Any CD, any song, any cover by Lucinda Williams would make a fine Christmas present for the girls in your life. Give them something soul-stretching. – R.T.
By Rosalie Tirella
When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island in the 1960s and 1970s, we were poor. My mother, a single working mom with a minimum-wage job, couldn’t buy us kids expensive Christmas toys. Still, my two kid sisters and I dreamed of – coveted! – those classic Baby Boomer toys: The Easy Bake Oven, Rock em Sock em Robots, Barbie’s Deluxe Beach House with snazzy pink Barbie convertible! We wanted it all!
My sisters and I wholeheartedly believed in Santa and, more important, his gift-giving prowess. So every Christmas we made out our Barbie- and Battle Ship-laden Christmas lists for ol’ Chris Kringle and dutifully gave them to our mother to mail to Santa … only to be let down brutally Christmas morning.
Every Christmas morning, when we unwrapped our Christmas gifts from Santa, they looked exactly like the cheap little plastic dolls and trinkets and coloring books that were for sale at Whites Five and Ten store on Millbury Street! A 10-minute walk from our flat on Lafayette Street! No deluxe Barbie Beach House for me! No Rock em Sock em Robots for my kid sister, Trina!
What the hell was going on over at the North Pole?!
My sisters and I had gotten jipped! It was as if Santa had gotten sloppy drunk all year, like the men in the barroom across the street from the three decker where we lived, and went home and beat the shit out of Mrs. Santa Claus instead of going to work at the Toy Factory!
Santa’s gifts insulted me! Here we were, Baby Boomer kids hungry for those amazing Baby Boomer toys that the TV commercials touted EVERY SECOND of every day during the holidays, and we got crap! I had asked for the big beautiful doll I saw on the TV commercial – the one whose thick, auburn hair grew when you turned a magic knob in her back! I loved this doll! She was a dilly of a doll! Her hair could grow down to the back of her knees with just a simple twist of the magic button in her back! And when you pressed her belly button, her hair would magically roll up, growing short again! I could comb this beautiful doll’s long beautiful tresses. I could put ribbons in her hair and curl it and put it in an up-do! Just like what the TV commercial showed.
And here it was, Christmas day, a bright, bright sunny morning, with the icicles looking so graceful and hard hanging from the tree branches outside our back porch, looking just like long diamond earrings …. and Ma making her delicious French toast for us, cutting up each piece of French toast like it was a tic tac toe board and sprinkling sugar on top … and Santa had gone and ruined the whole thing! RUINED Christmas by giving me the doll that looked exactly like the doll at White’s Five and Ten – the doll with the short, boring curly dark hair. What made it more galling – “my” doll wore her hair the way my mother did after she got her hair permed by her hairdresser on Green Street, the skinny lady with razor-short, rust-colored hair who slipped out to a back room in the middle of cutting your hair to take a swig of something from a little flask! Here it was Christmas morning and my dream doll had a bad perm! Just like my mother!
What was wrong with Santa? Didn’t he love me? I was good all year! I was as perfect a little kid as he could have asked for! I went to church every Sunday, got all A’s at Lamartine School, obeyed my mother, my Bapy, my teachers and all adults, no matter how stupid or disgusting I may have found them, did my chores at home, always did all my homework, prayed like mad to the wall-to-wall statues of Jesus and the saints that my Bapy and Ma had in our flat.
Picture this: In every room, on every shelf, practically on every wall of our apartment … Jesus, the Virgin Mother and all the saints in all kinds of situations in various states of undress. There were the half-naked angels flying to heaven on white wings that grew out of their naked, muscular backs; there was Jesus, fully clothed but still long-haired and WASPily handsome, sitting on clouds as puffy as the cotton balls on my mother’s bureau. There were Saint Joseph and Saint Anthony placing their hands on the tops of little kids’ heads or the heads of pretty lambs. They were perfect.
