The following is somewhat of a tradition for those who follow my blog, so you may have read it already. I post it in the humble hope that it will bring a smile to your lips and remind you of the important things in life — the things that really matter.
Sometimes things happen in your life that affects forever the very way you perceive reality. Some events are negative, serving as baggage for all your later interactions. Others are life-changing epiphanies that work to make life more joyful. Which ones do you cling to?
Let me tell you a story…
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Photo: “Christmas Village” by Darlene-Louise Rosario, photo by Marilyn Ortiz, art direction by author
In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
— Albert Camus
It was a year I would never forget. I was about 16, in the process of reading every “great book” ever written, helping put out an underground school newspaper, young and full of life. My sisters (to my delight) had many beautiful friends and our home was the focal point of activities for our vast network of friends and family. It was a time of change and turmoil: the Vietnam War still raged and it seemed as if all the institutions we once took for granted — marriage and gender roles, the meaning of freedom — were being questioned and reformulated. The strategies used to create social change by African-Americans and Latin@s in the struggle for human rights were being used by a wide range of groups: women were burning their bras and Gays were marching for their rights. In short, it was a time of change and the times, as the song went, were a’changin’.
This particular year, however, was a difficult one for my family: our stepfather was arrested because of a scuffle with police and sentenced to a year in jail. He was our breadwinner and that meant that our main source of income was gone. Compounding our financial difficulties was our mother’s pregnancy, she would eventually give birth to our youngest brother, Vincent, the following June.
As the oldest child, I had always felt, whether wrongly or not, a deep responsibility to protect my mother and siblings. I had to grow up pretty quick because it was expected of me to be more than a big brother; I had to be a power of example for those younger than I. Somehow, I felt I should be doing something to contribute and it was frustrating. What disturbed me the most, however, was when I caught my mother crying. Though I resented sometimes having to be the adult in my interactions with her, my mother was nevertheless a strong woman who managed to make her place in a world that was both hostile and violent towards her. If she was despairing that meant things were really screwed up.
My sisters and I helped by working at a local supermarket after school. I worked delivering groceries and my sisters staffed the cash registers. Of course, me being the radical of the house, I was promptly fired for calling the owner an Uncle Tom and an oppressor of his own people. Sometimes we would get our groceries because my sisters would not charge up the register when my mother shopped. Things got worse at the onset of the holidays. We called a family meeting and we all agreed that, with the exception of our youngest brother, Edgar (who was eight), we would forego gifts for Christmas. My mother didn’t take this too well and it pushed her to her dark side, often succumbing to bouts of sadness interspersed with rage. What Nuyoricans* called ataques de nervios (nervous attacks).
We made do just as many other poor families did at that time: welfare augmented by small-scale attempts at entrepreneurship. Sometimes my mother would buy a bottle of rum, or some other item, and raffle it off at the local Bingo parlor: if everyone paid in a dollar, she would be able to earn a profit and still offer a decent prize. We also had an extended family and they would help as best they could, though they too were often financially extended and living from paycheck to paycheck.
In short, it was getting to be a really sad holiday season. The house became less full, as our situation served as a basis for shame and as we gradually dropped off our activities with our friends the ensuing quiet was disturbing. Then one day, the Friday after Thanksgiving, we took out the old artificial tree. We all share a warped sense of humor and my sisters and I started joking about how lonely the tree would look without any gifts. Soon we were cracking each other up, trying to outdo each other by coming up with the most twisted reason why we should, or shouldn’t, put up the Christmas tree.
In the end, we decided to put it up and, while playing traditional Puerto Rican Christmas songs on the stereo, we slowly got into the spirit of things. Soon enough, the house rang out with laughter and song and friends were called up to come and help. I don’t know if my perception is clouded by bias or the passage of time, but I swear that that old tree never looked so beautiful. We really put our creative energies into fixing up the house too: we gift wrapped doors, put up mistletoes, strung lights on the windows — we created the best display on that Brooklyn block.
