The Avondhu - By The Fireside
NEW YORK CITY, 1958
Every year, the trees sold outside the Gristede’s market on 74th Street were lined up in a noble row, leaning high against the side of the red brick building. Shoppers selected carefully, thinking through the height of ceilings in apartment elevators, the angle of a New York City building stairwell, the width of the sitting room, the availability of storage space.
A few days before Christmas, while Dorothy was safely at her grandmother’s, with strict orders to stay in, Fred Stein and his wife Mickie joined the Gristede’s crowd, dragging the probably too-wide tree down the three blocks of Lexington and the half block toward the park, into their building, to a back room in the basement, a small space stuffed with gifts tagged by residents and made off-limits to children for the month of December.
Dorothy was already old enough to know it was her parents’ doing, pine needles lining the back elevator, a trail left from there to the living room, her mother’s eyes always slightly more shadowed on Christmas morning, a coffee mug never leaving her hand. Dorothy went to sleep as usual and woke to a tree in ornaments, candy canes and lights, gifts on the floor, two unwashed wine glasses in the kitchen sink.
She couldn’t help but hold fast to the idea of the surprise it had always been, and only held out admitting to her parents that she knew about the tree, and that she knew her parents knew she knew, because she was still hoping for a pair of ice skates, and counting on the tradition to help it happen.
Her brown skates, which she’d spent the last many winters using in Central Park, had gotten too small and she had her eye on a white leather pair. With no siblings to pass them on to, Dorothy sought out Joan, the neighbour’s daughter, also an only child, three years Dorothy’s junior and growing fast. Joan had already tried on the skates one day in the apartment lobby, while their mothers were chatting. They were too big, but with three pairs of very thick socks, they decided, Joan would be able to use them.
“Not on the floor,” Mickie called out, Joan trying to stand in the skates, Dorothy holding her hand tightly. The girls sat down and plotted out their figure eights, with high jumps and a spin, Dorothy standing up and falling back into her chair like she’d fallen into the arms of her handsome skating partner.
Joan took off the skates and clicked the blades together lightly, smiling at Dorothy.
“It sounds neat, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” Dorothy said, only half listening. Her attention turned to her mother’s conversation, the two women’s voices lowering to a whisper. Dorothy didn’t know much about Joan’s family, only that her mother Ruth made an excellent coffee cake and Joan’s father seemed never to be around, at least not when Dorothy was over. She’d met him once or twice, remembering only that he was a big man, with a rounded belly and a faint smell of something smoky that Dorothy couldn’t identify. Not her parents’ smell, of the cigarettes they smoked by the window or in their small kitchen, but a sweeter scent, maybe woodier.
Dorothy would be thirteen next year, the year when boys she knew had their bar mitzvahs, or, a year or two later, a ceremony at the Reformed temple on 67th Street, which her father Fred had always said looked strangely like a Protestant church. We’re all Protestant Jews, he would joke. Even at twelve, the girls seemed to tower over the boys, Dorothy already nearing the height of her father. You’ll be a basketball player, he’d remarked, Dorothy reddening but feeling some pride.
Christmas, her parents out, Dorothy made her way down to the basement, a small bag in hand with a tiny gift for her father, a handkerchief, her readied excuse in case she were caught. A strip on the cement walls had been painted black recently and looked sticky. She walked toward the back room, feigning purpose.
“Dorothy Stein, what are you doing down here?”
Closing the door to the storage room, Joan’s father turned to her and smiled. He was smaller than she’d remembered, intimidating, but with warm eyes she hadn’t noticed before.
“I came to store a gift.” Dorothy held up her small bag meekly.
“For something that size, I’d stuff it under your bed. It’s chaos in there this year.”
“Oh, okay.” Dorothy looked over his shoulder as he closed the door and followed him back to the elevator.
“I hear you’re quite the skater.”
The elevator door rang and opened, Joan standing inside, crouched and nervous. Her father smiled and looked at Dorothy.
“No children allowed down here, you know that, Joan.”
They piled into the elevator and Dorothy pressed the buttons for both of their floors.
When Dorothy woke with the rest of the city on December 25, she spent time with her stocking, a single leg of hosiery stuffed with a deck of cards, a chocolate bar, an orange, a ginger bread man, and two books she’d wanted. She spent the morning reading one of them, waiting for her parents to wake up. She tiptoed into the kitchen to sniff the orange muffins, tucked together on a plate, Mickie’s sole act of baking in the year but now an annual tradition. She noticed her parents’ coffee beans, ready to be ground.
When she finally heard them stir, Dorothy had thoroughly examined the biggest box with her name on it and was happy enough to delay the opening of gifts. Her parents would have leisurely coffees, as they often did on the weekends, and the opening of presents would happen when their grandmother got here, making her short walk from 81st Street, but taking time to see the decorations along Park Avenue, her own Christmas tradition.
They had only one obligation today, Mickie said, unless they all wanted to catch a late film at the Beekman. The weather was good, the air crisp and cold, and perhaps they could meet Joan and her parents in Central Park this afternoon so Dorothy could teacher her how to skate.
“In my shoes?” Dorothy smiled.
“Oh yes, without ice skates,” Mickie winked.
Dorothy picked up her mother’s half-filled mug of coffee, sniffing it and wondering if she might like the taste.