Wednesday, December 25, 2019

All Things Must Pass (A Christmas Story)

Sal Sr., my grandfather, possessed an indescribable cool; a Dean Martin poise most guys dreamed about. He was a man of few words and rarely shared his opinions. He had the ability to keep you focused because of what he wasn't saying and wasn't doing. I am nothing like him.

He was over six feet tall, maybe 6' 2", and he loved to smile. He was perpetually tan, though not in that George Hamilton way. He claimed his skin color came "from all those days in The Philippines during World War II." He loved the sun, and would work on that war time tan every summer day, baking shirtless on our stoop at 552 Broome Street, while listening to the Yankees on his then average/now hip Norelco radio. He lived on the second floor with my grandmother, while I resided with my mother and other grandmother on the 4th floor. I ran up and down those stairs at 552 Broome Street 100 times a day.

He said little, yet there was a playful, almost menacing side to his unobtrusive personality. There was no one more patient, and no one in my lifetime who hid their feelings the way he did. Two separate Saturday afternoons come to mind, where Sal Sr. exhibited that patience. That cool.

There was the day my grandmother found mouse droppings in her immaculate kitchen. My grandfather silently taped up the space under every door in the apartment and stood watch with a broom. He sat on a kitchen chair, on guard, broom upright like some twisted version of "American Gothic." He lit Salem 100 after Salem 100, for what seemed like hours, waiting for this critter to surrender from behind the kitchen sink. He did, and the broom came down with a thwack that rattled the entire neighborhood. My grandfather stood up, bagged the rodent, removed the tape, and joined me for some baseball in the living room, all without breaking a sweat or uttering a word.

Another afternoon, he had been chopping ice in that same kitchen, while I was watching baseball in that same living room. Suddenly, I heard some psychotic whistling. It wasn't a tune. It was more like a message. The pick went through his index finger. He continued to whistle as he wiped up the blood and fixed himself up as if the kitchen was a M*A*S*H unit. He said nothing during either of these incidents.

Our family was large and loud, but mostly loud. It was newsworthy when one person at our dinner table would talk while the others listened. No one ever really listened. Sunday dinner, which began around 1:P.M., usually had 4-6, sometimes 6-8 of us around the table, competing for air time, as we were already being drowned out by the Yankees on the living room set. My grandfather's television and stereo went to eleven long before Spinal Tap.

A typical meal would start politely, with food carefully passed around with manners we'd somehow pull out of a hat for 30 seconds at a time. Then, as if plotting the sabotage since the week prior, my grandmother would come to bat like Joe Pepitone, eager to hit one out of the park. She'd bring up some inappropriate subject for the dinner table, usually about money or another relative. This would rile my father. Then I'd chime in, usually with the old stand-by missive, "you're missing my point," even when I hadn't any. In record time, this faux-Waltons get together was a din of demented barking, with points being made to no one.

All the time this was taking place, my grandfather would continue to reach for the meatballs, dip his bread in the sauce, and eat, saying nothing, yet smirking as if something was up his sleeve. Something usually was. He'd push his chair back, stand up, and start whistling. He always whistled some non-descript tune while he "worked." He walked 10 paces to his den, turned on the stereo and dropped the needle on one of his favorites, "The Drifters' Golden Hits," and cranked it loud enough to drown us and the Yankees out. This would make my father laugh, which would make me laugh, which would make my grandmother shout out, "YOU'RE ALL BASTARDS!'


Another one of my grandfather's quietly sinister moves happened during the Christmas season of 1970. He was an executive at a paper company, and every winter holiday season, he would bring home a daily supply of beautifully wrapped gifts, mostly boxed liquor bottles given to him by co-workers and clients. My job, once we put up his tree and set up the Lionel trains, (which almost always never worked, as the transformer would inevitably burn out from a tinsel short on the first go around) was to arrange the bottles and other wrapped goodies under it. That year, just a few weeks earlier in November, George Harrison's 3 LP boxed set "All Things Must Pass" was released. This was all I focused on that holiday season. That was all I really wanted for Christmas, or any other day, for that matter.

