A Christmas Remembrance

That's me posing with Shirley and my brother, Rafael, too.

That’s me posing with Shirley and my brother, Rafael, too.

Note:  I first posted this two years ago when my readers were few and far between.  Thanks for reading, and may your holidays be happy and warm!

Each of us has moments in our lives that we’d like to recapture. For me, one of those moments was the Christmas I received Shirley. I was seven and the excitement of the season was still fresh in my heart, beginning with the signal from my mother indicating it was time.

Time to venture down to the basement and rummage through stacks of boxes until we found the right ones. My mother would pretend not to see them, allowing me the thrill of spotting the boxes first. Worn from years of use and handling, they were filled with fragile, shiny ornaments and treasured decorations. Out came the large red Santa boot, made of Styrofoam, red paint and glitter, which we’d hang on the front door. Nestled in another box, we’d find the plastic reindeer that would spend each Christmas watching over us from its perch on the hi-fi. Meanwhile, my father would take my brothers to purchase a tree from a nearby lot. Once they returned, we’d open the box with the delicate ornaments. We’d peel away the tissue paper to uncover each gleaming object in hues of red, blue and silver.  As we decorated the tree, Andy Williams and Perry Como records serenaded us with such classic songs, as “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

A few days before Christmas, my mother would take my brothers and me into the city. There, we’d move swiftly and purposely through the snow dusted streets, where the warm scent of chestnuts roasting in the vendors’ carts filled the cold, biting air. First, we’d catch a matinee at Radio City Music Hall, not so much to see the film, as to see the Radio City Rockettes perform in their Christmas show, always a spectacular sight. Afterward, we’d cross the street to Rockefeller Center to gaze upon the enormous Christmas tree, ablaze in lights in the dusk of a New York City evening, and watch the skaters glide gracefully across the ice. Before taking the subway back to Queens, we’d make one last stop at Macy’s on Herald Square.  Riding the elevator to the 8th floor, the anticipation of seeing Santaland made my heart beat faster. For the entire floor it seemed had been transformed into Santa’s village, replete with fake snow, starlight heavens, miniature buildings and a wooden bridge you’d walk across as you headed to see the man himself, Santa Claus.

We’d open our presents on Christmas Eve, which in our family was even more important than Christmas Day. The gifts were modest and simple as my parents couldn’t afford more than that. One year I received a plastic set of checkers. Another, a Dr. Ben Casey doll that had been purchased with S&H green stamps. In fact, green stamps were used to purchase many of our gifts.

But this year was different. This was the year that I was given Shirley, a flaxen-haired, blue-eyed doll in a pink dress and crisp pink and white striped pinafore.  She was absolutely breathtaking! Shirley, whose name my mother had chosen because the doll reminded her of Shirley Temple, was the most beautiful doll I’d ever laid eyes upon–and she was unattainable through green stamps. No ordinary doll, Shirley was a Madame Alexander doll, purchased at the most prestigious, high-end toy store in New York City, F.A.O. Schwartz. I hugged my new doll tightly, breathing in the smell of brand new plastic. In my delight, it didn’t cross my mind to ask how my parents were able to afford such a doll.  Too excited to even sleep that night, I just didn’t think about it. During the night it snowed. In the morning we’d all go sledding. But tonight I had Shirley. This was Christmas for me.

It wasn’t until later that I learned how a number of relatives and close family friends had pitched in to help my parents purchase Shirley for me. I learned how my parents made the decision to not give each other gifts that year, so that I could have Shirley.

Throughout my childhood, I received other dolls, but none compared to Shirley. The other dolls, for the most part, are gone now, but I still have Shirley. She is safely stored in a cedar chest, which I sometimes open at Christmastime, for one more look, for one more touch of my old, dear friend.  For when I hold Shirley, I am surrounded again by my parents’ love, their real gift to me.

So, how about you? What are your best holiday memories?

The Uptown Express

When I was a kid growing up in Queens, we spent many weekends trekking into the city, and for us, there was only one way to get there:  the New York City subway system. We’d take the E or the F train to mid-town Manhattan. Once there, we became creatures of habit.

First, we’d go to Radio City Music Hall, where we’d take in the latest Doris Day flick, followed by a spectacular show, featuring the world-famous New York City Rockettes. Then, lunch at our favorite automat, the Horn & Hardart, where individual servings of Salisbury steak, macaroni and cheese, and warm apple pie were neatly displayed behind glass cubicles. You’d insert a few nickels in the coin-operated slot next to the food item of your choice. The door would unlock, and–voilà!–a fresh, tasty dish, piping hot from the oven, was yours for the taking.

“His Master’s Voice” was RCA’s trademark, depicting this real dog, Nipper, listening to his owner’s voice on a phonograph.

After our meal, we’d cross the street to the RCA building, where you could see a life-size version of the RCA dog, proudly listening to his “master’s voice.” How I loved that terrier and so wanted one of my own.

Sometimes, we’d stop by the Time-Life building, too, to view the photo exhibit in the lobby area.  During the holidays, we were sure to visit Rockefeller Center and gaze upon the breathtaking Christmas tree, all decked out in dazzling lights that reflected upon the skaters below. Then, there were times when we’d take the uptown express to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I loved our trips to the city. Whenever we went, no matter where we’d go, these were magical times, indeed.

Taking the subway was the only way to go. If you ask me, it was the fastest way to maneuver through the city. I was fascinated by the long, pitch-black tunnels that stretched from one end of the city to the other, crisscrossing it (see map), in a mad-dash attempt to keep New Yorkers, moving.  I took comfort in the whoosh of the express train as it sped through each station. The rattle and clatter as it swayed side to side, and the lights that would turn off at random moments, leaving passengers in utter darkness.  It was enough to stir the imagination of any wide-eyed child. It was more than enough to inspire me to write this poem about the subway of my youth.

