Tag Archives: family

MY LIFE OF CRIME & PUNISHMENT

Marguerite Quantaine


The first thing I ever did to indicate the direction I was heading resulted from letting my kid sister, Kate, annoy me. I was 3.3 at the time and tiny for my age; she was a martinet of 2 and already bigger and brighter than me.
     We lived in a drafty 19th century farmhouse on the brick street of a south side neighborhood in a small midwestern town back then, where her crib sat in my parents bedroom, being used one night to corral us while company visited.
     It was late. We were lying back-to-back. I was weary and wanting to sleep. She was incessantly demanding that I “Get out! Get out! Get out! Get out!” of her bed until I got fed up and gave her a reason to bellyache.
     I peed on her.
     That was my crime.
As punishment, every person Kate introduced me to from that night onward included the preamble, “This is my sister, Margie. When we were kids she peed on me,” invariably prompting the retelling of our toddler turf war.
     The last time she introduced me was to her late shift hospice nurse in May of 2015. It’s allowed her to maintain the upper hand on my heart, forevermore.

~
When I was not quite five I crossed a busy street in the middle of the block after being warned never to do so.
     That was my crime.
     As punishment I was, first, hit by a taxicab, and then vilified by my kindergarten teacher, Miss Beech, for losing the school’s celebrated green-and-white stick figure safety flag awarded to the most accident-free district. I spent all of kindergarten, first, and much of second grade shunned.
     The alienation ended when we moved from our neighborhood into the school district that was presented the prestigious safety flag after my mishap.

~

In junior high school my best friend was Beverly Brown. During the summer of 1959 we’d frequent the Bloomfield Elementary School playground where all the neighborhood kids hung out.
     One day I discovered the basement door to the school was left open. Upon further exploration, I found I could easily walk through the door of the humongous furnace, and crawl through the boiler tunnels leading to classrooms located on the first and second floors.
     Inspired, I became an entrepreneur as The Bloomfield Boiler Guide charging a quarter per tour, commencing with a Cokes & Chips Party in the furnace chamber while whistling to Mitch Miller’s The River Kwai blaring repetitively on Bev’s Stromburg Carlson portable record player. 
     That was my crime.
     At the end of the first tour we were, one-by-one, greeted by police officers as we gaily emerged from the furnace and transported by patrol cars, sirens screaming all the way to the joint where we were sentenced to sit on hard benches behind bars until parents arrived to spring us.
That was my punishment.
     Bev’s were there within minutes. Mine never came.
     After six hours, a change in shift occurred and I was released to walk home feeling my claim to chain gang fame crumble.
    
~

At age 14, I forged my parents signatures to wangle a coveted 40 hour a week job working 5 hour weeknights and 15 hour Saturdays as the record department sales and inventory control clerk at Hopkins, the most popular electronics store in town.
     The Hopkins family consisted of the Magooish father, Robert, Sr., who was obsessed with soybeans, and two feuding brothers, Motorola Bob and Prince John, the latter being a local disc jockey who depended on me to choose the best of the latest released demo records arriving daily in the mail for playing on his prime time show. All three men were members of the Kiwanis Club which placed a freestanding, glass globe, stainless steel Ford Gumball machine at the entrance to my music department.
     Ford gumballs came in pristine white, cadmium yellow, royal blue, Pepto pink, and verdant green, each with a fiend thirsty flavor cementing a brisk business as the best penny chews of the 50s and 60s.
     Back then, 45 RPM records were a buck plus one cent tax the dollar, so Magoo kept plenty of pennies on the top of the cash register to pay the tax for any customer short of change.
     As it so happened, I was addicted to Ford gumballs.
     That was my crime.
     I used the freebie pennies and a few from the till to treat my multi-record buying customers to a free gumball without thinking to inform the trio.
     Many miles and decades later I learned the missing cents — sometimes as many as 20 a day — were wreaking havoc each evening when Motorola cashed out the register and came up short against the receipts. He swore Prince was stealing change to keep the books from ever balancing. The discourse turned so beastly between accusations and denials that one day Prince packed up and moved his family to Texas.
     My punishment was in learning I was the trigger, much too late.
     Not that Motorola would have admitted any error, and not that Prince would have accepted any apology, and not that Magoo cared beyond the ticker tape apparatus (next to the gumball machine) operating 24/7/365 tracking the soy bean market.
~
As a corporate executive in New York City for the designer line of the largest provider of leisurewear in the nation, I’d occasionally gift a sample pair of pajamas, ‘borrowed’ from the showroom for delivery to a very wealthy friend who pestered me for a freebie each time she planned a new paramour sleepover.
     That was my crime.
     One day I was served with a subpoena to appear in court to testify as “the other women” in a high profile NYC divorce proceeding.
     It seems the wife of my friend’s lover had discovered her husband’s affair and promised not to divorce him as long as he told her the name of his mistress. Unbeknownst to me, my friend suggested her lover give the wife my name instead of hers, thereby allowing them to continue the affair without consequence.
     Hubby complied, never suspecting his wife would use the confession as proof of his infidelity, backfiring on all three of them once I was deposed.
     That wasn’t my punishment.
     That was my cure.
~