I must point out, I was not a patient kid. By the 18th of December, I'd start sleeping less. I was sweating in below zero temperatures. I couldn't eat. The excitement of the holiday, not to mention a new Beatles' related album, was enough to drive me out of my skin. This in turn, would drive all in my presence, out of theirs. Still I pressed on, every evening, waiting for my grandfather to come home from work with the bottles. The ritual continued until the night that turned my Burl Ives' Christmas into a long-term, seasonal twitch.

My grandfather came home with a half dozen bottles and a box that measured about 12"x12". (That was the right size, I thought.) I just knew it was "All Things Must Pass." He handed it to me with that same smirk he sported right before the whistling. So I asked, "This is the George Harrison album, right?" He corrected me, "No, Salvatore. It's a box of handkerchiefs from Betty." (Betty was his secretary. And yes, he called me Salvatore.) He smirked again. I'm sure I laughed some nervously forced guffaw as I held back the tears. "No it isn't. Right? It's my record, right?" My grandmother bellowed from the kitchen, "SAL! WILL YOU NOT TORTURE HIM PLEASE?" He just smiled wide and told me to place it with the rest of the gifts under the tree.

I did not relent. As a matter of fact, for the next two days, if I was my kid, I would have put me out on the street, with a sign around my neck that said, "Take him. Good luck." Every hour, I would try to reason with him as only an unreasonable child could. "You know, it's just one I want to open. Just that one I could listen to it. Then I wouldn't be bothering you. See? That makes sense, right Grandpa? Hello? Grandpa?"

It's the 23rd of December, and I was in a zone. I sat in front of the tree, staring at that box, in a "blink, or you'll miss it" mode, like I was waiting to catch a glimpse of The Yeti.

"Please just that one! Just that one!" He laughed and insisted, "Salvatore, they are handkerchiefs."
(My grandmother again)

I am pretty sure by now I was hyperventilating. "''s the Harrison album...sob." My grandfather laughed, gave me a perfunctory head pat and started whistling. He reached for the box and handed it to me. He said nothing. He just smirked as I tore the wrapper off in one pull, like a pair of velcro parachute pants.

It was handkerchiefs.

I did get "All Things Must Pass" on Christmas morning. I got over the trauma of Christmas 1970 in 2003.


jeff said...

I love Sal, Sr.

Ron said...

Wonderful story. Merry Christmas.


snakeboy said...

I love this story. Continue to post it yearly as long as you can.

daudder said...

and this makes Christmas worth all the fuss, overindulgence, crass commercialism, etc. Merry Christmas, Sal. Thanks for another wonderful year of Xmas'

Now, go watch A Concert for George (or save it for New Years Day...:)

Roberto Heijmans said...

fantastico Salvatore !!This is a grandfather I wish I had.... I wish you all the best for the coming year !
Go on with your Blog. I love it !

Greetings from The Netherlands from Roberto Heijmans

dogbreath said...

Thanks for sharing that warm and funny family story and like all the best Christmas tales, it has a happy ending. Enjoyed it very much. Compliments of the Season. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sal.

Merry Christmas and thank you for bringing us Burning Wood.


A walk in the woods said...

Classic!! So very different from my holidays and general memories with my Southern family, especially my Mom's side - so polite and proper, probably a bit too much so.

Whattawino said...

HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!! These stories are hilarious and poignant and perfect for the holidays. These moments are so rich in detail
that the reader (me!) feels like they might have actually been there! For some reason, “tinsel short” cracked me up during the Lionel trains bit
as I remembered the same thing happening at my house. Talk about “Blood on the Tracks”, if my Dad hadn’t fixed it quick, there could have been an altercation that would have ruined the day for all the people that lived in the little village that we set-up around the tree every year. Thanks for sharing, Sal. And keep those memories coming.....

hpunch said...

I love this tale.

M_Sharp said...

Great story, Sal! Thanks for sharing.

George said...

Nicely done, Sal!

neal t said...

Great, this should replace the dreaded "A Christmas Story".

Tinman said...

Excellent Story. Should be recorded for posterity. Oh Wait! it kind of is. Thanks

heartsofstone said...

Just read this - brilliant!!!!

Hey-its Mike said...

Been out of town and offline through the holidays and so just found this. What a great story! Thanks, and Happy New Year.