Christmas Card 2014

IMG_2593Well, it’s Valentine’s Day Weekend, and we know what that means.
It’s time for my Christmas Card! For those who may not know, I have always celebrated Christmas with a Greeting of Words. I have always believed in the power of Words, and for years, I sent out cards with the words of others, celebrating the Joys of the Season. Now, in this Second Half of Life, I am finding my own Voice, and adding to the Words and Stories of our culture which Celebrate this most Wonderful Holiday. It takes me awhile to find just the right words, so my Christmas Card is offered traditionally sometime between the Twelve Days of Christmas and the First Day of Spring.
Nowadays, My Christmas Story is posted here electronically, at Live The Questions Now. Please feel free to “Like,” “Follow,” “Subscribe,” “Share,” Tell Your Friends, or just sit back with a mug of your favorite Hot Beverage and Enjoy a few minutes of Bonus ChristmasTime… I hope you enjoy this year’s Offering…

“Christmas in the Bronx”

It was the Bronx. 1966.
It has been half a century — seven generations since (or nearly three, depending upon how you count it)
It was before man had walked on the moon (Well, at least as far as we know.)

The buildings were brick. No one was rich, but people lived well enough.
People who had come of age during the Great Depression now had groceries every week and could provide three meals a day for their families.
Oh, it wasn’t an easy thing; it took great sacrifice — budgeting decisions wiser than anything one sees in Congress these days, and some backbreaking physical labor.
But they did it. And Joyfully.
They lived gratefully for what they had. If everyone gets fed and all your kids have shoes, you’ve much for which to be grateful.
And they knew it.

Vincenzo was a New York City Police Officer.
He graduated college, a fact of which his immigrant parents were very proud. (There was not a lot of political controversy about immigration back then, as pretty much everyone’s parents or grandparents had immigrated from somewhere else.)
He had been a First Generation Italian American with a college degree in physical fitness from New York University (the Bronx Campus, in those days). Then America entered World War II, and honoring his patriotic duty, he joined the army.
He returned to marry the most beautiful girl in the world. And he never forgot that.
And he wouldn’t forget it when after sixty-five years of marriage, faced with the decision, he would choose home hospice care at 90 years old so that she would hold him as he died, at home together in their bed, where he was happiest — with her. When we are lucky enough to find that in Life, our human instinct is to never ever let it go. And she felt just as Lucky.
There were four children now, in the two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx.
Vincenzo was nearing fifty, his beautiful wife, Fortina, was younger by eight years.
How to make Christmas happen with four children on the salary of a New York City Cop in 1966?

They lay in bed together pondering that question a few weeks earlier.
“What if,” he asked her, “I took my vacation time in December, and used those weeks to work full-time — Christmas help at UPS?”
Yes, he would be the hero of the story, but Fortina quietly surrendered every dream she had of romantic time spent together — quiet starry-eyed evenings after the children went to sleep and the most passionate nights. Sometimes, when it was just the two of them, he would hold her and they would dance together, just there alone in the middle of the living room, to whatever standards were playing on the radio. It reminded them of the dance halls during their courtship. Those evenings out were four children ago, but they never lost that sense of romance. And how they loved to dance in one another’s arms. These moments she would miss most of all.
“If you think…” she would say, with a tone of unalloyed support that always made him feel he could accomplish anything.

He kept his checkbook accurately and paid all his bills on time. They had no credit cards and didn’t know other people who did.
Back then, banks controlled neither our government nor our lives, and existed as service organizations. In fact, the whole neighborhood had only two: the clock-faced bank building on Perry Avenue and 204th Street and the newer North Side Bank for Savings, further up the hill.
Transactions were paid in cash, or occasionally by check. And the numbers spelled clearly that Santa would not arrive on Mosholu Parkway that year, unless they could conjure a plan.

They lived only half a block from his precinct — the “Five Two” as it was called, there under the Third Avenue El that ran along Webster Avenue.
There was a dream of some day saving enough to own a house in the suburbs.
That dream would never be realized.
And this was a Great Blessing, though they did not know that then. He would never know it.
But a life well lived has nothing to do with having what you want, and everything to do with wanting what you have.

There was magnificent stone work in the building courtyards: white stucco with inlaid sand stone, granite and quartz crystal that glistened on sunny days — pillars and fountains that had been remodeled as planters; lush green bushes that ran along the sides; grand palatial staircases going up — brickwork and masonry that represented countless hours of labor by so many people whose names we would never know — people who went before us, making our lives better and our world more beautiful.
And although we did not think about it then, even without a single Christmas present it would have been a truly wonderful place to live out one’s childhood. Beyond the bricks and mortar, a loving home is in itself a great gift. And the greatest gift a father can give to his children is to love their mother. This, Vincenzo gave.