They could also be unsettling. For example, it was upsetting to look at some of my Bapy’s older, “holy” prints from what she called THE OLD COUNTRY – Poland, her homeland. Bapy’s big dark pictures in big dark wood frames were downright scary! They depicted a saint being stabbed in the back – in church, no less! – by some cruel knight. One was of the Virgin Mary riding on a big cloud above Hell with all the people in hell, engulfed in flames – up to their chests in fire! – reaching out to her for help. In this huge print, which hung dark, dusty and foreboding above the black metal headboard of my Bapy’s big, squeaky bed, the people – naked men and women – are begging the Virgin Mary to take them up on her cloud, so they can join her her all the cute, little bare-assed cherubs flying around her. They so want to be out of hell, the giant fire pit! They are up to their waists in flames! But they were sinners, here on earth. So Mary just glides past them on her cotton ball cloud, her nose up in the air. The sinners had their chance to do good on earth, while alive, but they fucked up. Big time. They stole things, murdered people, slept with their neighbors’ wives, coveted their neighbors’ husbands and took God, our Lord’s name in vain! So now they were stuck for ETERNITY in hell! They were in an infinite amount of flames to eternally cook! They would feel their limbs and eye balls heating up like the baked potato in my mother’s stove. Their throats would be scorched and parched from the fire, but they would not get a drop of water to relieve their excruciating, unending pain. Not one single drop! It was God saying: NOW SCREW YOU! SUFFER!
My mother, Bapy, kid sisters and me truly believed in these pictures! Way more than I ever believed in Santa Claus!
… So ….What WAS wrong with Santa?! Why wasn’t he listening to this good conservative Catholic girl? Rewarding her for her goodness?!
Here it was Christmas and my sisters and my gifts looked exactly like the toys from White’s Five and Ten on Millbury Street – just a ten minute walk from the dry cleaners where our mother worked! A place we passed by every day after school as we walked to Kelley Square to go the Broadway Restaurant (still there!) on Water Street for our after-school snacks – HUGE Broadway hamburgers, with their complimentary HUGE onion rings and three glasses of Cokes. A snack our mother knew would hold us over till supper, which we ate quite late because she worked at the dry cleaners until 6 p,m. and then had to walk home from work and THEN cook supper.
I remember Christma- time on Millbury Street! It was more fun than Christmas presents! My two kid sisters and I usually had the run of Millbury Street after school, after we visited our mom at the dry cleaners and got snack money! The street was so much finer than it is today! The perfect Polish Ghetto! Lined with scores of sturdy little mom and pop stores that sold all the necessities, from furniture (Millbury Furniture) to pistachio nuts (Commercial Fruit). A beautiful/ugly world my sisters and I loved to explore! A street where we’d buy, on some Fridays, bad fish and chips at one store and have the runs later on, or pick up a gorgeous kielbasa (a Polish sausage) at another store and feast on kielbasa sandwiches, after Ma boiled the big sausage and sliced it and put the kielbasa slices on one slice of bread and slathered another slice of bread with mustard! A treat!
The turnips we bought at the fruit store on Millbury Street during the holiday season were big and tough, really grown for pigs and farm animals but sold on Millbury Street because we customers were immigrants or the kids or grandkids of immigrants and didn’t mind eating vegetables meant for animals! We were poor and the world treated us accordingly! In fact, years later, I learned that my grandmother’s doctor on Millbury Street was nicknamed “The Horse Doctor” because his patients were, almost exclusively, Polish immigrants. (It made me feel bad to learn that!)
But the shops – we knew them all – were humming at Christmastime! Most of the owners who’d chat with me and my sisters were very nice to us. A few were latent child molesters. We knew their inventory that we picked up and prodded with our little fingers and sometimes bought, cheap stuff that, for all their politeness, the shop owners would never let go for free. A $2 bauble for a poor kid? Unheard of! Unless you were in the hospital practically dying from the measles or some other childhood disease. Then they remembered you, like the time Mr. White of Whites Five and Ten knew I was very sick at home with the mumps and gave my mom a big face-changing clown game to give to me – the one I used to (not so secretly, I guess) play with whenever I went into his store.
One week in early December I was in the Broadway on Water Street munching on my oinion rings and I heard THE GREAT NEWS. The neighborhood center was putting on a Christmas party for us neighborhood kids! There were gonna be a ton of toys! One, maybe two, for each kid at the party! My kid sisters and I should definitely go!
Finally! Our chance to get GOOD Christmas gifts!
