From Anonymous, New York City
Christmas was enormously important in our family when I was growing up in the 1950s. And fraught with all kinds of anxieties, grasping, and conflicts.
Throw in a huge dollop of antique Roman Catholicism – pre-Vatican II Catholicism – replete with Latin (of which I memorized plenty), hymns from the 16th century, incense and bright red vestments, and you had the kind of Christmas that won’t soon be seen again.
My mother never quite got along with my father’s family. Their relationship was filled with petty quarrels and myriad sensitivities all more delicate than a robin’s egg.
Case in point: My father’s uncle Nick was a barber. Fittingly, he was called “Nick the Barber.” This, at a time when haircuts cost somewhere around 25 to 50 cents. Out of family loyalty, we always went to his shop for shearing. But every Saturday before Christmas, we were invited to his house, in the basement of which was a barber’s chair, to have our hair cut for free, as his holiday present to us. The basement was always chaotic and smelled heavily of sausage and peppers cooking.
For my mother, there was a little too much flourish in Nick the Barber’s granting of this token: “chintzy,” as she described it. This riled my father, who was rather imperturbable, not because it was a judgment upon his family, but because he thought, “Hey, free is free.” A marriage smelted in heaven and hammered out on Earth.
Nick the Barber had a number of grandchildren. Among them was my cousin Sandra, born on the exact same day as I was. She was blind from birth and suffered a number of other birth defects. The shared birthday gave us an easy-going simpatico.
Sandra was a sweet, smart girl and we loved playing together, but she was somewhat given to saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
One Christmas haircut session when we were 8, she upended a huge tableful of homemade cookies her grandmother, Lizetta, had made. Hundreds of cookies fell to the linoleum floor. The women hollered at her. Sandra said, “I’m blind, I’m blind, I’m blind,” at the top of her lungs. It made me cry in the car on the way home.
Another time, she let on that my father’s family thought my mother was a snob. She repeated the overheard conversation verbatim, as if giving trial testimony. Well, that was that for my mother and we didn’t see that branch of the family again.
I thought about Sandra sporadically through my teen years, but that time in life is filled with many other concerns and she faded from my mind.
While I was home for Thanksgiving during my junior year of college, Sandra died. On our birthday.
Nick the Barber sought me out at the funeral. In his thick Italian accent he said, “She was a-blind, Bob-eee. Her whole life she blind. Come by ‘n-a see me at Christmas. I give-a you the haircut.”