Santa, A Christmas Tree and Fish

A Note to my Readers:  Most of my posts concentrate on family history beyond my own generation.  Recently I contributed to a blog reminding historians and genealogists that they are part of history, too.

Make sure you don’t get so caught up with your ancestors that you forget your own photos, memorabilia and stories. Journaling is an old and time honored tradition that has given those of us fortunate enough to have one in our possession, a glimpse into personal moments of a life. It’s not about a Shakespearean piece. It’s more unique and dynamic. A few words from an old farmer’s journal gave me such an insight into the family’s life with so many mentions of his neighbors and friends… my great great grandparents. “Cold. Snowing. Not well today. Mr. Purdy stopped by with news.” Terse, ordinary…random, but poetic moments because I knew Samuel Purdy was an old man at the time of that entry and that he must have walked the winding country roads and through the snow over two miles away to visit his old friend.

Blogs are journals of a sort and so I am taking my own advice at this time of year and putting a bit of my history into the mix of pioneer stories.  Saturday mornings of Howdy Doody and  Gene Autry.  Golden curls fashioned with Spoolies and permanent waves.  Scents of my mother…Tabu and on occasion,  a smear of Vicks Vapo-Rub.  Spanish Rice and Lemon Meringue Pies.  “Painting” the bathroom with my father’s Old Spice shaving cream.  Sitting on Dad’s lap savoring the sweetness of a Necco wafer and listening to “the Big Lie”…a delightful fracturing of familiar tales that eventually would have us both chuckling.  Some of the  random and poetic moments of  Mr. Purdy’s great great granddaughter who grew up in central New York in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Christmas 1958

As each Christmas holiday approaches and the “Mad Men” begin the not-so-subtle merry marketing of that new Mercedes replete with a three foot bow, I wistfully think back to Christmas in 1958 and of a Santa Claus that smelled faintly of fish.  It was the first Christmas after my dad had died and it was a spare one when it came to money. Grief still had its grip, but the spirit of the holiday at our home was comforting and dear to us.  Delicate lacings of ice skittered across window panes and the lake-effect snows had already blanketed our central New York town of Auburn, New York.   The outdoor stage was set for Santa while every school child counted down the days until Christmas and remembered to brush their teeth and sit up straight at the dinner table and without prompting say “Please” and Thank You”.

Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” Album

Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole sang to us of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and a “White Christmas”.  Each Sunday at the First United Methodist Church our children’s voices rang with “O, Come All Ye Faithful” that brought sentimental tears to the eyes of the adults in the pews.  We were angels with halos made of gold tinsel and white organza wings and a telltale scent of peppermint candy cane on our breaths.

My mother had been at her first paying job in 25 years for less than a month and the Social Security checks had just started to arrive.  It had been a long and difficult nine months, but finally our newly defined family of three females had some footing.

I could finally give up being the questionable “Catholic kid” at St. Mary’s Church food bank on Wednesday afternoons picking up the big yellow block of Velveeta for my nonexistent Catholic family.  I was sure a sharp-eyed Catholic priest would yank me out of the line by my Peter Pan collar and wondered if there was a special hell for Protestant girls taking Catholic cheese.   I did leave the canned SPAM for the Catholics though that could be deemed as sinful as taking the Velveeta.  Half damned by SPAM.

Our financial problems were slowly being resolved, but Christmas meant a tree and presents for our family and what money there was, was earmarked for rent and groceries and my mother’s bus fare to her new job.  This called for some creative thinking.  I was eleven and Mary was six years old and employment of any kind was out of the question and Christmas was four weeks away. And I wasn’t about to brave St. Mary’s priests and sell black market Catholic Velveeta and DAMN SPAM.   I had risked my immortal soul enough and I figured God would forgive me this once, but I would really be asking too much hawking it for money…even for a Christmas tree.

