The following is based on true events — it really happened. Today’s post is a tradition of sorts for people who have been reading me for any amount of time. I usually post it on Christmas Eve (Noche Buena), but I’m posting it a little earlier this year. What’s interesting is that when I first showed this story to my family, some had forgotten that it ever happened! One of my sisters cried reading this, remembering the events. My mother too. For me, I’ve never forgotten the lessons of that time, shaping, as it has, the way I look at the world. It’s funny the things we remember…
Sometimes things happen in your life that affects forever the very way you perceive reality. Some events are negative, acting as baggage for all your later interactions. Others are life-changing epiphanies that work to make life joyful.
Which ones do you cling to?
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-=[ The Empty Boxes: A Nuyorican Christmas Story ]=-
“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
— Albert Camus
“People often grudge others what they cannot enjoy themselves.”
— Aesop (620–560 BC)
It was a year I would never forget: I was about 16, in the process of reading every “great book” ever written, helping put out an underground newspaper, and full of life (and hormones!). My sisters (to my delight) had many beautiful friends and our home was the center of activities for our vast network of friends and family. It was a time of change and turmoil: the Vietnam War still raged and it seemed as if all the institutions we took for granted — marriage and gender roles, the meaning of freedom — were being questioned, up for grabs. The strategies used by African-Americans and Latino/as in the struggle for Human Rights were being borrowed by a wide range of groups: women were burning their bras and Gays were marching for their rights. In short, it was a time for change and the times, as the song stated, were a’achangin’.
This particular year, however, was a difficult one for my family: our stepfather was arrested and sentenced to a year in jail because of a scuffle with police. He was our breadwinner and that meant that our main source of income was gone. Compounding our financial difficulties was our mother’s pregnancy, she would eventually give birth to our youngest brother, Vincent, the following June.
As the oldest child, I had always felt a deep sense to protect my mother and siblings. I had to grow up pretty quick because it was expected of me to be more than a big brother, I had to be the power of example for my younger siblings. Somehow, I felt I should be doing something to contribute and it was frustrating. What disturbed me the most, however, was when I caught my mother crying. Though I always resented having to be the adult in my interactions with my mother, my mother was nevertheless a strong woman who managed to make her place in a world that was both hostile and violent towards her. If she was despairing that meant things were really screwed up.
My sisters and I helped by working at a local supermarket after school. I worked delivering groceries and my sisters staffed the cash registers. Of course, me being the radical in the house, I was promptly fired for calling the owner an Uncle Tom and an oppressor of his own people. Sometimes we would get our groceries because my sisters would not charge up the register when my mother shopped. Things got worse at the onset of the holidays. We called a family meeting and we all agreed that, with the exception of our youngest brother, Edgar (who was eight), we would forego gifts for Christmas. My mother wasn’t able to cope with the financial hardship too well and it pushed her to her dark side, often succumbing to bouts of sadness interspersed with rage.
We made do just as many other poor families did at that time: welfare augmented by small-scale attempts at entrepreneurship. Sometimes my mother would buy a bottle of rum, for example, and raffle it off at the Bingo parlor: if everyone paid in a dollar, she would be able to earn a profit and still offer a decent prize. We also had an extended family and they would help as best they could, though they too were often financially extended and living from paycheck to paycheck.
In short, it was getting to be a sad holiday season. The house became less full, our situation served as a basis for shame and we all dropped off our activities with our friends and the ensuing quiet was disturbing. Then one day, the Friday after Thanksgiving, we took out the old artificial tree. We all share a warped sense of humor and my sisters and I started joking about how lonely the tree would look without any gifts. Soon we were cracking each other up, trying to out do each other by coming up with the most twisted reason why we should, or shouldn’t, put up the Christmas tree.
In the end, we decided to put it up and, while playing traditional Puerto Rican Christmas songs, we slowly got into the spirit of things. Soon enough, the house rang out with laughter and song and friends were called up to come and help. I don’t know if my perception is clouded by bias or the passage of time, but I swear that that old tree never looked so beautiful. We really put our creative energies into fixing up the house too: we gift wrapped doors, put up mistletoes, strung lights on the windows – we created the best display on that Brooklyn block.
