‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

candles 5234167513_e44c605784_zPhoto by Lori L. Stalteri on Foter.com / CC BY

I’d like to think that this time of year many children will go to sleep with “visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads” just like in the traditional Christmas poem by Clement Clarke Moore – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

However, experience tells me that children will be restless in slumber dreaming about a long list of expensive and exotic toys that will push their parents over the brink into a dark landscape of anxiety and debt. It’s not a judgement by any means. It’s just an observation on how times have changed. These days it’s all about how money and material things have replaced the spirit of the season. Now where have you heard that before?

When our kids were young, my husband Jimmy always read the Night Before Christmas poem on Christmas Eve hyping up the anticipation of the Christmas Day chaos that was to come. Of course Jimmy added his own special twist to the Christmas poem shaping it to meet our situation at the time.

In those days Christmas was somewhat of a “lean” holiday for our kids which included new pajamas and one “big” present. Sometimes it wasn’t the exact toy or musical instrument on their list but a close substitute which didn’t cost as much. Between me, Jimmy, and my mom we always managed to put something under the tree.

In an effort to make our children feel better about our situation at the time, Jimmy told our kids that Mr. Moore didn’t have any money to buy his children presents. And so Mr. Moore wrote this beautiful poem for them. I’m quite sure that Professor Moore’s children had plenty of Christmas presents – but that was beside the point. Jimmy never let details get in the way of a good story.

Jimmy’s version of how the poem came to be actually made them feel worse. Our kids, a sensitive lot by nature and nurture, shed big silent tears for those poor children that didn’t have presents for Christmas. It prompted them to propose that perhaps they would be better off giving their presents away. It was what sociologists sometimes refer to as the “law of unintended consequences.”

Jimmy convinced them that giving up their presents was a temporary solution to a bigger problem. And that Christmas was not a one day affair but that goodness and kindness should be an every day gift we give to others.

Jimmy’s gift to our children that Christmas was the gift of empathy.

Over the years as our situation improved and our children got older. Jimmy no longer read the Clement Clarke Moore poem. Instead he shared his own childhood Christmas memories. There was no Christmas tree and no Christmas presents only a candelabrum of three electric candles in the front window. But as one of six children, they always knew they had each other. More tears ensued as my children began to question why we celebrated such a sad season. It made Lent look positively festive by comparison.

Jimmy’s gift to our children was the importance of being together.

There’s a line in the song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas that sums it up beautifully, “Through the years we all will be together if the fates allow.” And we’ve been lucky that fate and faith have been very good to us.

Of course there were some years we laughed so hard we cried. Like the year Jimmy and his brother Frank bought a 1970s red convertible with a white ragtop at a police auction. They parked it in the driveway late once Christmas Eve as a gift for our eldest daughter. I’m not sure what they paid for it, but I think I could guess.

Come Christmas morning when she woke up and saw a red convertible parked in the driveway, she ran out in her slippers and her robe clutching a set of car keys oblivious to the cold and snow. She slid into the driver’s seat and hugged the steering wheel. A car for Christmas just like in the movies!

She turned the key in the ignition and the car didn’t start. She tried again, and she was met by silence. We all watched from the dining room window. She tried again and again. And after about 15 minutes and freezing from the cold, she gave up and came into the house.

I expected her to be angry or disappointed. Her siblings scattered to the four corners of the house because as a redhead her temper often got the best of her.

Instead she danced around the dining room table and hugged her father. The fact that the car wouldn’t start was a minor inconvenience for the moment, as she wouldn’t turn 16 for another three months.

In the meantime, she couldn’t wait to go to school and tell her friends what she received for Christmas. The fact that it didn’t start was a minor detail. And like her father, she never let the details get in the way of a good story.

Jimmy’s gift to our children that Christmas: It’s not the gift that matters; it’s the thought that counts.


The Best Christmas Present

This is us

Tony, Me and Carmen

In Charles Dickens’s story, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts: Past, Present and Yet To Come. Lately I’ve been visited by the ghost of Christmas’s Past. Not every Christmas was all merry and bright. Looking back, some of those Christmas’s are tinged with a bit of sadness – but I am no less thankful for them.

I recall this one particular Christmas when I was about seven years old. My mom, who was basically a single (but married) mother, raised us as best she could. My dad, who was in and out of our lives on an erratic basis, decided to make an appearance that particular Christmas Eve.

Carmen, Tony and I were in the kitchen when he sneaked up to the house and tapped on the window. He had a large giftwrapped box in his hands.

