The Sunday Drive and Pictures 10 & 11

While Lifelongernewyorker did not walk five miles to school — uphill both ways — she did grow up a while ago.  Things were different, as these pictures suggest.

First, the occasion: Nothing special, just a Sunday drive.  That meant that, shortly after church and breakfast (rolls and butter, as I recall), my father would say, “Who wants to go for a drive?”  The question was probably more ritual than real inquiry: of course we would go for a drive.

The cousins kept their church clothes on for the Sunday drive.

We girls kept our church clothes on for the Sunday drive.

With my two sisters and cousin (part of many such excursions before her parents left Brooklyn for Long Island soon after this photo was taken), we piled into the ’55 Pontiac. I’m not sure if I was still, at about three years old, sitting in the “child seat” — a contraption that hooked over the back of the front seat and featured a small plastic steering wheel so the kid could pretend to drive. Designed for distraction, not safety, you can think of it as the 1950s death trap for tots. If not, as the youngest and least powerful, I certainly sat in the middle, over the hump.

The destinations varied.  More often than not, we stayed close to home and went to the Prospect Park Zoo, the path along the Shore Parkway, or the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. But my father liked to drive, so we also ventured farther afield, often to Bear Mountain or West Point.

My mother rarely came along.  As I’ve noted in earlier blogs, she had her hands full taking care of us, my grandfather and the house in general.  My father’s job was to get us out from underfoot.

The only item missing was the glovrch, or to West Point.

Why the fancy clothes?  Readers: girls wore dresses in those days, pretty much all the time. Pants were rare, and reserved for play.  You didn’t wear them to school, or to church, or to visit West Point.

So, are the differences merely ones of style? Not entirely.  Allow me to employ my teacher voice (as if I ever leave it behind), to point out the larger social, economic and political forces that have swept away the circumstances that brought us to West Point that day:

  • The women’s movement has changed what we wear, who does the driving and whether it’s mom or dad who does the cooking (or ordering out).
  • Repeal of the “blue laws,” which kept stores of all kinds closed on Sunday, gave people alternatives for Sunday activity.  Now we can shop at Home Depot in the morning and return home to work on that DIY project in the afternoon.
  • Technology, of course, means that we’d see this as a video taken on the smartphone in full color, with sound, rather than as this short still moment captured on black and white film (or fil-lem, as my father would have said).
  • OPEC and the gas crisis of the 70s pretty much killed the Sunday drive as fun family pastime.  Gas prices have never gone down, and we’ve lost the habit of heading to the car for no good reason.
  • Was there even programming on TV on Sunday afternoon besides Fulton Sheen?  So much more to do today.

I’m sure the list could go on.  What are the big forces, technological innovations and social mores that have intervened? Add a few of your own theories in comments.

And note, please: No rose-colored nostalgia, or laments about how those were better days.  Remember what’s not in the picture: my mother back home in the kitchen, cooking, ironing or maybe doing some special project like waxing all the floors. We girls got to watch the cadets, but dared not dream that we could ever be one.  Didn’t stop for a game of catch.  Got maybe nine miles to the gallon of gas. No seatbelts.  Little kids perched in deathtraps.


News from the Abandoned One

For those of you who are wondering:  The Abandoned One is doing just fine.

At least I assume he is, judging by the absence of SOS calls.  Or of any calls for that matter.

It’s spring in New York, and it seems there’s plenty to do to keep a free-as-a-bird, unencumbered-by-parents guy busy. He’s playing guitar with a woman singer-songwriter who, according to her website, also eats fire.  They practice, and they’ve got some gigs in places with names like Otto’s Shrunken Head.

Fortunately, he posts occasionally on Facebook, and equally fortunate, his father (Mr. NYer) shares his extensive knowledge of pop culture and song lyrics, and can translate for me.  Today, for instance, the Abandoned One’s FB status was, “Should really be getting on declaring the pennies on his eyes.”

Lifelongnewyorker, ever the hypervigilant mom listening for the cry in the night, fought back alarm.  Pennies were once placed on the eyes of dead people to pay the ferryman crossing over to the afterlife.  Was this a suicide threat?  A quick call to Mr. NYer cleared it all up.  The Abandoned One was commenting on the need to file his taxes by quoting from the Beatles “Tax Man.” Of course.

Why are they called blankets?

A "contemporary" grave blanket.

