Memories in the Church on the Hill

It is impossible to sit in my childhood church and not be transported back in time. Unfortunately, most of the time now it is for a funeral.

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As I sat in the pew not far from Grandma, I looked around and saw a dwindling pool of relatives. There were no uncles, because we were saying goodbye to the last one, but four of the six aunts still remain with us. My youngest cousin who was in attendance is now fifty-one, and now some of the children  of a few cousins are married and are parents. And look how old the three of you are— Oy! Time is moving too quickly!

You are not supposed to laugh in church, particularly at a somber occasion, but invariably something sets off a fit of laughter which I then must suppress. I remember the time I got the giggles after the priest said something which reminded me of the scene in Notting Hill—the one where when the guy was eating mayonnaise and thought it was bad yogurt. Once he learned it was mayonnaise, he continued to eat it. It doesn’t sound that funny, but you know it is, and when you are not supposed to laugh, things are just funnier.

Grandma told me a story about a lady who wearing an exceptionally ugly hat in church one Sunday, and when Aunt Marian pointed it out to her, the two of them started to laugh. It got worse when they made eye contact, so the laughter just continued.

When the priest started burning the incense at church during the funeral, Aunt Ar tapped me on the shoulder and asked if it smelled like carrots to me. (Church Back in the Day) It didn’t, but this barely funny comment made me laugh, and this occasion was clearly a time for tears, not laughter. But somehow, I don’t think Uncle Bob would have minded.

So I sat in my old church and thought of three-year old me smelling the carrots. During the “sign of peace,” I gave my cousin Jimmy the two-fingered peace sign that I remember giving his brother Billy so many years ago—my very last memory of Billy.

My eyes wandered to the statue of Mary draped in purple cloth for Lent, and I thought of my cousin Nancy’s wedding, when she laid a bouquet of flowers at that same statue while someone sang Ave Marie.

I glanced at the stained-glass windows and recalled the first time I saw them, which was after the church underwent a huge renovation. For two years, mass was said in the school auditorium (By the way, I don’t think that was hallowed ground, just saying!), and when the work was completed, I remember going to an open house to view the new church. One of the windows was inscribed in memory of Grandma’s best friend and maid of honor, Louise Martone.

I looked at the chandeliers and remember how my new engagement ring sparkled and cast a myriad of colors  on the walls from the combination of those lights and the stained glass windows. Wow! That was almost forty years ago.

I recalled my communion wearing my white bride-like dress; my confirmation, where I wore a white robe with a red collar and  a matching red hat which resembled a Jewish skullcap; and my wedding, when Dad broke a lightbulb wrapped in cloth and Aunt Linda explained the significance of this act in a Jewish wedding.

Cousin Alan and Me

Cousin Alan and Me

As the organist played, I thought of our Christmas Eve masses there with Grandma, when the man who resembled Lurch led us in song. I would glance around during communion to see which aunts, uncles, and cousins were sitting there among us.

There are just so many memories in that church. No other church, with the exception of our church in Montville, evokes those feelings. It’s filled with so many ghosts of my past.

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Éirinn go Brách

On March 17, everyone loves celebrating the Irish. They put on their green outfits , go to parades, and drink green beer. However, when I was younger, I recall some kids wearing red or orange because they were Italian. To me, intentionally ignoring a green shirt for the red was not being very friendly!

Grandma, as we all know, loves her Irish heritage. She had her wall of Irish plaques, and she would greet us that morning by saying, “Éirinn go Brách.” I am not certain if she knew what it meant (Ireland forever) or if she just knew it was an Irish expression.

We never had the American traditional Irish meal of corned beef and cabbage because, well, Grandma did not like it. I believe the first time I had it was with Dad, who, like any good New York Jew, loves corned beef, particularly from a deli.

One of my high school classes went on a field trip to New York on St. Patrick’s Day to see the play Fiddler on the Roof.  I remember that our teacher let us wander around the city on our own, so I stopped by to see the parade with some friends. I don’t think today’s teachers would ever be permitted to let their students wander around New York on a school field trip unsupervised (or am I wrong?).

That was the closest I ever came to celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on a grand scale until my trip to London in 2014 when I was hanging out with actual Irish citizens. We ate at Flannery’s Pub, where I had my first Irish coffee and the Irish St. Patrick’s Day meal of bacon and cabbage.

But this year will be a more somber day as we celebrate the life of Uncle Bob. We will have his funeral mass at the same church that some of our Irish-born ancestors worshipped—the church where they, and so many of us, celebrated baptisms, first communions, weddings, and other funerals. We will sit in this church and remember his smile and great big bear hugs. We will also smile and shed a few tears as we recall  all those other memories.

