The presence, and the presents, of the past

As a young boy, I don’t recall us ever walking; we ran everywhere, because there was so much to run to.

Courtesy of Melanie Stetson Freeman
The Wonder Horse, in all its variations, was a staple of childhood for many in the United States.

I was – at long last – dusting my bookshelves the other day when I came across a particularly crusty volume: “The Tales of Poe.” An inscription read, “To Robert, From Mom and Dad, 12/25/65.” 

Holding that tome, I was suddenly awash in nostalgia. The book’s cover became a window into the Christmas of my 11th year.

There I was, racing through the streets of Jersey City, New Jersey, rushing headlong toward the holidays. There was more snow then, which meant more snowball fights. We battled from opposite sides of the street – me, Steve, Jimmy, Sal, Rupert, Charlie, Dwayne, Vito, Tommy, Bobby, Vinnie – until our hands were raw with cold and a sympathetic parent emerged with paper cups of hot chocolate to soothe the ache and stoke our energy.

There was no mall. There was no internet, no cellphones, no hand-held games. Without these things to imprison us indoors in solitary confinement, we took our pleasure outside. I don’t recall us ever walking; we ran everywhere, because there was so much to run to.

You could have a small store then and make a go of it. Many did, and we knew all of them by name: Mr. Riley’s candy store, Patsy’s butcher shop, Vic’s deli, Mike’s pharmacy, Schoner’s bakery, Perlman’s hardware. 

Anonymity was impossible. There were always eyes on us, limiting the mischief we could do: “You slam that door again and I’ll call your father!”

Christmastide decorated this urban landscape in a magical way. Shop windows exploded with light. And more lights were strung across Jackson Avenue, the green and red bulbs as big as baseballs. Fulton Theater – an in-town movie house with one screen! – was ablaze with dancing lights of its own, racing around the marquee: “Santa Clause Conquers the Martians.” Seventy-five cents! 

It was the pinnacle of the baby boom. There were armies of children everywhere. We ran in packs, dashing around in our black rubber boots with those troublesome metal clips, the younger kids stuffed into wool snowsuits. I recall my mother trying to buy me a pair of gloves at Tolstoy’s Men’s Shop, unwilling – or unable – to pay what he was asking. 

Looking down at my skinny, red, chapped, frozen mitts, Mr. Tolstoy finally took out his own gloves and proffered them. “Would 25 cents be too much?” he asked my mom. 

I kept those gloves for years. They wore like iron.

Artificial Christmas tree? Perish the thought. My father struck a deal at the tree lot and muscled the thing up two flights of stairs, stationing the stump in a pan of water. 

We laid the decorations on thick while Bing Crosby crooned in the background: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas ...” Tinsel, popcorn garlands, real glass ornaments, a star on top. The tree buckled under the weight, but it held.

On Christmas morning my siblings and I were up at 5. The tree was now barricaded with gift packages. Robot Commando, G.I. Joe, an Aurora model racing-car set, a miniature tape recorder, a Barbie for my sister, and doodad after doodad. My dad made a meager salary, and my mom didn’t work. How on earth did they swing it? It must have been love.

And then, buried deep, a small package for me. It was the only thing that wasn’t a toy. While my brother and sister squealed with delight over their gleanings, I cracked open “The Tales of Poe” and started to read. 

At that moment the hubbub of Christmas receded, and I felt a sort of embrace, this gesture of a book from parents who themselves weren’t readers but who clearly wanted to encourage the practice in their eldest child.

Today it is my only remnant of that Christmas past. That, and the memory of a joyous, and largely vanished, world.

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