“Christmas Carolyn”

Memoir by Pat Shevlin

It’s that time of year again. I am staring at a calendar that is filled with holiday commitments, from baking with my nieces — a tradition begun over 20 years ago when they were little ones — to the more recent tradition of holiday singing with friends in a choral group. The boxed greeting cards are out. Amazon cartons are an almost daily delivery to my doorway, a pile of CDs is stacked and ready to play, beginning with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” 

How can one resist tuning out the stress of Christmas present for the memories of Christmases past? My fondest memories of Christmas are all about my best friend, Carolyn. 

More than 50 years have passed since two high school sophomores, clad in plaid-skirted uniforms, stood crying in a card store at the top of Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing after reading a comic retelling of “The Night before Christmas.” It was one of those Studio Line cards; you know the tall, skinny, funny cards. To this day, I carry my favorite reindeer names — Fungus, Gonkhead, and Stupid — in my head. When the card store owner was tired of us enjoying ourselves at his expense, he threw down his gauntlet: “Do you plan on purchasing a card today?” We left, laughing, headed for the bus stop.

The shopkeepers on Main Street were not fond of the local high school students. Back then, I would think the greatest threat we posed was simply being a teen. We were walking targets in our uniforms as we stopped in Woolworth’s after school for a soda and slice of pizza, looking at the makeup we were forbidden to wear.  

Another of those downtown Flushing stores was Gertz department store, where my brother managed to secure the position of store Claus, a feat that even now continues to astonish me. It must have been the rosy cheeks and blue eyes, because it certainly wasn’t his girth; this 19-year-old was one skinny kid. 

That Christmas Eve in the early ’70s I coerced him into letting me borrow the beautiful outfit. Carolyn was my Rudolph, guiding her Chevy Chevelle SS through the streets of Flushing and Whitestone to surprise our friends and family with a personal Santa visit. I looked the part so much better, with a natural plumpness.

Carolyn Faith and I began many Christmas traditions in our teens. 

Gathering on Christmas night, after a day of family, we exchanged gifts. We met at my home for years until one night Carolyn broke the news, “I’m getting married.” She had not traded in the tradition; we simply relocated to her home. 

For decades Carolyn, Alice, Peg, and I would celebrate the holidays. There was a ritual: Uncle Sam’s Chicken, her husband Bob’s specialty, a bit of Bailey’s, and, at long last, positioning the tripod to capture the annual Kodak group photo-in-front-of-tree moment. There were gifts to exchange, but it wasn’t gifts that brought us together. 

As her family grew to include little ones, our observance of tradition was treated with reverence, even if our photo sessions were not: the later the photo the less formal but perhaps the most fun. Over the years, a growing family and an Old English sheepdog provided challenges we had never considered, such as the year Prudence tried to tango with the tripod. Or the year that two-year-old Jonathan strutted proudly into the living room in a diaper only, wielding a sharp-edged blade from their Cutco knife collection, our own little Christmas samurai. 

A bittersweet Christmas followed the removal of Carolyn’s eye and lid to cancer. She wore a patch, so we all wore eye patches that I had decorated with an assist from her kids. The effort did produce a photo, but her good eye spoke the truth that night. She would battle through several more annual photo sessions before we would lose her.

Our unofficial holiday season began each year in September with the arrival of the Swiss Colony catalog. We would taunt each other with threats of ordering the yule log, a confectionery concoction that had raccoons sticking their heads out of a log-shaped cake. “Who doesn’t associate raccoons with Christmas,” she would laugh. “What happened to reindeer?”

By October, the local Hallmark card store was dressed for the holidays and we would make our annual trek for our Peanuts ornament purchase. 

Carolyn purchased one of my favorite Christmas gifts on one of these outings: a stuffed Snoopy sitting in a beach sling chair. He was wearing a turquoise-and-white- striped lifeguard outfit. I had that dog until 2009 when I tried, unsuccessfully, to wash him. Big mistake; he was stuffed with sawdust, and washing sawdust turned out to be less than successful. My “Snoop” lived to the ripe old age of 29 years; that’s a pretty good life for a dog.

