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!
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