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Opinion

The Christmas Tree
by Grace Papagno - December 21, 2012

The day after Thanksgiving my sister and I, like all children we could imagine, were focused on the upcoming most important day of the year – Christmas. Nancy was already in the first grade so she could print her alphabet with ease. I sat next to her at the kitchen table and did my best to scratch out letters, often asking Mom how to make this one or that and how to string several of them together to form a word. Just a few sentences would suffice to alert Santa to our hearts’ desires and we’d be off to mail these special missives.

One night soon after that Mom suggested to Daddy that he’d have to go to the attic to pull down the Christmas decoration boxes. During the day while Nancy was at school and baby Laura was taking her nap, Mom began to make the strufoli, rolling then cutting the dough into small pieces to fry. They would hold until another time when she could heat them up with honey and then sprinkle them with non-pareils. Daddy took the tall ladder off his truck one night after work and begrudgingly hung lights across the outline of our Cape Cod home. He always rattled off his litany of curses when grappling at the high point of the roof, but as was our way, all of us neighborhood kids outside pretended not to hear. Christmas was drawing nearer and we were thrilled with the prospect of brightly colored lights illuminating our neighborhood, special foods and desserts gracing our tables, and presents, oh yes, presents from Santa! Although Nancy and I were too young to read a calendar or notice exactly what day of the week it was, we were quite cognizant that the best day of the year was looming closer, yet something was missing. We had not yet put up a Christmas tree. Everyone knows that in order to have Christmas, there must be a tree.

After dinner one night, Mom sat at her desk pouring over the checkbook. She did this as a monthly ritual and the task held no interest for anyone else in the house, even when Mom would look up and exclaim, “I found the missing dime. It was lost in the arithmetic. Look, see here where I found it!” It was not finding the ten cents that thrilled Mom, but the fact that her checkbook was reconciled perfectly.

This particular night when she’d finished her checkbook, Mom looked up and said as matter-of-factly as if she were saying, “Hello,” “Well, there’ll be no Christmas tree this year. It doesn’t fit into the budget,” and she walked away. Nancy and I stood dumbfounded. No Christmas tree? She might have just as easily announced that there was no Santa or that there would be no Christmas! We looked to Daddy who shrugged his shoulders and also moved out of the room.

Spirits of Christmas did not dwell in my house the next few days. The subject of a Christmas tree was closed and no one contradicted Mom, even about such a dire subject.

On Christmas Eve night, right after dinner, Daddy rose deliberately from the table. “Get your coats on,” he ordered Nancy and me. We did as he said with question marks on our faces as to where we were going and what we were going to do so late at night. Because it was snowing, we donned hats, gloves, scarves and boots as well as coats and headed out the door. Daddy took our hands and we walked up our street the long two blocks to Montauk Highway. Large white flakes swirled around us; the soft quiet was interrupted only by the squeak of our boots pushing off the snow and our heavy breathing as we stomped the long distance on short, child legs. Nancy and I didn’t understand when we stopped at the corner of our street. Daddy pulled an opening in the snow fence circling the lot. There, Christmas trees, the leftovers that had not been sold, leaned like frozen ghosts under the weight of snow in the abandoned lot.

“Okay, which one shall we take?” Daddy asked.

“But Daddy,” Nancy began to object.

“How about this one? This looks like a really good tree,” Daddy spoke as if to himself while he lifted the Douglas fir and shook it free from whiteness. “Yeah, this is a really good tree.”

Daddy picked it up and hoisted it over the snow fence. Then lifting its heavy base he dragged the tree’s tip along the sidewalk as we three returned home in the dark, quiet night.

After some time Nancy asked timidly, “Daddy, isn’t this stealing?” I suppose she feared that we’d committed the sin we’d all learned was inexcusable.

“All those trees are going to be thrown away. No one else wants them. That’s not stealing,” was his answer.
We spoke no more about our simple crime in the night. I reached up and held onto the hem of Daddy’s jacket as we marched home with our purloined tree. I wondered if we had, in fact, stolen. I thought that there must be times that stealing wasn’t really a sin and that there were more than two sides to right and wrong. When I looked up and saw my dad’s face, I knew I was right in this very important matter.

To My Readers:
I have written over sixty memoirs over the past few years. They are about growing up on the south shore of Long Island, about a strict mother and the “changing of the tide” with my own daughter.
I would very much like to publish these and have received a great and warm reception from my friends who have read some of the memoirs. Now I need an agent. Can you help me? If you are an agent or know of one who can assist me in my endeavor, please write me at lady33g@gmail.com.
Thank you and Happy Holidays to you and yours.
~ Grace

Grace & Stephanie
by Grace Papagno - May 9, 2011

I am a “word-person”. I like words. I am careful how I use them and I am easily hurt by one or two applied carelessly by a less word-conscious person. It seems to me that I remember spoken words far more clearly than any memories derived through my other senses. I keep words spoken, carefully in my heart.