By Thanksgiving, we were ripe for the season. “Miracle on 34th Street” would have aired on television. Gimbels department store still existed. We were primed for shopping and gift wrapping. There was no internet. We had to rough it the old-fashioned way: physically engaging our fellow shoppers in the parking lot, the mall, and the cashier’s line. We loved it, stretching the joy of Christmas into a three-month event. 

My most favorite memory, however, was participating in the Slovak Christmas Eve ritual at my best friend’s house. It was like winning the lottery; I was 16 and “Slovak for a Day.” 

Mrs. C., Carolyn’s mother, was a real life Peanuts character: short, plump, and with bowed legs, the result of arthritis. Her Christmas Eve cooking was legend, and began weeks in advance, making dough for her pierogies and joy-filled little bundles of meat that were referred to as “bundookies.” I could find no history on this menu item, but they were in high demand. 

Carolyn’s brothers gobbled up these annual goodies — one demanding his own platter — so her mom was a busy little elf self. She could be seen on any given night covered in flour and wearing old, but clean, underwear or “gotchies” on her head. Don’t ask; it was part of the tradition. Carolyn’s brother John would stop by regularly to check on the status of these meat treats. 

On Christmas Eve, Carolyn and I were given the responsibility of going to St. Josephat’s, the local Catholic Church, to pick up the “Oplatki,” beautifully pressed Christmas wafers depicting scenes of the Nativity. 

Tradition ruled Christmas Eve dinner: We took our seats being careful not to kick the hay that was stacked under the table to receive the baby Jesus in the middle of the night. There was the passing of the Oplatki and a forehead blessing by the matriarch in the sign of the cross made in honey. Sweet, but I never learned what that ritual was about aside from sticking my bangs to my forehead. 

After a decade of participating and appreciating the effort of this tradition, I decided to give back and film the event. I would use my Christmas gift to Carolyn that year — a brand-new movie camera. It was 1979 and dinner this year was at her home. 

I became Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna character, interviewing everyone in the family. The big interview with Mrs. C. followed a presentation of a pair of starched white boxers to replace the less than fashionable pair she wore annually on her head. How does one starch boxers for one’s head? I relied upon my mother’s can of Niagara Spray Starch and was not disappointed — a pair of boy’s boxers did the trick! 

While the kids anticipated hoofs on the roof, Carolyn and I could hardly wait for the arrival of her Uncle Stevie. He was the family jokester and storyteller extraordinaire. With the backdrop of the TV yule log burning on WPIX — who needed wood when Channel 11 had a fire fit for a holiday — Stevie would regale us with stories of growing up with Carolyn’s mother in rural Pennsylvania. His quirky stories always involved colorful childhood characters who reminded me of real-life Peanuts characters, and while it was almost impossible to follow his tales, it was also impossible not to laugh.

This annual rite was a noisy experience filled with love and laughter and featuring the once-a-year specialties, including some strange concoction made from sauerkraut and beans I successfully avoided for all those years. I can hear Uncle Stevie now: “Hey Annie, have you posted the ‘eat at your own risk’ signs? Has the fire department been dispatched?” His colorful commentary was unique. 

Dinner was a circus, but a wonderful, loving, holiday circus. Absent were the fear and tears that often consumed my home at the holidays. I had come to know joy in my best friend’s home.

There was one last tradition as we grew older: Carolyn and I wrote missives in our Christmas cards as though we had not seen each other almost every day of the preceding year. I did not respect the words back then, and I now regret not keeping every one of them. 

I lost my best friend many years ago, but never does a Christmas pass that I do not think of the joy-filled memories of Christmas Carolyn.

 

 


Patricia E. Shevlin splits her time between East Hampton and New York City. Her work has appeared previously in the The Star.  Her passions are her garden, photography, writing, and entertaining family and friends.