Treasured Block Island memories
Christmas memories of Block Island were far different than today. I grew up during the 1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression. But our Christmases were bright and fun, mainly, I believe, because my parents loved the holiday, especially my father. It was really the one holiday he loved best.
There were two general stores, Del Negus (Star Department Store now) and the Enterprise (where The Wave is now). Both of these stores carried work clothes, boots, dishtowels and lots of other merchandise, but nothing like books, perfume or scarves. We depended on ordering from two catalogues, Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. Fabric, yarn and crocheting cotton had to be ordered from those catalogues.
Around late October, we began to make gifts for friends and family. I learned how to knit and crochet around the age of eight. Believe me, my handmade gifts of lumpy scarves and grubby lace-trimmed handkerchiefs left much to be desired. Because our house was not heated beyond the kitchen/dining area it was hard to keep gifts in the making out of sight. My mother had the advantage of the evening hours when we were in bed, and she made wonderful clothes for us. It was not easy, as we had kerosene lamps. Heavy irons were heated on the wood stove because, like most folks on the island, we did not have electricity to do the ironing.
Most of the Christmas programs we shared took place at the Harbor Church, the big one on Chapel Street (where Aldo’s Mopeds is now). It burned down in 1943. There were two huge trees in the chancel behind the pulpit. On Christmas Eve, friends and families assembled at the church where most of the kids had pieces to speak. We spoke the pieces at the front of the church before a full audience. I died a thousand deaths performing in front of a roomful of elders, always hoping I would not forget my poem.
Each child received a small gift from the tree, plus a box of hard candy. The men of the church, who had to get up on stepladders to retrieve them from the trees, passed out these gifts. Then we went on home to hang our stockings. I remember the excitement of waiting in bed trying to remain awake in the hope of hearing or seeing Santa Claus. We were not allowed to get up and come downstairs until my father roused up, went down and then rang a loud brass bell hollering, “Santa has come!” Lucky for us that he was a fisherman and woke at about 4:30 a.m.
We emptied our stockings, which usually had a huge orange at the toe, a rare treat, with nuts (in the shell) and some homemade candy. We then got dressed, ate breakfast and cleared the dishes. When the dishes were done and the kitchen in order, we went to the living room to open gifts. We each had one gift from my mother and father with a few more gifts from one another. My usual gift was a book, which I loved to receive.
One of the most exciting events during Christmas was the arrival of a large box from my Italian grandparents who lived in Connecticut. Because of their ethnic background, they sent us unusual things like fennel, chestnuts, pomegranates and tangerines. Also in the box were my grandmother’s Christmas cookies made with figs, honey and roasted nuts. These cookies were about four inches long covered by dough that was so tough I could not bite into one without soaking it in tea or coffee, but the filling was delicious. I have the recipe but never have made them.
I should take time to remind today’s readers that we did not have many cars on the island during the 1930s. We walked everywhere we had to go. So, when the box came from my grandparents it meant a long trek home, 2 ½ miles from the post office. If it was windy, we made many stops to rest on the way home. At Christmastime, the post office was an exciting place to be. The outer lobby would be filled with folks lucky enough to have a package slip in their box. No packages were given out until all of the mail was sorted, so lots of story telling went on while we waited. In late December that meant the sun going down, so many times we walked home with night coming on and the moon coming up.
Today when I see how much “stuff” we all have I wonder if we were not better off with less. Certainly I treasured the one gift I received from my folks. I knew we had no money in those years but we always had fresh milk, butter and eggs. We were never hungry, although in winter hardly a day were we really comfortable in our old drafty house. I would not trade that time for anything.
I believe it prepared me for what was ahead of me in life.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.