Autumn brought a majestic display of colors from the variety of trees in the park across the street, which went largely unnoticed by most of the children as the great Miracle that it was.
Halloween came along and there was Trick Or Treating, often in the snow, as back then, mid-Autumn behaved more like Winter. Grandparents disparaged Halloween, telling how they used to call it “begging” and they went door to door with their sacks on ThanksGiving calling out, “Anything for ThanksGiving?”
ThanksGiving was a Holiday spent with family, and enjoying a feast so grand that one could not conceive of such a thing coming out of kitchens that small.
And then, lurking in the second week of December, there was this increasing feeling of something extraordinary about to happen.
Everyone felt it, children and parents alike.
No one dreaded it; no one stressed over it.
It was a lot of work — that was the core of its pleasure.
The subtle slow simmering anticipation bubbled quietly in the air, like the stems of those special colorful strands called “bubble lights” which adorned so many trees back then.
There was a certain scent in the apartments — it was the smell of the radiators sending up heat, and the no doubt lead paint on them, which were blasting pretty high by the snowy days of mid-December, and gave the air a certain flavor, unmistakably sweet in memory.
Children would wake up to that smell of painted metal heated by steam in the mornings and they knew that it meant that soon enough there would be decorations on a tree and relatives and presents;
There would be glowing lights and tinsel and certain music sung by Julie Andrews , Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Perry Como and Dean Martin — songs you didn’t hear at other times of year, and that really only played for a two week period, most of that between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
These were the years that saw the premieres of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “The Grinch that Stole Christmas,” and the Rankin/Bass “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Every home having a television set was kind of a new thing. Some were ensconced in large and fancy lacquered wood cabinets. Vincenzo’s was small and set upon a tiny metal stand with plastic wheels. Seven channels existed. Remote controls did not. Almost all sets were black and white. Color televisions were new and there were warnings about the radiation emitted from them causing cancer. These profound and ominous warnings were widely and blithely ignored in favor of the entertainment experience they provided, much as it is for the so-called smartphones of today. Vincenzo would never have owned one at all, except that she loved movies and with four kids they didn’t get out to see them anymore — it was another thing they’d given up — and the television set made her happy.

Christmas Day was coming.
Everyone would be of good cheer — even those whose dispositions were not ordinarily inclined that way.
There wasn’t a kid in that neighborhood who didn’t know from the smell of those radiators and the pages turning on the calendar, that this time would be something Astonishing.

Time — everyday, commonplace, and simultaneously our Greatest Gift,
Alternately squandered and treasured.
In the Summer it went way too quickly.
The three days surrounding a funeral would pass more like a month.
And your Birthday sped by in a beggar’s paucity of hurried minutes.
But this particular time of year, was neither fast nor slow;
It was the Time itself that was celebrated.
And that always makes life richer.

Giant wood boards were put up in bedrooms and Lionel tracks were screwed down into them. Train sets were erected, operated by a large black and red transformer. There were little villages and miniature people, as well as fake snow to set the scene: horse cars, and milk cars, and trolley cars that went back and forth.
Keepsakes were taken down from old cardboard boxes stored at the top of closets, and shiny red Santa dolls were pulled from them like furry white rabbits from black tophats and put on display. Fortina would sew fabric holly leaves onto the plastic molded doorway garlands, to give them a shade more authenticity, and there was always such festive and delicious cooking.

Vincenzo worked both jobs for a month — Each morning he donned the blue uniform of New York’s Finest, protecting his fellow-citizens, and each afternoon, he traded it in for the brown uniform of United Parcel Service, lifting heavy packages onto trucks and pallets for the giant shipping conglomerate. Each night he came home after the children were asleep, utterly enervated. But he came home to her.
She always had his dinner waiting, and just warmed up for him on the small gas stove, and amidst all else there was to be done at this time of year, she had freshly laundered sheets on the bed every week, pillows were fluffed, and the children were tucked in their beds.

During his two weeks “vacation” from the Police Department, he was able to do just the one job at UPS every day. And, although his hours lifting boxes increased, in comparison to doing both jobs the previous weeks, that indeed felt like a vacation of sorts. It meant that there was only the one uniform; only the one set of tasks.
During the other weeks when he did both jobs, his Sergeant, Clancy, sympathetic to his doing this for his children, would tell him, “If the head of the force comes ‘round, you go hide in the broom closet. I don’t want ‘em seeing one of my men so tired and bleary-eyed. They’ll think I’m workin’ ya’ to death!”
What Sergeant Clancy didn’t know was that he wasn’t doing it for his children. He did it for her. She loved her Children. And he loved her. That was his sole motivation for everything he accomplished.
Did she marry him precisely because he would make a wonderful father?
No. She married him because she loved him.
Then she embarked upon a half century journey to make him a wonderful father for the children she loved.
Like most men, he would become a wonderful grandfather first.
Or is it that that is the turning point at which children begin to see clearly what their father was doing for them all along?

