With the tectonic shifts in our economy, and parallels growing daily relating the Obama-present with the Great Depression, here is a Christmas story. Like most people, the holidays make me feel connected to the past; a time of reflection when moments of insight open up like glowing windows on an advent calendar. The pages of The Red Leather Diary take you back to the time of It's A Wonderful Life.
Miraculously, I found the diary one morning on my way to work, when I encountered a dumpster filled with old steamer trunks in front of my Manhattan apartment building, which the management was throwing out.
It's nearly 2,000 entries reflected the indomitable spirit of its author, an intensely creative and precocious young woman named Florence Wolfson who wrote between the ages of fourteen and nineteen about her love of Mozart, Beethoven, and Baudelaire, her love affairs, and her need to create lasting beauty out of daily life. She also wrote about Black Tuesday and how her Russian Jewish immigrant parents, a busy dressmaker and a doctor, lost all of their money in the stock market crash of 1929.
At a party the other night I heard the writer Tom Wolfe, in one of his many white suits, explaining the current financial crisis in terms of an Internet mentality of people sitting, numb, in front of their computer screens, clicking away. Our world often feels to me out of tune, disconnected and out of control, a strip mall filled with Paris Hilton look-alikes. People rush heedlessly to purchase of an expensive new handbag or enter into a marriage that doesn't last.
In the simple act of writing in her diary every night, Florence reflected on who she was and would become. Not a single day was skipped in the diary's five years from 1929 to 1934. One of the stories to emerge from the diary, when I finally met Florence at ninety -- three quarters of a century after she penned her last entry -- was her celebration of Christmas in the late 1920s.
It was a touching memory Florence painted for me of growing up in a brownstone in Harlem, still an immigrant neighborhood then. When it snowed, the children went sledding down the front steps. Florence wore the wine-colored winter coat her mother had made her with rabbit trim and a matching hat.
For Florence, the friendly giant in her life was a tall Jamaican housekeeper named Eglin (pronounced like the eggs she made Florence eat) who had come to live with the Wolfsons when Florence was four.
Jewish mothers are known for their passion for getting food into their children, and Eglin could have been an honorary member of the tribe. After school, she fed freshly baked cake to the neighborhood kids who crowded into the Wolfsons' roomy kitchen.
Every night, Eglin put the children to sleep, tucking them into twin beds in the room they shared. Eglin was an ardent churchgoer, very proud of being Episcopalian. Left to her own devices by the Wolfsons, Eglin serenely ignored the fact she lived in a Jewish household. Christmas was the big event of her year. Dressed as Santa Claus, Eglin filled the children's stockings with gifts. She roused Florence and Irving at midnight so they could see Santa for themselves, a tall black woman with a white surgical cotton beard muffling her jolly Jamaican laugh.
Because of their parents' remoteness, Florence and Irving had an unusually close relationship. They would talk for hours about how their parents fought and how their mother, the breadwinner in the family during the hard years, bullied their dad.
The Wolfsons relied on Eglin. They were usually shadows sliding down the long hallways of their children's lives; they never suspected the intensity of the bond between the kids and Eglin. One day, when Florence was eight and Irving was four, Eglin announced that she was leaving to go back to Jamaica. Dr. and Mrs. Wolfson took the news coolly enough, but when Florence found out, her world feel apart.
"Eglin not with us?"
That loving laugh, those warm embraces, no longer there! Florence refused to accept it. She took Irving aside, into the pantry, next to the dumbwaiter.
"This can never happen," she told him. "We have to prove to her that we love her too much for her to go away."
What could they do? They had no money for gifts. They really couldn't offer to go with her, although they would have liked to.
Irving was too young to be much help in the crisis so it was up to Florence to find a solution. She led Irving into the kitchen and placed a teacup on the kitchen table in front of Eglin and made an announcement.
"Irving and I are going to shed tears into the teacup, the tears we will always weep if you leave."
Florence and Irving took turns crying into the cup with its matching saucer. The cup filled with their tears. Eglin was so overcome by their demonstration of love that she abandoned all plans to depart.
She stayed on until a fire in the house on Valentine's Day 1927, when Florence was eleven, forced the Wolfsons to move to an apartment on Madison Avenue. Before Eglin left for Jamaica, Florence's mother sent the two to see No, No Nanette with the hit song "Tea for Two." It was Florence's first Broadway musical. She never saw Eglin again.
Christmas has the ability to remind us of the importance of simple acts of love and gestures of kindness. Eglin's warmth has never been forgotten. Ninety years later Florence still thinks of her.
For more information on Lily Koppel and her book, The Red Leather Diary, which is in hardcover now and will be published in paperback on January 20, 2009, please visit her website: RedLeatherDiary.com.