Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Ghost of Christmas Past

For the Jews on Cleveland’s east-side in the 1960s and 1970s, the holiday period was really about creating a new culture and eschewing everything except the very recent past. It was the Post War World era and everything was what you made of it in the “now”.   History for most of us born at Mount Sinai Hospital during the end of the Post War baby boom was divided into three distinct time periods. There were the Old Testament years, then nothing until the Holocaust, and then modern history, which dated from the founding of Israel.   So, unlike our gentile brethren, who dream about White Christmas’ past, Jewish kids never had a good old fashioned Hanukkah like your family had when your father or mother was a child, because those were in the years before World War II – otherwise known as the Great Jewish Historical Void.

As a child, I learned that I could ask my mothers parents what they did when they were little and I could get all sorts of stories about what it was like to live on a farm at the dawn of the 20th Century. What’s more, my grandfather – a man of very few words and bad aim with chewing tobacco – would break down and show me how to draw a cat using a couple circles, two triangles and the letter “S”.

But with my father’s parents were different. Ask them about their childhood’s and they would change the subject, partly because they never had childhoods like we have today. And they never wanted to discuss the “Old Country”, leading many of us to atlases only to discover that there was no place called the “Old Country” to be found. If you asked them what Old Country they came from, they would most likely name a place that no longer existed at the time. This created problems and confusion. My father’s parents were from Latvia, however because we’ve never talked about that, my niece mistakenly went out and joined a Lithuanian student organization thinking she had the right nation.

And it just wasn't my grandparents either.  Other kids had the same issues with their grandparents as well.  Visiting their grandparents houses offered few if any tangible pieces of evidence because most of our grandparents had just come over in the years before World War I.  So while our WASP friends may have noticed the rifle that great great grandfather Smyth carried in the civil war, our grandparents homes were filled with they type of things that they equated with success in America.  Their houses and apartments would be filled with cheap knock offs of Louis XVI from Janus Interiors (what we later called Early Van Aken) or Bauhaus chic Barcelona chairs if your grandmother was the artistic east coast type.  All of the upholstered Louis the XIV, XV and XVI was covered in layers of clear plastic, and then shrouded in furniture throws to keep the plastic from yellowing.  We were cloaked immediately upon entering their homes with admonishments not to walk on the freshly vacuumed carpets. "I don't want to see footprints ruin those nice marks made by Sally's vacuuming!"  And poor Sally, the cleaning lady.  If Ginger Rogers spent her life dancing back wards, then Sally (or Phoebe, or Mamie, of Mattie, etc.) spent their lives forever vacuuming back wards for a few buck an hour.

For the my father's people, it was all about creating a history and pretending that the realities of the past were nonexistent.

The only times we heard about my father's childhood was when he was honked off at us and thought it would be a good idea to compare how easy we had it to how hard his childhood was.  "I never had a bedroom to myself; HELL NO MISTER, I didn't get a bed of my own until I joined the army!" he would rant, all the while thinking that it made us more grateful that we had more blessings like a father who was screaming at us, than he did when he was a child.  Yeah, it was a blessing to have a father tell you that his dream for you would be enrolling you in the Israeli army and other warm fuzzy things.  And the only time that I ever saw my grandmother get upset with television was over an airing of Nicholas and Alexandra - I could never figure out if she was teary eyed because the Romanov's got shot, or because they never knew the joy of grandchildren.  Maybe she wanted to be the one to have pulled the trigger, after all, my grandparents left Russia for the U.S. in 1905.  Anyway, Grandma wasn't talking and if she were, it was in Yinglish - that mixture of Yiddish and English that confuses communication more than it can be used to communicate anything.

So Hanukkah – a holiday that has been co-opted by Jewish parents as a weak holiday stand in for Christmas – is an old holiday with new purpose. And unlike Christmas where spend a day with your family and friends, with Hanukkah, we lit candles, and that was that.

Because my father was Jewish, my mother and I never celebrated Christmas anything in Shaker Heights. And we never spent a Christmas holiday there either. Christmas was something that was celebrated in Marion exclusively, and in the 1960s and 1970s, Christmas in Marion was really an old fashioned holiday compared to Hanukkah in Cleveland.

Oh, how I looked forward to that day when we would take flight and leave for Marion.  First, I got to leave Mercer school early on the last day of school before Christmas Vacation began because my mother hated to drive in the dark. The trip to Marion was two and a half hours so I was sprung around 2:30.  By five we would arrive at my grandparents, unload and then load my grandparents into the car and go to the farm where my mother grew up and my Aunt and Uncle now lived. And we would be surrounded by family, and food. The house was heated by a stove in the living room, so we watched TV in the dining room under a blanket while the adults played cards by the stove. Then it was back to town for the night.

Shopping meant that we went to the stores in downtown. At Uhler’s and Frank Brothers, there were no cash registers; money traveled from the sales desk to the cashiers office via a series of pneumatic tubes. The clerks would place the money and the receipt in a brass capsule and twist it shut before opening a small trap door in one pf the tubes that hung from the ceiling to the counter, and then shoving the capsule into the tube. Then we would make small talk while we waited for the tube to return with a clatter as it dropped into a basket. When people spoke of the Christmas Miracle, I was sure this was even bigger – how did they know which tube to use to get it back to us?

Marion had a mall, but going downtown back then was the place to be.

At my grandparents house, the white plastic candles with the orange bulbs were placed in the windows and the small artificial Christmas tree brought down from the spare bedroom up stairs.

Christmas Eve was spent at their house (later at my Aunt Edith's), and Christmas Day was spent at the farm. There would be visits to my other Uncles houses and my Aunt Pauline’s iced Christmas cookies.

I loved those Christmas holidays. It was wonderful to be rooted to something that had was gentle, something expected, something peaceful. Unlike the harshness of Cleveland, everything there at the house on Forest Lawn, or at the Farm with the heat coming from the stove in the living room was comforting and safe. We would eventually load up the car and head back to Shaker Heights, my mother and I each dreading what awaited us when we returned home to the house on South Woodland.  Cold reality has a habit of breaking up dreams.  I would go back to being the odd man out at school, and my mother soldiered back to being the abused wife of a Cleveland Attorney.

Thats why those holidays memories mean so much.  Four five days or so, I could be a normal kid, or so it seemed.

1 comment:

  1. Merri Chanukkah... Uhm, Happy Xmas... Kwanzaa. Whatever.