Friday, December 21, 2007

An Atheist's Christmas Memory

So many atheist bloggers have written about their Christmas memories, leftovers from the days when they were believers. As I’ve mentioned many times, I was never a believer, and even if I had been, my family was Jewish. For my ancestors, the arrival of a bearded Gentile in a bright red uniform, laughing maniacally and swinging a heavy bag, would not have been a pleasant sight; it would have been another pogrom.

Still, though, I actually do have some fond recollections of the season, not the least of which is my yearly excursion with my grandmother from the Bronx into the heart of Manhattan. When I was a boy, Nanny took me every year to see a nighttime Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall. This was back in the days when the alleged main attraction was a big-budget first-run movie. But there was also a live stage show and the usual assortment of cartoons, shorts, and newsreels. The full program lasted at least three hours, and was well worth waiting for. And half the world seemed to think so.

We’d stand, Nanny and I, excited and freezing, outside the theater for an eternity, sometimes lasting almost two hours. The long line we were in would snake up and down and around the block, moving just a few feet every now and then until the movie or the stage show had reached an end. Then, as Nanny would say, we’d make “some serious progress.” If we were luckily unlucky enough to be stuck near the back of that line — and we always were — we’d have a great view of the hypnotic Rockefeller Center Tree. I found dozens of ways to stare at those lights to make them look different. I squinted. I turned sideways and peeked out of my peripheral vision. I pulled down my upper eyelids to create a curtain of tears. I closed my eyes really tight until I could see shapes, and then I opened them superfast to find those shapes floating on the tree. I tilted my head all the way over till it touched my shoulder; then I repeated that action in the other direction.

Even Nanny tried to embellish the view. She always wore a hat with a veil, and she’d stare through it at the lights. After a while, she’d lift the veil and gaze at the tree again. When she thought that none of the million other people were looking at her, she’d alternately lift and drop the veil quickly for a few rounds, as if she were playing a frenzied game of peek-a-boo with a giant plant.

Every three minutes or so, she’d ask me, “You warm enough?”

“Yeah.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“How can you be warm enough in that shmatta coat? You need a heavier one. Or something under. Whatever happened to that nice cardigan I crocheted for you?”

That cardigan would be home in my closet because, as Nanny whispered to my mother once, “I’m not from the measurers.” This was her way of saying that the sleeves ran from my apartment in the Bronx all the way to New Hampshire. She sometimes claimed that she made these things a “little long,” so I could grow into them. But I never did. Even if I’d gotten so big that the bottom of the sweater was up around the middle of my chest, there was no way the sleeves would fit anyone other than King Kong.

Finally, she’d say, “Awright. OK. Be cold. Do what you wanna, just don’t come crying to me next week when you’re sneezing and coughing. If I was your mother, you’d have a cardigan on, believe me. So what if you have to roll up the arms a little?”

Then she’d produce a thermos from the laundry bag she called her purse. “Here,” she’d say. “You’re cold. Have some cocoa. But only if you’re cold.”

“Well, I’m just a little bit cold.”

“So you are cold. Didn’t I tell you you were cold?”

She’d unscrew the lid from the thermos, and turn that lid upside-down to transform it, magically, into a cup. Steam would come rising up, warming my face as I stuck my nose as close as I could to the chocolate-scented mist. Then Nanny would pour some of the piping hot liquid, and take a healthy sip, leaving a smear of bright, red lipstick on the rim. When she’d pass the cup over to me, I’d use my gloved fingers to wipe off as much of the lipstick as I could.

“Whatsa matter? You’re afraid of my mouth? I’m your grandmother, f’heavensake. Drink from the other side if you’re so scared of germs. Believe me, in this dirty air, the other germs wish they could be as clean as mine. How come you’re not so scared of germs when it comes to wearing a nice cardigan?”

Nanny had a fakir’s tongue that could dance across hot coals. But when I’d sample some of the cocoa, I’d burn my lips. Then I’d start blowing furiously into the cup.

“Is the cocoa hot enough?”

“Yeah,” I’d say. “It’s boiling.”

“It’s not hot enough. But drink it anyway.”

As the line would move along, I’d become one with the billions of city lights flickering on and off in the surrounding buildings, reflected in car windows, glass doors, people’s glasses; the sound of Salvation Army bells ringing urgently all around me; the smell of chestnuts from the vendors’ carts nearby, the bite of a cold gust sneaking under the earflaps on my hat, and the taste of cocoa mingled with lipstick. It never occurred to me back then that there were unfortunate boys elsewhere in the country whose grandmothers took them to see movies at places where they walked right up to the ticket window, paid their money, and went in.

When Nanny and I finally got all the way to the main lobby of Radio City, she’d grab my hand and lead me up the enormous staircase to the balcony, which in those days was also the smoking section. With the help of rows of little lights shining from the backs of the seats, we’d find our way to the best place. Nanny always picked a seat right behind the one that would soon be occupied by the woman with the most gigantic hat ever seen. When that villainess would finally show up, Nanny would tap me on the shoulder and stage-whisper, “Uy. Y’see this hat? It’s a wonder her head isn’t crushed.”

“What hat?”

“Shhh.”

“Just tell me, what hat are you talking about?”

“Shhh. I’ll tell you later. Can you see all right? Or is it BLOCKING YOUR VIEW, TOO?”

Nanny would grumble about the lady in the hat for a while, and maybe even throw in a few nasty remarks about the tall fidgety teenager behind her who kept bumping her seat with his feet, or the old bald man sitting next to her who couldn’t stop passing gas.

But I never noticed them, because there was an exceptional holiday glow in this elevated region, a shimmering constellation of yellow chair-lamp beams and vivid orange dots emanating from hundreds of cigarettes. Candy wrappers crinkled everywhere, including in my seat, because Nanny never forgot to load her bag with a giant-size Hershey bar with almonds and enough sucking candy to moisten the throats of all the children and grandmothers in the tri-state area. The air was thick with smoke and perfume and peppermint and just a tiny bit of resisted slumber, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was about as contented as I’d ever be.

16 comments:

Sarge said...

What a great story!

I've only ever passed through New York, but my wife has been several times.

One year when she was a girl,she, her mother, aunt, and grandmother went to Radio City to see the christmas show. They stood in line forever, got in, saw the show, and caught a taxi to the railroad station to go home.

They asked the taxi driver to take them by Rockefeller Center so they could see the tree and where people skate. He complied, and they had apparently spent a considerable length of time looking at it while they'd been in line, all unknowing. She still laughs about it.

As an aside, I was stationed with many guys from New York, and one fellow's father and grandfather were city cops. Both had been asked by tourists to show them where the big ape fell off the tall building. Seriously. It usually gave them a whole lot of fun.

the chaplain said...

That is a great story. I'll bet your grandmother was a really cool lady, even in those days before anyone knew what cool was.

PhillyChief said...

That's a great x-mas memory, delivered in great detail. Thanks.

My wife would say we have cat's tongues. I swear she can chug boiling water whereas I'm always blowing on my soups, my hot beverages and waiting to dig into food right away so it can have a chance to cool down.

My mother has no sense of time, other than to be as early as possible. When we visit and she cooks, everything will have been done for probably a couple of hours. She then has to "warm up" the food, which entails shoving it in the microwave, pushing the 10min button and taking it out when she thinks it's warm enough. I've asked, "why don't you just set it for the time it'll take to reheat?" (yeah, you're wondering why don't I ask her to not cook two hours in advance to avoid the whole thing altogether, but to explain why I wouldn't do that would take hours). To this she says, "this is easier". Of course in the excitement of having company, she doesn't watch the food and what comes out is molten food that you need NASA gloves to remove from the microwave that's so pregnant with steam that if you're not careful when pulling off the cellophane you'll sear the flesh off your face as it comes rushing out. My mother and my wife can eat this food like that. Me? I just sit there blowing feverishly on my plate and cutting up the food to free any hidden pockets of steam as my wife berates me for having a cat's tongue.

DaVinci said...

Somehow I feel there should be a chapter two. I've read books that didnt start this good.

The Exterminator said...

Sarge:
I can remember at least twice during those years when we went to the Christmas Show that some "foreigner" asked my grandmother, "What tree is that?"

Nanny always said proudly, "That's only Rockefeller Center," as if she were on its advertising payroll.

chappy:
My grandmother was a really cool lady. I was probably the only one in our family who appreciated how funny she was whenever she was being critical, not only of relatives and friends, but of complete strangers. If creatures of greater sensibilities, like my mother, would complain to her, Nanny would always answer, "What's on my lung is on my tongue. You may not like what I say to you, but you know I'm not lying."

I guess that little phrase became a rule of life for me, too.

Philly:
I like that expression "cat's tongue," but I wonder what the opposite is. Like your mother and your wife, my grandmother could eat molten food. In fact, if it wasn't still in the eruption process, she wasn't satisfied. I don't think we ever ate together in a restaurant when she didn't send her "lukewarm" coffee back for "more heat."

To this day, though, I like my coffee best when it's tepid.

DaVinci:
Thanks for the compliment. I'm sure I'll get around to writing about my childhood again, since, at least according to my wife, I never grew out of it.

ordinary girl said...

I really enjoyed the story. Like DaVinci said, you should continue it.

John Evo said...

Ex can definitely make you feel like you are there.

As a kid in L.A. at about the same time, my equivalent Xmas story would be lining up in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in 75 degree weather and marveling at the Christmas lights strung across Hollywood Blvd and in the palm trees. Still, his story had a hint of familiarity... partly actual, partly Ex's good writing.

It wasn't my nanny that took me there, but I still felt the simchas and nachas despite my goy status. Hey, it was Christmas. All was good. Vooden?

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Wonderful story Ex. Needs a little background Xmas music, and it would be perfect.

I had a similar memory of shopping with my Nana. I lived in a small town (very Mayberry RFDish) that had only one store. In order to do some REAL Xmas shopping, my grandmother (Nana) would take me and my sister to the big city (the state capital) where they had a SHOPPING CENTER (whoa!) with a Sears in it. Boy could we shop. I hated shopping, but I loved it when she would put me on one of the mechanical ponies out side the store, or a lion, or a bear, that rocked back and forth when you plugged a nickel in it. That was the only reason I went (well, that and she'd always buy me some candy, or something). Plus I got to get out of Mayberry.

Not quite the same thing as Radio City (which I've never been inside of, I don't think) but it was big time for me.

Babs said...

Excellent telling of an excellent story! I think there should be more, too. Like maybe an entire book.

John Evo said...

Maybe YOU can talk him into Babs. The boy doesn't seem to know he can really write!

tina said...

That was a warm and fuzzy kind of story. Like watching a movie.

Lifeguard said...

I'm with DaVinci, Babs, John, OG, SI and just about everyone else in the atheosphere who thinks you spin a heck of a yarn, Ex, and we'd all love to see some more. Seriously, it has a really nice touch, and you really know how to evoke feelings with details.

What is it about Grandma's though? Actually, both my Abuela and my mom heat food up like you wouldn't freaking believe-- it wouldn't cool off in the arctic. It's a wonder I can taste anything at all.

Lynet said...

Yep, that's a classically misty Christmas story all right -- with a hint of Exterminator wryness. It's great fun to read. Good job.

EnoNomi said...

Wonderful writing - I agree with the others that there needs to be more. It made me think of when my grandmother would take me to the old Fox Theatre in San Diego. I don't remember any of the movies we went to see, but I do remember the theatre and going with her and you just can't get that experience anymore.

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