Redeemed from sin for the moment I joined an army of youthful entrepreneurs shoveling snow from the steps of neighboring homes for a dime.  My first lesson in Economics 101 was supply and demand.  With a neighborhood full of twelve year old boys with shovels and one skinny eleven year old girl, the competitive marketplace was bleak.  After a Saturday morning of trudging through knee deep snow and clearing seven stoops, my pitiful take was $.70.   The cheese and Spam strategy was beginning to look like a necessity…hell or not.

A Grumpy Methodist Angel

I guess it must have been a bit of Divine Inspiration that came over me that December Sunday. Bedecked with a white robe, wings and halo, I marched down the aisle of the Methodist Church sanctuary with my fellow choir angels finally gathering on the steps below the minister’s pulpit.  I was sore and had a measly 70 cents tucked in my underwear drawer and was just getting to the age that dressing like an angel was for kids…like someone who was ten…not eleven going on twelve…and didn’t have enough money for a Christmas tree.  I was a Grumpy Angel, but not for long.  After performing our medley of Christmas carols and spending a fitful twenty minutes in the front pews while Reverend Giles preached to his flock, the choir of honorary angels made their way down the aisles and toward the tables full of Christmas delights made by the ladies of the church.   We passed the tree in the foyer…SIGH…and made our way to the festive gathering room with tables full of sandwiches and butter cookies heavily crusted with red and green sugars…and bottles of soda.  Bottles.  Of.  Soda.

We WOULD have a Christmas tree and I wouldn’t spend one second in Hell.

Soda was a luxury that never made its way into our old Amana refrigerator, but that was not going to come between me and a Christmas tree.  Not when there was a neighborhood “corner store” with a snow filled lot just about the right distance away from the moment of the first swig to the last delicious swallow and one surreptitious toss.

Fawn Soda

Fawn Soda

It was easy to lollygag behind my schoolmates on the way home.  After a few days, my little sister and I had collected soda bottles

Fawn Soda

(Fawn soda brewed and bottled in Elmira, New York was a guilty pleasure in 1950’s Auburn, NY) and managed to add just a little over two dollars to my 70 cent earnings in the hopes we could buy a Christmas tree and surprise our mother.  Mary and I passed the Christmas tree lot every day on the way to and from school and we had carefully scoped out the inventory.  We knew the less attractive trees were at the back and were no doubt cheaper.

A Santa that Smelled like Fish

With Christmas less than a week away I tucked the coins in my mitten and Mary and I pulled our sled down to the tree lot.  The snow was falling again and families were wending their way about the trees looking for “their” tree while Mary and I headed to the back of the lot.  Trees were not tagged with prices.  This was 1958 and a small town and Johnnie Galiso (He was the owner of Johnnie’s Seafood.) sold the trees in his parking lot in December)….Johnnie would discuss the best price when he sold his trees.

Johnnie Galiso.  Contributed by his daughter, Elaine Galiso McKee.

Johnnie Galiso. Contributed by his daughter, Elaine Galiso McKee.

I had NO idea what a Christmas tree cost…I was barely eleven and full of the confidence that over two dollars was a huge sum and would get us a tree that was large enough to touch the ceiling but small enough for two little girls to haul several blocks home.   When Johnnie finally realized that we were alone and were looking for a tree, he made his way over to us as if we were grownups with a fat wallet.   Very politely he asked us what we were looking for.  I knew from observing Johnnie’s sales process that money was the topic of discussion so I pulled my mitten off…coins spilling into the snow.  Without a beat Johnnie picked up the coins and guiding me over to a tree, pronounced it “just the right price” and we had a deal.  While one of his family members secured the tree to our sled, Johnnie went inside the store and tucked some cookies into a small sack.  As we left the lot with the cookies stashed in my sister’s snowsuit pocket, he wished us a “Merry Christmas”.