Life is a silver lining for those of us willing to scrape the surface of adversity.
     At five, I may not have grasped the words, but I already knew how oppression is forged from the indignation of adults. Being alienated taught me to observe more, listen closely, talk less, read well, recognize the treachery of language, and understand that bullying won’t be curtailed from the child up until it’s eradicated from the parent, down. Oh, and by the way, it doesn’t take getting hit in the head by a taxi cab to learn that.
     As for those in uniform, it’s true, I still challenge authority. But I never again broke into another school (unless you count the times I didn’t get caught), and I make every effort to shake the hand of all police officers I encounter, thanking them for their service while trying not to whistle The River Kwai as I work the crowd.
     Meanwhile, the mere mention of gumballs requires I battle temptations to buy a vintage Ford machine on eBay as a tribute to Motorola, Prince and Magoo who taught me the invaluable skills that eventually landed me a job in Manhattan where I sang New York, New York with gusto after turning the head of Ol’ Blue Eyes when we passed as strangers in the night outside the 21 Club.    
     Which takes me to the brink of divorce court with one of the most interesting and exciting bad influences I ever had the endless pleasure of knowing — and leaves me within the aura of my sister, Kate, who remained my loyal partner in crime and laughter for the balance of her life.
     Sleep sweet my peep.

# # #

Copyright Marguerite Quantaine © 2017
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I’m all eyes and heart.
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Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist and author.
Her novel, Imogene’s Eloise : Inspired by a true-love story
is available on AMAZON, in paperback and Kindle. Please choose LOOK INSIDE
for a free read of several chapters before you consider buying.

ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS

final-xmas-tags
MAY THE SPIRIT OF THE SEASON
Fill you with the awe of a child,
the serenity of feeling loved,
the courage of a feral cat,
the gratitude of a rescued dog,
the joy of a songbird,
& the hope of another day
to get it right,
do it better,
& say what’s in your heart
to all those you hold dear.
.
Happy Holly Days
My Sweet Peeps!

.
Marguerite & Elizabeth
#UpToSomethingSince1970
.
McQ©2014-2016

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SEEING RED

blogshot

My mom hated to have her hair touched. It prompted her to enroll in beauty school for the sole purpose of learning the best way to style and care for her own thick, black, naturally curly locks. I still have the leather bound 1930s textbook from her beauty school days that she abandoned upon deciding to coil her hair and pin it atop her head like a crown of glory. It was very attractive, even enviable, and she never fashioned her hair differently from then on until the day she died, decades later, three weeks shy of age ninety-three

     I suppose that’s why it came as no surprise in the summer of 1958 — when I was still eleven with shades of natural auburn and blonde streaking throughout my wispy thin, straight as straw, mostly mousey brown hair — that mom suggested I choose one of the three colors and dye it.

     I chose auburn; Clairol’s Sparkling Sherry to be exact. It perfectly matched my auburn undertones and duplicated the color my older sister, Sue, chose to dye her hair a year earlier. It cost 85¢ for a glass bottle of the dye and another 25¢ for a bottle of peroxide. You mixed them before applying, waited 45 minutes, and then washed the residue out with Halo shampoo before rinsing with diluted Heinz red cider vinegar.

     “The dye coats each strand. It doubles the thickness of your hair,” Mom promised.

     “Do I still use vinegar?” I questioned, even though I already knew it untangled wet hair and kept it glossy.

     “It prevents the color from looking unnatural.”

     That fall I began the seventh grade as a redhead, just as Sue had the year before me. Whenever anyone asked us why our brother, Michael, had black hair we’d confess, “He dyes his.”

     The new school was larger with thousands of students. None of the kids I knew in elementary were in my classes, nor friends of mine in junior high. Consequently, everyone  I met from then and since has known me only as a redhead.

