Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas as a kid

Looking along Riverside Drive from inside Riverside Park. 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.
December 19, 2011. Nose-biting, ear-biting cold yesterday in New York, with temperatures below freezing.  Two days till the winter solstice, so wottaya expect?

When I was growing up in Massachusetts, at this time of the year there was snow on the ground. Sometimes lots of it. By now there was at least an accumulation of the white stuff, and no warm days to melt it, on the little shelf of a roof over our front door and just outside my bedroom window. Every Christmastime we tacked some pine boughs and a string of colored lights atop the snow on that little rooftop, casting a Technicolor glow from underneath the window into my bedroom at night. We kept those lights up until late January and when we finally took them down, it seemed as if the world had gone dull again.

I loved Christmas as a kid. I took all those jingle-bells, ya-better-watch-out songs seriously, seriously concerned about being my “nice” instead of my “naughty.” Until I was about six or seven, I believed Santa Claus came by after we were all asleep. So great was my fervor (and my childish naivete) that it never occurred to me ole Claus and his reindeer couldn’t possibly have flown down from the North Pole and visited tens of millions of  families all in one night. I knew that my mother always provided the one “big” present each year. But I thought Santa and she worked out the distribution beforehand. One year it was a sled (Radio Flyer was the brand). Another year an electric train, another a pair of ice skates.
When I was seven or eight I asked for a doll house. Thinking back on it, I don’t recall my mother or father’s reaction to the request, or even if they had any. I was one of those kids who knew exactly what he wanted. It always had something to do with what I was imagining about myself at the time. I had no knowledge of sexual politics at that age of course. Although I instinctively knew little boys didn’t ask for dollhouses. But I was fascinated by those small scale houses which were new and potentially all mine, and much calmer than the house I lived in, and so much nicer (in terms of new) than the house I lived in, which was over a hundred years old and almost as basic as the age in which it was built.

So the kid was surprised and excited on Christmas morning to come down the stairs and see the shiny (it was metal) pretty little house waiting under the tree in the living room. I immediately set to work to make it the home in my imagination (and especially the family of my imagination).
My neighbor Charlie Scheips' version of a Christmas Tree, complete with electric train circling.
By late Christmas morning, most of the family – my sisters, their husbands, their children, aunts, uncles, cousins, gathered at our house for the opening of the presents and the Christmas lunch. I was aware, even at that young age, that no one remarked about this little boy’s Christmas dollhouse except for one uncle who loudly lamented that “real” boys shouldn’t be playing with dollhouses.

I had no idea what motivated my request because as it is with children, choices are natural and explorational. By then I was already drawing houses (including floor plans), and cars (my improvisations on the latest from Ford, GM and Chrysler models). The design was meant to accommodate the people I imagined would live in the houses and drive the cars I drew. Over the course of the next year, I spent hundreds of hours by myself, in that dollhouse, conjuring up characters and lifetimes. All pure pleasure, all solitary.
My holiday wreath, a gift from friends, is known as the Della Robbia Wreath, the proceeds of sale of which go to Boys Republic to give a "second chance to a deserving child working to overcome the trauma of abuse and neglect." Each wreath represents a "circle of hope." They are produced by these boys and girls with meaningful after-school work. In weekend work parties throughout the year, students go into the fields and forests to collect the natural materials used in its making.
In retrospect – this was the late 40s, early 50s -- the fact that my mother and father granted their little boy’s request without question or objection sheds light, on reflection, of their willingness to let me express myself in my own way.

As it is with children it wasn’t a fixture in my play life for very long, but it was an immense refuge for the boy living in a financially and emotionally stressed household. My home away from home (in very few years I would find real ones – homes of friends – to escape to).

Peter Roger's Chrsitmas tree on the terrace of his new home in New Orleans.
That little house, I see now, turned out to be a step in a long process. A couple of years later, I extended my imagination to ask for a typewriter for Christmas. Although I knew, by age 11, that any typewriter was an expensive proposition for my mother, and possibly not a realistic request.

She was the only real breadwinner in the family, and that she achieved at regular labor-by-the-hour jobs five, six, sometimes seven days a week. But I was growing out of toys. I had noticed in the magazines that Smith-Corona had designed a compact portable with a very cool grey metal case, weighing less than nine pounds, and very inexpensive compared to most machines.

That Christmas morning was even more exciting for the kid. I could hardly wait to get it up to my room and desk and set out typing. And what did I type once I got the hang of the keyboard? Stories. About the people, the same people, who once lived in my dollhouse.

Christmas Day itself in my parents’ house always came with the men in the family in a variety of tension and bad moods. Unhappy. Crabby. Angry. On the edge. No one drank, thankfully. The kids plunged into their toys and gifts and consciously stayed away from the Edge. I was in my forties before I really understood where my father was coming from, burdened by a mountain of personal regrets. The women, however, saved the day. They found something to laugh about and focused on getting the lunch ready for the table. Nevertheless, the “moods” of those adult grinches made a lasting impression. I vowed very early, by the time I was an adolescent, that “when I grew up ...” I was going to enjoy Christmas in my house. Whatever it was.
And so it has been, even in the bad times or harder times. Sometimes by myself, solitary, many other times with family members, with scores of friends and acquaintances. Christmas is a day of cheer. It’s not about religion for me. It never has been. It has no exclusivity. Even the Carols are about that cheer, even the most reverent and “religious.” All quests for hope are personified by a “savior.” When I was a child, my mother was mine. My mother and my eldest sister.

The mood of the men in the house on that day when I was growing up is not, was not, unusual. And it is not exclusively male. It depends on the household. This particular holiday season is very difficult for many of us in many ways. Aside from the economic strain that is unavoidable to different degrees, aside from the expectations vanquished by reality; aside from the loneliness that can reach torment for many of us, this is a time for cheer, no matter what we think.
My friend Michael Thomas sent me a news article yesterday morning about the growing generosity seen in certain parts of the retail industry, of “anonymous donors” suddenly paying off lay-away plans for others, for strangers, to make it possible for them to share some of that cheer with their loved ones, especially the children. Here’s the link to it.

Reading that, it occurred to me that that was probably how my mother managed to get this young writer his first typewriter – a lay-away, paying off little by little. Ironically, in all my life, she never expressed interest in my work and initially couldn’t comprehend my wanting to make a living at it. Nevertheless her instincts were to follow the boy's request and give. The day she picked out that typewriter, I was blessed: she gave me a life.

Give is the mantra for this time, for all of us. Giving means many things. It may mean donating to City Harvest or New York City Rescue Mission, or CityMeals on Wheels or Stanley Isaacs, or God's Love. It may mean volunteering to serve meals on Christmas Day. It may mean even making an effort with just a “hello” or a “thank you,” or a “pardon me.” Or the dollar you drop in that cup someone on the street is holding, or buying a sandwich for the guy on the corner who’s got his hand out for help. It may mean just a smile at the right time when contrary ideas cross your mind, or making up your mind that you’re going to enjoy it for whatever it is. That’s what Christmas really means: give -- A Merry Christmas and to all, a Good Night.

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