It’s January 2.  Mr. NYer and I welcomed 2010 with friends and family.  And it was time for me to start the goodbyes.  It’s been a good holiday season and fun to finish with two good parties.  

My parents never really celebrated New Year’s Eve.  First of all, they weren’t the party-going kind.  Mainly, though, it was because my maternal grandmother died on December 31 — in 1940 — and my mother could never set that loss aside to celebrate the arrival of a new year.  

I think of this because the dead are so much with us during the holidays, not only in their absence, but also in the traditions we carry on.  How we live with the dead, and commemorate their lives, is the subject of this post. 

I’ve got cemeteries on my mind, partly because the holiday season unofficially begins with the discussion about the grave blanket.  A grave blanket, for those who don’t know, is an oblong affair, constructed from evergreen boughs and decorated with pinecones, bows, plastic pointsettias, and, depending on taste, more garish holiday kitsch.  It is laid atop the grave of a loved one during the holiday season.  That much we can agree on.  Why we do it, what it means, and, especially, why it’s called a blanket, are not so clear.

There’s actually no disagreement among my sisters and I about getting the grave blanket for our parents’ plot.  Every year someone raises the issue, one of use volunteers to acquire the greenery, and we all split the cost.  We would not dream of not buying the blanket.  We do it because our mother did.  She and her siblings laid one on their  parents’ grave every year (but was one secured for my paternal grandparents?  I don’t know).  When our father died, mom always had a blanket put on his grave.

One of my sisters objects, vehemently, to the term “grave blanket.”   She feels it’s creepy and manipulative.  I don’t disagree, but I can’t be bothered to make the effort, as she does, to edit the phrase and call it a “cover” instead.  We all  agree that we prefer natural ones sans plastic accoutrements.  And we shudder at the folks who decorate their loved ones’ graves with Santa and snowmen at Christmas and with Jack o’ lanterns and witches at Halloween. 

We do not really discuss the function of the blanket/cover.  We know it  does not keep our parents warm.  We know that they (our parents) aren’t keeping tabs on whether we dutifully lay one down every year.  We  don’t necessarily even visit the cemetery during the holiday season to view the decorated grave (one can arrange with a local florist to handle it all via telephone).   

Yet we do it, and  we try to do it with some dignity.  We have done it the wrong way.  About a year after our mother died, I found myself with my sisters in a line of cars at the same cemetery awaiting our uncle’s funeral.  Someone raised the topic of the yet-to-be-purchased grave blanket when another noticed the adjacent florist.  Flash of inspiration!  Two of us dashed over,  bought the evergreen, borrowed a hammer to secure the spikes, and hustled back to the car, hoping no one was paying attention to what we were loading into the back.  After Uncle Mimi’s burial service was over, we stopped at Mom & Dad’s plot, near the statue of St. Joseph.  Dressed in suits and wearing heels, we did our best to secure  the cover, hammering in the spikes so it wouldn’t blow away.  We stood up, dusted off our hands, and I said, “Mom would  be proud,” recalling her own fierce efficiency.

“Are you kidding?” my sister replied.  “She’d be horrified.” 

She was right, of course.  We returned the hammer to the florist, and headed to the funeral lunch, where we didn’t brag about our deed.  My moment of feeling resourceful had passed, replaced by a certain cheesiness about killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.  It was spontaneous and efficient, but those aren’t the values the grave blanket is supposed to elicit.   

At some point after the season, the cemetery folks will sweep through and remove all the blankets, wreaths and other mementos of Christmas.  Or at least, we think they should.  But I have  visited the grave in early spring to find the blanket  a dried up brown mess, and have had to remove it myself.  This, of course, makes me feel guilty that I have not tended the plot more carefully. 

It doesn’t help, either, that a dear friend’s mother regularly visits her husband’s grave at the same cemetery.  Then, when she’s done, she stops by to visit all the other folks she knows.  She has graciously included my parents on the circuit, and I regularly hear reports that the grass isn’t maintained as well as it should be.  Should I be marching into the cemetery office to complain?  Does my failure to do so signal neglect?  

I admit to mixed feelings about the cemetery.  I like cemeteries, and have included visits to burial grounds on more than one vacation, appreciating the landscaping, the artistry of tombstones and, occasionally, the quirkiness of epitaphs.  I want to be buried when I die.  I think we should, in fact, go back to the earth, and as quickly and efficiently as possible.  So it’s not cemeteries per se that bother me.  It’s the totemic meaning we place on the grave itself.

