Mom and Her Most Unhelpful Family
In my last post I recalled my mother's favorite Christmas. I'll now focus on possibly Mom's least enjoyed Christmas. It's the story about meeting 2 very odd characters on Christmas day in downtown St. Louis. Mom would have been just as amused as we were by these Christmas strangers, but she was back home cooking dinner for 12.
Mom would have enjoyed meeting our strangers.
In fact, Mom never met a stranger. Here's a cartoon my brother drew as a teenager, poking a bit of fun at Mom's habit of inviting just about anyone to our family gatherings. In the drawing Mom is chatting with a fictitious grocer and bag boy who are happily attending my wedding. Had Mom been able to join us on that Christmas afternoon when we met our drunken strangers, David would have had good cartoon material...Mom inviting "Bulldog" and "Tipsy" to our holiday meal.
Christmas of 1981
It was a nice Christmas...a white one. Our grandmother, Daw had been released from the hospital the day before. The "kids" were all in town, filling the duplex with Christmas morning chaos. But by afternoon, Mom was a bit frazzled. There would be 12 for dinner (some extras this year) and the house was a mess. Daw was resting after a fall that morning (caused by our boxer, Ted) and we still hadn't made our Christmas visit to Aunt Ruth's. Mom was distracted by a painful shoulder ailment and some details over a real estate closing, but she insisted she could get the meal ready, if we would take the gifts to the nursing home. "Just be home in time to help me lift the turkey from the oven."
By mid afternoon, the 5 "kids" (my husband Don was now one of the Meyer clan) were shooed out of the house with gifts for Aunt Ruth. (Luckily the house didn't look as bad as this until New Year's morning.) We made it only a block before running out of gas.
We abandoned Mom's car and took the Pontiac Don had borrowed from his mom and headed into the city on I-55.
We had made it fairly close to the brewery when we noticed the steering wheel was steaming! The car made it halfway up the exit ramp before dying. Luckily we had 4 pairs of hands to push the car to the nearest gas station, which was closed.
An Eerie Part of Town
The gas station sat on a dreary street of abandoned buildings. (photo taken recently when searching for our memory spot) But we weren't the only ones with car trouble at the closed station. There were some others who offered their bucket of water to cool the engine...which didn't help.
A Bar on Christmas Day!
The area may have looked dead, but we actually had a choice of 2 corner bars to enjoy some holiday cheer while we waited for AAA. None of us can remember the bar's name, but it looked kind of like this. We ended up choosing the nicer of the 2, even though Don recognized the building from a recent news clip about a bar bombing.
The interior wasn't nearly as bright or orderly as this internet photo, but we wouldn't have dared taking photos even if we'd had a camera. I remember 1 bartender and 8 slumping customers looking up when our nicely dressed group of 5 walked in. All eyes were upon us until someone in our group answered the silent question with, "Our car broke down." The customers seemed satisfied and turned back to their drinks.
We called AAA and were told it would be a long wait, so we ordered some beers. We gathered some strength then made the dreaded call to Mom... to give her the news of our hold up.
Luckily there was a pool table and some video games for distraction. I faked interest in Pac-man, to avoid stranger interaction, (I was less brave then) while sneaking peeks at the dismal surroundings. I recall lots of faded Christmas decorations that clearly stayed on display year round. There were girly calendars and half-lit neon signs. I only sipped at my beer to avoid hunting for a ladies room.
At the bar, there was one particularly weathered character doing most of the talking. The bartender called him "Bulldog". I strained to understand his slurred speech as he shared a bit of holiday wisdom with the few sitting nearby. "You know, Christmas is the only day of the year you gotta have dignity." I turned away, afraid I might laugh, then worried when he got up and wandered my way. But he passed me by and headed for my brother and sister at the pool table, where he shared the same Christmas wisdom. My younger brother Dave told Bulldog he agreed 100% with the dignity advice. My sister Jennifer was always relaxed around a pool table and I was concerned she might just laugh in Bulldog's face when he gazed into her eyes and murmured, "You know, you are as pretty as can be."