I wolfed down the rest of my Broadway after school snack, raced across car-clogged Kelley Square the way we street kids liked to do – boldly walking in front of and behind the idling cars in the Square LIKE WE WERE THE KINGS and ran down Millbury Street, straight to the dry cleaners. My mom was busy with the customers at the counter, so I went to the waiting area in front of the store, like my sisters and I always did when our mother was busy with customers, and sat in my favorite chair … and twirled. That’s what me and my two kid sisters used to do wherever we waited for our mother at the dry cleaners! Out front there were three vinyl covered, round chairs, in three different colors: blue, green, pink. Three hip little chairs, each on three short metal legs – their seats rotated. Very 1970s. To me and my sisters these chairs were cool little cock pits just waiting for their girl pilots! We’d sit in them and spin ourselves silly, laughing way too loud for “a place of businesses,” as my mom used to say when she’d come in front and tell us to settle down! But when she left we went right back to twirling wicked fast, treating the chairs like carnival rides! That’s what I was doing now, in the baby blue number!
When my mom’s customers left I ran to her and said: Ma, can we go to the Grren Island Christmas party? There’s gonna be cake and PRESENTS! FOR EVERYBODY!
This smelled of CHARITY to my mom, and my mother, a very proud lady, didn’t want her little family looking like a “charity case,” though we probably did. Plus, she would have to do some mingling with the other neighborhood parents, which she didn’t like to do too often or at least at for long periods of time. Sure, she’d chat with them at the cleaners or at the Lamartine Street School parents night – and she truly loved and confided in our downstairs neighbor, a woman just as sharp as my mom, a woman who was half black but considered herself half Cherokee (my mom thought of her as half Cherokee too) – but she preferred to keep her distance. The neighborhood women were a little rough: they could look disheveled, smoked, sometimes drank, swore, didn’t have jobs even though they were husbandless, didn’t go to church every Sunday like we did and didn’t believe in education, like my mom did. They were nice and polite to her and she to them, but at home my mom would say she could never hang out with them. She’d say: “They just sit home, smoking cigarettes and drinking their coffee together.” My mother’s code words for “welfare cases.” And that’s all she ever said about them. She probably knew a lot, through our downstairs neighbor, her close friend, but she was a serious person with no time for neighborhood gossip. And she had a pretty good heart. She knew everyone in Green Island was under the gun in one way or another. Why make matters worse?
My mom refused to be a welfare case, even for a nanosecond! My mom was a woman of action and hard work! And she’d drag her three little girls, like good little soldiers, into that battle field of hard work and action, teaching them to be strong like her, too!
The neighborhood Christmas party was a hard sell! But my sisters and I kept at our mother. PLEASE, MA! PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE CAN WE GO TO THE GREEN ISLAND CHRISTMAS PARTY?! until she finally relented, a little annoyed … not at all filled with the Christmas spirit like we were!
On the day of the Christmas party, we kids walked up to the neighborhood center, but my mom would pick us up when it was over because it would be dark then. We would all walk home together in the early winter night, not at all an unpleasant experience.
Well, my sisters and I got to the neighborhood party and it was everything like my mother had probably expected: chaotic, a little rough (two fights broke out BEFORE the toys were handed out), kids stuffing themselves with cake a real treat for all of us – my sisters and I wolfed down our big pieces of the huge sheet cake too – and at the end, all us kids in two lines, one for the boys and girls, waiting for their gifts. Every kid eager for their Christmas gift to be given to him by Santa who KNEW ALL OUR SECRET WISHES AND WOULD GIVE US THE PERFECT GIFTS. Santa was most likely from the neighborhood and came with a fat, jolly beer belly! I adored him and hugged him thank you when he gave me my BIG Christmas present. My sisters got theirs, too, not as big as mine but big enough!
My mother was walking up to the center when my sisters and I had just gotten our gifts. We ran to her: MA, CAN WE OPEN THEM WHEN WE GET HOME? THEY’RE PARTY GIFTS! All the other kids are opening their presents!!!
It was true. Pretty much all the kids had ripped the wrapping paper off their gifts as soon as Santa had given them to them. The neighborhood center floor was a sea of crumpled wrapping paper! My sisters and I waited for our mother, to ask permission (and to share our fun with her).
