Even though we had been evicted from the old housing projects just a few weeks before Christmas, we were determined to have a festive holiday nonetheless. I was only three years old, so my head was filled with nothing but thoughts of Santa Claus, sugarplums, elves, and baked goodies. The dilapidated hotel we were living in temporarily would need to be decorated as best we could, considering its dingy walls, cracked windows, and peeling paint. Although it was cold and drafty due to faulty heating, we relied on the warmth in our hearts to kindle the Christmas spirit. With my nine siblings and my parents, we certainly had plenty of “kindling!”
My older brothers Walter, Herbert, Carson, and Harvey were all train enthusiasts. The two oldest were very talented in woodcarving and were working on a few pieces to hang on the tree. The two younger ones helped their brothers by meticulously painting the pieces. Harvey was only six years old, but he had a developing knack for artwork. Carson – not so much, but he was working on it. At nine, he still had time to nurture his budding talent.
Most of our decorations were homemade since we couldn’t afford store bought ones. I was the youngest girl and all three of my sisters were teenagers who possessed talents of their own. My mother had taught them how to sew and cook, so they were also making various decorations for the tree. Lila made hand-beaded stockings to place under the tree (there was no mantle). Lucille made an angel and decorated it with wings and a halo. The angel was prominently displayed on top of the tree while its wings sparkled in spite of the dinginess surrounding it. Clodine loved collecting thimbles and was able to make a few innovative decorations with them.
Choosing a Christmas tree for displaying our homemade masterpieces was not a task for the faint-hearted. My father would take my two oldest brothers and head out on a search for the perfect tree. Even thinking about an artificial tree was considered sacrilegious! They traipsed from one tree lot to another until “that” tree was found. Then, they hoisted it up to the second floor and put it up in my parents’ room. In my eyes, as well as those of my two younger brothers (William and Sanford Jr.), that tree was monumental. Of course, with the size of those cramped rooms, the tree was probably not that big in actuality-but none of us noticed.
On Christmas morning of that cold, 1956 day in Niagara Falls, New York, we woke up in the Moonglow Hotel to the smell of homemade hot chocolate and freshly baked cookies. The family gathered in my parents’ room to open presents and sample the tasty treats. There may not have been much under the tree, but the love in the room overshadowed any lack of physical presents. The presence of family, kinship, shared memories, laughter, and comfort was enough-more than enough. The size of the tree or the amount of presents under it paled in comparison to all of that.