Evolution of a Holiday

I guess Casey inherited her dislike of change from me, at least when it comes to the holidays. Although I am surprised that I have enjoyed moving around so much—living in 5 states—I don’t like all the changes in my holiday celebrations. Can’t I just choose a point in time and freeze it? So I thought that if I review the evolution of Christmas through my life, maybe I will feel better.

When I was very young, Grandma and Grandpa would take me to see Santa in Morristown. In the center of town was “The Green,” or Morristown’s answer to Central Park. Santa had an annex to the North Pole there, complete with elves and the biggest wooden rocking horses you ever saw. I loved going to visit Santa there.

I do not believe any of my siblings went to that Santa Land. I believe they visited Santa at another satellite house located in Grace Lord Park in Boonton. (Change #1) Every year, his house magically appeared there, and that is where we visited him sometime after Aunt Ar was born.

We had no special Christmas Eve traditional meals or any Christmas traditions for that matter. All that I recall is that we were given a time when we were permitted to come downstairs on Christmas morning to see what Santa brought us. Grandma and Grandpa were not strict, but that was one rule you just didn’t break—except for one particular Christmas. I was the culprit.

I remember tip toeing down those very steep stairs and peaking around the corner into the living room. The unwrapped presents were all under the tree (Santa never bothered to wrap our presents!), and next to the tree were Grandma and Grandpa. How could that be? Their explanation, which to this day I believe, was that they were fast asleep when suddenly, “from out on the lawn there arose such a clatter.” Naturally, “they sprang from their beds to see what was the matter,” and there in our living room were presents galore. Of course, I believed them. My parents would never lie.

One Christmas, Aunt El and Uncle Mart (perhaps Uncle Dave too) got up early, but they knew they could not venture downstairs. So they passed the time playing a board game in the bathtub until the anointed time arrived.

During the week when we were on our Christmas vacation, we would all take turns visiting the houses of our cousins so we could check out the loot that Santa brought to them. Grandma said that usually someone would mess up the plans by getting sick, but I guess we still hit as many houses as possible.

As the years passed, and our extended family grew, we stopped visiting every aunt, uncle and cousin. So that was change #2.  I think the logistics just got too hard. A new tradition was born and we all survived.

Then we started to grow up, get married, and now began to add the in-laws. Stay tuned for more.

Christmas- 19 Kids and 13 Adults
Christmas 1959

Published Somewhere

Four out of five of us have been published in some form. Kelly and Casey were published in their college newspaper, The Daily Gamecock, which was read by thousands. Kelly’s contributions were as their photographer, while Casey wrote an opinion column.  Casey also had a news article published in the local town paper, The Neighbor News, when she was in fourth grade and was a columnist for her high school newspaper, ECHO (East Chapel Hill High Observer). Both Jamie and Casey were contributing writers to a teen column–MCTV (Morris County Teen Voices)– in our New Jersey county newspaper, The Daily Record. So all three of you dabbled in some form of journalism, but none of you chose that as your career.

Dad co-authored a chapter in a technical book: Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients: Development, Manufacturing and Regulation. He has received a few small payments so to me that makes him a professional writer. (However, I don’t envision it will ever be a book club read.) While I have spent six years writing the book about Grandpa, Do Svidanya Dad, it is still just sitting on my computer and kindle while I try to figure out what to do with it. I guess I can mention the family history book I co-authored with Aunt Marian, but the readership was extremely small and consisted of only family members, which is why I don’t count me among those family members who have been published.

Did I ever mention my year as a journalist? It was during the late sixties when I wrote for my junior high newspaper, The Jaguar. The audience was extremely small yet larger than the family history book. Our staff worked very hard to publish our paper each month, and at the time, it was important to me.

So for now I write these stories for the three of you. Maybe someday Bryce and his sister and any other children which may come along someday will read them. I hope that with each one, you either learn something new or are reminded of a memory that has been buried for years.