My mom said YES to our request and my sisters and I, holding our serious Christmas gifts, practically floated down Lafayette Street and up the two flights of stairs to our third floor tenement, which my mother had decorated in pretty Christmas paper and tissue – even our living room draperies were Christmas tissue paper drapes from – you guessed it !- Whites Five and Ten on Millbury Street. She had our little Christmas tree up on an old trunk that she had covered up with red chimney tissue paper. The lights on our little tree were broken, but she had set up the manger next to it and that was the real treat. The barn we had, the place where baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph found themselves stuck in felt hauntingly familiar. The place they were stuck in looked faded and poor – just like the place we were stuck in. The angels and shepherds looked serious and happy at the same time – just like my mother’s face. The plaster donkey was adorable! My mom had put fake cotton snow on the roof of the barn and tinsel on our broken down little Christmas tree. The whole scene looked very authentic and we kids in our poor little shack stared at the little kid in his poor little shack. And smiled. The SON OF GOD, really GOD, lying in a crummy old manger filled with prickly old hay, being born in a sketchy part of Bethlehem in a barn with only three walls! Poor baby! The only good part of his childhood was probably gonna be all the great animals!
When we got home from the party, my sisters and I tore off the Christmas paper on our gifts. … WOW. … Toys that we SAW ON THE TV COMMERCIALS! A real potter’s wheel and clay for my sister. A real hot roller beauty station for my other sister. And for me: the MYSTERY DATE game, with the real door you opened in the middle of the game board to find out who your mystery date was. I knew the dates all by heart from the television commercials: Open the door to greet a color photo ofvmystery date #1 …Handsome tuxedo clad boyfriend, date #2 … handsome ski suit wearing boyfriend, with skis .,, date #3 nerdy but ok looking bowling boyfriend wearing bowling shoes, bowling shirt and carrying a bowling ball case. Then the final picture of the final date, the date you got if you lost the game: the slobby boyfriend. Hair a mess. Tee shirt dirty and torn hanging over his old work pants. Crappy work boots. A mess! Ick!!!!!! My father, who we hadn’t seen in months, and all the men in my neighborhood looked like the loser mystery date. But some guys, like my father, were actually good looking under all their crappy old clothes, and some guys like my best friend’s big brother, were very smart and funny and kinda cute, too!
I couldn’t get my sisters to play this big, colorful looking board game with me. They said it was boring.
Truth be told, I found it boring, too.
And my sister had short hair, too short and fine for the hot roller curlers she got. We didn’t look like the girls on the TV commercial that sold those curlers either. We looked like our Bapy from Poland and ran around Green Island in slacks and striped shirts, the perfect tom boys. And we didn’t live in a pretty single family home like the girls in the commercial seemed to live in. We lived in a place most people wouldn’t be caught dead in!
The hot rollers fell to the wayside in a day or two.
The potter’s wheel was more interesting but too messy. We never got into it …
So, while the TV commercials never disappointed us, their products did. We gave our Christmas toy wish lists to our mother, not expecting too much on that end either, and moved on with our lives.
Still, my sisters and I were generally pretty silly and happy the holiday season. There was Millbury Street, The Broadway, Mr. and Mrs. White at Whites Five and Ten. Mrs. White had a ton of hair. She dyed it jet black and wore it piled up on her head very very high. She was tall and wore red lipstick and very nice expensive dresses to work … so you’d look up at her and see this monument to fashion. Mrs. White could have used the hot rollers. .. We also had our Bapy from Poland, whom we loved. We had our pet turtles and neighborhood chums and Lamartine Street School. Our Dad was missing in action again, so it was safe and peaceful. Best of all, we had our mom who kept the whole thing going at a pretty interesting little clip. Did I tell you she made the best French toast in the world, cutting up our slices so they looked like tic tac toe boards before she sprinkled them with sugar?
By Chef Joey
Holiday! Celebrate! Madonna had us singing that tune, but let’s face it: holidays can be stressful! Who came up with the idea that we had to buy gifts for everyone AND entertain, making a dent in our savings?