Stretching himself too thin at his regular job wasn’t the only problem Vincenzo faced. His supervisor at UPS was a tough working class regular. Bonan had the kind of stroppy blustering authority that comes from having fallen short of the kind of power one was so set upon achieving in life, and so with a modicum of seniority over a few others not as lucky, he lived out the illusion of that power by treating those under him as substandard and valueless. He was not pleased about having Vincenzo on his team. Fifty was older then than it is now. It was the first time in his life Vincenzo had encountered that American phenomenon in which those younger and with less experience would be regarded more highly than those who had served and achieved so much; our culture was growing enamored of potential and dismissive of accomplishment.

“Lift! Move these boxes!” Bonan would decree.
Vincenzo worked more quickly. As he lifted, he sometimes would find himself whispering as if asking for help in a prayer, “It’s heavy.”
“It’s not heavy unless I say it’s heavy! Got it?” Bonan would bark. Having served in the military, Vincenzo knew how to get by with men like this. It often involved an increase of adrenaline and physical strength, which was not quite the resource it once was.
He told no one he was a Cop. The culture was beginning to disrespect police officers. Those who broke the law felt the officers were a hindrance and began to infiltrate the vernacular with terms such as, “Pig” and “Fuzz.” Even “Cop” had begun as a derogatory term, though it had grown more commonly accepted. Lifting boxes, he was neither a college educated man, nor an Officer of the Law who might one day save this man’s life. He was a cog in the wheel — merely a set of muscles, as useful as they could be. He was the true soul of Santa Claus! Loading that sleigh for every kid in the world each year could be no less taxing than this. But in both cases, it wasn’t about what you were doing, so much as the reason you were doing it.

“Hey, Old Man,” Bonan called to him at the end of a particularly grueling shift, in a decidedly depreciatory tone.
“I counted the boxes you lifted today. They were a full twenty less than my other men. You’re the weak link on my team. I could fire you for that! I hate dead weight! I don’t expect you to make it to Christmas Eve, with your back in tact. So, Dead Weight, I’m gonna’ move you to the Heavy Parcel line beginning in the morning. ‘Cause the sooner you’re outta here, the better it is for me. Oh, and I’ve always hated WOPs.”

Wop was a term meaning “With Out Papers” which was used derogatorily toward Italians since the big Immigration from Italy — those who came to America to escape political oppression in the early 1900’s, and arrived without papers. They had gone on to serve in the American Armed Forces in World War I in disproportionately high numbers, and made substantial contributions toward moving this country forward into the Industrial Age, as well as holding government offices with profoundly impressive records of achievement in benefitting American society.
Vincenzo himself was born here, and had fought in World War II to defend the United States — he was flown out of Pearl Harbor the day before the attack that brought us officially into the War and killed so many of his friends.
But he was not concerned with any of that here. He only thought of her. And he would do whatever was necessary to give her the Christmas she wanted for her children. Had he been on his own without that responsibility, he would have slugged Bonan in a way that would make him remember not to disrespect any Italian American — or anyone — like that again — He had a degree in Physical Fitness, and you can be sure he knew how to deliver a punch. But there was more dignity in defending that which she needed from him; defending his home; working from Love first. And, though difficult for a man who could be as hotheaded as he was at times, that was the choice he made in that moment. It took extraordinary courage, and although he did not feel it, that choice made him a better person. Love makes better people of us all.
That evening when he returned home she asked, “How was work?” He responded by shrugging and saying simply, “Eh. It was work. How did you manage today?”
She wrapped her arms around him and held him tightly. She adored him.

