In today’s downpour the bare trees seemed covered with budding new growth. But that’s the rich repertoire of lichens and mosses coating the branches, rocks, and fences all winter long.
Thread 1. 1999. At the food co-op for my 20% member discount I was bagging groceries and asking each shopper “Hello! Paper or Plastic?” as in “What kind of bag would you like for your purchases?” Shoppers would give me a startled look and say “Reg’lar. Just a reg’lar bag.” Many were too rushed to give the matter any deep thought. So as a compromise I would load the goods in a large square paper bag inside a smaller rounded plastic bag with handles. One Christmas Eve a couple was speaking what sounded like Brazilian Portuguese. The young woman cradled an infant and placed rice, milk, sugar, and eggs on the conveyor belt. The young man paid up, counting out exact change. He whipped open a plastic bag, and in a flash we dropped in their items. Then he smoothed out a dollar bill, and turning to me with a grave nod placed the bill in my hand. In all those years out of all those shoppers, he was the only one to offer me a tip. My conditioned reflex would be to duck away from the dollar with a self-deprecating little laugh. But I clasped it to my heart and bowed to them, and still think of that family every year.
Thread 2. 1995. At Winter Solstice my small bird died in my hands. She was a cockatiel, the liveliest most affectionate little pal, taking part in everything I did and all of my friendships and ventures. That was in a new studio room, in a new part of the city where I knew nobody. Four days later at Christmas there was no one to see and no businesses open. I left my room for a day’s walk exploring the neighborhoods, and ended up in a pocket pond urban sanctuary. In the clear cold and the stillness, an hour before sunset, I huddled up on a tree stump to listen to nature. It was startling to see the flash of an unfamiliar bird that called to mind my own cockatiel. The new species was a crested bird in soft gray tones. It turned out to be a Tufted Titmouse. Here is one, thanks to “All About Birds” at TheCornellLab:
The bird alighted close by with a piping two-tone call that drew in others just like him. Soon a whole flock gathered right around, peering at me with their bright calls. The weather was so cold and the day so short that all too soon it was time to head back to my room. But what a comfort it was for that hour, to be back in the company of birds again.
Thread 3. 2021. Neighbor Evie is a talented decorator and gardener. Her optimistic sociable active nature kept her engaged and cheerful even when her health began to keep her at home. Last fall, for weeks she and I looked forward to seeing her potted Amaryllis sprout up from its bulb. We even had a little ritual after suppertime where I’d walk down the hall and tap on her door with two cups of miso soup or cocoa, and would play Evie a “Song of the Day” on my phone internet. (Her absolute favorite was Wintergatan’s “Marble Machine” song by Martin Molin.) We’d examine and discuss the progress of that flower bulb and sip our cocoa while she told me interesting stories about her travels as an interior designer. The last time we met was last Christmas; she told me then that she would have to move away to be close to family. Luckily I had a chance to take this picture then, of the Amaryllis finally bursting into bloom.
Thread 4. 1990s. At the stately historic home base of Der Arbeter Ring (The Workers’ Circle) everyone came in from the freezing December night and gathered around for hot tea and our monthly singalong. We passed out the music books of favorite Yiddish hits, and were just making the difficult decision of choosing a warmup tune out of so many appealing selections. Then, the door flew open. Stepping in out of the flying snow there was a dapper gentleman in hat and overcoat and suit and walking stick. He called out greetings to all in Yiddish, adding “Hand me a songbook. I just had to get in outa those CHRISTMAS CAROLS.” He became my delightful seat neighbor for the evening. He sang along with gusto through our favorites — “Hof un Gloyb” (Hope and Believe), “Mayn Ruhe Platz” (My Resting Place), “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” (Raisins and Almonds), and many more.
By the way, for a Yiddish music break I just found this film clip. Maybe you can search by this title too:
“Molly Picon Abi Gezunt ‘Mamele,’ 1938.”
Molly Picon was a reigning sweetheart of Yiddish theater. The song from “Mamele” is “Abi Gezunt” (If You’ve Got Your Health, You Can Be Happy). This scene of Molly’s wacky housekeeping makes a poignant glimpse of this rich cinema heritage of the 1930s.
At the Arbeter Ring, during a break with more hot tea and a table of pastries, my seat companion told wonderful stories about his lifetime appraising gemstones and jewelry all around the globe. “In every diamond district, with merchants from Thailand, with souvenir vendors at the Vatican — the only language I needed was Yiddish!” He beamed at us. “Yiddish — it’ll take you right around the world!”
Merry Christmas Night to you all!
Thank you for sharing these threads. This last one brings back memories of my Jewish step-grandfather and the Yiddish I heard as a kind from him and his friends. He was a kind and gentle soul.
What a beautiful memory for you, and a lovely tribute to your step-grandfather! Yiddish always struck me as a language rich in social connection, resilience, and warm humor. It’s a great language for coming in out of the cold and gathering over tea. Thank you for the kind words tonight!