The tow truck finally arrived and the driver argued about payment since the car's owner (AAA member) wasn't with us. My older brother, Chris who had just passed DC bar exam, argued well and even talked himself into getting a ride with the driver and his wife up in the cab.
We were finally able to reach Don's Dad who came to pick up the rest of our gang and drive us to the repair shop to meet Chris. While we nibbled on Fritos from a vending machine and answered calls from Mom (she had the shop's number, now) we heard some details about Chris' ride in the tow truck. Evidently the driver and his wife were "celebrating Christmas" on the job. The first thing he told Chris was "You can ride up here, but keep your hands off my wife." Then as they headed up the ramp to I-55, the feisty driver offered Chris a swig from an open champagne bottle and asked, "Ever gone 90 while towing a car!" We're lucky Chris ever made it to Christmas dinner.
By the time we made it home, Mom and the guests had everything under control. Dinner was 3 hours later than planned, but Mom was a good sport and laughed with us as we told her about Bulldog and Tipsy, the tow truck driver. Dear Aunt Ruth was willing to celebrate a day late and we all went to bed happy.
(This photo was probably taken a few years earlier, but I'll bet Chris carved the turkey with the same smile in 1981!)
Thank you, Christmas Strangers
You didn't teach us a whole lot in your tipsy states. But you gave us a good story to tell for many years to come!
1963 in New York City
My mom always said this was her favorite Christmas...the year we lived in Staten Island. Our family of 6 lived for just a year in a 1 bedroom apartment and my dad took the ferry to Manhattan each day where he worked in the theatre district.
Our tree that year was special because all the ornaments were handmade. Since our decorations were back in Iowa, we covered our tree with paper chains and strings of popcorn. Each branch held cardboard and Styrofoam shapes, dripping with paint, glue and glitter.
But the most special memory of that Christmas had to do with the people we met on Christmas Eve.
Stern's Department Store
We met our strangers on Christmas Eve, after an afternoon shopping at Stern's Department store on 42nd Street. We were waiting for Dad to finish at rehearsal before picking him up and heading home on the ferry...to start celebrating.
What I Remember
I was 6, and just remember a couple things. My older brother was 11 and he refused to pose with Stern's Santa. I also remember peeking in my mom's shopping bag and seeing the stuffed mouse I had hoped to get. A painful lesson. That was the year I learned that hoping and anticipating is much more fun than knowing.
When we left the store it was dark and it had begun to snow! Four giddy children on Christmas Eve, shrieking over the snow and anxious for Dad to get off work! But it still wasn't time.
To kill a little more time, Mom walked the 4 of us across the street to peek in the windows of a fire station. My memories are hazy, but I do remember the building looking something like this. We squinted through the glass and I can vaguely remember decorations...lights and greenery, I think. As we started to walk away we heard a tapping on the window. A few faces peered out, smiling and gesturing for us to come in.
Firemen Aren't Strangers
At age 6, I knew not to talk to strangers. But I also knew, "firemen were our friends" and besides, Mom was there! I had never been in a fire station, and here I was with my brothers and sister, exploring the truck and trying on fire hats. Our new friends seemed just as excited as we were. I wish I could remember more details. My mom was always good at retelling this story each year...The Christmas Eve with the magical snowfall and the kind firemen who seemed so eager to have children join their lonely station that night. I wish I could hear Mom tell that story one more time.
Thank You, Firefighters!
NY Firemen, I don't have a picture of you all from 1963 when you invited us in to play. But here is a picture of the firefighters in a St. Louis station in 1991. For many years I took my kids (and often neighbors) to visit the fire station on Christmas Eve. We always brought cookies and pictures the kids had drawn. I never got to thank you when I was a kid, but this has been my way of remembering your kindness!