I know there are folks who really feel closer to their loved ones when they visit.  I imagine this is mostly true for spouses or parents who have  lost children.  I know there are people who visit, and chat with those who are buried; some people leave small  gifts or messages behind.  (Then there are those who take out ads in the local newspaper to wish a “Happy Birthday to Johnny in heaven,” a practice I find disturbing on so many levels.  But I digress.) 

For me, visiting my parents’ grave reminds me of nothing so much as their funerals. I’m enough of a Christian to feel that acting as if they are there is more than a little bit pagan. For me, it’s more mundane activities, like painting a room,  or cooking a holiday meal, that bring my parents vividly to life in memory.  

For most graves, unless the person buried is famous, there’s a relatively narrow window of meaningful visitation that lasts twenty years or so.  A widowed spouse visits devotedly as long as he or she can.  Children visit dutifully.  I know where my grandparents are buried, but I have not seen their graves since my parents passed.  The only reasons for visits after I was married was to chauffeur my parents.  

The neglect didn’t begin with my generation.  About thirty years ago, interested in digging up some family history, I sat with my father and examined the cemetery deeds in his possession.  Holding one for Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn I asked, “Who is buried here?”

“My grandfather,” he  answered.  “But it’s an unmarked grave.” 

My father’s widowed grandfather died, I knew, in 1912, when my father was two years old.  “What about your grandmother?” I asked.  “Isn’t she buried there too?”

My father didn’t think so, but had no idea when she had died or where she was buried.  He only remembered that he had visited this narrow, unmarked grave in the old section of Holy Cross once or twice as a child with his mother.  With a mystery in hand, we drove to Brooklyn on a summer afternoon to investigate.  We walked into the cemetery office, handed the deed to the woman behind the counter, and asked for information on the grave.

First we learned that, should we want to bury someone,  we would have to cough up a couple of hundred dollars in past due upkeep.  This surprised us — not that the grave pre-dated perpetual care, but that anyone would actually think of using the plot.  Next she thumbed through a card file and announced, “There are eleven people in this grave; it will take time to look them up. ”   She told us that she would mail the list, but we left expecting that an overdue balance would trump her  helpfulness. 

The list did come, and revealed that not only was his grandmother buried there, but so were nine of my father’s aunts, uncles and cousins, none of whom he had ever known and all of whose ages at death revealed the terrible reality of living in the nineteenth century.   

Despite knowing who was in the grave, my father never visited again.  Why would he?  The only people  who care about graves are the ones who shared a space of time on earth with the departed.  Like I said, it’s a narrow window.

My departure to Alabama means I am shortening the window for my parents’ grave.  My sisters will visit, and I imagine I will get there once in a while.  When we are gone, whether to other states, or to another final state, that grave will join the ranks of unvisited graves sighted from the roadside and forming a mere part of the overall cemetery landscape.

It’s better that way.  Imagine if we mourned for generations.  We’d never move, and never move on.

Of fish and Christmas, traditions and change

IMG_0680Do something once, it becomes a precedent.  Do it twice and it’s a tradition, especially at Christmas time.

Lifelongnewyorker knew that the move to Alabama meant that many holiday traditions would change next year, but it turns out the big changes are happening now.  Truth be told, traditions have been shifting — at least in this family — for years.

My mother’s parents came to America in 1913 from a seacoast town in southern Italy.  Like many Italians, their big holiday was Christmas Eve, with a meal of fish and the exchange of very small gifts.

I grew up in my grandfather’s house, and all I really remember of the holidays was the crowds.  My aunts and uncles and their kids visited at the holidays to see my grandfather.  My mother cooked.  Memories of Christmas in Red Hook are simple:

  • Crowds of loud relatives in our dining room who would switch to Italian when they got to the good parts of stories;
  • My uncle’s appearance at the door one evening on his way home from work, with a Christmas tree that he would set up and string the lights on because my postal worker father disappeared after Thanksgiving and this was not something my mother did;
  • My older sisters criticizing my tinsel-hanging skills;
  • The cheery seasonal stencils my mother put on the windows with Glass Wax (whoever thought of this had the perfect consumer in my mother who thought that combining decoration with cleaning was simply brilliant);
  • The hanging in an upstairs window of a string of extremely small lights (now the main kind available) that for some reason we called the “Italian Christmas lights”;
  • Under my mother’s guidance, presenting my grandfather with wrapped boxes of Gem single-edge razor blades or a cake of Old Spice shaving soap, which she assured us were perfect gifts;
  • The exchange of family gifts just before going to bed on Christmas Eve;
  • At a certain age, being given the proceeds from the $25 Christmas Club my mother had set up for me to buy presents for the rest of the family;
  • The arrangement of the nativity scene on the hi-fi cabinet, with camels arriving from across the room via the mantel;
  • Waking up on Christmas morning to find the toys that Santa had left;
  • More crowds of loud relatives in our dining room who would switch to Italian when they got to the good parts of stories;

