My mother's name was Lilly. She was a born escape artist. At three she escaped the murderous pogroms of Tsarist Russia, arriving at the Lower East Side of New York where her family of eight lived a desperate hand-to-mouth existence in a one room tenement on Hester Street. When her mother Sarah, her older sister Rebecca, and her brother Sam came down with the tuberculosis that eventually killed them, Lilly miraculously escaped that disease.
School had been Lilly's escape from the impoverished immigrant life that was destroying her family. School had taught her to speak English correctly, write with a lovely penmanship, and learn of life beyond the ghetto. The years before the First World War had seen one recession after another, and Lilly's father, my grandfather, a tailor by trade, was often unemployed. After her mother died, Lilly was obliged to leave school early to work towards paying for the care of her dying brother and sister in the Colorado sanitarium. There was only Lilly to supplement her father's meager income. But hard times do not necessarily make hard people. My mother escaped the callousness, and the bitterness that many poor children developed as armor against an indifferent, if not a cruel world.
Lilly escaped that ruinous bitterness because of Miss Emily Stokes, her last school teacher, a young African American. Miss Stokes, discovering that Lilly's mother had recently died, and that the girl would soon be obliged to leave school for work, hoped to keep the sad child from despair. The teacher gave Lilly a cloth doll at Christmas, one with a long calico two sided skirt that featured a white baby on one end and a black baby on the other. She would buy her promising student food for lunch so she was sure the child had one good meal. Because of Miss Stokes' kindness Lilly escaped the casual bigotry that so many European immigrants felt towards the children of former slaves.
Even as a child Lilly had a rare, luminous beauty. That beauty helped her to escape the sweat shops that swallowed so many poor girls alive. At fourteen, tall and slender, with large brown eyes set in a movie star's face, she bobbed her long black hair and became a fashion model in the new garment district of Manhattan.
My genial, joking, and temperamental father Nathan came from a similarly impoverished family. He was put to work as a ten year-old boy to help feed the six younger children, eventually owning his own business and achieving middle class comfort in the midst of the Great Depression. When I was little I once asked him what he did for fun as a child. He replied, "Son, when I was a boy they hadn't invented childhood, let alone fun."
I was seven years old in the Christmas of 1939 when my mother took my sister Simone and me downtown to see the decorated windows of the Fifth Avenue department stores. We were captured by the beauty of the Christmas trees with their glittering lights as we listened to the carolers near Rockefeller Center. I watched in wonder as my mother gave a bell ringing Salvation Army Santa a twenty dollar bill to help feed the hungry. In my child's mind it seemed that she was throwing a fortune down a fake chimney for people she didn't even know. She called it "helping out," never charity, when she gave cash and food to the needy; not only to her struggling family members but to any strangers down on their luck who crossed her path in those hard Depression times.
On the way home by taxi-cab that evening my mother stopped the cab, told the driver to wait, and impulsively bought a small, scrawny four foot Christmas tree from a shivering vendor. He wrapped it in burlap at her request so that it could not be seen for what it was by curious neighbors as she carried it into our house. I figured that my mother had bought the tree out of pity for the poor man who was making few sales that night, or perhaps she felt pity for the tree itself, a loser pine if ever there was one. She now had the cab driver take her to the local five and dime where she bought some silver tinsel, cellophane garlands, glass ornaments and peppermint candy canes. "All we need now is for it to snow tomorrow," my mother said as she smuggled the tree into our house.
My father was not at all religious but he questioned the propriety of that tree when he came home from his downtown office. "What's that bush doing here?" he asked. "It's for the children," my mother replied. He knew better than to argue with that. "For the children" was her final word, never to be disputed. She told him that Chanukah was taken care of; we had the brass menorah on the fireplace mantle whose candles she lit for the festival of lights, when she remembered to do so, but that was no reason to keep a Christmas tree out of her children's lives. As ever she made up her own rules as she went along, advising him that one thing had nothing to do with the other. The tree stayed.
Despite her defense of that paltry tree my mother hoped to keep it a secret from her pious older sister Ida who was troubled that Lilly had broken with the kosher dietary laws, and no longer observed the Sabbath. Lilly held a skeptical view of the Almighty; oh, she believed He was there alright, but for reasons she couldn't fathom God was off napping during her desperate childhood prayers, and certainly fast asleep in Europe in 1939. A few years earlier my mother had stopped keeping a kosher home when our pediatrician, the magisterial Dr. Herbert Jackson, advised her to introduce bacon strips and malted milkshakes into our everyday breakfast to add some flesh to the bones of her two skinny children. Ida protested that there were other ways to fatten up the children that would not offend God and Ida. Large bowls of lumpy oatmeal and teaspoons of cod-liver oil had kept her Gertrude plump and healthy. Mother, always merciful, chose to ignore Ida's breakfast menu. The sizzling, delicious bacon stayed in our diet, topping our French toast in warm maple syrup and melted butter.
