly a math whiz. I can still remember the day in grade school when I looked up at the long division examples strung out in a display above the blackboard, and I realized this was a language that was rapidly getting beyond me. So that's my disclaimer, and take the rest of this for what it's worth.

Math likely began as a way to describe and use elements of the real world. This remains its justification to most people. But mathematics is at bottom a closed world. It deals mostly with its own assumptions, its axioms, and with its own procedures. (I wish I could remember how I did it, but in high school I proved, by using mathematical logic, that mathematical logic is illogical. Or at least absurdly circular.)

We see the perils of too much faith in math as description of the real world in today's economic meltdown. The economic theories emerging from the University of Chicago and likeminded academies were politically potent, but they became dominant at least within the field through irrefutable mathematical formulas and proofs.

Even before the real world proved them wrong, economics was slowly being influenced by psychology--slowly, painfully and awkwardly, since these gently suggested insights are elementary and simplistic compared to common knowledge and especially to what advertising and marketing has been doing for decades to functionally if somewhat accidentally support these economic theories in the real world.

These theories were deified partly because they advantaged the already advantaged, possessed by greed for wealth and power. They became the handy instrument of the Shock Doctrine. But they attained academic preeminence through math proofs. Math proved they were right. The real world--as well as common sense--proved they are wrong. And now, tragically wrong.

There are some--including author Sheilla Jones in the opening chapter of her book, The Quantum Ten (Oxford)--who fear that physics is also falling into the trap of relying too much on formal, abstract mathematics, and not enough on real world proofs.

In any case, it's a caution, and maybe something useful to throw back in the face of those who believe that literature, philosophy etc. are self-referential unrealistic dreaming, and only math and science tell us about the real world.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The student film that launched a movie empire:
"Amblin," now available on YouTube!
Still a Mystery

In 1967-68, I was the go-between on my campus for an experimental film series. Compilations of films were sent from Hollywood or somewhere, and I booked the room, put up the posters and, not incidentally, saw all the films.

They were short films, probably a lot of student work. As I recall, there was a lot of trippy animation and even trippier live action films, all very psychedelic. There was one short film in the first bunch, a narrative so straight that it was almost embarrassing. But it had charm, reality, and a line that I loved and still remember. It was about a guy hitch-hiking.

Several years ago I read something about Steven Spielberg, that he made his first film in 1968, called "Amblin'," which is also the name of his film company, and that it was a short film about a hitch-hiker. So I immediately thought of those experimental film packages and that one short film I remembered.

But "Amblin'" was unavailable, at least where I happened to be. (In Cambridge years ago, I actually saw director Brian DePalma's student film projected on a barroom wall--it was this weird combination of Godzilla and Beowulf done with like clay models.) I hoped I'd run into it sometime, or at least someone who'd seen it.

I was lamenting this the other day when I suddenly realized: oh yeah, YouTube. Sure enough, there it was, all 25 minutes of it. Not a great transfer, and really, not a great film. I was glad to see that Speilberg's youthful insecurities and neuroses were as obvious as mine probably were in my "art" of the period. He was probably more honest about his relationship to the counterculture than I was.

Anyway, big disappointment: it's not the same film. "Amblin" is about this sort of Paul Simon lookalike shy neurotic, hitching with this willowy very 60s and very English looking beautiful young wish fulfillment hippie chick. And it was kind of trippy, in a hey hey we're the Monkees kind of way.

But the movie I remember was about a guy (not particularly freaky in the long-hair sort of way) hitching, who is picked up by a beautiful young woman in like a sports car, and they spend the night in a romantic cabin, or anyway, I remember a fireplace. But when he wakes up in the morning, she's gone. And the last shot is of him sitting on a hillside, looking down at the highway.

Here's the line I remember. She asks him more or less what he wants to do with his life. He doesn't know, but he confesses, "I'd like to be a Beatle."

Well, of course. That's exactly what I wanted to be--what we all wanted to be! In 1967-68, absolutely!

So now I'm disappointed that I wasn't one of the first to spot Speilberg's genius, or even that I now knew that he made this movie and I could see it again, to see how it matches up with my recollection.

And it leaves me with the mystery: who did make this movie? What's it called? Is it on YouTube?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

It's 1960 on AMC's Mad Men. Or is it?Posted by Picasa
Mad Men

I'd seen ads for the AMC series Mad Men, but missed the first few, so I gave up trying to follow it. Too bad, because we enjoyed their previous original series, Remember WENN (about a fictional early-- Pittsburgh radio station; in fact, Pittsburgh had one of the first radio stations and a couple of the first TV stations in the country.) That was back in the days before AMC started running commercials, which is when I stopped watching its movies.

Ironically of course, Mad Men is about advertising. Now we're watching the first season on the commercial-free DVDs. All I knew about it was that it was set in 1960, and prided itself on fanatical attention to period detail, right down to not having a child play with an etch-a-sketch, because the episode was set just months before that toy was introduced.