Laughter From the Uptown Express

We boarded the Uptown Express,

Mother, Older Brother and me,

On a clear afternoon in November.

The train heaved from the station,

Mother sighed, closed her eyes,

Brother tugged at his red bow tie,

While I pressed my face against the window,

Scummy from a thousand rides before.

Darkness swallowed us as the subway

Plunged ahead, grinding a path through the

Blackness, mad maze,

Screeching like nine monsters prowling

  In the night,

Racing like hungry rats down a crooked track,

Fingers curled tightly around the seat’s edge.

The lights flickered off inside when the train,

Rocked and reeled down a curve,

Shaking furiously till Brother fell against me,

And the door between cars flew–

OPEN!

Brother grabbed my arm as a lone woman,

In the doorway’s shadow swayed on flaming stilettos,

Elegantly wearing the glint of an emerald snake on her brow,

While the train howled down through the tunnel.

Moving toward Brother and me,

Frenzy spinning about her head like

Moths caught in a spark,

One thin arm reached above us as we cringed

In anticipation and—OH the lights came on!

The woman saw me shiver and Brother squirm

In his scarlet bow tie,

Her painted lips shaped a wild, cunning laugh,

Like purple goblins dancing maniacally in the wind.

The train slowed,

Grinding to its knees while Mother stretched

From a deep, somber sleep,

Glancing at Older Brother and me,

Meekly sitting beside her,

She took my hand and adjusted Brother’s crimson tie,

 Swiftly leading us off the train,

The door shut tightly behind us,

And as we reached the stairs on the platform above,

I could still hear the laughter from the Uptown Express.

One Christmas, One Gift

That's me posing with Shirley and my brother, Rafael, too.

Each of us has moments in our lives that we’d like to recapture. For me, one of those moments was the Christmas I received Shirley. I was seven and the excitement of the season was still fresh in my heart, beginning with the signal from my mother indicating it was time.

Time to venture down to the basement and rummage through stacks of boxes until we found the right ones. My mother would pretend not to see them, allowing me the thrill of spotting the boxes first. Worn from years of use and handling, they were filled with fragile, shiny ornaments and treasured decorations. Out came the large red Santa boot, made of Styrofoam, red paint and glitter, which we’d hang on the front door. Nestled in another box, we’d find the plastic reindeer that would spend each Christmas watching over us from its perch on the hi-fi. Meanwhile, my father would take my brothers to purchase a tree from a nearby lot. Once they returned, we’d open the box with the delicate ornaments. We’d peel away the tissue paper to uncover each gleaming object in hues of red, blue and silver.  As we decorated the tree, Andy Williams and Perry Como records serenaded us with such classic songs, as “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

A few days before Christmas, my mother would take my brothers and me into the city. There, we’d move swiftly and purposely through the snow dusted streets, where the warm scent of chestnuts roasting in the vendors’ carts filled the cold, biting air. First, we’d catch a matinee at Radio City Music Hall, not so much to see the film, as to see the Radio City Rockettes perform in their Christmas show, always a spectacular sight. Afterward, we’d cross the street to Rockefeller Center to gaze upon the enormous Christmas tree, ablaze in lights in the dusk of a New York City evening, and watch the skaters glide gracefully across the ice. Before taking the subway back to Queens, we’d make one last stop at Macy’s on Herald Square.  Riding the elevator to the 8th floor, the anticipation of seeing Santaland made my heart beat faster. For the entire floor it seemed had been transformed into Santa’s village, replete with fake snow, starlight heavens, miniature buildings and a wooden bridge you’d walk across as you headed to see the man himself, Santa Claus.

Here we are, in front of our tree. My favorite decoration, the white reindeer, watches over us from the Hi-Fi.

We’d open our presents on Christmas Eve, which in our family was even more important than Christmas Day. The gifts were modest and simple as my parents couldn’t afford more than that. One year I received a plastic set of checkers. Another, a Dr. Ben Casey doll that had been purchased with S&H green stamps. In fact, green stamps were used to purchase many of our gifts.

But this year was different. This was the year that I was given Shirley, a flaxen-haired, blue-eyed doll in a pink dress and crisp pink and white striped pinafore.  She was absolutely breathtaking! Shirley, whose name my mother had chosen because the doll reminded her of Shirley Temple, was the most beautiful doll I’d ever laid eyes upon–and she was unattainable through green stamps. No ordinary doll, Shirley was a Madame Alexander doll, purchased at the most prestigious, high-end toy store in New York City, F.A.O. Schwartz. I hugged my new doll tightly, breathing in the smell of brand new plastic. In my delight, it didn’t cross my mind to ask how my parents were able to afford such a doll.  Too excited to even sleep that night, I just didn’t think about it. During the night it snowed. In the morning we’d all go sledding. But tonight I had Shirley. This was Christmas for me.

It wasn’t until later that I learned how a number of relatives and close family friends had pitched in to help my parents purchase Shirley for me. I learned how my parents made the decision to not give each other gifts that year, so that I could have Shirley.

Throughout my childhood, I received other dolls, but none compared to Shirley. The other dolls, for the most part, are gone now, but I still have Shirley. She is safely stored in a cedar chest, which I sometimes open at Christmastime, for one more look, for one more touch of my old, dear friend.  For when I hold Shirley, I am surrounded again by my parents’ love, their real gift to me.