     That includes me.

     Because, even though Clariol has changed the names of their colors, I’ve remained true to those streaks of natural auburn chosen as a child and have never sought to discover the adult dominant color of my hair. Through junior and senior high and college, a stint as a kosher camp drama counselor, New York City careers, a Florida business,  and wherever I traveled or settled on living — once every month I’ve found a place to be alone for an hour for the solitary purpose of denial in dyeing.

     I’m 70 now. I have never let my hair grow out, but if I did, it would be an all-over silver — the same as it is at my temples — which I leave untouched so the age of my face won’t drastically contrast my crown, sporting a hairstyle I haven’t changed in decades.

     I am my mother’s daughter.

#   #   #

Marguerite Quantaine © 2016
.
Please feel free to  SHARE THIS on Facebook and Twitter,

and be certain to tell me your impressions by selecting REPLY

I’m all eyes and heart.

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Copyright by Marguerite Quantaine © 2016
.
.

Marguerite Quantaine is an essayist and author.
Her novel, Imogene’s Eloise : Inspired by a true-love story
is available on AMAZON, in paperback and Kindle.
Please choose LOOK INSIDE for a FREE
read of several chapters.

.

HAPPY TRAILS TO YOU . . .

Kate b:w

“You’re always a happy camper,” my kid sister, Kate, says to me, frequently. “Even from back when. I’ve seldom seen a photograph where you weren’t. Whereas, the rest of us…”  She sighs as her claim tapers off; the ‘rest of us’ being our four older siblings.

     I’m in her Florida home, fifty-eight miles southeast of mine, enjoying faded photographs of her and me during childhood, a monochrome to Kodachrome procession of us aging over the years, corralled in silver and brass frames crowding the desktop in her den.
     “You’re smiling in them, too,” I insist. 

     “But even when you aren’t you’re happy.”

She’s right. In every print I stand guilty as charged, picture-proof that regardless of the rocks life hurled at me, I caught them as stones and skimmed them as pebbles across a body of blue. Setbacks, solutions, and silver linings have ruled my world in that way.

     Kate triumphs, too; but does it differently. Unlike me, be it a word, a look, or an action, she wounds easily and holds onto the hurt as lifeblood. She can recite the time, place and reason for every slight she’s perceived from others, intentional, or not. She suffers the “slings and arrows” of both fortune and misfortune. Her self-esteem rarely rides on an even keel.

     Most of that is reflected in Kate’s self-deprecating sense of humor where she casts herself as the ugly duckling and also-ran. 

     Until she turned 12, she shadowed me like a stray puppy inviting approval — but as a tall teen, she began rolling her shoulders forward and slumping down to avoid attention. She took a back seat in all her outings with friends. She never challenged authority. She catered to the wishes of others. She refused to go to her junior prom with a boy she had a crush on unless I agreed to find a date and go with her. (I did.) She always worked harder to strive higher because she felt, in doing so, maybe, just maybe, someone would love her.

I don’t think she’s ever accepted that everyone does love her — not because she played a great game of league softball for nine years, or bested those at any table where board games ruled, or succeeded at every task she undertook, or graduated from college summa cum laude, or even when she became an executive at Columbia Pictures in Hollywood, rubbing elbows with celebrities, daily — but because she is without guile. She’s soft spoken and generous. She’s never late for anything, ever. She’s decisive and dependable. She is the first to answer the call, to offer her time, and provide for others whether asked of, or needed, or not.  Her meek demeanor matches her downy curls and wise eyes the color of a Russian Blue.

She’s also a coincidental copycat. Although Kate lived 3,000 miles away for a decade, she’d somehow manage to buy the same label slacks, sweaters, and shoes that I wore, paint her rooms the same colors as mine, be partial to the same movies and songs, plant the same flowers, and even managed to select the identical holiday cards for my mom, with both hers and mine delivered in the same mail, on the same days for seven years running. 

     When she moved to Florida eleven years ago, she arrived in the make and model of car I drove. Eventually, she gave me that car, and added my name to the title of her next one so I could have it someday, without any fuss.

     It’s what I’ll be driving, soon — and what I’m driving at.

     Kate visits regularly, making the trip from Deland to spend the day with her gal pal, my Elizabeth. They leave within moments after she arrives to scan pawn shops and scour garage sales, saying when they’ll be back bearing gifts, and what they want to eat upon return. I’m chief cook, baker, bottle washer and decider of the games we’ll play into the night. 

