Recalling Peacock Street Christmases in Auburn
Ormie King Special for The Citizen
Today’s story is a treasure and comes from Joanne O’Connor who grew up on Peacock Street in Auburn. Thank you Joanne for sharing these priceless memories with us. You truly are a legend of Auburn.
In Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” Scrooge asks: “Are you the ghost, sir, whose coming was prophesied to me?” “I am!” answered the ghost. “Who and what are you?” demanded Scrooge. “I am the ghost of Christmases past,” said the ghost. “A long time ago?” asked Scrooge. “No. Your past,” the ghost said to him. “You remember the way?” the Ghost asked Scrooge as he led him to his open bedroom window and waved his hand up and out into the bitterly cold December night sky and then landed softly on a clear country lane on a winter afternoon. “Remember it!” cried Scrooge fervently. “I could walk it blindfolded.”
Ditto for me with late December mid 1960s on Peacock Street. I could turn the corner in Park, run to the bus stop in Boston, and slide home on the ice of the sidewalk. As I walked out the back door, the air was filled with the smell of my spray-painted Christmas projects wafting up from the basement. Mama’s chili would simmer on the back burner. Frozen mittens were placed on the till to dry.
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“There is no such thing as Santa, O’Connor. Grow up!” Zink from across the street and Shawzie from next door would tell me that over and over again. My friends did have first names, Patty and Tim, but we never used them. “Go on. Ask your mother.” They scoffed. I didn’t want to ask my mother. I didn’t want to know.
Christmas memories are as fragile as Nana’s jewelry in an egg carton.
The first Saturday in December was the Lincoln School Bazaar. Set up in the auditorium where our physical education classes, relay races on scooters, and our squad of brownies met, the space was now transformed into a glitzy craft market. Mothers in their finest mohair sweaters beamed behind tables with their homemade gifts. There were popsicle wreaths. There were wreaths made of wire hangers bent into a circle, tied with strips of tissue paper and dusted with glitter. And there were cardboard wreaths with different shapes of P&R macaroni – shells, spirals, rigatoni and elbows were glued on and sprayed with gold.
At the bazaar, Mrs. Zink, Patty’s mother, had a table of hand-sewn Barbie dresses for sale. Store bought Barbie clothes were so expensive. She spent all night sewing Barbie outfits—beaded wedding dresses, coats, and skirts—at her sewing machine. But not for Ken. You might also find choristers from Reader’s Digest magazines.
Every December we built our own choirboys in the basement. They were as important to the season as Chex Mix was with Worcestershire. To make a choirboy you needed old issues of Reader’s Digest, say April or August. Mom saved her. Each side has been folded in quarters to form the body. The front and back were glued together with scotch. Now ready for the best – the red spray paint! Give it a good coat of it and let it dry overnight. In the morning put a pipe cleaner in the middle and put on a styrofoam ball for a head. Add some yellow yarn to make a mop of hair. Black felt for eyes and mouth. Flip one side on either side to make his arms. A paper doily for a collar. Find a small sheet of music, maybe “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to put in his hand and ta-da! If you wanted a great choirboy, you needed a McCall magazine.
Later in the month was Christmas vacation. Those two weeks at the end of the year when the Lincoln School that will one day be my “rosebud” was closed. The paper chains we made and hung above the blackboard in our third grade classroom were taken down by Ms. Avino and divided for us to take home. Our paper snowflakes were still taped to the windows, but Lincoln was dark. We spent the afternoons sliding down the big hill in front of the school stairs. The hill was steep. Very steep. We didn’t care. we were kids kids can do anything. In the summer we used to whiz down that hill on our bikes. Now with aluminum flying saucers, the trick was to somehow stop before it hit the road and got hit by a milk truck.
The Advent wreath was displayed at Holy Family Church on the first Sunday in December. At about the same time, Mom pulled out the perfectly wrapped crib. It was a wedding gift from her aunt Irene, who lived in Detroit. Mom always reminded us: “Irene married a dentist.” The crib was placed in the living room. “Caution! Caution! Caution!” warned Mom as we pulled the figures out of the box, eager to place them. Mom had rules. At the beginning of December, only some hay and the cow were allowed to be placed in the manger. Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the sheep, the donkey, the dog, the angel and the baby Jesus were not there yet. They were on their way. And so they were placed at moving spots around the house, getting closer to the manger every day. You might find Maria and Joseph on the bread bin in the kitchen. The shepherds and sheep crept inch by inch across the dining table. Baby Jesus and the angel were nowhere to be found. Mama hid them. Probably on the cupboard. The Magi were depicted on a windowsill in the back of the garage. Not in the house yet, they were still far away, wherever kings came from. Pa-rum-pa-pa-pum.