At this age, we were not quite sure how we felt about him. Tony and I opted for leaving him outside in the cold. Carmen, always the most sensitive of the three of us, and the oldest and the biggest wanted to let him in. And because we loved Carmen, we gave in. Tony and I always gave in.

Dad didn’t need to bring a present. His presence always meant more to us. But there it was a beautifully wrapped box that begged to be open. We tore at the wrapping paper and it revealed a Lionel Train Set. The boys were ecstatic, I was less so.

Tony, always sensitive to my moods, took a step back from the box and asked our dad, “Where’s Louisa’s present?”

To which he replied, “I didn’t bring her one.”

And so Tony took a step back, and told him. “In that case I don’t want your present.”

Carmen put the lid back on the box and handed back to him.

Each brother grabbed one of my hands and led me out of the kitchen into the front room to play checkers.

It was at that moment I realized that sometimes the best Christmas present is the one you don’t get.

O Holy Night

Photo credit: bartek miskiewicz on Foter.com / CC BY-ND

My husband, Jimmy, always liked to brag about the fact that he was an altar boy. He particularly liked to tease his brothers, Frank and John. He’d say, “He was all saint, while they we’re sinners.” However, anyone who ever knew Jimmy, knew that the angelic smile, curly hair and blue eyes were the perfect cover for the little devil that he was.

Of course only God knew for sure just how naughty he was because he had a habit of going to confession at St. Patricks’ on Bridge Avenue, to a deaf priest. And Jimmy always got the standard three Hail Mary’s for his penance. “No harm, no foul,” he would say, meaning that the small transgression wasn’t worth punishment if no actual harm transpired.

So helping himself to the occasional slice cherry pie as it cooled on the back porch of Bily’s Bakery wasn’t as bad as eating the whole pie. Many years later, my three sons would adopt the same sort of reasoning.

When the altar boy grew up, he would attend the 8:30 a.m. Mass at our Our Lady of Mount Carmel – the “fast mass” as it was known. Father skipped the homily, sped through the Liturgy, and with no music; you were out the door in 25 minutes.

A quick exit was all well and good, but I knew Jimmy missed the music. You see, he was, also a choir boy and had a beautiful voice. At least that’s what he told his children and grandchildren. And when he wasn’t singing silly songs, he actually did have a nice voice. He would even serenade me on occasion when we first started dating.

Jimmy’s voice was so good, that once when he was in grade school, the organist asked him to sing O Holy Night as a solo. He was by turns excited, embarrassed and scared stiff. What would neighborhood boys say when he got up to sing, or worse, his brothers? He backed out at the very last minute. That was a decision he regretted his whole life. But he learned a valuable lesson.

Every Christmas season when that song came on the radio, or he’d hear it in church, he’d become wistful and wishful. What if… How many times have we all said that? It was valuable lesson and one he passed on to his children. Every Christmas it was his gift to his children as he reminded them that it’s the things that you don’t do that you end up regretting.

So whenever my sons and occasionally my girls broke curfew and had an O(MG) holy night of their own, they always would remind their dad it was the things you didn’t do that you would regret.

The apples hadn’t fallen far from the proverbial (Christmas) tree.

Editor’s Note

writer at work

 Writer at work 

Back by popular demand.  I’m very pleased to announce that Louisa Ricci Mulgrew will continue to publish her Tales from an Italian Neighborhood Series on the BellaMama Blog. I’d like to thank all of you who reached out to mom requesting more of her stories.  As she likes to tell her family and friends – “Careful…or you’ll end up in my novel.”

As the Christmas season is upon us, Louisa is relaunching the blog with two of her favorite Christmas stories – stay tuned.

Back In Time

mom and dad
Thanks For The Memory, Jimmy.

Readers of my blog have often read about our July Festival fund raiser in support of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and School. I have been a regular at the “Feast” ever since they began holding it on Herman Avenue – before it moved to the schoolyard that is.

That tradition was passed on to my children and it continues till this day. It’s the best place to meet new friends, renew old friendships and relive the memories of a lifetime.

As my husband Jimmy would often say, “You can take the girl out of the Neighborhood. But you can’t take the Neighborhood out of the girl.” And he was right.

Not too many years ago I literally took a stroll down memory lane with my good friend Michael. Actually it was West 69th street but you get the idea.

Michael and I had been friends ever since childhood. In a neighborhood that was predominantly boys it was a challenge to find a best friend. Lucky for me, Michael became mine.

We would sit on his steps for hours talking, laughing and telling stories. He had my back and I had his. He was like a brother but in low key kind of way – never telling me what to do, where to go, or how to behave.