What I don’t remember is the fish dinner on Christmas Eve, although I’m sure it happened.  Once we moved to Staten Island and my excitement over toys waned, I became more enthusiastic about the food.  Our traditional Christmas Eve feast featured octopus (pulpo), baccala cakes, squid and, the centerpiece, spaghetti with crab sauce, followed by the crabs themselves.  Funochio (fennel), chestnuts, fresh fruit, dates, nuts and, finally, pastry, finished the meal.  My father, having reappeared on Christmas Eve after working 30 days straight, passed on the crabs, claiming they “illustrated the law of diminishing returns.”  The rest of us dug in.

In Staten Island, we continued to have a crowd as several sets of cousins, aunts and uncles would join us each year.  More than anyone else, and probably because she cooked for my grandfather, my mother had preserved the fish tradition long after some of her siblings abandoned it.  But even she introduced occasional innovation.

One of the first innovations was the crab sauce itself which replaced a simple white anchovy sauce made with garlic, olive oil and parsley.  But this happened during my grandmother’s time.  Soon after she took a full time job, mom’s meal included lobster tails, a short-lived tradition that didn’t survive once my parents began paying college tuition.  Later, with the arrival of grandchildren who wouldn’t eat what was on the menu, mom added breaded filet of flounder, much to the disgust of those of us who were not offered this alternative when we were small.  “How will they learn to appreciate the good stuff?” we wondered.  When Mr. NYer joined the family, his homemade garlic bread, with lots of butter and fresh garlic, became part of the deal.  Later, I added clams and mussels with wine sauce.   And somewhere along the line chilled shrimp appeared and the octopus took its leave.

Whatever else came and went around the edges, the centerpiece of the meal remained the crabs.  Two separate worries began as Christmas approached:  first, how much fish should we buy?  and second, would we be able to get crabs?

No matter how many years my mother cooked that meal, she was always convinced she didn’t make enough.  Part of our ritual was the annual review of the fish order, in which we did an immediate post-mortem, adjusted the quantities for next year and saved our notes.  The more pressing issue, though, was whether we’d be able to find fresh, live crabs.

Crabs, it turns out, are really summer food.  In winter, they dig into the mud of the Chesapeake Bay and don’t find their way to market as easily.  You could take the precaution of ordering them in advance, but if they weren’t available, they weren’t available.  In that case, you needed to go with Plan B, which was stuffed squid.  It’s okay, but not if you’ve been dreaming of crabs.

Worrying about the crabs became an essential part of the tradition. Actually getting the meal on the table for the 14 to 20 people joining us combined art, science and drop-dead timing.  Step One:  Buy the dried baccala a week ahead and take it home to soak.  Hope not to oversoak it (too bland) or undersoak it (too salty).  Step Two: Go to the most reliable fish market and, using that list from last year, order the fish at least a week in advance.  Step Three: Pick up the fish order and hope that they had crabs.  Step Four: Return home and clean the crabs without losing a finger or drawing blood.  Defensive wounds from snapping claws can ruin the meal, not because blood contaminates the crabs, but because the cuts sting like the dickens when you try to eat the crabs.  I became the crab-cleaning expert once I figured out how to apply garden tools to the task.  Step Five: Start the crab sauce in a large pot.  Step Six: Put the nearest male to work shredding the baccala.  Step Seven: Mix up the batter and begin frying the baccala cakes in the ancestral 12-inch cast iron frying pan.  Continue for six hours.  Exclaim to every guest as they arrive that you spent six hours frying the baccala.  Step Eight: Cook the squid and the octopus and make salads.  Step Nine: Have Mr. NYer make the garlic bread.  Step Ten:  Boil the shrimp and refrigerate them.  Step Eleven: Start to make the cocktail sauce and discover you don’t have horseradish.  Send a spare male out to the store.  Step Twelve: Send the newly arrived grandchildren off to a bedroom to practice their Christmas pageant.  Step Thirteen: Have an unoccupied male slit the chestnuts.  Step Fourteen: Scrub the clams and mussels.  Step Fifteen:  Juggle the pots on the stove to make room for the GIANT spaghetti pot.  Continue with steps sixteen through twenty-four until dinner is ready, kids are hyper, and most of the baccala has been filched by grazers.

