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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

Christmas, 1957

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 3/20/2023
Occurred: 12/25/1957
Page Views: 287
Topics: #Autobiography #Christmas
How to teach a kindergarten student to distrust authority.

As the year drew to an end it grew cold and snow fell on the ground. When we wanted to go out Mommy bundled us up in garments called "snowsuits" that were basically full body armor filled with down. They were supposed to keep the cold out; I believe they would have stopped an AK-47 slug as well. When they were on, every part of our bodies was covered, even our mouths, thanks to the woolen scarf that had been wrapped around us prior to the enveloping by the suit. Then came mittens (which prevented us from using our fingers) and rubber boots (which just about prevented us from walking). Once we'd been safely insulated, Mommy would open the door and allow us to go outside.

It had been more than a snowstorm; this year another blizzard had hit, dumping maybe two feet of snow. Our gritty little New Jersey street had been turned into something white and magical. The gutter, which always had water flowing along it, was frozen solid. Snowplows had created huge white hills along the road for climbing and sliding down. (Something we could do without harm since, in those snowsuits, if we'd been dropped off a building we'd have just bounced.) Joined by our friends, the Galluccios from two doors down, we slipped and slid and spun and rolled, laughing ourselves silly.

I was in kindergarten and the next Monday I had to walk to school in the same overblown suit. The principal of the school, a stern-faced nun with a hair that grew out of her nose and who was called Mother Superior, came to our classroom and announced that we would all participate in the Christmas play. She didn't bother to explain what a "play" was, and no one dared ask. We simply followed her to a large room with a raised floor on one end, and hundreds of chairs at the other. She pointed at one kid and told him he would be "Joseph" which made us laugh because his name was Bobby. The she told Flora, the girl who pee'd on the fence during recess, that she was to be "Mary." We began to worry. We'd had no idea that Mother Superior could change our names. I was pretty sure that my parents, who had named me after my grandfather, wouldn't stand for it.

However, when Mother Superior pointed at me, instead of renaming me she said, "You are to be the orchestra conductor." Now that was a real surprise. What orchestra did she mean, and why did she want me to take it somewhere on a train? However, I kept quiet because I'd only been on a train once and was very excited at the idea of going for a ride on one again.

At the end of the day I was handed a piece of paper to bring home, which I jammed into a pocket of my snow suit. It took two Sisters to get each of us re-wrapped for returning outside; finally, we were allowed to waddle into the brisk air and crunch our way home.

Mommy found the paper as she was unwrapping me, and read it. "Oh!" she cried. "You're going to be in the Christmas play!"

"I'm going on a train!" I told her, excitedly. "I'm the conductor!"

She laughed. "No, you're going to conduct the orchestra. That means you're going to lead them—tell them when to play, and when to stop. You're supposed to rehearse tonight." So Mommy had me hold a pencil, and she held one, and we put on a record and she showed me how to mark the beat with the pencil.

The next day we began rehearsals for the "play." The "orchestra" turned out to the second graders, who had learned to sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." And I was supposed to lead them. The beat was simple enough, and when I was handed a baton to hold, I moved it in time to the beat.

"No! Not like that!" Mother Superior snapped. She knelt behind me, so close I could feel her starched collar on my back and her breath on my neck, and gripped my right hand like a vice. It startled me so that I resisted, and in trying to gain control of my arm, she whacked my nose with the handle of the baton, hard. Oblivious to this, she instructed the choir to resume singing and moved my imprisoned hand in a triangular motion. Finally she let go. "Now, you try it!" she commanded.

I did, but apparently did not duplicate perfectly enough whatever it was she'd had in mind. Meanwhile, my nose was growing stuffy and my eyes were smarting. She descended in front of me and growled, "What's that face about? If you're going to have an attitude, we can just find another conductor!" And she did, freeing me to sit in one of the chairs and wipe the blood now dripping out of my nose onto my sleeve. I didn't dare say anything about that.