Eventually we grew up and went our separate ways. We got married, raised our children, and retired to the suburbs but we always returned every summer to The Feast.

One summer not too long ago, I was standing on the street corner waiting for the procession to start when a familiar figure caught my eye. It was Michael. He waved and crossed the street smiling as he came toward me. He gave me a big hug. And he said, “Louisa, let’s go back in time.”

I knew exactly what he had in mind as we began to walk down our old street. We stopped in front of nearly every house. Every house had a story. And we’d always start by saying…”Do you remember?”

And we sure did remember. We started with Squeaky’s house recalling that he was always into something. Michael and I smiled as we walked past Isabella’s Bakery remembering all of the bread runs between Sunday Mass and dinner.

As we walked passed Goose’s old house it occurred to us that nearly everyone in the neighborhood had a nickname. My brothers Carmen and Tony were called Rhino and Lardy. My husband was just called “Irish” by the old timers who gave him permission to marry me.

We passed Michael’s old house and my house too. And next to my house, lived my cousin Wicky. I could just see his car parked right in front of his door. What a crew we had.

Little did I know that this walk down memory lane was to be our last. Not too long after that I had heard Michael wasn’t well and his memory was failing. A year later, we crossed paths again at a restaurant. He was with his wife. And Jimmy was still in my life. When Michael saw me, there was an instant of recognition in his eyes and he gave me a hug. That moment of recognition touched me to my core and is today a precious memory. It was a small fleeing miracle for us all. We had a nice lunch together.

Let’s face it, we’re all getting older and forgetting things. And every year I have fewer and fewer friends who share the same memories. This is why I decided to give mine away. I’d like to see them live on somehow. I also wanted to pay tribute to my late husband Jimmy who will live on forever in my heart. As one other Cleveland boy once so eloquently put it, “Thanks For The memory.

I’d like to thank all of you for joining me on my journey back in time. I hope you enjoyed reading about it as much as I did writing about it.

This is my last blog post; I never imagined when I started this journey that I would have an email address let alone a blog. It just goes to show you that it’s never too late to learn something new. And in keeping with that philosophy, one of my other pushy daughters has signed me up for courses at the local community college. Who knows, maybe for my next act I’ll learn to code.

God bless you all – Louisa.

The White Box

Photo credit: qragon via Foter.com / CC BY

Growing up I had two grandmothers, my grandmother Margharite who lived with us and  my grandmother Anna, (Mamae) who lived with my aunt Mary.

After my aunt Mary got married and moved out, my grandmother Mamae was left all alone.  Mamae was busy enough during the day, but my mother was concerned about the nights.  She was getting older and my mom thought it would be a good idea if I would go over there and spend nights with her.

As a “mobile” fifteen year old who was out and about with her girlfriends most evenings my poor grandmother would wait up for me to come home before retiring for the night.

She didn’t do it out of concern for my welfare, nor was she afraid to go to sleep on her own.  The neighborhood couldn’t be safer what with everyone sitting out on their porches, strangers never drove by and the unofficial neighborhood guardians, the Dago Bombers, were there to keep watch.

No, my grandmother would wait up for me out of ritual and superstition.  Every night she reenacted the same routine.

“Louisa” she would call to me when she heard me come home. All of this was done in her local dialect.

“Vieni qua/Come here.”

And then she’d ask me to take the white box out from under her bed.  After I gave her the long white box, she laid it lovingly on the bed and then lifted the lid.  She opened the white tissue paper and carefully removed the contents.

“M’uarda, (but look)  E cosi bell’ (it’s so beautiful).”

She would say as she held up her new girdle with attached garters and admired it.  Next she laid out her new, white, and never worn Playtex bra; the cotton was so stiff it practically stood at attention.   Then she pulled out a pair of silk stockings, followed by her most beautiful dress, a hat and a string of pearls. The entire process took twenty minutes!

She looked at me expectantly as I dutifully admired her treasure.  And then she looked me in the eyes and say, “Remember, you take this box to the funeral home when I die. Do you promise?”

The first time she said it I was appalled by the thought. In my young mind, there was something rather ghoulish about it.   Round about the fourth or fifth night I had gotten used to the idea.

After a week I asked her why she took out her clothes every night. I would be shocked if she worried about somebody stealing them.  But that wasn’t the case.

She told me, “I take them out to show God because I want him to recognize me when he calls me home.”

I couldn’t argue with that logic but I was getting tired of spending all that time every night making sure God recognized my grandmother.