As traditions go, this one held steady for nearly twenty years at my mother’s house, until she was nearly 80 and decided enough was enough.  Lifelongnewyorker was ready to take it on, since she knew the recipes and had been the chief crab-killer and cook for more than two decades, but her sisters (you remember, the ones who criticized her tinsel skills) wanted to learn how to cook the meal themselves, which was, of course, the beginning of the end. Thus began the Rotation, when each year a different sister would host the meal, first under mom’s tutelage and later on her own.  But only after first checking with Lifelongnewyorker about a recipe, or asking her to buy the crabs which were, apparently, unobtainable in New Jersey.

This year is Lifelongnewyorkers turn in the rotation, but it’s already changed.  Five of the six grandchildren are married and there are babies.  They live in Boston, Virginia, Maryland and Minnesota, and they want to host Christmas.  There will be only five guests at the fish fest this year.  A satellite feast will be held in Maryland.  At least Maryland niece should be able to get crabs.

To top it off, the reliable fish market that we’ve depended on for years went out of business this summer.  We found another place to buy the fish but they won’t take orders.  I still haven’t figured out how to cook the meal for only five people, and I suspect I won’t.  Tonight I begin soaking the baccala.  On Wednesday, we’ll go to the market and hope they have crabs.

Oh.  One last thought.  In recent years, I’ve heard it called the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  This is new to me.  We never counted the fishes, or called it anything besides Christmas Eve.  The best meal in the year.

Grow fearless before you grow old

I do not come from a people who take risks.  Or move more than 10 miles from where they were born.  When I was a kid, moving from Brooklyn to Long Island was a very big deal.  I grew up in the same house in which my mother was raised.  My parents’ wedding more or less coincided with the arrival of my father’s draft notice for World War II, so she stayed put while he shipped off to the Pacific.   At the end of the War, almost four years after they walked down the aisle, my parents finally moved in together — alongside my grandfather, aunt and uncle. 

A couple of my mother’s siblings struck off in the late 50s for Long Island and Staten Island, places as exotic to us as if they had moved to Bali.  My mother stayed put, until after 20 years the city took over our entire block to build a new school.  The property was “condemned”  and the family cast out.  We set off, like pioneers, for the strange wilds of Staten Island where one of my aunts lived.  I’m not sure my mother, who never learned to drive, ever stopped missing Brooklyn.

She was rooted, rooted to family and to place.  She did not associate travel with romance or adventure, nor did she ever want to move.  During the War (upper case to distinguish it from the lesser wars that followed), my father’s  troop train stopped briefly at Whitefish, Montana, possibly (but most likely not–it’s so improbable) on Christmas Eve.   The rugged beauty of the town, snugged down amid white, green and purple mountains, cast a spell on my father.  Throughout my childhood he talked wistfully about Whitefish and his dream of picking up and starting there afresh.  Another alternative he offered — equally absurd and unworthy even of discussion as far as my mother was concerned–was Australia, where he recalled enjoying steak-and-egg breakfasts for 25 cents.  My mother was having none of it, and in New York we stayed.

I’ve already established that I haven’t strayed too far, either, so I find myself thinking that I just don’t come from people who take risks.  So why am I moving over 1,000 miles away?  And why now? 

Hard to say, exactly, except that I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to grow out of what I grew into.  Shakespeare has the fool famously say to King Lear, “Thou should not have been old til thou hast been wise.”  My version of that is to grow fearless before you get old.

About Lifelongnewyorker

Lifelongnewyorker (NYer) was born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, back in the last century.  Except that Red Hook then was about 50 years behind the rest of America.  While everyone else discovered suburban life, we still bought fruit and vegetables from a horse-drawn peddler who stopped right in front of the house.  But that’s a different chapter. 

Brought to Staten Island as a child, NYer has lived there ever since.  Two brief attempts to go away to college ended abruptly when she realized that venturing more than 25 miles beyond Washington Square produced anaphylactic shock.  Going to college and grad school in the city saved her life.   

Married when barely an adult, she has lived with her husband, Mr. NYer, on Staten Island ever since.  That will end in January, 2010.