One More Thing
Since Mom passed away just 3 weeks ago, we're trying to celebrate by remembering the Christmas she loved best. We won't visit the fire station...it's been nearly 15 years. But we bought a live tree and only pulled out one box of decorations this year. Inside the box were ornaments the kids made in preschool...and decorations made by friends...and even a few my mom sewed for our tree that year in New York.
We decorated the tree and kept it simple like that year in 1963. We laughed over our sloppy string of popcorn and our very lame paper chain that kept coming apart. But tomorrow on Christmas Eve, we'll attempt to colaborate on a star that will go on the top. That will be for Mom! We'll make it a good Christmas just for her!
I have no photo of Santa...
But here is a picture of the kids who went to visit him on a December morning in 1983 I only remember 2 things about the magical Santa at the St. Louis department store. One thing was the color of his skin. The other is the reaction of the children when they saw him.
Famous-Barr Department Store
I recently visited St. Louis and saw the old Famous-Barr store decorated for Christmas. I remembered the big trip years ago when 60 children of University City Children's Day Care Center boarded a school bus and headed downtown for a Santa visit.
Now the store is a Macy's, but the windows were decorated lavishly when it was Famous-Barr. I'm sure the kids squealed and jammed up close to the glass to stare in before we headed inside the festive building.
How Many Floors?
I didn't count the other day, but there must be about 8 stories, which was a pretty thrilling sight for the kids, since most had never visited a department store. Most of these kids came from low income, stressed households with little time left over for Santa adventures.
For many, it was their first escalator ride!
The store opened in 1924...the first department store in the US with air conditioning! These streamlined stainless steel and aluminum masterpieces were spectacular in their day. It was hard to tell which was more thrilling to the kids, the idea of riding these big metal monsters or seeing Santa?
Some were scared of the moving stairs.
As we rode higher, the elevators changed to polished wood. The kids grew giddier with anticipation. The 8 teachers grew more stressed at how we would control them. By the time we reached the Santaland floor, the children and teachers were jolted at the sight of masses of children, parents and teachers standing in long fidgety lines leading to 3 separate doorways. The sound of Christmas music could barely be heard over the roar of high pitched voices and crying babies and reprimanding adults.
It took only a moment to see that one line was less than half the length of the others. One teacher shoved through to investigate. She came back with the news about the Santa in the middle room. "He's black." She said. We pondered only a second before moving our children to the short line.
(An Internet Search to Find a Santa that looks like the One I Remember)
I really don't know how long it took us to reach the door where the children could actually see the Santa sitting on his large chair with his white beard and dark skin. It seemed forever as I fretted over how they might react. After all, half our children were African American. Should it matter? But I also had witnessed both black and white students in my four year old classroom reject the dark skinned dolls and fight over the white. And in 1983, there were very few cards and books that featured Santas with dark skin. Would the children care? I wasn't prepared for this "teachable moment".
How did the children react?
Finally my class of 15 moved far enough forward to peer into the fantasy world of fake snow and glittery trees. Their eyes moved directly to "Our Santa" perched high on a red throne. I held my breath, then quickly determined their gasps were simply reactions to Santa... not Santa's skin. "There he is!" "Look, it's Santa!" I don't remember specifics of each encounter. I just know the children were in awe as each took a turn on Santa's lap.
Not one child, black or white gave a clue to suggest they believed this Santa wasn't the real Santa. I wish I had captured photos of all the expressions, but I think I was too caught up in Santa's magic to think about the camera.
But if you look a the one photo I have and zoom in on one face and turn that expression up 10 notches...you'll get the idea.
So Thank you, Santa! I work with kids and I know it can be a tough job. And being a Santa must be about the toughest! I would have been nervous to be you, anticipating a few comments from a parent or even a child. You are the most enchanting Santa I've ever encountered. Maybe it was the big smile you greeted the kids with... or your confidence. But it was clear, the only color that mattered to these children was the red of your suit! Thank you for taking on your job with such enthusiasm. I think of you and those children every year!
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers