Because this is a holiday issue, and written for an early deadline almost back-to-back with last week’s column, we’re allowed to write in a less formal format. My assignment is to write something seasonal.Since writing this column for a year, people in Montauk now perceive me as a potential voice. They allow me to sense how they really feel about things that happen here, especially when there’s change, or when they would like to see change.
One evening, not long ago, I was at a gathering and saw that special focus suddenly in the eyes of the woman seated across the table from me. This is what she had to say: She works a lot with kids, not just her own children, but also other people’s children here in Montauk. Much of this is volunteering on her part. She loves working with kids but said she’d like to hear a simple “thank you,” from parents, more often. Others present in similar situations said they felt the same. They crave more acknowledgment for what they do. Not in the form of material gifts or money. They want parents to approach them occasionally, and just say, “Thank you for doing all that you do, for our children.”
Montauk is the most amazingly small town. If I describe what services these folks provide for your kids, you’ll know just who I mean. The plain truth is we all think our own children are just like little Christmas angels.
I’m thinking of my brother Paul and me. As kids we were referred to as “the brats.” At a very young age I asked my mom, “What’s a brat?” “Who said you’re a brat?” she instantly wanted to know.
Paul, several years younger than me, and I, have a sister, Sandy, 10 years older than me. Enough of an age difference that Sandy seemed adult to me from as far back as I can remember. Sandy was lively, pretty, smart in school and popular, which reinforced in my mind that she was an all-knowing goddess. She skipped a grade. By 18 she was dissecting animals for her biology classes at Rutgers in the basement sink of our New Jersey home. First Sandy brought home a dead frog, next a small dead shark, and finally, worst of all, a dead cat all preserved in formaldehyde. She was one of only a handful of girls in her class to graduate from the pre-med program in 1963. Most of the other girls dropped out or changed to other majors. By the time she was 21 Sandy had married her high school sweetheart who was then at Yale. She never seriously considered becoming a doctor, though she reminds us, she could have.
The Christmas memories which swirl in my brain have to do with when I was about eight, Sandy was in college, and Paul was a freckle-faced little boy with a crew cut and “sugar bowl ears.” Our house in South Orange, New Jersey, was right next to the back entrance of Seton Hall University. On wakeful nights I would sit at my bedroom window and spy on students at night classes in the brightly lit buildings of the college.
The first time I went Christmas shopping, Sandy took me on a bus to a 5 and 10 store in Vailsburg, near Newark. The bus was crowded and it was snowing. There was stop and go traffic on the main avenue. I was bundled in a heavy wool coat, woolen leggings, mittens, and a funny pointed green hat/scarf knitted by mom. I’ve been thinking about this all week.
I eventually remembered the gifts I chose. For dad, a wooden shoe brush, (possibly still amongst the flotsam in the upstairs hall closet), for mom, a pin cushion in the shape of a red stuffed fabric tomato, with a “strawberry” attached, for sharpening one’s needles; for Sandy, a buffer for her fingernails, which were always neatly manicured; and for little Paul, a balsa wood glider airplane. These gifts all together cost about $5, which I would have saved from my 25 cents per week allowance.
Around this time, before we moved to New York State and Sandy stayed behind in New Jersey and got married, probably during the last Christmas season we spent in New Jersey, our parents sent Sandy on a mission in Manhattan, where our Aunt, Helen Dolce’s husband owned a bar. The bar was near a fire station, and was frequented by firemen. At the station there was a resident firehouse dog, a Dalmatian. The dog had a litter of mutt puppies.
Wonderful Sandy, traveling via both subways and train, came back from Manhattan with a tiny puppy for us in her winter coat pocket. I named him Chief. He was at least part Dalmatian, which you could tell because although mostly black, where he was white he had spots. He had spotted socks, a speckled white chest and the tip of his tail was white. His muzzle was spotted and he had a white stripe up his forehead.
Chief adored our mother who in turn was devoted to him. He was so little when Sandy brought him home, scared to be away from his dog family. I remember mom sitting on the basement stairs landing, next to the cardboard box where tiny Chief had his temporary bed. Mom placed a ticking alarm clock in the box because she said it would remind Chief of his mother’s heartbeat. It worked. Chief slept.
For the rest of my childhood, till I was almost graduated from college myself, Chief was like our second brother. He was an irascible, grumpy dog and Paul and I, the brats, teased him unmercifully.
We moved around a bit, due to Dad’s job. Chief traveled cross country. When we lived near Santa Barbara, California in 1963 through 1964, Chief loved to chase seagulls on the beach.
How pleasant to revisit these people and events in my mind, if only for a moment, and how hard to believe beautiful Sandy, with four grandchildren, is now almost ten years beyond the age to which our dear mother lived. Dad, too, has been gone 18 years.
Wishing all readers a wonderful holiday. Be of good cheer and be sure to thank all those folks you need to thank. Don’t forget Mom and Dad.