However, we all laughed because the tree did look “lonely” or bare, without gifts. So someone, one of my sisters I think, came up with the idea of collecting empty boxes and wrapping them up as gifts. Of course, as is usual in the Rosario household, we took it to an extreme: our rather large tree was soon dwarfed by a mountain of elegantly wrapped “gifts.” People would visit us and comment on how “beautiful” the tree was and we would secretly laugh because we knew they were only saying that in part because of the many “gifts.”
It was our own little private joke.
I have to admit that, while things were extremely difficult that year, I can’t remember a more joyful holiday season. Soon the house sang once again with the sound of young people engaged in the daily activities of life. We came to believe that the tree radiated joy and that it attracted people and it was true that many people would come and visit. I guess maybe everyone else was having a hard time and the joy in our house was sort of like a warm fire to ward off the chill of winter in America. The tree became almost like another family member that we tended to and nurtured. People would visit and you could tell immediately that the joy was infectious. The “joke” was a constant source for new comedic material and we would create even more elaborate “gifts” to put at the base of that tree.
Nuyoricans celebrate Christmas Eve – Noche Buena. Christmas day is for the kids and for the adults to nurse hangovers. That year, a huge Christmas Eve party, attended by everybody-and-their-mother, capped that holiday season. The owner of the supermarket where my sisters worked contributed the ingredients so that my mother could make her famous pasteles (a Puerto Rican meat dish). All our friends and family attended and the party lasted well into Christmas morning. I don’t think it snowed that Christmas, but I remember that that party became the basis for several legends – a storytime delight to be recounted for years to come. It became a marker for community events as in BC and AD: Before and After the “Christmas Party.”
The party itself was rambunctious – more rambunctious than normal. The reason why poor people can party is because they know all too intimately the ups and downs of life and whenever the opportunity arises, they party with an almost religious fervor. Of course, there was plenty of drama that Christmas Eve. Someone was caught playing his wife dirty, a woman was accused of being a husband stealer, old jealousies and rivalries were re-ignited, and quite a few made fools of themselves. There was my step father’s aunt, who insisted on flashing her panties at everyone and poor old Frito who would never live down the fact that he got so drunk he pissed on himself.
In short, a good time was had by all.
Finally, Christmas morning came, and it was time to clean up the house and dispose of all the “gifts.” I began collecting all the empty boxes to throw them out, but our mother stopped me.
“You can’t throw out the boxes!” she yelled out, an alarming note of hysteria in her voice.
We looked at her and decided she finally lost it, but then we saw the smile on her lips. We had to tear through all the empty boxes in order to find the real gifts my mother had embedded into that huge pile. I will never forget my gift that year though I have had many richer Christmas’ since: it was a digital watch with an LED readout which were fairly new and trendy at the time. I know it didn’t cost much, maybe $5, but I wore that watch for a long time and treasured it dearly.
Why write about this, you ask?
Well, for one thing, the experience taught me a lesson that was the greatest Christmas gift of all: that you always have a choice with how to respond to adversity. Yes, the fact remained that we sometimes were hungry and our clothes weren’t the best. There were times we couldn’t afford nice clothes or even the basic school supplies. However, we learned to face these hardships with humor and strength of character. That year could easily have been much worse, but facing our hardships in a realistic but joyful way – that would stay with me for the rest of my life. For me, this is the taste of life itself.
The One Taste.
So, when you see me smiling, try to remember where that smile comes from: it comes from the knowledge that the material gifts are in and of themselves usually empty. I smile because I know the pretty boxes are empty but my heart is full…
Merry Christmas! May you all know true happiness!
— Eddie © 2003
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[I once got this story in an email forward! The above is an edited version of a story from my unpublished memoir tentatively titled, 704 E. 5th St.: Ataque de Nervios and Other Stories. Please, if you feel moved to share this story, feel free to do so, but I ask that you attribute the story appropriately – with my name attached. Otherwise, I will have to sue your broke ass! LMAO!]