Out of the Woods / My unsolved holiday mystery
In this holiday season every year, as I see Christmas trees and Hanukkah menorahs light up houses all over Westport, both give me a lift. They remind me of my close-knit family as a child and how much joy we experienced on these religious holidays.
It brings to mind one great unsolved question in my life: When I was growing up Jewish in the Riversdale section of the Bronx, did we have a Christmas tree in our apartment or has my memory been playing tricks on me?
I seem to recall that we did, and that my parents put the tree near the Steinway piano in our living room and put gifts under the tree. I can visualize it like it was yesterday. I am certain that we, as a family, were ecumenical on these two holidays that are universally celebrated. Another of memory serves as evidence: Dad launched an interfaith orchestra in our community and played the violin alongside my sister, also a violinist.
So what's my dilemma? Stay with me. My younger sister, Esther Willison, who lives in Schenectady, N.Y., a writer with a sharp memory and a compassionate heart with whom I have never had a disagreement, says that we did not have a Christmas tree. Now, mind you, when we frequently talk about our "good old days" at home, she invariably remembers more clearly how we lived and what happened. So she has more credibility, in general, than I do when it comes to remembering things we did together, like climbing trees and playing catch with a hardball.
Yet, I can still see that full-size real Christmas tree in our apartment, lit up in multiple colors, wires hanging on all over it, with a star on top of it. The tree was next to our Steinway piano. It was there.
No doubt about it. Had that not happened, why would I have brought a Christmas tree into our home in Westport for so many decades?
But I divert from my story. So certain am I of that Christmas tree scene in our living room, that for years I brought a miniature tree to put on my desk at The New York World-Telegram & Sun and into my next job at City Hall in New York, where I served as New York Mayor John V. Lindsay's first press secretary.
After I was married, we had a full-sized real tree our Washington Square apartment. The presents were placed under the same Steinway piano that I had inherited from our parents.
I also brought a tiny toy-sized Christmas tree into my office at IBM for 24 years, raising some eyebrows and questions about my religion. I always readily replied that I am Jewish with an ecumenical twist. Nobody ever objected. In 1992, when I joined this newspaper as its editor, I brought my little Christmas tree with me. They must have figured I was doing it for all the Christians on my staff. Truth be told, I was also doing it for myself. It was a singular hit. After all, Westporters are, for the most part, open minded.
Another sources of "memory evidence" is the picture in my mind is our dad heartily singing Christmas carols at the dinner table, and all of us joining in.
Never happened? Prove it, I say to my sister. She cannot because she did not record it or save a limb from the tree. I refer to a "evidence" because our mother was a lawyer.
In any case, our folks are not around to confirm anything about the tree. And all of our relatives are out of touch, scattered around the country or no longer with us.
Such a dilemma! Frankly, whether it was true or not, it gives me solace and to believe that I have been attached to a Christmas tree all of my life, and my sister has reluctantly tolerated my version of our history together because she is such a kind, considerate person. And she does not want to break our streak of never arguing in the 79 years since she was born. I love her for that.
I like my Christmas dilemma. I would not want to break this wonderful tradition of believing. I prefer not to trifle with my holiday memories. They give me such comfort every year. I'll sign off this way: "Season's Greetings, everybody!" Especially to the Rev. Frank Hall, my ecumenical friend and spiritual guide at the Unitarian Church in Westport.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org