When I got home, Mommy had apparently already been called by the school. "I'm very disappointed in you," she said. "Your principal told me you made a face at her. You know better than that."

I held up my bloodied sleeve. "My nose was bleeding," I said. "She hit my in the nose with the baton."

Mommy frowned. She hated confrontation and to admit the principal was wrong would have required one on her part—better to just assume the whole thing was some kind of misunderstanding that would work itself out.

This, of course, left me feeling I was to blame somehow. And that meant I'd been naughty. Now, I didn't know much about Santa Claus, but we'd been learning about him in Kindergarten. There was a song about him, how he was coming to town and would know if we were naughty or nice. I'd already had one mysterious figure appear in my bedroom; I didn't need another one to show up and judge me on my poor performance as an orchestra conductor.

I was a little fuzzy who Santa was, exactly. This was before the media had become saturated with the jolly old elf and my friends seldom talked about him. I knew he lived at the North Pole, and I knew he wasn't a relative or close friend of Mommy and Daddy's or we'd have been instructed to call him Uncle Santa. Since they talked about him in kindergarten, I thought Santa might be one of God's friends, like Adam and Eve or The Three Wise Men. From going to church I knew that God was about to have a baby; Mommy took me to see the life-sized crèche that had been erected in the church, and the empty little hay-filled cradle where the Mary statue would put the baby when it arrived. Mary and Joseph and the Wise Men were already there, and I thought if Santa Claus was a real friend of God's, he'd be there by now. So, maybe not.

Daddy always took us with him to buy a tree, but his custom was to do this on Christmas Eve, when the prices had usually gone down. We would come home, our snowsuits damp and flecked with white, our noses running from the cold, Dad carrying the trussed-up fir into a space Mommy had cleared in the living room. The wooden trunk would be lowered into a red metal bowl that was brought out for the occasion and three metal screws were driven into the trunk to hold it steady. Water was then poured into the bowl and my job was to keep water in that bowl, since I was small enough to get to it without disturbing the decorations. Every day for the next two weeks I would hydrate the tree, looking with wonder each morning at the nearly-dry bowl, amazed that a dead tree could drink so much.

However, on Christmas Eve the tree was not yet decorated. Mommy explained that Santa decorated the tree for us, and that was how we'd know he'd come to the house. We had to go to bed early on Christmas Eve, because Santa couldn't get started on the tree until we were asleep.

So now I figured Santa was someone they hired to decorate the Christmas tree, like the man they hired to fix the roof or the pest control man who came when Mommy thought there was a mouse in the house.

First, though, Dad read us a book before Mommy put us to bed. My sisters and I all sat in his lap as he began, "'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…" There were a lot of interruptions, because we wanted to know why they hadn't gotten the pest control man to get rid of the mouse whether he was stirring or not, why the father in the story wore a hat to bed, what "sugar plums" were, and how, if Santa came down the chimney, would he get into our house since we had a furnace and not a fireplace.

Eventually, we went to sleep. And, eventually, we woke up. How is it that little kids are instantly alert on Christmas morning? When I wake up now, it takes me fifteen minutes to remember what planet I'm on; but that morning, I was up and running for the tree before I'd taken my first waking breath.

It was beautiful! —All lit up with big colored electric bulbs, and shiny bright balls and glittering strips of tinsel. And the smell—that wonderful tangy smell of a spruce in its death-throes. Beneath the tree were wrapped presents, complete with bows and tape. My little sisters were there, too, four-year-old Joanie tearing open the wrapping of one of her presents, three-year-old Louise just hugging one of hers, thinking the pretty box with the ribbon and bow was the present.

I was just happy to recognize my name on several. I knew the word "to" and the word "from". I knew "Mommy & Daddy." But who was this present from? S-A-N-T-A. "Who's this from, Mommy?" I asked.

"That's from Santa, dear," she replied.

To this day, I have no idea what Santa brought me. I was just so thrilled it was anything, and that he hadn't held a grudge against me for making Mother Superior bloody my nose.