December’s double income began to trickle in — in those days the median household income was about $36,000 per year — adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars, that’s a value of about $6,000 — Was a Christmas Tree surrounded by piles of toys on Christmas morning really necessary? Vincenzo wrestled with this question as he labored. His childhood was spent in the Great Depression, and although his parents did their best, like so many Immigrants who came here for a better life, they didn’t find it. They were ultimately able to give it to their children and grandchildren. But they never found it for themselves. And in those early years settled in the Bronx, the boy would have been lucky to find an orange in his Christmas stocking — even this didn’t happen every year. But when it did, he was most grateful — Jubilant, even. His daughters found jewelry in their Christmas Stockings — every Christmas. And in making this happen, he honored his Father and Mother and the sacrifice they made. You see, this was the American Dream. It was not something that people came in the early 1900’s to have for themselves. It was something they came to give to their children. That was the Beauty of it — the Power of Giving. A Course in Miracles, which would be published a decade later, put it like this: “Having rests on giving, not on getting. Who understands this must laugh at the idea of sacrifice.”
The dream they were living appeared burdensome but they were willing to show up for it out of Love — Love for their Children, Love for their Parents, Love for their Spouse. It was a Dream built on Love.

Fortina rushed up to 204th Street. A year of sorting coupons and tracking specials from supermarket circulars, splitting her grocery shopping between the A&P and Pioneer Supermarket even walking up the hill to Met Food or further to Daitch Shopwell, kept the grocery bills lower than would be imaginable today. Scrimping and saving, she could now buy a new treetop, not just at John’s Bargain Store or Sav-On or Woolworth, but this time she would go to Honig’s Parkway on Webster Avenue. She was determined that this year there would be a fine treetop on that tree he lugged home. She had seen one at Honig’s which had a star shape inside of a round garland with steady-burning lights punctuating the star and each of the lights with a clear plastic reflector around it. It was glorious. She had impeccable taste, and he trusted all decisions about the home décor to her, and wisely so.

Christmas Eve arrived, and that evening there would be no deliveries. 204th Street went dark about 4 or 5 o’clock, as respect for workers — and employers honoring their civil responsibility over profit — enabled employees to be home with their families to celebrate Christmas. The focus was on pausing and celebrating and simply being together — this is what generated the warm feelings for which Christmas song lyrics would nostalgically pine in years to come. In this America, time was respected as a more valuable commodity than money.
So, Vincenzo and his friend Guisseppe from the force, went to the lot where they sold trees. In those days, the tree was put up Christmas Eve, and children believed Santa had done it when he came in the night. For ten bucks, they would get a bundle of five trees, and split them with the other officers.
When they untied the bundle, their hearts sank. These trees were so bare and had lost so many needles that they decided to tie two of them together and make a Tree out of it.
They brought their creation up to the small two bedroom apartment, and put it out on the fire escape while Fortina herded the children into the far bedroom with some task for them to work on, making snowflakes or paper ornaments with colored tin foil coating. There was so much business going on — cooking and wrapping, cards and crafts, model train sets running, and other kids from the neighborhood visiting to see the trains on display and play with them. In a community in which everyone had so little, the willingness to share made everyone feel they had so much.

That night when the children were finally asleep, the tree was brought in and put up in the stand. The ornaments the children had made were added, and wasn’t Vincenzo dazzled by the new Star TreeTop!
“How much did that cost?” was all he could ask, with the weighing pressure of four growing children and the need to upgrade to a three-bedroom apartment in which to raise them. But she promptly put his mind at ease, saying soothingly, “It was a very good price.” She kissed him tenderly. He knew he would have given her anything, and she knew it too. But she asked for so little. That was the Love they had found. And it was a profound Miracle.

In the wee hours of the morning, the place was sparkling with magic: the lights on the beautifully decorated tree of two sparse trunks tied together with rope by two World War II Vets who had the skill to do it; the copious abundance of wrapped presents under the tree for each of the four children — way more than his single income could possibly have allowed; the brick patterned crepe paper taped in front of the bookcase to make it look like a makeshift fireplace with the stockings hung with care, now brimming over with gifts; the small plastic radio playing Christmas music without commercial interruption… And most magical of all, the two people in Love standing in the center of the room, very tired and with their arms around one another. They had done it! CHRISTMAS! They had done it again! And they would do it again, year after year until the children were grown.

The next morning would be nothing short of spectacular. It would happen in many homes — in many small apartments in the Bronx, and around the world. But here, in this little apartment on Mosholu Parkway, there would glow luminously the very core of what Christmas is about. The children never knew their father did any of this. He made special efforts to never wear the brown uniform in the home. He would bring it with him, change in the locker room at work, and change out of it before he left. They also had no idea of the derision he faced, being an Italian American worker in 1960’s New York. He remained respectful in all his dealings. He was an Officer of the Law. He would even years later go out of his way to protect the very supervisor who had treated him so badly, and that man would never know that the Cop who saved his life had been one of the Italian-Americans who had been subject to his abuses as his Christmas Help years earlier.

The children would grow up to live their lives keeping Christmas always, and teaching their children to do so, as well — part of the American Dream for which their Grandparents had sacrificed so much, and would never live to see. The next generation would do the same. And as for the generation after that, which he himself would not live to see… well, who knows?

