Tales of ‘Long Ago’

“Tell us about when you were little, Mom. Tell us about Christmas in ‘the olden times.’ ” Is there a family that doesn’t have its tales of “long ago?”

This Christmas story, told by my Mom, is the one I remember most clearly. Mom, like Grandma who recalled the 1870s and ‘80s growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, has always been a good storyteller. She is a glowing 92 now.

The time I’m thinking of wasn’t a cheery Christmas season--a bitter winter with coal shortages in Brooklyn in the middle of World War I. Mom’s family was living in Minneapolis; she was at home with one infant and expecting another. Holiday decorations and foods were scarce, the whole country was gloomy, and then a largish box arrived from Minnesota. Memories of Mom’s childhood German-American Christmases were aroused by the very sight of the brown-paper-wrapped parcel from her parents. True to her traditions, she would not open it before Christmas Eve, but just having it in the tiny apartment almost cheered her.

Dec. 24 arrived, the coldest, iciest day yet, and my father’s office was closed early. Mom was still feeling pretty sorry for herself when Dad arrived at a rather cheerless home and house-bound young wife. Dad decided they should open their gifts a bit earlier in the day than usual, so he gave her his gift of a crisp green bill “to buy a pair of slippers” and insisted she open the box from Minnesota, sure to contain heart-warming treats and treasures. Inside, not even gift-wrapped, was a large pair of red portieres.


“Por-teers, Mom? What’s that?”

Draperies that hang in the doorway between two rooms, that’s what portieres are. As children, dazzled ourselves by expectations of new clothes and toys and books, we could feel just as disappointed as our Mom had been as a young woman.

Times were hard that year in Minnesota, too, and for some reason never fully understood and never really inquired into, red portieres was what they could send. Needless to say, Mom was greatly disappointed. Dad stepped in. He was sure--and he was right--that a little freedom from the house and baby, and a little cash for shopping were the right medicine for a case of Christmas blues. There was a little neighborhood “dry goods” store in the next block, and off went Mom, in the snow, to buy baby things for new and old babies, some utilitarian items for her husband, and on the way back a fresh, hot coffee cake from the German bakery.

Mom has learned a lot from living her long life, and no lesson was better learned, or better taught to the rest of us, than not to depend too heavily on what someone else might have put in that parcel under the tree. She’s been a great provider of parcels and good cheer, and lots of stories of “what was it like in the olden days.”



La Mesa