Once, twice, ten times…I wondered if my Aunt Mary participated in the box ritual every night.

After about ten days, I convinced her to leave the box under the bed.

So I asked her, “It’s God, right?  I’m sure he has a good memory.”

She had to agree with that logic.

I shuddered at the thought of all of my unconfessed sins and God’s memory.

She was a little leery at first but I also told her it was for the good of the fabric. After all, she didn’t want to arrive in front of St. Peter all wrinkled, right? So she seemed satisfied with that and I made a mental note to go to confession.

It wasn’t long before her health started to fail and her daughters thought it best to move her in with my Aunt Rosie.  A couple of years later my grandmother had died and I went to the funeral home expecting to see her laid out in all her finery.  The day she had been preparing for had finally arrived.

You can imagine my shock and dismay when she was dressed in an outfit I didn’t recognize and I’m sure she didn’t pick.

When I asked my Aunt Rosie what happened to the white box, she looked at me with a strange look on her face.

“What white box?” she asked.

“The box that was under her bed,” I said.

“I never saw any box,” my Aunt Rosie said truly puzzled.

My Aunt Mary, my mother and I all looked at each other.  We knew the importance of that box.

I could read the concern on their faces and see their thoughts battling with their logic.  It was after all a silly, superstitious question in this modern age in the new world.

“How was God going to recognize their mother?”

I looked at my grandmother lying peacefully in her box and I said to my mother and my aunts.

“M’uarda (but look) Come e bell’ lei (how beautiful she is). Who could forget that face?”

They had to agree!

To this day I have an aversion to white boxes.  And I now put everything in gift bags!


Lack of Education

The Wild Colonial Boys revised

The Wild Colonial Boys: (left to right) Johnny, Jimmy, Simon and Frank.

There are some movie phrases that over the years have become iconic.

“Here’s looking at you, kid.” – Casablanca

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.” – Cool Hand Luke

“I’ll be back.” The Terminator

“Lack of Education” was a phrase coined by my husband Jimmy. It seemed to be a catch all for bad behavior or lack of manners – or both.

He first used it in high school as a dig against his two older brothers who had quite a reputation at West High School.

His oldest brother Frank knew everybody. He was a joker and wherever Frank went laughter often followed but mostly at the expense of overly strict teachers. He was the glue in afternoon detention sessions holding together a diverse group of students. It was the 50s version of The Breakfast Club. 

John, the middle brother, was always there to back Frank up and so naturally they were well known to teachers and students. Teachers dreaded them, fellow students wanted to be like them and trouble was their best friend.

One teacher was once heard to ask John if there were any other brothers due to attend high school. Johnny was pleased to announce that West High could look forward to a third brother, Jimmy, next year. The teacher heaved a heavy sigh and was heard to say, “Oh no, not another one.”

My husband has always been a bit of an instigator and so you can imagine the havoc he caused in high school – especially having his brothers there.

Jimmy with his angelic face and the charm of a natural born salesman, usually managed to dodge the wrath of his teachers leaving Frank and John to bear the brunt of the blame.

And then with all innocence and conviction, he’d deliver the bad news to his father Simon, a tough old Irishman if ever there was one that Frank and John were in trouble again.

Simon, would peer over the obituary section of the old Cleveland News and scowl at his son.  Jimmy who was only too pleased to venture his explanation as to the bad behavior of his two brothers, “Lack of education, Pa. Lack of education.”

Concerned for their younger brother’s welfare, Jimmy was quickly racking up as many detentions as Frank. Or perhaps because he was cramping their style, the older brothers decided it would be best if Jimmy attended catholic school. And so the brothers pooled their resources and packed him off to St. Edwards with the warning he’d better graduate or else.

Jimmy did graduate from St. Edwards, Class of 55 as he was fond of saying, but not before serving his fair share of detentions by digging the school’s foundation.

Frank , John and Jimmy joined the service and when they came out they went on to be a policeman , a lumberyard foreman and a salesman. They were as popular out of high school as they were when they were in it. People knew and loved them all. And Frank and John never stopped looking after their little brother.

I suspect that when Jimmy went before St. Peter at the pearly gates. His two brothers were there to meet him. And as St. Peter looked down the long list of Jimmy’s life, noting all of those detentions, I could just hear Franky and Johnny whispering into the gatekeeper’s ear. “Lack of education, Peter. Lack of education.”

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to the Macs, the Aunts, The Cousins and all of our friends from the other neighborhood known as Little Achill.  Up Mayo!