When I was a kid, my mother used to tell us: “When Christmas came we got an orange.” Well, it was World War II, and they did move all the way from Europe … . But I was a kid and the neighbors had virtual Egyptian pyramids of gifts!! So the point was not coming across! My cousins and I would discuss the various items we received that were all going to be items we would use during the year: pajamas, stationery, pens – you get the point.
However, my mother did take us out shopping after Christmas and bought us things that were on sale. She was all about the spirit of the holiday season, NOT the commercialization that starts in October with decorated pine trees in mega superstores.
As I got older, I realized she was a forerunner for my frugal view of the holidays, so I stopped buying gifts for adults. Instead, I started making donations to food banks, homeless shelters, and I requested letters for the donations and I handed them out as gifts. It helps the community and eliminated the need to re-gift or become a closet hoarder!
Little kids, on the other hand, are the exception. And college-bound youths get the necessary items that I received, and those with a driver’s license get gas cards.
Now that I explained the gifting part – there is the food! In my last column I explained how to make nutritious and delicious meals for a low cost. Like the guy in poltergeist, “I’m BAAAAACK!”
Turkey is a staple for the holidays, and it is affordable: usually on sale for $.89 to $1.50 a pound. To quote Nike “Just do it!” Pork roasts are also a great way to go and are often less than $2 a pound.
Veggies … Load up on your vegetables and you will have a sure fire holiday. feeding up to 20 people for less than $50. Price it out: a 20 pound turkey at $.99 is $10. Butternut squash unpeeled is $.99 a pound. Roughly you’ll need 5 pounds so we are at $15 now. A 10 pound bag of potatoes is $3.99 so we are at $19. Add another veggie – and go frozen here – lots of nutrition – and it is already clean. Store brands are packaged by major companies and usually the store brand is $2 a bag so let’s get 4. Now we hit the $27 mark and we have $23 to go.
Dessert comes to mind … I am going to give you a cake recipe that costs under $2 that you will pass down for generations to your family. You will never buy a cake mix again!
The other recipe is a rub you can use on your roasts that seal in the juices and makes your meal perfect.
The cake recipe is so simple:
2 ½ cups sifted flour
2 cups sifted sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
Mix together – it will be kind of like a paste. Add ½ teaspoon of salt, 2 teaspoons of vanilla and sprinkle 2 teaspoons of baking POWDER on top.
Now add ¼ teaspoon of baking SODA and pour 2 cups of HOT WATER on top, and the foaming begins.
Whisk together until it all comes to a creamy consistency with no lumps.
Pour into either two 9” cake pans or a rectangle sheet pan that is greased, floured and has a greased and floured wax or parchment paper lining in it.
Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes – depending on your oven, test with a toothpick for doneness.
When done, let cool slightly. Take it out of the pan and when it is cool – cover it in whipped cream.
This is your $2.59 cake topping: Get a pint of heavy or whipping cream. Whip it up, add vanilla and a couple tablespoons of sugar … and there you have it! Fewer calories than frosting and nature’s goodness.
To add dimension to your cake, you can add 6 tablespoons of cocoa to the dry flour when sifting for chocolate cake … or ¼ cup orange juice and reduce water to 1 ¾ cup and add zested orange to your cake – or add lemon or lime or even coconut – your choices are endless!
Now that rub –
¼ -1/2 cup brown sugar or regular sugar
depending on the size of your roast, 1 cup oil
pinch of salt
¼ cup parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce (optional)
Rub your ROOM-TEMPERATURE roast and there you have it!
No matter what your holiday traditions, have a safe, healthy and delicious holiday season!
… you know how I LOVE blue.
By the way, Target is a very progressive store/company, giving lots of $$$$ to great charities!
Every big company/chain is not the devil!!
And with federal and state minimum wage going UP this year, these stores are getting better at employing the working class. – R.T.
… so ethereal … makes me think of snow, the light, powdered-sugar kind, falling all around me. Just me, alone, a teenager, walking down Lafayette Street. It’s nighttime, not too late, and I’m coming home from my after-school job on Scott Street. I’m admiring the snow as it falls so gracefully against the halo of light I see at the top of a street lamp … . Just skinny-kid me, booking it home, looking up at the winter sky in Green Island …