Christmas morning arrived with a light snowfall as if by my mother's command. We children got up early and raced into the living room, dazzled by the decorated tree, all its spindly faults concealed by the garlands of glitter, tinsel, gold and silver glass ornaments, and the many wrapped gifts my mother had placed under it. I had received the new wooden fort and the cavalry of painted French Legionnaire soldiers I longed for, and my sister Simone had not one, but two Shirley Temple dolls. My mother confessed that she was unable to decide between the everyday Shirley and the Shirley dressed for a fancy ball, so she bought both for her young daughter. But more important to her were the books she bought for us. She had taught us to read early by first reading aloud to us and every so often pointing out the words on the page, and later by making up flash-cards on cut up shirt cardboards with new words printed in block letters for us to recognize. It worked. My smart sister read at four, and I trailed behind her lazily, reading at six.
There was a motivational book, Young Mozart, for my sister, who was often found struggling with her five finger exercises on our baby grand piano. There were two Jerry Todd books for me, juvenile novels, hugely popular at that time, which allowed a city boy to imagine that he lived in a small town with a gang of loyal friends who had exciting yet comical adventures. And there was "Treasure Island" in the brilliantly illustrated N.C. Wyeth edition, promising me days of escape with young Jim Hawkins in a world of pirates, mutiny, and buried treasure.
Into this scene of torn wrappings and cries of joy came an ominous ringing, someone with a heavy finger was pressing it hard against our doorbell.
Lilly knew at once that it was her older sister Ida accompanied by Ida's young daughter Gertrude, standing outside impatiently in the now heavily falling snow. Ida had brought Gertrude over to our house to play with my sister during this school holiday. It had been arranged on the telephone days before, and forgotten by my mother in the excitement of getting the children's gifts wrapped and the tree set up for Christmas.
My mother loved her homely, old fashioned sister, who had awkwardly but dutifully stepped into the role of mother for her during Lilly's bleak childhood. But she knew that Ida would be shocked, more likely horrified by the Christmas tree. It would be another sign of Lilly, "the American one," drifting away from the customs of their forefathers. In this time of murderous crimes against the Jews in Europe, and everyday nasty anti-Semitism in America, my mother didn't want to be regarded of as one who rejected her own people in their time of trial.
Lilly, who was always calm, suddenly panicked at the sound of that persistent doorbell. She didn't want a confrontation or even a conversation about that tree with her disapproving sister. She hastily picked up the tree, embracing it as she might a child to be rescued from a raging fire, and rushed towards the hall bathroom as pine needles, glittering garlands, and a fragile glass ornament fell and scattered in her wake. Hiding the tree safely inside the bathtub - its banishment was to last only as long as the visitors stayed - she closed the shower curtains concealing it from view. Only then did she answer the front door.
Ida stood there in the cold complaining that they had been forced to wait so long in the freezing snow that her Gertrude risked frost bite and pneumonia. My mother, who had a wonderful way of ignoring such complaints, praised ten year old Gertrude on her healthy complexion and her thick brown curls as the glum child removed her wet woolen stocking cap and gloves. Snow on coats was hastily shaken off outside. When Ida went to hang their coats in the nearby hall bathroom, the customary place for wet outdoor clothing, Lilly told her sister to hang them on the wall hooks nearby, so that the steam radiator would dry them. Another close escape. Galoshes were carefully placed on the inside doormat by our visitors to show their respect for my mother's spotless carpets and in homage to our gleaming hall linoleum scrubbed to a high shine with Murphy's Oil Soap. Ida was known to say that "you could eat off Lilly's floors," her highest compliment about my mother's housekeeping.
Mother offered Ida a cup of hot tea to take off the chill with a slice of marble pound cake, but Ida, as ever, refused; you might be able to eat off Lilly's floors but not her china. God alone knew if there was bacon fat clinging to our tea-cups and pork rinds concealed in the Drake's cake.