John Hill Jaguar

Our Other Thanksgiving

Dad and I have been trying to figure out when we began to celebrate the other Thanksgiving and who initiated it. What we do recall is that it evolved from a conversation with a few of Dad’s friends  about how much we all enjoyed Thanksgiving, but since it is typically a family holiday, we would never be able to celebrate turkey day with our friends. But why couldn’t we just choose an earlier day in October or November and then gather with our friends and create a second Thanksgiving? Why not?

Thus began a new tradition.  Sometime between 1978 and 1980, we picked a date and a venue and doled out menu assignments. I believe the first celebration was at Steve and Donna’s apartment. You may not know, but Steve and Dad have been friends since third grade. That friendship has lasted as long as mine with Karen—55 years. That alone is cause for a celebration!

The original gathering was small. There were only six of us—Steve and Donna, Mickey and Ivonne, Dad and me. No children, just three old friends and their wives. I believe, though, that I was the odd person out since everyone but I grew up in Yonkers. But as you know, they are all great friends and I always felt like I was part of the gang rather than the new kid on the block.

We each contributed something from our own family traditions. I remember that the most unique dish was when Ivonne hosted dinner and we had a Cuban turkey, which much to Dad’s delight, meant a spiced turkey stuffed with peppers and onions.

Somewhere along the line, Dave married Barbara and they were added to this other Thanksgiving feast as were Billy and Robin. Each year, we alternated houses, and as the babies came, the number of seats at the table increased. I think, in the end, we had somewhere around twenty-ish.

When we moved to New Jersey, the dinners ended up at our house most of the time—over the river and through the woods to our house they came! Sadly, once we moved to the South, the dinners ended. As far as I know, no one continued the tradition. But for twenty-five years, we always had our special dinners.

We have kept in touch and have gotten together just a few times in New York. The last time was at Jamie’s wedding last year. I am sad to have seen this wonderfully special and unique tradition end. What is more amazing than the number of years we had these celebrations is the fact that among these five couples, there has not been a single divorce. That is so rare today. The only marriage not intact is because of death, not divorce.

Every year I think of those dinners. I miss them and cannot believe we did not take a single picture.


Penny Candy Stop

Dad and I were wandering around Mast General Store earlier this week. I was shuttling between the books and unique kitchen gadgets while Dad was downstairs—or so I thought. Suddenly, I heard his voice beckoning me to the toy corner. But it was not a toy that he wanted me to see. He had discovered the barrels of candy, many of which were from our childhood and yours.

Looking at the sweet treasures, I found myself remembering a certain little corner store down the street from my school called Martanciks. The big draw of that store was the candy, which we could buy for a penny.

I looked through the barrels at Mast General and saw they had the wax bottles of my youth. You’d bite off the top and spit it off, enabling you to drink in one of several multi-flavored “healthy” juices.  They were much too small to quench your thirst, but nevertheless fun to drink.

Another favorite was the pixy stix—straw shaped sticks containing delicious sweet and sour powder. Yum! Score another for Mast General.

Continuing down the aisle I found a barrel filled with Bonomo Turkish Taffy, which was a thin, VERY chewy candy sold in at least four flavors—vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and banana. I was never a fan of that candy but I remember the commercial had a catchy tune. In today’s world of healthy eating and childhood obesity, I don’t think a candy commercial would work. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jpw64PkCJn8

Bazooka Bubble gum was both delicious to chew and entertaining as well. Not only could you blow great bubbles with the nugget-shaped gum, but it came wrapped in paper containing your fortune and a comic. How cool was that!

One of the most popular items were the waxed lips and mustaches, which were not as fun as the bubble gum, but their demand was high because they could be both chewed and used as a disguise.

Then I spied your favorites, most of which we got at the cider mill down the street from our New Jersey house. I think the three of you enjoyed going into the country store and carefully selecting one of your favorite candies more than drinking the freshly-made cider. I found Swedish fish, gummi bears, airheads, nerds, smarties, and warheads.

