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With Help From Neighbors, A Struggling Family Starts A Holiday Tradition

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Living in poverty can generate stories of kindness, a certain quality of which—I imagine—cannot be experienced by even the slightly well-to-do. As a child, I was struck by my mother’s accounts of her family’s meager Christmases, which colored my sense of the meaning of the holiday. But for a middle-class, second-generation American child, those images—though lasting—could be, at best, a mere copy of the original.

My mother, Rose Vettraino, grew up in the 1920’s, Rosina Fucinari, the third of six children of southern Italian immigrants living on St. Joseph Street in Detroit, Michigan. They were good Catholics; Christmas was a time of religious observance and not what we think of today as celebration. Though her mother masterfully prepared traditional Italian dishes for the holidays, to her father, Christmas trees, decorations, and gifts were an inconceivable extravagance. As for my mother and her siblings, the trappings of Christmas amounted to what the Goodfellows wagon delivered on a few Christmas mornings:

Six children crowded in the window each year, noses pressed up against the glass, to wait and see if their house was on the driver’s list. If so, each child would receive a red and green box, inside which he or she would find the following: a doll or a toy, a pair of cotton stockings or socks, perhaps a sweater or undergarment, a gift certificate for what my Aunt Esther recalls as an “ugly but well-made” pair of school shoes, and a little box of Sander’s hard candy. And the way my mom tells it, they were just thrilled.

But none of that happened until my mother was, herself, old enough to write to the Goodfellows and ask to have her family put on the list. Until then, there were no red and green boxes, no dolls, not even an ugly pair of school shoes. In fact, my mother’s earliest memory of holiday kindness was given her by the Spezia family, from northern Italy, who lived two doors down and owned one of only two cars in the neighborhood:

One Christmas they brought home a tree too tall to fit in their living room. So they cut off the top and delivered it, along with a few simple ornaments, to my mother’s family. Not wishing to insult their well-reputed neighbors, her father had no choice but to accept the offering. (I can only imagine the excitement that must have filled the house for having their very first Christmas tree, tiny branch though it was.) And it didn’t end there; while the children were still young, the Spezia family continued the practice of bringing home too-tall Christmas trees so that they could lob off the top and bring it to the Fucinari children.

While accepting of this kind gesture, my grandfather’s attitude toward celebrating Christmas changed little. As the children grew, the household reverted back to a quiet, tree-less and undecorated holiday.

Then, some years later, my mother would conspire with her older brother, Guido, to bring Christmas back into the house.

By walking to school, they saved up the bus nickels their father had given them until, finally, Guido had enough to purchase a little Christmas tree while my mother went to the store for some bulbs. Resting on the sofa as my mother attempted to sneak by him with her bag of dime-store ornaments, her father said nothing, allowing them to erect a Christmas tree of their own for the first time in their lives. Thus, the kindness of his silence conspired with them. Guido and Rose went about the business of decorating the tree without a word, having begun what became a holiday tradition in the Fucinari household every year thereafter.  

Kindness may spring from charity, spontaneity, thoughtfulness. But the most surprising gesture of kindness, and which finally said so much to my mother, came—after a long period of ripening—without word or deed.

Story submitted by Camille V.
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