An expat remembers Christmas in the fifties

Dec 21, 2023 | 0 comments

Christmas morning in Cuenca (?), among the Andean mountainsides and red tile roofs.

By Jeremiah Reardon

Dedicated to my sister Alima Dolores Reardon, September 1948-November 2023.

Birds dart past me as I stand on my terrace in Cuenca. The early morning’s air and sunlight had energized them. Perched upon our building’s rain gutter, a small pair preened their dark feathers and white underbellies. Once in flight their blue-green iridescent feathers take on the outline of bat wings. Larger brown racers with orange beaks cavort in their midst. The dappled-green Andean mountainsides and red-tiled roofs serve as the tableau for these avian antics.

Maryland winter 1954-55, Reardon children with Aunt Irene and Uncle Jerry McGeehan.

Thrilled to witness accelerating dives and in-air rendezvous with their mates, I think back on youthful frolics in the fifties I shared with my four brothers and two sisters, beginning in New York City and, later, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D. C. As I observed the birds’ maneuvers with Christmas on the horizon, I’m reminded of a family Christmas recently related to me by my younger brother Francis.

Typically, our father didn’t shop early for a Christmas tree. Dad usually waited until Christmas Eve to drive with us children in search of a bargain. Slim pickings as to size and girth remained on lots with cardboard signs announcing clearance-sale prices.

Our Chillum, Maryland, Catholic Church, St. John Baptist de la Salle, had a vendor selling trees in its parking lot. Bare light bulbs glowed from an overhead wire in the evening to help buyers pick which tree would look best in their home. I relished the smell of these fresh-cut trees when hanging out after an Advent prayer service, having served as the altar boy. All those trees would always be gone by Christmas Eve, for sale at such a prime holiday location.

Francis told me that he and big brother Denis cut down the family tree in 1957. They found it in the woods a few blocks from our brick bungalow home on Oakdale Drive. It was the neighborhood where I delivered the Washington Post newspaper, a route which I inherited from Denis.

Oakdale Drive, Chillum, Md, 1956. Joseph, Mary, Dolores, Francis, Jerry, Denis and John.

Denis recruited Francis to get a free tree. He fetched a small hatchet from the basement where Dad kept his tools at a workbench. It was no bigger than a large hammer. “So, what’s the plan, Denny?” Fran asked as they walked swiftly in the early evening, their breaths visible under the glow cast by orange-yellow streetlights.

“We’ll find a good tree in those woods,” Denis replied while pointing in its direction. Of all us brothers, Denis had the most confidence, born of years striving to assert equality with oldest brother John, the leader of our gang.

That year the youngest, Joseph, had entered first grade and all of us children were enrolled at St. John’s. We ranged in age from six through fifteen. To save money, Mother cut our hair with a kit from Sears and Roebuck.

Bundled up in winter coats and hats, the brothers marched past homes aglow with colored lights strung on Christmas trees positioned in front of living room windows. The cold air hastened their steps. The evening felt still when approaching an intersection close to a creek in the woods which joined the Anacostia River a mile away. On the far side of the woods, Eastern Avenue in Northeast D.C. bypassed for a couple of blocks. Nearby in D.C., some of our school friends lived in a development of two-story semi-detached homes.

Dolores (l) and Mary (r), July 1960.

Though we brothers tramped these woods on occasion, we never laid claim to them like we had when we lived in Queens, New York City. There, we brothers built a fort in the woods conveniently located on our walk between St. Kevin’s grade school and home. We noticed more activity in these Maryland woods, not the sense of solitude we felt back in Queens. The deserted woods had a cautionary air when approaching, with trash dumped near the street, blocking the trail leading into them. Not too far along the trail, rusted household appliances were covered by brush and tall grass.

“Follow me, Franny. I have an idea where to find the best trees,” Denis called out once past the junk. To keep up, Francis tromped on frosty leaves while avoiding low-hanging branches, barely visible at that hour. The one Denis chose had a three-inch trunk. Its branches lay full on one side; the other he’d turn to face the living room wall. The brothers warmed up by taking turns to hack at the trunk.

Anticipating how the tree’s green branches and its scent of wood sap would bring joy to the family, they bounced around to whichever rock and roll lyrics sprang to mind. Once Denis cut down the tree, Fran spoke up, “Denis, I want to cut one down. When we get home, we’ll let the family pick which tree is best!”

“Okay by me, Franny. Here you go!” he replied, handing him the hatchet.

Each with a tree of his own, they merrily retraced their steps to Oakdale Drive. Denis led the way while grasping onto the trunk. Francis proudly followed with a strong grip on his trophy. Breaking into song, they caroled, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman.” As they passed a well-lit home, our neighbor looked through her window to see what the commotion was. Reveling in the attention, they sang louder.

Once home, the little ones, Dolores, Mary, and Joseph, let out shrieks of joy at the sight of their big brothers pulling the cold trees through the back door and up a couple of stairs into the kitchen. Mom came out from her bedroom to hush them down. “Your father is resting,” she told them. “Now, help me find the box with Christmas ornaments.” It was a collection she started in Manhattan during World War II.

John and I came down from the boys’ attic bedroom to help in choosing the better tree. Already, red stockings with our names stenciled in white adorned the fireplace mantle of our cozy home. When Denis’s tree won, Francis felt slighted, arguing he had the better tree. Our sister Dolores spoke up. “It’s a nice tree, Franny. We’ll put it on the front porch and decorate it, as well!”

In the basement I found a wood saw to trim tree branches along with Dad’s Goodwill “find,” a clunky, pale-green, electrified tree stand. Denis dipped his tree’s trunk into it while I lay spreadeagle on the floor and twisted tight its fasteners. The metal contraption had bases for light bulbs and an electrical cord to plug into an outlet. We never used them, choosing instead to drape a festive white cloth over it to simulate snow and serve as a backdrop for the traditional nativity scene populated with sturdy plastic figures tinted in pastel colors.

Dolores organized the decorating party, assigning tasks to Mary and Joseph. They spilled the box of ornaments onto the sofa and picked out their favorites. Mom set art supplies upon the dining table and showed Joe and the girls how to make aluminum-foil stars with a string at top. Dolores asked Joseph to bring bulbs to our father for him to pick one. Dad lay on his bed while reading the evening newspaper, “Why, Joey, what have you got there?” he said with a smile.

Extending his small hands holding shiny plastic balls, Joe said, “Daddy, you have to pick one for the tree.”

That got Dad up to join us in time for the tree lighting. Denis joked to him about how much money he had saved with a free tree. “Now, you’ll have extra money to buy toys!”

“You’re right, Denis. Thanks so much for getting the tree, both of you,” he said in acknowledgement of their efforts. Their evergreen prizes enlivened the Reardon household that evening with a festive atmosphere.

I feel energized in the Cuenca morning watching birds zip past where I stand on the terrace drinking coffee. I marvel at how they must imagine themselves as conquerors of their universe just as my brothers and I embraced youth with confidence and unrelenting stamina where we grew up. Sixty-six years later, my resolute brother’s confidence leads him to conclude, “I’m sure my tree was the best.”

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