Christmas Spirit… much has been said about it. And all who have felt it appreciate the intoxicating and unparalleled Joyfulness its random acts of kindness bring; we work above and beyond expectation to give rise to gladness in those we love, and those we’ve yet to know.

There were no ghosts who visited that night; no green mythical figure who came and stole all the presents only to return them the next morning, no pocket watch and long beautiful hair that had been sold. It seems hardly a story worth telling.
Except that the Miracle of Christmas shone so brightly that night — perhaps more brightly than it had since the very first, and for the very same reasons.
A courageous act of Love was proclaimed in this world; great sacrifice was made; there was immense exertion and exhaustion, but as a result of these brave and daring acts of Love on both their parts, their children experienced enchantment beyond their imaginings, and even amidst the scarceness typical of second generation immigrant families, there were riches and such abundant appreciation for what they had.

These commonplace ordinary occurrences happen every day. People igniting wondrous phenomena and creating new worlds full of Wonder, in ways that surpass that of which we know ourselves to be capable.
These occurrences are called Miracles, and transpire when ordinary folks like Vincenzo and Fortina and you and me act out of Love and without reserve. And these ordinary Miracles change the World.
Many Eastern spiritual disciplines focus less on the rewards of the next world and more on inhabiting this world as fully as possible. That is to live well. That is the highest spiritual attainment. That was attained this one Christmas here — quietly and without fanfare, under the guise of ordinary living. It is attained whenever we inhabit this world as fully as possible, show up for our Lives, and muster the Willingness to fearlessly do that which is before us to be done. Simple. Though not always easy.

The stars in the sky twinkled brilliantly through the Fire Escape window looking out at the brick buildings, past the clotheslines across the courtyard.
And in the glow of the two strands of twinkling lights on the makeshift tree, they kissed under the mistletoe. They held one another, and began to sway to the soft Christmas music. And in the glimmer of the lights, in the wee small hours of the morning, he took her in his arms, and they danced.

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12 Comments

  1. Pete Marchese

     /  February 14, 2015

    I’m down here in Florida and you have filled me with the Christmas spirit and a number of tears in my eyes. That was one beautiful posting, thank you for including me in your Christmas card

    Reply
  2. christinerosas42

     /  February 15, 2015

    “Like most men, he would become a wonderful grandfather first. Or is it that that is the turning point at which children begin to see clearly what their father was doing for them all along?” This really clicked for me! 🙂 What a nice delight to be in front of my computer in the warmth of the Middle East dessert on a February morning and then swept away to a Northeastern US Christmas!

    Reply
  3. I could almost hear the Lionel trains, smell the pine from the Christmas tree and taste your Mom’s struffoli. Such a beautiful perspective of a 1960s Christmas in the Bronx written with love and adoration directly from the heart. *love* *love* *love* it!!! Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story!

    Reply
  4. Stunningly beautiful, deeply touching, and one of the most magical Christmas stories I’ve ever read. Thank you so much!

    Reply
  5. Darcie

     /  February 15, 2015

    Beautiful! Bravo, Arnold! Love what you say at the end about inhabiting this life more fully. Christians are preoccupied with what happens in death, but even Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) From all of your Christmas posts, it’s apparent that you are are someone whose heart (and, therefore, life) is abundant with love and gratitude.

    Reply
  6. Terry Burrell

     /  February 15, 2015

    It is easy to see how the love and the caring of Vincenzo and Fortina shaped the man you are today. I love them through your memory of them and believe me when I tell you Arnold that they to this very day guide and protect their baby boy. Thank you for including me with this beautifully written Christmas story. I feel calm and loved and surrounded by my own angels.

    Reply
  7. indeed good to get Christmas

    Reply
  8. dsbishop

     /  February 18, 2015

    I love this and I love your heart in the writing of it. Great job, Arnold! You have a gift. Thank you for sharing that gift with us all.

    Reply
  9. Ann Steele

     /  February 24, 2015

    Simply, I thank you.

    Reply
  10. Lou Monteforte

     /  February 27, 2015

    Simply wonderful but why you change the names?

    Reply
    • Ha! Thanx, LOU!
      Well… Poetic License.
      I mean, if you think about it, I was 5. So I can’t really know any of the details for sure… so I had to make ’em all up.
      Does that make it a fiction? Life imitating Art… Art imitating Life… All I know is that I sure am Grateful… Merry Christmas! XXOO

      Reply
  11. Stuard M. Derrick

     /  March 13, 2015

    Just lovely, Arnold. And Merry Christmas!!

    Reply

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