I do make an effort to put unkind and unjust words far from my mind’s ear since they do not serve me and tend to make me sad. Those that remain are usually pleasant and positive, friendly and funny. There are others, though, that touch my heart and soul, the words that I choose to remember always: the words of my daughter, Stephanie. They seem to define our relationship and the course my life has taken.

Surprisingly, Stephanie’s first words were not “Da” nor “Mom”, but “Up Up”, the phrase her father and I used regularly when lifting her. She was a moving kind of girl and “up up” was her get-up-and-go signal. As a toddler feeling deeply, yet not having the words to express her feelings completely, Stephanie looked me in the eyes one day, held my hands and said, “Mommy, I love you too much!” Her words said the emotion simply and completely; we repeat the uncomplicated phrase to each other quite regularly, even now when she is an adult, and it is received with the same impact today as then.

Her father and I first introduced Steph to the tricycle when she was between two and three years old. She’d race past our house and then the neighbor’s coming to a decidedly unsafe screeching stop. Although I suggested many times that she slow down, speed was her passion. One day, as Steph skidded toward my legs, stopping just in time to prevent a crash, I admonished her suggesting safety. “Mom, you’re disticable!” she deliberated, as seriously as a hanging judge giving his verdict.

“Don’t call me disticable, Stephanie,” I said, quietly amused by the mispronunciation and amazed that a four-syllable word was in her active vocabulary, but far more hurt by the fact that my girl really meant to tell me that I was “despicable”. Even today, there are occasions when to my daughter, I am “disticable” and she tells me so. My reaction is the same now as it was then.

In middle school, Steph and I were invited to her classmate’s family party. There the adults mingled and chatted while many of the girls pretended to be on-stage with the real microphone provided by the hosts. Each took her turn pretending to be emcee of some fantasy-TV show. When Steph was given the mike, she assumed her take-charge position, thanked everyone for coming to “the show” and surprising me, announced, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, MY MOM!” Caught off-guard, I quickly became the humble guest and expressed gratitude for being asked onto the show – then quickly retreated. Her proud face and her words still ring in my mind. What admiration this young lady had for me!

As college-age approached, there was much business to attend in finding the right place for Stephanie. She made many of the phone calls to ascertain information from various colleges and universities. One day I found myself having to leave the room to privately consider what I’d witnessed when I overheard Stephanie “do business” with a director of admissions. She was succinct, calm, professional and used many of the phrases and questions I had used in business dealings. My girl was emulating me, the greatest form of flattery.

When she left home for college, I received no weepy “I miss home” phone calls. All Stephanie’s conversations were filled with excitement and enthusiasm! I missed her terribly, but felt delight that Steph was happy and confident. Some words that remain in my mind were from a particular phone conversation. “Thanks for teaching me organization, Mom. When all the other kids are wasting time looking for things they need, I know exactly where everything is. I look in the logical place, where I’d put it – just like you said.” There was another call: “You know, Mom, how when I kept you waiting, wasting your time, your punishment was making me sit at the counter practicing cursive writing? Well, now everyone tells me I have beautiful handwriting! Thanks, Mom!”

Graduation from university was approaching. Steph had already signed a contract for a prestigious position in business. We stood in the kitchen – our favorite room in the house – and I said to my girl, “Steph, you have so many wonderful qualities: you’re confident, honest, clear thinking, straightforward, happy, good company, intelligent and kind. It’s taken me well into my forties to even begin developing many of those qualities. I’m so proud of you.”

Without a pause, nor a thought, nor a blink, nor a start, Steph gave me words that rendered me speechless: “You didn’t have the mother I had.”

My girl, now a woman, frequently emails me from work. We share ideas, problems and solutions, recipes and plans. I told her of my recent weight loss. Her answer: “Woo hoo!!!!!!! We will soon celebrate your skinny minny-ness with another shopping trip! I’ll go through the collection [of clothes] to see what I have for you. A certain collared button down from Ann Taylor comes to mind. I’ll see what else!”

“Steph, you’re so much fun!” I answered.

“I get it from my mom!”

Stephanie and I will spend Mother’s Day together. We will chatter like spring birds do in the early morning. Among the thousands of words we’ll share, I know from experience that many will go into my special collection of Stephanie’s loving words, the ones I keep carefully in my heart.

~ ~ ~

Grace Papagno has lived in Sayville for over thirty years. She loves her town and loves to write, so writing for Sayville.com is a natural combination for her. She can be reached at lady33g@verizon.net.

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