Well, we've seen a half dozen episodes, and we like it: the writing and acting, and much of the period stuff. Although from our perspective now it doesn't seem possible that people could smoke so much, but, well, we probably did. (Not me in 1960 exactly--I was 14-- but later in the 60s.)

But I have found some period details that are wrong. I remember most of the clothes and furnishings, but I couldn't really tell you when they changed (except hats for men--they would disappear in January 1961, with JFK, and astoundingly, never appear again as standard attire .) But some of the music seems off. It's possible that they were dancing to Chubby Checker's version of The Twist in the spring of 1960, although it didn't really become a big hit until August, after the Democratic convention that nominated JFK. The timing in the show is a little ambiguous. But it's close. Still, some songs on the sound track seemed premature.

What isn't close however, is a reference to the term, "the medium is the message." That was from Marshall McLuhan, and it wouldn't become part of the national argot for five whole years. (To be fair, McLuhan did publish the phrase in a journal in 1960. But it didn't become widely known until after his book Understanding Media was published in 1964--really not until 1965 and 66.)

But nice try, Mad Men.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Valjean in Mexico just this spring, a photo posted by her friends. May she rest in peace.
R.I.P. Valjean

I mentioned her to someone earlier today, so tonight it occurred to me to check the blog she started when she was diagnosed with lung cancer last December. The last time I checked, she had successfully completed her final round of treatments.

But it turns out that earlier today, her ashes were buried in Chicago. Valerie Jean McLenighan died on July 9. She was 60. Fortunately, she had more devoted friends than I who took very good care of her since her diagnosis.

The photo of her above was taken in Mexico this spring. It's not entirely clear, but it seems things started to get worse upon her return, perhaps on the trip itself. But that photo is how I will remember her.

I hadn't seen her for something like 35 years. We knew each other in college, and then saw each other when we were both in graduate school at the University of Iowa. I don't recall how we got back in touch in the late 80s or early 90s--it was probably at her instigation. She was reconnecting with Knox classmates, urging people to attend the next reunion. We talked on the phone a bunch of times (she did attend that reunion, and told me about it), from when I lived in Pittsburgh to after I moved to California. She almost visited here when she was in San Francisco, but it never worked out. We also emailed, and in one of hers, just before the Democratic Convention in 2004, she told me to watch the speech by a state legislator named Barack Obama, because he was something special.

I have a number of specific memories of Valjean. But at the moment I can't write about them. I'm just grateful that she had good medical care and lots of loving care from her friends. Her engagement with people was amazing--she was so much more outgoing than I ever was, and yet she had such a deep internal life. And I guess I'm a little daunted, too. I expect my death will be a good deal lonelier.

Valjean was a practicing Buddhist, and there will be a memorial service for her at her Zen Center this Sunday. But in August, there will also be a Mass for her, and a memorial in Chicago being organized by her friends. If there are others from Knox checking in here who didn't know about this and are interested in the memorial, information will be posted on her blog.

On the day she died, a friend of hers named Steve McCabe posted a poem by Wallace Stevens he said was one of her favorites. It means a lot to me, too--there's a copy of it just a few feet away. Valjean and I were in a class together, taught by Doug Wilson, on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens. So we came to this poem together:

Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:
Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

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Seventh Inning Stretch

Apart from these personal reflections (below) on my birth and that year, I feel an urgency that given my status in life is faintly embarrassing. Although nobody else seems to care one way or another whether I accomplish anything more, or leave anything behind, it matters a great deal to me.

I want to make something of my past, so that it survives for those who may not be all that interested at the moment, and may never be interested, but at least they'll have the evidence, the opportunity.

But also, I want to contribute to the future.

Since no one is expecting anything from me really--any more writing, other than press releases and reviews of other peoples' creations, or anything in any other form I've worked in over the years--it seems quixotic, if not pathetic.

But apparently I'm not alone. Here are a few quotes I've lifted from a recent web column by Patricia Zohn. She writes mostly about women she knows (these are my emphases and edits):

"The Boomer women are the most ambitious of my acquaintance. They are working harder than anyone else, desperate, it seems, to claim a place for themselves, aspirational to an unimaginable degree, as if they had spent so much time serving (children, husbands, politics, being the best, ideals of one sort or another) that a new kind of ticking clock has emerged, one about leaving your mark on the world and not just your genetic material in the form of offspring. ."

She concludes: "And by the way, it's not just women: a good friend, male, who used to run publishing companies and is now a best-selling author says it's because we are all finally having our moment. "

Now I've got a lot of caveats about Zohn's point of view, and her social milieu is miles from mine. There is an undeniably personal quality to this urgency, but it can't be dismissed as simply egotistical anxiety. There is something about meaning in all this, as well as about making a big noise before the big sleep.

I saw Lewis Black (comic and author, best known perhaps for appearances on the Daily Show) on some TV program about self-centered Boomers, and while he admitted that the Boomer generation accomplished a lot less than we hoped or thought we would in the 60s, that we still have some time to pull it together. He said it's the seventh inning stretch, and we can still win it in the late innings--but it's going to take concentrated effort.