Ida entered the living room and delivered a noisy wet kiss on my warm cheek and one for my sister which we wiped off discreetly with the sleeves of our bathrobes. I whispered to my sister that thanks to Aunt Ida's kisses we wouldn't have to bathe for a week. Ida then surveyed the Christmas stockings hanging from the mantle stuffed with candies, crayons, miniature playing cards, wooden spinning tops, jacks and little mesh bags of marbles; the trinket laden stockings that my mother had forgotten to remove in her haste to hide the tree. The stockings seemed to evade Ida's scrutiny and it appeared that my mother would entirely escape censure today, thanks to the menorah which acted as her shield of righteousness. Lilly now gave Gertrude a new Nancy Drew book she had bought for her niece's Chanukah gift. Gertrude looked at it sadly and said, "Thank you Aunt Lilly but I read this one already. Give it to Simone."
Ida glanced at the new toys that littered our living room floor and fired her first round of armor-piercing questions, "Lilly, what is this? A toy shop? Don't you know that you're spoiling your children?"
My aunt continued to condemn her younger sister's child-rearing methods, contrasting them with her own superior mothering. "Gertrude only gets one doll a year, and that's on her birthday, and she's so careful with that doll you'd think it was never played with. She's not spoiled. I could give her more, we did okay this year, but I won't spoil her. You give them too much. You love them too much. You make them too happy. You're spoiling them rotten."
My mother now reached the limits of her patience. This was one argument she could not escape. She replied that her children were not spoiled, trying hard not to show the great annoyance that she felt.
"Ida, we were spoiled. We had nothing, and there's nothing like nothing for spoiling children. Toys don't do that, and happiness doesn't do that. And love certainly doesn't do that."
Soon the evidence was piling up before Ida on the floor, that incriminating trail of tinsel, the suspicious scattering of pine needles, and the tell-tale shards of gleaming colored glass from a broken ornament on the Persian rug.
"Do you have a Christmas tree here, Lilly?"
Knowing that the game was up my mother calmly replied, "Yes, there's one growing in the hall bathtub. Go look. I've got a real pine forest in there."
"You wouldn't?" Ida protested.
"I would. And I did," my mother said, refusing to apologize for her frail tree. She had not risen from the depths of that ghetto on her beauty and her smile alone. Lilly's loving nature was tempered by a will of iron, and when challenged she could stand up to anyone, even her older sister, the hanging judge. If Ida was going to make a fuss over this Christmas tree Lilly would not back down. For my mother the eleventh commandment was "mind thy own business."
Ida started towards the bathroom to see that odious tree but was stopped by Gertrude's sudden cry of dismay. The child had seen the two Shirley Temple dolls cradled in their packaging amidst the torn Christmas wrappings. "It isn't fair," Gertrude lamented. "It isn't fair."
"No it isn't," my mother agreed. "Simone, please give Gertrude one of your dolls."
When my sister protested, tears forming in her eyes, ready to match Gertie sob for sob in any misery competition my mother said something that I have never forgotten.
"I know. Sometimes it's hard to be kind. But it's just like playing the piano. It gets easier with practice."
My sister picked up the doll in the modest polka dot cotton dress and reluctantly handed it over to her anguished cousin, keeping the Shirley in the fancy chiffon ball-gown for herself. There are limits to any child's generosity. Two of my toy soldiers, Corsairs on horseback with ingenious, removable sabers, were thrown in with the doll when the insatiable Gertrude eyed them longingly, despite my protest that I needed them to fight for the French Foreign Legion. Satisfied at last, Gertrude stopped her insidious and very productive crying. A smile of triumph appeared on her thin lips for these acts of generosity imposed upon her younger cousins by our mother. Soon, we were on the floor playing together, all resentment dissipated; even Ida relaxed, sat down in a club chair, and graciously accepted a glass of tap water as she began to complain about our other relatives.
I believe my mother got back as much as she gave to us that Christmas. My bright, sparkling sister filled the house with mischief and laughter, and needy, nervy me was always good for a wisecrack that made her smile. We were Lily's protection against a cruel past which threatened to break through like a flood, bringing with it the debris of those old childhood sorrows. Christmas was also a time to recall Miss Stokes munificent gift of that double sided doll. I suppose my mother was surprised by our protests when she made us share our gifts with Cousin Gertrude. Generosity was as natural for her as breathing and loving. Now, whenever the holiday come around, I think of my mother Lilly, long gone, with her great smile, her generous heart, her spindly Christmas tree, and her talent for kindness which never needed practice.
"A Christmas Lilly" is adapted from "Spotless" a memoir by Sherman Yellen, a work in progress.