When we arrived home, our mother was astonished with our purchase…hugging us and smiling…but clearly speechless.  When we told our mother how we “purchased” our tree, she was a bit tearful but in a flash we were laughing and hauling the tree into our living room…snow and all.  Our tree was definitely on the imperfect side…crooked and sparse, but it was the most beautiful to us.  We had to tie the tree to a nail driven into the wall to keep it from toppling.  I kind of think it was like our little family…a bit off balance and spare, but beautiful nonetheless.  Out came the ingredients for hot cocoa and construction paper and glue – the makings for a festive chain to garland our Christmas tree.  The house smelled of pine tree, cocoa and drying wool mittens….and our mother was smiling again.

We remembered the cookies in Mary’s snowsuit pocket and the cocoa called for cookies.   Nestled in the bag with the Christmas bell-shaped cookies was a small envelope that held a collection of coins totaling just over two dollars.

Merry Christmas, Johnnie.

Author’s Note:  Johnnie’s Seafood no longer sits on the corner of West Genesee and Wood Street.  It’s a Pizza place now.  And Johnnie is long gone.  I stopped by there on a visit home in May.  It was warm and I wore just a t-shirt, but for a moment, I smelled fish and pine trees and had a rush of Christmas spirit.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2011.  All Rights Reserved

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6 thoughts on “Santa, A Christmas Tree and Fish

  1. So happy to hear you got your tree. I shoveled snow all winter too, but not for money. Part of ‘making myself useful’ and being a good neighbor. Coming from a small town on the Jersey shore, the snow was usually wet, heavy and full of ice. I can remember my lungs burning with the effort. There were a lot of elderly widows on our block, and I was often rewarded with sweets, so it was not a total loss. The bottle collecting business was another story. The competition was fierce. The big ones were worth five cents!! The older boys always seemed to get to them first. Being a small girl, I had to be clever. So I went around the neighborhood selling my services; I would take their empty bottles back for them, for a small price. Most were willing to split 50-50 with me, so I did alright. Some days made over fifty cents. That was real money in the late 1950s.

    Thanks for the memories. I really enjoy your posts, you write beautifully. By the way, have Van Dorn’s on my mother’s side, and Purdy’s on my father’s.

    Merry Christmas! Nancy Cutler

  2. Dear Debbie, I read your article “A Fish….. “. I sobbed the whole time. My dad, Johnny Galiso, was probably the kindest and most generous man many people ever knew. He always gave what he had to any person who walked through his doors, be it food or money or anything else!! Funny too because my mom would pick out the most beautiful tree as they were being unloaded. Inevitably, dad would give it to someone and we would end up.with a Charlie Brown tree every Christmas. Thanks for a beautifully written testament to dad. He passed away on May18, 2008 at 90
    We miss him every day

    • He obviously made a life impression on me and it is a moment I remember every Christmas because he was so effortlessly kind. The world could use more people like your father. He taught me a lesson and I have carried it with me and passed it on to my children…pay it forward. So glad my Johnny Galiso story found its way to you. Deb

  3. This story touched my whole family. My daughter Melissa called me this morning and said “Mom, get your tissues out.” I knew what a wonderful person he was, but I guess I never knew how many lives he touched. When you are back in Auburn, go to Seafood Express on Owasco St. if you get a chance. He helped the owners get the business started and worked for them until he could no longer because of his health. His portrait hangs on the wall. They loved him and every time I go in there I am reminded of his love of people and his generous spirit. Our family lives by his example. Thanks again for making my day!!

  4. You didn’t have to know Johnny Caliso try cry over this one. I was searching the net for a Christmas parable related to Christmas to use in my Christmas card this year. I grew up in Northern Minnesota in the sixties (born in ’54) and lost my father when I was thirteen, so I related in so many ways to your story. After I read your story I started to wonder how I might use a portion (only with your permission of course) on my card and as I was strolling through your blog I noticed that you had posted your blog on December 5th 2011—my mother’s birthday. She would have been eighty-three that year, had she not died that May. She finished raising five kids on her own and as you well know, it wasn’t easy. Thank you for your beautiful story. If I find a way to fit something of your story in my card, I will send my thoughts and beg your kind permission. Merry Christmas, a bit early.

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