Another Farewell

Yesterday was a sad day for our family as news spread of the passing of Uncle Bob, so once again, our family will gather to say goodbye to another one of us. He leaves behind three children, nine grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and a very devoted wife—Aunt Peggy, the other half of that dynamic duo. In just five months, they would have been married for sixty years. That number alone speaks volumes, so this will be most difficult for her. Everyone else will leave his funeral to return to their husbands, wives, and children. She now has to face an empty home and figure out what happens next.

bob and peg carey

For Grandma, she is now the last one standing in her family. Since the death of her brother, Larry, eighteen years ago, she has had to sit through the final farewell ceremonies of her mother, father, three brothers, her sister, one niece, one nephew and two great-grand nephews. Now it will be her brother, 4 ½ years her junior.

That is the price of her longevity—watching one by one as her family and friends go before her. The flip side is the joy of watching all of her children become parents and her granddaughter becoming a mother. Like Uncle Bob, she has proudly witnessed her grandchildren become college graduates. This is a particular point of joy since both of them grew up in an era when it was common to have parents who did not even graduate high school.

So now we will all gather and remember Uncle Bob and share our memories of him. Many of us recall going to the Firemen’s Fair when Uncle Bob manned the nickel tent. That’s where you threw nickels onto Boontonware plates, the prize being a dish or a plate that you could take home to place in your kitchen cabinet. We would hand Uncle Bob a quarter, and he would hand us back a dollar’s worth of nickels.

As I mentioned before, Uncle Bob’s house was where I first saw the Wizard of Oz in color. Those were the days when a color TV in your house was a luxury more than the norm.

He and his twin, Uncle Don, were always full of the devil. They did everything together, including having heart attacks within days of each other. Talk about competing for attention in the family! I remember both of them as always having a story to tell, and a smile on their faces. I remember Uncle Bob, with a sly grin on his face, questioning my cousin Nancy for details of her honeymoon. He loved being a tease.

Bob and Don-Construction

And I remember his hugs. He sure knew how to give great big loving bear hugs! That is my last memory of him. Dad and I stopped by his house, we chatted for a while about this and that, and then when it was time to leave, I got the hug. I will miss that smile and always remember the hugs.

Robert (Bob) Carey

The Family Saint

Today I am writing about the saint of the family—Aunt Arlene. She is definitely the wackiest saint out there, but in our family, no one would disagree with me on that. (Tricia is the other saint for the record.)

We get along well, considering she still has not forgiven me for tattling on her when she lit our room on fire. No matter what she says, I stand firm on being in the right for telling Grandma because it was my room too. (If she had her own room, perhaps I would have kept my mouth shut.) But that is not what made her the family saint.

First, I am forever grateful to both of my sisters for helping me when I had to go to the hospital, leaving Dad with a four-month old baby who would not take a bottle. Aunt Ar and Aunt El will never let me forget how they saved Casey’s life by swooping in and playing wet nurse. I remember that Aunt Ar said it embarrassed her to nurse my baby, so she claimed she fed Casey in the closet. Aunt El had a rough night, so when she came downstairs with two babies in her arms, she didn’t take any crap from Dad who was complaining it was too early to be woken up. I really will never forget this and don’t need to be reminded.

Then Aunt Ar decided to become a nurse. I know how difficult it must have been to go back to school as an adult with all the responsibilities of a family.  I was always very impressed with her for doing so (and she was even the valedictorian but couldn’t give the speech), and now she just completed her bachelor’s degree. We are all so glad to have had her there to handle all the medical questions and care for Grandma and Grandpa through the years. She is always there now for Grandma, and I know how much of her own time she has given. Saint Ar.

She inherited Grandma’s very strange sense of humor and gets away with some of the most outrageous and sometimes offensive jokes, but Grandma always laughs—as does Aunt Ar, who laughs at her own jokes. (I would be told to never return if some of those words ever crossed my lips.) She can say just about anything and knows it.

I can’t end this story without mentioning her Billy Joel obsession, which started with that concert at Rutgers on December 14, 1974 (I googled this to get the exact date.)  She knows I was responsible for taking her to that first concert.

Now forty-two years later, she is still seeking out his concerts.  I cannot believe she almost went to Vegas to see him and then was able to trade the tickets with a flight attendant!  While we were living in Chapel Hill, she flew to Raleigh just to see him. What a fan! She swore she would never drive to our house again after her one very long trip with Matt when she learned that full service gas stations rarely exist outside of New Jersey.

Will one of you be our family saint? Who will it be and can you be as good as Aunt Ar?

 

 

You Think Your Job is Bad — a.k.a. A REALLY Bad Day!

