I am not ready for Christmas until the manger scenes are unwrapped and assembled. It’s a tradition that began in the late 50’s in Dad’s first post, Caracas, the first of the three Catholic countries we called home in which the creche is the center of Christmas commemorations. During the early 60’s in Italy, our presepio collection grew to include shepherds, farm animals, bridges, elements of an entire diorama that took us hours to create: newspaper hills covered in moss, streams of tin foil, the place at the edge of the scene from which my sister and I would progress the Wise Men, clay step by clay step, until they arrived to give the baby their gifts on January 7.
But there’s another thing I’ve done this year that takes me back to Milan, Italy at the holidays. Our daughter is coming to stay with us for a few days, during which the guest bathroom will be hers. She tends to hang a towel over the window for a bit more privacy. I’ve come up with something better: Christmas paper. And here’s why.
It is December 31, 1959. Two months ago, we left the only home my sister and I had known, in Caracas, to travel to Milan, Dad’s second post. I’ve just turned five, my sister Susie is about to turn three, and after a long stay at a residence hotel, (pensione), we have found an apartment… From THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE & OTHER TRUE STORIES (unpublished).
After three weeks of pounding the pavement in and out of downtown Milan apartment buildings, Mom and Dad taking turns at looking with one of us in hand, it had been Dad and I that had found a second floor apartment that was just being finished. We left the pensione and moved in on New Year’s Eve. It was Susie’s third birthday.
Dad had managed to get a couple of mattresses out of the moving crates but everything else was still packed away. Mom drew herself up, determined to find a workaround for what was otherwise a pretty sad occasion. She left Dad in charge of us in the empty apartment and went down to the corner pasticceria, returning with a bundle of tramezzini, small multilayered sandwiches wrapped in white waxy paper and special enough for Birthday Dinner. She pulled three candles out from her purse and Dad lit them. We sang Feliz Cumpleaños and Susie blew her candles
“Isn’t it nice to be done with the pensione?” Mom said as she pulled the candles out of the panini. “New Year. New home.”
“And with a kitchen for birthday celebrations,” Dad said. “We found a great spot, didn’t we, Janie,” Dad said.
My mouth was full of prosciutto and mortadella. “Uh huh.” Even though we were still right in the middle of Milano, there was a big park across the street and a huge terrace outside of Mom and Dad’s room where I maybe could feed pigeons like in the Piazza del Duomo. Dad could still walk to work. There were two bathrooms and Susie and I each had a bedroom. I wished I felt old enough to want to be alone.
“Glad to be at home, again,” Mom said. Traffic noises rose off the street like a cloud. We had more windows than the pensione. “And I think it’s bedtime for you girls.”
I hopped off my chair. “Night, Daddy.”
“Night, Daddy.” Susie kissed Daddy.
“Buon Compleanno,” Dad said. “And Buon Anno.”
That’s what the lady at the pensione had said as we left with our suitcases. “Buon Anno,” I repeated.
“I’ll be by to tuck you in,” Mom said.
I let Susie brush her teeth first, sort of a birthday present. She walked down the hall to her room, and I finished up. The brand new sheets and blankets from Cim were cool and smooth on the tips of my toes. I heard Mom and Susie saying the bedtime prayer.
“All set?” Mom said as she walked in and sat on the foot of my bed. “That was sort of a strange birthday and New Year’s Eve party, wasn’t it?”
“I liked it.”
“Good,” Mom said. “And tomorrow we’ll start finding you a great school.” I had gone to Kinder Mickey in Caracas three days a week. There were puppet shows and my own friends that I didn’t have to share with anybody. “Okay.” Mom nodded.
That was the cue. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, When I wake up in the morning light, I’ll do my best with all my might. Amen.” Mom kiss. Light off. She left my door open a crack.
But my room wasn’t dark. My door, and every door in the apartment, was made of smoky glass, so I had as a wonderful night light the kitchen and living room lights, as well as the the street lamps outside the living room windows. Mom and Dad’s quiet conversation lulled me into sleep. As I drifted off, I knew that Susie and her nighnee blanket would sleep happier in the brightness, too.
I was startled awake by car horns and a loud boom, and then another. “Mommy!”
A whole lot of something clattered to the street.
Susie yelled, “Mommy!”
“It’s just New Years, girls,” Mom called from the living room. “Fireworks, just like in Caracas.”
A flash at my window caught my eye, followed by more clattering and a thud. A mattress whooshed by.
“And old pots and pans, and old furniture,” Dad called. “Italian style celebration.”
“Go back to sleep,” Mom said.
I decided to stay awake like a grown up and listen to my parents’ conversation. I snuck to my door and opened it a big crack and then lay at the foot of my bed with my pillow under my feet.
“Big noises, but no revolutions here,” Dad was saying.
“Gosh, once was enough,” Mom said. “Remember how nervous Fina was? I hope we can find someone like her to help us here,” Mom said. “She’s going to be hard to beat.”
“You helped her become part of our household, Nan. I know you will do it again. And I think our social calendar will be a lot quieter, what with the small diplomatic presence here. It’s not quite the young friendly group of Embassy friends we left behind.”
“No,” Mom said. “Not at all.”
It was quiet for a while. I heard them walk toward their bedroom, and one of them closed my door as they passed.
“Oh, good grief!”
I guessed Mom had figured out just how bright these doors made our bedrooms at night. Right after breakfast the next day, she took out the Christmas paper she’d saved from our presents and we taped it over all the doors. That night, the Madonna and baby were in six places on my door, and my room glowed blue. When Rinascente opened after New Year’s Day, Mom got three more rolls of Christmas paper on sale and she taped a big sheet of German mountains and Christmas trees over the other side my door and silver and blue shiny paper on the back of all the other doors in the apartment.
It was like living in the Duomo, surrounded by stained glass windows and angels. I wondered if we were supposed to become Catholics, too. Maybe. It felt pretty good to me.