Do my discoveries bring back fond memories of our walks to the mill? Do you crave any of those candies, or have your candy preferences become more sophisticated? These days I smile when I remember stopping by Martanciks on my way home from school, but I have no interest in trying any of my old favorites. For me, there is just nothing like a package of plain M&M’s to put a smile on my face.



Paris- Happy for the Memories

Similar to the way the world was all talking about New York City after the September 11 attacks, we are now all speaking of Paris. I watch the news reports and cannot help but think back on the trip to Paris Dad and I took five years ago. I looked at it as Dad’s gift to me after leaving me behind while he traveled for so many years. It is now a bitter-sweet memory.

Before we left, I did a lot of research. Where should we stay, what should we see, and what should we wear? The advice on the Internet warning against wearing jeans and sneakers was ridiculous. The fashion police would have had a difficult time enforcing that suggestion. Despite Paris being the center of fashion, casual attire was everywhere.

I began brushing up on some of my high school and college French after hearing repeatedly that the French were much nicer to foreigners who at least made an attempt to speak their language. Was that really unreasonable? After all, if someone from France showed up at one of our local restaurants, would they really expect us to speak their language? Wouldn’t we be happier if they at least attempted to communicate with us in English even if they knew only a few words? (But they would know English. So many people around the world do. What’s wrong with us?)

So I practiced how to ask the cab driver to take us to our hotel and I am happy to report that my five years of French got us there (“Nous voulons aller à l’hôtel Hilton Arc de Triomphe, s’il vous plait.”). Despite being exhausted, we fought the urge to go to sleep so that we could acclimate to the new time zone quickly. With no itinerary in mind, we strolled down the Champs Élysée and drank in  all the sites along that famous boulevard.

 Champs Élysée
                                   Champs Élysée

We met no rude French citizens. All were quite welcoming to us. The only discomfort was with the bands of women in long gowns who came up to us while we were at the Eiffel Tower and  asked us if we spoke English. We felt uncomfortable so we played dumb, and they left. And Dad had his pocket picked on the Metro, but as a former New Yorker, he had nothing of value to be stolen but his hotel key.

April in Paris was not a romantic time weather-wise. We saw much rain and little color except for the scarves wrapped around the necks of nearly everyone but Dad and me. It was like being in the Wizard of Oz before Dorothy opened the door of her house in Munchkinland. (I should not have ignored Mary’s advice to pack lots of colorful scarves!)

View Across the Seine
                                  View Across the Seine

The architecture was magnificent, but all in shades of gray, white, and beige. I was surprised to see a statue of Ben Franklin. Did I learn that in school?

Ben Franklin in Paris-  Finally Some Color!
                       Ben Franklin in Paris- Finally Some Color!

The only change I would make if I ever return would be to train better for the trip—train as if I were preparing to run a marathon. Despite the great transportation throughout the city, we still walked far more than I anticipated. In fact, I was unable to climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe because I just could not walk anymore.

I loved the abundance of cafes and only wished we could have sat outside more than we did. And who cannot like a country where a glass of wine at lunch (which everyone drinks) costs less than a glass of soda?  So I watch the news and am filled with sadness and confusion. I think that these horrible people were once innocent children and wonder what happened to them?

First Date- Hup Two Three Four

I opened my memory bank to search for another first—my first date. As I mentioned to all of you before, I was very shy during most of my early years. As a result, I did not go on a single date during high school. Choosing to attend an all-girl college did nothing to improve that situation, although my classes were sprinkled with a few boys from some of the other campuses.

I went to Douglass College, which was one of several colleges of Rutgers University. We were able to take courses at the other colleges, and students on the other New Brunswick campuses took classes on our campus as well. Still, most of my classes were primarily attended by females.

My roommate for most of the first year was from Hawaii. Her Army father wanted her to attend an East Coast school, which is how she ended up at Douglass.  Stephanie was dating a West Point cadet, so one weekend, she arranged to bring several of her friends on one of her trips to visit her boyfriend. Each one of us was “fixed-up” with a date.