Continuing with my discussions of snowstorms for Blizzard Week 2016, I would like to tell you about the Blizzard of 1888 and a little boy named Leonard Blue, who was my grandmother’s uncle.

The day before the storm was warm and sunny. It was only one week before the start of spring. Daffodils had begun to bloom and the weather prediction was for “fresh to brisk winds, with rain, will prevail, followed by colder brisk westerly winds and fair weather throughout the Atlantic states.”

When people went to sleep Sunday night, it was raining. Everyone was caught off guard by what greeted them Monday morning—the “White Hurricane.” While the amount which fell in the city was recorded as “only 21 inches,” there were snowdrifts as high as the second floor of some buildings. Some areas of New York and Connecticut saw over four feet of snow, wind reached speeds near 100 mph, and the temperature hovered around zero.

When fourteen year old Leonard set out to work as a messenger that Monday morning, there were already huge drifts of snow. He was kept so busy he was unable to stop for lunch. At 2 pm he was sent to deliver a message to a man three miles away. He waited ninety minutes outside for a train, all while the wind and snow hurled around him. When he got to the address his employer gave him, he discovered that no one lived there.

No trains were running by then, so he began to walk—a mile and a half—before he fell down in the snow, exhausted and frozen, 3 ½ hours after he began his journey. He was found lying in the snow, unable to speak, by a stranger who brought him to his home where the man and his wife discovered that Leonard’s pants were frozen to his legs. He was badly frostbitten and in great pain, made worse by the fact that his left leg had been broken eight years previously after being run over by a farmer’s wagon. He spent the night with the stranger and his wife, and his parents (your three times great grandparents) were notified by a reporter from the New York Sun.

Moral of this story is that no matter how bad you think your job may be, it’s not as bad as that of poor little Leonard. None of you would ever be required by your employers to go out in a blizzard. They would have had to deal with me if they did.

Leonard Blue- Blizzard 1888

Bye Bye Christmas Mob Scene

1984 was the first year our family celebrated Christmas in another state because of Kelly’s birth. She came home on Christmas Eve, and I had planned for the occasion well in advance. By Labor Day, the presents were wrapped, cookies were baked, cards addressed, and dinner was in the freezer. We had lasagna, salad, cookies and apple pie. (Did I actually bake a pie?  You know I am pie-challenged!) I believe that was that the year of change #3, when we stopped going to my cousin Nancy’s house for dessert permanently.

After that year, we spent the next twenty plus years in New Jersey, even traveling there from Chapel Hill several times. Every year, we always went to church on Christmas Eve. Dad came with me until we moved back to New Jersey in 1988. The changes over the years were subtle.

I am basing a lot of my information on your baby books, not my fuzzy memory. I was surprised that we had our first Jewish traditional Christmas dinner–Chinese take–out in 1986. (I thought we did not begin that until we moved to South Carolina in 2008.)  That year, Santa got orange juice with his cookies, not milk like every successive year.

The first two years back in New Jersey, we went to Christmas Eve Mass in our new town of Montville with Grandma. That was also the first year of your Christmas Eve pajamas, a tradition I continued for over twenty years. Even Mark, Geoff, and Chris received my pj’s at least once. That year we began having Christmas dinner at our house, which in the beginning, consisted of just Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt El, Uncle Jim, “big Kelly” and Uncle Dave as our guests. The rest of the family joined us for dessert.

The next year, 1989, was when Dad began our new tradition of serving hors d’oeuvres for Christmas Eve dinner. We went to Mass with Grandma, went to see the houses with the luminaries after church, and were greeted with Dad’s special dinner afterwards—picture perfectly displayed.

That year, Aunt Val and Uncle Mart joined us for dinner on Christmas Day, because we invited her parents and brother.  Jamie entertained us with her unique rendition of the Christmas classic—“Rudolph the red-nosed Reindeer, had a very Chinese nose.”

The following year, Grandma asked if we could go to Mass at her church in Boonton. We agreed but then forgot to pick her up. Oops!

Casey was two in 1991. After several “observation visits” to Santa Land, she finally had the courage to sit on his lap. We remembered to pick up Grandma for church, so Christmas Eve was now Mass in Boonton followed by viewing the lights after church. We had Daddy’s hors d’oeuvres for dinner , which became more elaborate each year.

I am not certain when the Getto’s began to join us for Christmas dinner, but what I do know is that as our own “cousin explosion” began, the gift giving became more of a free-for-all. We tried one year to give out the gifts one at a time, but I don’t remember that working for us.

We traveled to Jackson a few times to celebrate at Aunt Ellen’s house. I even recall Dad getting stopped for going through a red light on the way home. When he explained to the police officer that it was intentional because he had three children asleep in the back and did not want to stop suddenly, he was not issued a ticket. That was a nice surprise.

