I decided to go to New York to see Christmas.
It's at this time of year that Rockefeller Center, The Plaza Hotel, Sak's Fifth Avenue and the hustle-bustle of shopping at FAO Schwartz, Brentano's and the Museum of Modern Art beckon.
The snow, earmuffs, wool scarfs and gloves, boots and a warm coat pulled up to the ears. That's Christmas.
It's at this time that memories of Christmas rush in like a snow plow and fill the spirit with a glow so warm you could lie over a steamy manhole in Manhattan and die. It's a time my sister, mother and I come together in my mother's cozy apartment in one of the Art Deco brick buildings with no elevator in the old Dutch village of Woodhaven, only a 20 minute taxi ride away from 53rd Street where Christmas, I thought, has always been.
It did snow lightly, a faint powder on the dirty face of the city.
In Woodhaven, the powdered landscape looked like a scene from a Currier & Ives print. Two-story clapboard houses and brick apartment houses are crowned by a white fringe of tree branches, that appear like the elaborate hairdo of Mother Winter.
Our taxi hobbled through the narrow streets, which in the early 18th Century had been the home of Dutch immigrants such as the Van der Veers, Snedickers, Lotts and Wycokofs, now the names of streets and train stations; and later, in the 1830s, the summer homes of wealthy racing enthusiasts who came to the Union Course Race Track, which then made up a good portion of the community of Woodhaven. Since the turn of the century, the neighborhood received a good share of German and Irish immigrant working class and professionals who made their permanent home near Jamaica Avenue, an Indian trail turned into a toll road, and by the 1900s, a convenient elevated train connection to the city, which exists to this day.
Our Dial-A-Ride taxi zoomed across the Queensboro Bridge, which spans across Queens and Manhattan like white high wire over the bathtub of the East River, to 59th Street, where the traffic began to thicken and the taxi driver's temper rose. By the time we reached West 53rd Street, at the Museum of Modern Art, where Matt, the driver, let us off, he cursed the "young people," who, by avoiding the convenient subway, helped choked the city with their cars. "When I was dating," he said, "my ex-girlfriend and I would park on the Island and take the train into the city." He looked to be only in his 20s.
Congestion was not exactly the word for the mob scene at 53rd and Fifth Avenue on a Saturday afternoon. The mob was more like a platoon, bulldozing its way into the massive crush of human elbows, baby strollers, shopping bags, chestnut, hot dog and pretzel stands, with occasional homeless squatters and beggars, helping to clog the route.
I did see the tip-top of the 70-foot green-and-red-lighted Norway Spruce Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. I did see the 10-deep lineup of viewers along Sak's Fifth Avenue storybook Christmas windows. Not the windows. I was almost run down by a flurry of horse and buggies rounding the curb and got a taxicab glimpse of Ivana Trump's polished brass and sandblasted Plaza Hotel. The Picasso-Braque exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art was also like a bargain basement pantomime at a Macy's sale the day after Christmas, so we made a quick retreat to the upper floors, where '50s and '60s artist works appeared in rooms so quiet whispers echoed.
We did have a wimpy, wilted hot dog, a soggy pretzel and a measly handful of pistachios from an overpriced bagful, but it was the taxi driver, who had taken a hour to make his way from 59th Street through the throng of yuppie automobiles, whose sunny Irish face we were happiest to see.
Back up to Woodhaven, through white trees and parks, through the blur of Christmas decorations gilding rooftops and windows along the way; back to my mother's cozy kitchen, where a pot of tomato sauce and garlicky beef waited to team up with spaghetti.
My sister, mother and I had spent hours reminiscing, regaling one another, sometimes weeping over stories of the past and present-- howling so hard at times, we were sure the neighbors below and beyond had heard--while sipping tea, drinking coffee, munching on cookies, feasting on my mother's crispy burek filled with chicken and rice, and leeks cooked in olive oil.
We had some walks through the quiet neighborhood, listening to the sounds of English so foreign, I had forgotten I had once heard nothing else. "Wez youze goin'?" 80-year-old Mrs. Mac, who lived on the ground level, asked when we bumped into her during our walk.
Our walk took us down the street on 96th Street where St. Matthew's, an Episcopal church and parish house stood since 1901, first as a wooden frame church, then replaced in 1927 with the stone structure of English Gothic design it is to this day. The design for the rectory across the path had won first prize at the St. Louis World's Fair for best design for clergyman's house, Father James Dalton-Thompson, the rector in charge of the parish, noted amusingly.
I have always been drawn to the quaint church nestled in a garden setting in my mother's neighborhood. It also houses the oldest cemetery in New York, and two of its many stained glass windows are dedicated to theologian Albert Schweitzer and Roman Catholic Pope John III (crowned with a blue, not gold, halo, because he was--and is--not officially canonized).
"It is the proportionally perfect English Gothic in height of the rooms and length of the nave," said the rector.
I had never ventured inside, but on that Sunday afternoon, after we had bid goodby to my sister, who flew back to her home in Boston, we decided to take a short walk before I took off for Los Angeles.
I tried the church door. It was open.
A young usher attending the vestibule and distributing pea-green programs of the afternoon's music event, said in heavy Queensese, "Yu'r welcome ta joirn us."
Saint Matthew's Episcopal Church was presenting the West Village Chorale in a work by Benjamin Britten, called "A Ceremony of Carols," composed in 1942 on his return trip to England after having lived in the United States for three years. According to the program notes, inspiration for the nine carols came while traveling on a Swedish cargo ship, during a stop-over in Nova Scotia, where he found a volume of old English poetry. The carols are based on a plainsong chant for Christmas Day and includes a solo harp movement.
We paid the nominal entry fee and sat in one of the front pews, waiting for the chorale group and harpist to begin.
Magic oozed from the altar.
That yonge child when it gan weep
With song she lulled him asleep:
That was so sweet a melody
It passed alle minstrelsy.
The Nightingale sang also
Her song is hoarse and nought thereto:
Whoso attendeth to her son
And leaveth the first then doth he wrong.
The program notes reported that the "harp sobs quietly in 'That Yonge Child,' and it shivers with cold in 'In Freezing Winter Night,' " two of the nine carols.
And the harp and voices did.
"Let's get up and sing,"cried the young Father James, who could easily be played by Richard Chamberlin in long black robes.
After the carols, there would be Christmas punch, pfferneusse and crumb cake, baked by the women of the church or purchased from Entemann's. The prize anise cookies baked by parishioner Josephine Calabro, whose Italian mother passed on the traditional recipe, would also be available.
"It's the most eatingest parish this side of Canterbury," announced the rector, and he lamented that his epitaph would have to confess to "one crumb cake too many" if he didn't practice caution, if not abstinence.
But we could not stay to enjoy the refreshments. It was time for me to leave.
But I knew one thing for sure. I had seen Christmas.
It was in the village of Woodhaven all the time.
MARY'S CHRISTMAS ANISE COOKIES
2 1/2 cups flour
3 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Sift together flour, baking powder and sugar. Beat eggs with oil and vanilla and incorporate into flour mixture, working in by hand. If mixture is too sticky, add more flour.
Roll out on floured surface or pinch off dough and form into any desired shape. For twists, pinch off handful and and roll into long rope, then cut off in 3-inch pieces and twist. Place on lightly greased baking sheets and bake at 350 degrees about 15 minutes or until cookies are just done. Do not over-bake. Dip into Anise Icing and sprinkle with colored sprinkles. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.
1 cup powdered sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon pure anise extract
Mix sugar with enough water to make icing. Stir in vanilla and anise extract. Use as icing for cookies. Makes about 1/2 cup icing.