A black Christmas

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One of my favorite Christmas memories is the year a white Christmas turned black.

It all started out on Christmas Eve day in Riis Park, a square-block-sized patch of recreational outlets plunked in the middle of our Chicago neighborhood. I tagged along with my two older brothers to go ice-skating in the portion of the park that was flooded each year to create a sort of ice rink. While my brothers played hockey, I was left to work out the rudiments of ice skating on my own. Being only 5 or so years old, that wasn’t easy.

What made it particularly difficult was that my ice skates were way too big for me. The “He’ll grow into it” philosophy was indelibly imprinted into our family’s culture and probably dated back to the Stone Age, when my Italian forebears passed loincloths from child to child and then from grandchild to grandchild. In the present epoch, circa 1950s, my ice skates, like all my clothes, descended from my brothers and even my cousins before that.

Whatever the provenance of my ice skates, they had clearly seen better days. Just as many of the clothes I wore could be described as threadbare, my skates could be described as leather bare.

As I circled the Riis Park ice rink, the problem wasn’t so much the advanced age of my skates but rather their size. They were so loose on my feet that my ankles twisted to their sides. I remember the pronation being so extreme that I skated more on the leather than on the blades.

Although my spirit was willing, my young ankles weren’t. So after only a few wobbling circles of the rink, I gave up on skating. I plopped down on a park bench and pulled off my skates without having to untie them. Turning my attention to my brothers’ hockey game, I noticed a man walking toward me with a pair of white ice skates dangling from his hand.

“Hey, kid,” he said, “do you want these skates? I’m giving my daughter a new pair for Christmas. Do you have a sister you can give these to?”

Actually, I did, but my new baby sister, Irene, was only a few months old. But given the “He’ll grow into it” philosophy that was already ingrained in me, I was smart enough to conclude that “She’ll grow into it” was an apt corollary.

So I quickly replied, “Sure, my sis will love them!”

“OK then, they’re all yours. Hope she likes them,” he said.

Seeing the scene in my mind now, the expression on the man’s face as he handed me the skates made clear his satisfaction at turning surplus skates into a good deed.

He turned and was some distance away before I got my wits about me and hollered out, “Thanks, Mister!”

I put on the gleaming white skates and laced them up. They fit perfectly. All I could think of is what kind of family can give what appeared to me to be almost brand-new skates to a total stranger rather than keep them for their own progeny. This was perhaps my first lesson into the peculiar habits of rich people.

Nearing home, I rushed ahead of my brothers and burst through the back door to give the newfound members of our family to my mom.

“What beautiful skates!” she exclaimed. Studying them with her milliner’s aesthetic eye, she added, “They will be perfect for your sister in a few years. Too bad they’re white, Jimmy. It looks like they’d fit you perfectly.” Cradling the skates in her arms, she hurried toward the hallowed cedar chest that served as our family’s clothing vault.

I watched all this thinking that my new baby sister, who was already getting all the attention in the family, would someday be presented with a pair of ice skates that not only were virtually new but also would also fit, maybe a first for our family.

Christmas morning was always special in our family. I would be wakened early by the sounds of my Nonna bustling around the kitchen, making ravioli, adding her tasty Italian sausage stuffing to the turkey and baking her special cookies — biscotti di cannella.

As the sweet smell of the baking biscotti wafted from the kitchen, we excitedly tore through our Christmas gifts. After they all were opened, my father handed me a last gift. His eyes twinkled as I excitedly tore away the wrapping paper made from the funny pages of last Sunday’s newspaper. Images of “Terry and the Pirates,” “Dick Tracy” and “Little Orphan Annie” gave way, revealing a wonderful gift.

There before my eyes was a pair of gleaming black ice skates, oddly with white laces. Looking from the skates to my dad, I saw a proud smile on his face. Then, I saw that his fingers were all stained black, not just any black but the same black on the ice skates I was holding. It was pretty obvious, even to a 5 year old, that these skates weren’t from Santa. They didn’t start out in the North Pole. They weren’t the handiwork of a jolly old man and his elves. They were from my dad.

Some 65 years later, I still remember my holiday joy in connecting two observations: blackened hands and blackened ice skates.

My dad sacrificed so much for the ones he loved. After immigrating with his family from Brienza, Italy, he had to quit high school to help his parents out. He devoted the rest of his life working as a shoe salesman to make sure his children would have the opportunities he never had.

Yet, as I think back on his loving devotion to his family and the countless sacrifices he made along the way, the Christmas memory of my dad that stands out among all others is imagining him happily toiling away in the basement — applying black boot dye to a pair of skates — all so that his son, Jimmy, would have his first “new” pair of ice skates.

James Doti is president emeritus and professor of economics at Chapman University.

The above appears in the November 2018 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

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