We took a train from New Brunswick to West Point. I don’t recall much of the ride, but I am guessing we had to ride into New York City and transfer to a second train at Penn Station. Looking at the schedule today, it appears that the trip took a total of three hours. By car we could have gotten there in half that time, but none of us had a car back then.

We stayed at the Thayer Hotel, which is located on the West Point Campus. I believe there were four of us who traveled together and shared a room in the hotel.

My memories have faded, but I recall several snippets of that weekend. I particularly remember the name of my date, because it was such a pretty name—Paul Melody.

We ate in a huge dining hall with the uniformed cadets. The whole experience was quite unique, and at the time, kind of bizarre. The plebes, which were what the freshmen were called, had to sit at attention while eating. I found a description online which matches my fuzzy recollections.

The plebes had to get the food from their plates to their mouths in three rigid movements. They didn’t just scoop it off their plates and shovel it into their mouths like we all do. Imagine a robot eating dinner. That is what it looked like to watch those men at the other tables eating. They could not look around the room. They had to stare at their plates and could not speak. When they had visitors like us, the rules were relaxed, but I observed this mechanical behavior at the other tables.

I remember walking around the campus with my date. West Point is located high above the Hudson River, so it is very scenic, particular in the fall, which is when I think we visited. I know he was very well-mannered, but I don’t think we had much to talk about. There was no further contact after that, although I seem to recall that one of the other girls did hit it off with her date and return for another adventure or two with Stephanie.

I have not spoken to her since I left Douglass, but I recently looked her up and see that she is now on Facebook. I think she married her West Point cadet. I think it’s time for me to reach out and see if we can reconnect.

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Nowadays, no one gives a second thought about picking up their telephone to call someone. It doesn’t matter if they live across the street or across the country. It doesn’t make a difference.

Back in the dark ages when I was a kid, or even in the not so distant past, everyone thought long and hard before making a call.  You factored in the distance, length of the call, and time of day. Everything added to the cost. Late night and weekend calls were cheaper. (Telephone costs were like buying airline tickets: the more inconvenient the time the cheaper the cost.) If you were making a local call, which was in your town or a nearby town, you could chat until someone in the family kicked you off so they could make a call.

When I was in college, no one had a phone in their room. The only way to make or receive a telephone call was by using the phone in the dormitory hallway. Good luck if someone called you, because no one wanted to be the one to answer the annoying ring and then have to track down the recipient of the call. Usually, what would happen was the ring would be followed by a yell. That was how I soon learned there were 3 Karen’s on my floor during my freshman year of college.

Because of the lack of privacy and cost, the calls were short and infrequent. I never called home every day, and when I did call, I had a planned list of topics to discuss with Grandma and Grandpa. To fill in the blanks with less important trivia, we wrote letters home. I remember how excited I would be to receive a letter from Grandma with a dollar or two tucked inside or one from one of my friends also away at school.

When I was dating Dad, he was always on the road, but his company allowed him to call me every day for a whopping five minutes. Again, you didn’t waste words with so little time. (“Don’t talk long. It’s a toll call!”) Kelly, you must understand what we went through because you experienced this when you went to Paris and Casey, you did too when Chris went to Africa.

Now, we call each other without a thought to the time or day of the week. We call to talk about nothing and sometimes fill the airwaves with silence when we don’t have enough to say because we do this so often. You have all become so accustomed to instant communication that, at times, I may receive a call on my landline followed by one on my cell if I don’t answer the call. Maybe I’m in the shower or outside or, since we have caller-id, I know who is calling and I choose to ignore the call.

Although I enjoy connecting with family, friends, and acquaintances on my phone, via email, texts, or Facebook, I sometimes feel nostalgic about the way it was. There is something so nice about receiving a letter–not an email–but an honest-to-goodness old-fashioned letter delivered by my mail carrier. It is great knowing who is calling, but at the same time, there was something fun about wondering who would be on the other end of the line. And since I love surprises, I love picking up the phone to someone I haven’t spoken to in years. That’s when the end of long-distance charges is really a welcome change.