Not yet labeled “shopping days,” my days of anticipation counted down to Christmas. After dinner we walked up and down the block singing. Mr. Zink, Patty’s father, a tall man named Hank, dressed up as Santa Claus and rang an old school bell, he walked up and down Peacock Street shouting, “Ho! Ho!” Hey! Hey! Merry Christmas!” Neighbors stopped by and Dad played highballs. Ice, Canadian Club, and ginger ale crackled in glasses.
Mom brought out her festive ball of cheese, shaped and decorated to look like a porcupine. And Ritz crackers, of course. Mom really appreciated this Porcupine Cheeseballs recipe. The main ingredient was blue cheese. “Ew!” We children choked. And ran.
Doesn’t that all sound like a Norman Rockwell painting on the cover of McCall’s magazine?
We were staying on Peacock and not far from the Bargain Center on Cottage Street. Post anything about this store on Facebook and you’ll instantly get 649 likes and 477 comments. Ten cent bags of freshly popped, buttered and salted popcorn were purchased at the door before you walked in. It was the place to go for Christmas shopping if you had kids, and mom and dad had five. Later, when the glitzy and glamorous New Bargain Center was built at the far end of the mall far out on Grant Avenue, the simple but unassuming Cottage Street store became known as “The Old Bargain Center”. Worth a historical marker, today it’s just a patch of grass. The venerable shop was built out of the Ivanhoe Mayonnaise Factory, which closed after World War II. But the mayonnaise never really went away. For decades, mayonnaise had seeped into the hardwood floors, causing the floorboards to warp into rolling mounds. Up and down and up and down the creaky and slippery hills of wood in this store, Mom pushed a cart. We wanted everything! We have the popcorn.
Christmas Eve came. A tornado of excitement filled the house. Mom switched the kitchen radio station to WMBO, where Ivan Hyer interrupted the chipmunks to break us a breaking news story. Silence fell over the kitchen. With pounding hearts we hung on every word. “Santa Claus has just left Poland. He will arrive in Italy soon. Then on to Ireland and here tonight in Auburn, New York!” I heard it on the radio. It’s true. I knew I was right. Santa Claus is coming! Ha! What do Zink and Shawzie know?
We didn’t have a fireplace. Mom explained that Santa Claus would come through the front door and the reindeer would be waiting in the front yard. She said that this year she hoped Santa would remember to close the door and wipe off his soot-covered boots.
Our stockings were on the back of the couch. There was a plate of glazed biscuits on the coffee table. We somehow tore ourselves away from the tree and Mom’s laurel candle and climbed what Dad called “the golden staircase.” Then the window watch began. Santa was up there. Out there. Somewhere.
We must have fallen asleep. Because we woke up As the morning light just broke in, we tumbled down the stairs into a living room full of presents. Stockings filled with tangerines and walnuts, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, a slinky, matching hats and mittens… and Barbie clothes!
Santa would have left the front door open. The foyer was full of snow. Soot marks on the carpet. “Hon, would you look at the mess Santa made!” Mom would say to Dad.
He was here. He was here. He was here.
We rushed to the manger to see that Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the donkey, the lambs, baby Jesus and the angel had arrived. The Kings were indoors now, parked on top of the fridge.
We dressed smartly and wore our new matching hats and mittens. Dads on the block warmed up the cars and we went to Holy Family for nine o’clock Mass. So did the Kennys, the Kiernans, the Shaws. “Merry Christmas!” was shouted over the snowdrifts. We returned home to a breakfast of Canadian bacon, eggs and babka. The Russian-Orthodox Zinks celebrated their Christmas party in the Nikolaikirche in January. “When everything is on sale!” mom said.
As the afternoon sun went down, we gathered in the dining room for dinner. My mother, beautiful and exhausted, sat next to Papa, who was seated at the head of the table where papas sit. His Christmas club was down but happy. Papa’s mother, Nana, was there, as was Mama’s brother, Uncle Jimmy, who always brought sweets to Fanny Farmer. On the good Irish linen was the Mohican roast, the mashed potatoes, the gravy, the giant green corn, Nana’s lime jelly with pineapple, carrots and marshmallows. In the middle of the table, Mama brought the baby Jesus out of the manger and placed him between the lit candles. Instead of Grace, we sang “Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus. Happy Birthday to you!”. As Tiny Tim said, “God bless us all!”
Ormie King’s column appears in The Citizen on Sundays and can be reached by email at [email protected].