That's how I feel about it, even as the time goes winging by without my urgency being reflected in my day, and certainly not in the eyes of others. But the urge is there, and this is the defining task.

I'm especially conscious of how quickly my current level of strength can turn into real old age by a serious illness or injury--not to mention the impossibility of paying for it. Still, I suppose I'm fortunate in one respect. It doesn't take much in the way of resources--like money or the belief of others--to write things down. To tell a story or two.

Monday, June 30, 2008

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Birth Day

I was born into a much different America on this date in 1946. There were half as many people in it, and these days it seems they were also about half the size of people today. Since I was the first born of my generation on both sides of the family, there were a lot of relatives who came to see me. My grandfather Severini was just 53, and he had survived poison gas in World War I in Italy. If there was anyone who was 85 year old among my visitors, that person would have been an toddler when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

1946 was a miserable year in Europe, but a good one and a hopeful one in the United States. I was born less than a year after Hiroshima, and there was still an international consensus--including the U.S. government and U.S. military--that atomic weapons would have to be banned. A couple of weeks before I was born, the United Nations Commission on Atomic Energy met for the first time, and discussed proposals for international control of atomic energy put forward by the U.S. and by the Soviet Union. Even two years later, U.S. General Omar Bradley would observe, "The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants."

That hope probably died the day I was born--with the first big postwar atomic bomb tests in the Pacific, called Crossroads. And indeed it was the crossroads. America and the Soviet Union would pursue nuclear supremacy, and soon Omar Bradley would be lobbying for the U.S. to develop the hydrogen bomb. The world has been living on borrowed time ever since, though that was much more a part of conscious life, and the national unconscious erupting into sudden panics and bug-eyed monster movies, when I was a child, adolescent, student.

As for my personal history, it seems I almost did not live beyond my first week after my birth on that Sunday afternoon. Some ten or so years ago, when I first researched what might have been wrong based on the few clues I'd had over the years, there wasn't a whole lot readily available. Now there's so much more on the Internet. And I found a book in the university library entirely devoted to the research on what came to be known by various names, most simply as Rh Disease.

This disease generally occurs when the mother has Rh negative blood, and the father Rh positive. (The - and + after the ABO blood types indicate this separate Rh Factor.) The cause is somewhat complicated. If the mother has been exposed to Rh positive blood, through a transfusion or a prior childbirth, her blood may develop antibodies to fight off Rh. If a subsequent child is Rh positive, these antibodies may then attack his or her blood.

The result is often catastrophic. Some die in the womb or are stillborn. This may have been a major cause of stillbirths for centuries--Hippocrates mentions something like this disease. But it can attack after birth as well, usually within hours. I knew that babies die of this--some say up to 90%. What I didn't know was the effects some children who live may carry with them, which includes severe organ damage and severe brain damage.

I am missing quite a bit of specific information about my "case," including the mystery of why I was part of a very small minority of first-borns to have this affliction. But the family legend is very clear on one point: everyone was exclaiming on my appearance. My skin was golden. Only my grandmother understood that this meant something was wrong. The golden color is often the first sign of Rh Disease: it indicates jaundice. And things get worse from there.

I know that I received a blood transfusion. I know that the appropriate blood wasn't on hand, and my mother kept a list of names--I think there were six--of possible donors, including the one who donated the blood that was soon placed in my veins.

What I don't know is what kind of transfusion this was. Various kinds were tried for this disease over at least a decade, with limited success, but the most effective ones weren't developed until 1944 and 1945, even 1946. They were various methods of "exchange transfusions," in which nearly all the baby's blood is removed while new blood is dripped in. Standard transfusions had limited success; exchange transfusions were much more effective, and saved hundreds of thousands of lives before a preventive vaccine was developed in the mid 1960s.

Few people now even know of the existence of this disease. But it was once a very, very serious matter. It led to suggestions that Rh incompatible couples should not be permitted to have children. Various states introduced legislation that came close to this eugenics approach.

The research to find a vaccine led to many other innovations. Before this, there was no fetal medicine or fetal research. It was considered too invasive. The amniocentesis that's become standard for pregnant women today was developed as a direct result of Rh Disease research.

But it's especially striking to me that so much happened regarding this condition around the year of my birth. The Rh Factor itself had been discovered only in 1940. Blood Banks in general wouldn't be routinely testing for it until 1950. It is just barely possible that some form of exchange transfusion was being done by the end of June 1946 at the western Pennsylvania hospital where I was born. I hope to find out whether that's what I received. It could be that my case was mild enough to respond to a standard transfusion.

It's very rare for a first-born to have this, unless the mother had a transfusion with Rh positive blood earlier in her life. But it wasn't unknown, and the theory was that an even more rare trait of the father's blood was responsible, but these cases usually were comparatively mild. So I might not have been in such mortal danger.

I've pieced together enough to be pretty sure that I was transfused with Rh negative blood. It was probably done over three days. The only effect of the disease that's shown up so far is probably my one deaf ear. I don't know if this exactly qualifies as borrowed time. But it does seem that from the beginning my life was very much embedded in its time and place.