When you’re Jewish, and your childhood Christmases are largely spent at home in front of the television, the few excellent December 25s stand out.
So here’s the one that stands out …
I’m 9. Maybe 10. We live on Emerald Lane in Mahopac, N.Y. At some point in the morning I get a call from Dennis Gargano, my friend who resides two houses up the street. “You wanna come over and play with my new toys?” he asks.
Hell yeah, do I!
“Mom, can I go over to Dennis’ house?”
She thinks it’s a bad idea. We’re Jewish—Christmas isn’t our holiday. I tell her Dennis called me. Mom asks Dad, who is likely napping on the couch. He nods, and before minds can be changed I’m out the door, sprinting the 150 yards. The Garganos live in a squash-yellow home with dark shutters. I knock on the door, and Mrs. Gargano opens.
I’m welcomed inside. Warmly. A large tree—trimmings aplenty—rises from the corner. Everything smells of honey and meat. Mr. Gargano is on the couch, smoking cigarettes and drinking Coca Cola. Mrs. Gargano’s mother—white haired, quiet—sits on a rocking chair. John and Donna, Dennis’ siblings, are rummaging through their new goods. Dennis is hooking up his out-of-the-box Atari 2600. The kitchen is bustling—unfamiliar faces creating holiday delicacies. And I am greeted by Uncle Gerald, who I know only as “Uncle Gerald”—Mrs. Gargano’s brother.
I’ve met Uncle Gerald two or three times before, and he’s always this bundle of energy, enthusiasm, affection. He invites me into the kitchen, shows me all the food being made, offers me a plate of this, of that, of that, of this. I hang out for, oh, an hour—my mom’s warning (“Don’t stay too long!”) dangling in my mind. Finally, hopped up on candy and exhausted from Asteroids and Space Invaders, I thank everyone for their kindness and slip on my jacket.
Before I can leave, Uncle Gerald calls me back to the kitchen. He hands me some sliced ham, wrapped in tin foil, and encourages me to take it home and enjoy.
I don’t have the heart to tell him we’re kosher.
Twenty seven years ago, Uncle Gerald was sitting in the passenger seat of a car as it drove through New Jersey. The vehicle somehow went out of control, and he was killed on impact. He was 50, and left behind a mother, a brother, a sister. On Fordham’s campus, the Gerald Quinn Library was named in his honor.
I’ve never told this to anyone, but every Christmas I think warmly of Uncle Gerald, and the kindness he showed a Jewish kid from down the block.
I think of the tin foil-wrapped ham.