After moving to North Carolina in 2004, we traveled to New Jersey for the holidays. We stayed at Grandma and Grandpa’s house and continued our Christmas Eve tradition of going to church with her in Boonton and then viewing the lights while Dad made his hors d’oeuvres with Grandpa’s help. (I think the “help” meant Grandpa sampled the food ahead of our appearance, which probably annoyed Dad just a bit because it took away from the artistry of his display.)

During the 2005 and 2006 visits, after celebrating with the family, we played tourist and spent a few nights in New York City. 2005 was Kelly’s 21st birthday celebration and the New York City Transit strike. That was when we learned we were no longer Northerners, because we could not tolerate the cold at all. We had the “thin skin” of the south. 2006 was when we did our Times Square New Year’s Eve, which is a story unto itself because it was so surprisingly awesome.

2007 Grandma and Grandpa were both sick. We didn’t stay at their house that Christmas, but instead, took up residence at the Embassy Suites. That was our worst Christmas Eve because we traveled up there to see everyone, but ended up going out for Chinese that night, just the five of us. We decided we were probably the only Christian family in the restaurant. We felt so lonely.

Eventually change #4 happened, which was when we stopped traveling to New Jersey during Christmas. That was the year we moved to Columbia—2008. We still had the hors d’oeuvres, but the Christmas Eve Mass with Grandma was now over. We celebrated Christmas early on the 22nd with Kelly, Mark, Jamie, and Casey. The two newlyweds then headed to New Orleans, so Christmas Day was now just four of us—Jamie, Casey, Dad, and me. This was the biggest change and  was when I stopped getting excited about the holiday. Christmas day was Chinese take-out.  After all those years of a mob of family, it was just four of us. It would get better, I hoped.

Christmas With Grandpa at Santa Land- 1991

Christmas With Grandpa at Santa Land- 1991

Christmas 1993

Christmas 1993

santaland-get from Kelly

Christmas Back in NJ

                      Christmas Back in NJ

Dad's Christmas Eve Spread

Dad’s Christmas Eve Spread

 

 

 

Christmas Just Keeps Changing

I admit my memory is just not as sharp as it used to be. I like to think it’s because there is too much information clogging my brain and sometimes the auto clean-up throws away unused thoughts to make room for new information. I don’t get to choose which ones end up in the trash.

Since Christmas is such a big part of our lives, I just cannot remember every single one. So I am going to do the best at recalling what happened after the second change in our celebration of this favorite holiday of so many. (See Evolution of a Holiday) Anyone from the family who reads this is welcome to chime in with their own thoughts.

After the family got too large and it became too difficult bundling up all the small children and babies to visit each other, the adults decided it was time to dial it down. Somewhere during the early sixties, Uncle Rich’s family moved to Illinois for a few years, so they were easily “dumped” from the holiday visitation schedule. That left four families, and I am wondering if Grandma’s brothers just did their own thing and maybe celebrated with their wives’ families. So the main celebration  for us became just two families—us and Aunt Marian’s family.

I have vague memories visiting Aunt Marian and Uncle Tony’s house in Boonton Township, who, like us, fell victim to the tacky aluminum Christmas tree. These trees were modern, very trendy, and easily stored. There was no worry about the need to constantly keep them watered, and they had the very cool ability to change colors thanks to a revolving color wheel placed near the foot of the tree. Charlie Brown did not approve! If you are interested, they can still be purchased on Amazon or Ebay.

After Aunt Marian moved two blocks down the street from us with my grandmother in 1967, I remember visiting that house at Christmas. The silver tree was gone in both homes, eventually replaced by the more realistic-looking artificial green tree.

Sometime in the seventies, we began going to my cousin Nancy’s house for dessert after we opened our presents and had our early dinner of some kind of pasta—lasagna or baked ziti. We never did a turkey or ham, probably because all five of us would eat Italian food and Grandma could make it ahead of time.

There was always a ton of Christmas cookies, which is a tradition that I continued for years. Now I usually resort to something like Pillsbury slice and bake chocolate chip cookies, which frankly taste as good as my own, but I admit that does not come close to the variety and volume of my past. (I have been considering baking M&M cookies with Bryce this year.)

We probably moved the party to Nancy’s house as her family began to grow and it was a lot easier for her than packing up all of her children. Still, with thirteen children between the two families, and now marriages and another generation of children being born, it was inevitable that another change would evolve once again.

When this photo was taken in 1979, there were at least twenty-five people in just two families. Dad even made it to some of these celebrations. (The cousin explosion continues!)

Aunt Marian & Uncle Tony Holding Jamie, Christina, Jennifer

Aunt Marian & Uncle Tony Holding
           Jamie, Christina, Jennifer