Still, the tree did look “lonely” or bare, without gifts. So someone, one of my sisters I think, came up with the idea of collecting empty boxes and wrapping them up as gifts. Of course, as is usual in the Rosario household, we took it to an extreme. Our rather large tree was soon dwarfed by a mountain of elegantly wrapped “gifts.” People would visit and comment on how “beautiful” the tree looked and we would secretly laugh because we knew they were only saying that in part because of the many “gifts.” It was our own little private joke.
I have to admit that while our circumstances were extremely difficult that year, I can’t remember a more joyful holiday season. Soon our apartment sang once again with the sound of young people engaged in the daily activities of life. We came to see the tree as a symbol of joy, one that attracted people, and it was true that many people would come and visit. Looking back, I guess maybe everyone else was having a hard time and the joy in our house was sort of like a warm fire to ward off the chill of winter in America. The tree became almost like a family member that we tended to and nurtured. People would visit and you could tell immediately that the joy was infectious. The “joke” was a constant source for new comedic material and we would create even more elaborate “gifts” to put at the base of that tree.
Nuyoricans celebrate Christmas Eve — Noche Buena. Christmas day is for the kids and for the adults to nurse hangovers. That year, a huge Christmas Eve party, attended by everybody-and-their-mother, capped the holiday season. The owner of the supermarket where my sisters worked contributed the ingredients so that my mother could make her famous pasteles (a Puerto Rican plantain/ meat dish) and pernil (pork suckling). All our friends and family attended and the party lasted well into Christmas morning. I don’t think it snowed that Christmas, but I remember that the party became the basis for several legends — a storytime delight to be recounted for years to come. And for some time, it became a marker for community events as in BC and AD: Before and After “The Christmas Party.”
The party itself was rambunctious — more rambunctious than normal. The reason why poor people can party is because they know all too intimately the ups and downs of life and whenever the opportunity arises, they party with an almost religious fervor. Of course, there was plenty of drama that Christmas Eve. Someone was caught philandering, a woman was accused of being a husband stealer, old jealousies and rivalries were re-ignited with renewed creative passion, and quite a few made fools of themselves. There was my step father’s aunt, who insisted on flashing her panties at everyone and poor old Frito who would never live down the fact that he got so drunk he pissed on himself.
The party was a microcosm of the full catastrophe of the human condition in all its shining glory. In short — a good time was had by all.
Finally, the party was over and Christmas morning came, and it was time to clean up the house and dispose of all the “gifts.” I started collecting the empty boxes to throw them out, but our mother stopped me.
“You can’t throw out the boxes!” she yelled out, an alarming note of hysteria in her voice.
We looked at one another, fearing our mother was about to have another ataque de nervios, but then we saw the hint of a smile play on her lips.
We had to tear through all the empty boxes in order to find the gifts my mother had embedded into that huge pile. I will never forget my gift that year though I have had many richer Christmas’ since: it was a digital watch with an LED readout that were fairly new and trendy at the time. I know it didn’t cost much, maybe $5, but I treasured it and wore that watch for a long time.
Why this story?
For one, the experience taught me a lesson that was the greatest Christmas gift of all: that you always have a choice with how to respond to adversity. Yes, the fact remained that we sometimes were hungry and our clothes weren’t the best. There were times we couldn’t afford basic needs or even school supplies. But we learned to face these hardships with humor and strength of character. That year could easily have been much worse, but facing our hardships in a realistic but joyful way — that lesson would stay with me for the rest of my life. For me, this is the taste of life itself. The One Taste.
So, if you ever catch me smiling, try to remember where that smile comes from It comes from the knowledge that essentially material gifts are usually empty. I smile because I know the pretty boxes are empty but my heart is full…
You are loved. May you all know true happiness. Happy Holidays!
* A Nuyorican is a person of Puerto Rican birth or descent living primarily in New York City.