     Sometimes she stays over, but more often, twelve hours of each others company is one hour shy of perfection. Before she leaves we belt out a chorus of,  “Happy trails to you, until we meet again” as we did while in our matching cowgirl outfits, sitting on the floor in front of the Sylvania set during the 1950s, joining Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in their signature song.  Then I wait by the phone until she gets home and calls to say she’s safe and sound.

     My dear, sweet sister, Kate.

     So, imagine my surprise when, after a splendid celebration for her 67th birthday on January 22nd, followed by wishes exchanged for Valentine’s Day, and plans made for Elizabeth’s birthday on February 24th, she called to say, “I’ll be there. I’m looking forward to it. But…”
K&M& Andy Car

     She’d felt nauseous with a sharp pain in her side so, assuming it was her gallbladder, she visited the clinic, which ordered the ultrasound, that revealed the liver cancer. The following week an MRI found pancreatic and bile duct cancer. A PET scan upped the ante to bone and spinal column cancer, after blood tests confirmed it was everywhere.

     No, this is not the kind of diagnosis that responds to clinical trials, chemotherapy, or radiation. Hers is the type that robs you of 25 pounds in 25 days and makes you hope for enough time to get your affairs in order.

     Nothing seems real now. We act on automatic, listening to orders we don’t want to hear and filling out forms we’re forced into finishing, as if any of it matters more than these last precious days spent together.

     When she asks me to translate the results of her latest tests I relay a bowdlerized truth, and she listens with an editors ear, both of us trying to alter the inevitable.

     If it were me, there would be levity. 

Instead, it’s Kate, who counts on me to be there for a final cowgirl singalong.

     Yes, I smiled when she asked it of me.

     But I am not a happy camper.

#    #    #

Marguerite Quantaine © 2015

SECRETS & TIES

New Jane & Me

Marion Deyo didn’t start out as my friend, or exactly finish up that way. And yet, twenty years after our final exchange, the ending to our story still astounds me.

It will you, too.

We met in 1966, when I was a student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, desperately searching for a different dream. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy acting. I did. In fact, my audition instructor, the late great Jessica Tandy, said I had the natural talent to guarantee a bright future in the theater.

But I knew I didn’t have the personality for it — especially the New York City six-floor walkup, noisy neighbors, nasty bugs part. And, the menial labor between parts part. Or, the suck up and shut up part. The waiting for hours to audition with those who actually wanted to wait for hours to audition part. The desire for fame and fortune part. The tediousness of twiddling thumbs while slow learners remembered their lines part. The talk among actors about nothing but acting part. The throw momma under the bus to get the part part.

It’s why I applaud, but never become a fan of celebrities. I know how hard they worked to get to where they got. I know the bad choices they made. I know of their struggle to get by in the public eye. I know how self-destructive they become when disdaining fellow actors.

But I digress.

One Stouffer’s morning with hot buttered pecan roll and golden coffee in hand, an advertisment in The New York Times classifieds for a media clerk at a Fifth Avenue agency caught my eye. I didn’t know what the job entailed, but figured clerks keep records. Enough said.

Upon entering the office of the department head assigned to interview me, I zeroed in on her desktop nameplate: Marion Deyo.

The older woman (by 21 years) didn’t look up. She didn’t ask me to be seated. She didn’t make any attempt to put me at ease. She even forced me to introduce myself to the top of her bent down head, busily engaged in reading my job application.

“I’ve never heard of anyone with your last name,” she muttered.

“Oh yeah?” I snapped back. “Well I’ve never heard of anyone with your last name, either!” It was a pompous, knee-jerk reaction that I don’t know why I had since — then as now — I’ve yet to encounter a single person outside my immediate family who has my last name.

Suffice to say, the interview ended abruptly and I went on my Mary-quite-contrary way until a week later when I got an early bird phone call saying I was hired.

“How?” I asked. “And, why?”

“No one else applied for job,” replied the person who’d spend five minutes training me later that day.

Technically, Marion was my boss, but she never spoke to me, and made a point of ignoring me whenever we were in the same room, or passed each other in the hall.

Cue Ruth Ruffino (a fictitious name in this, otherwise, true story).

Ruth was a four-foot-eight gentile yenta with coal black hair to match her widow’s wear daily outfits. She had half-dollar size eyes, skin the color of Pattypan squash, and a passive-aggressive control freak personality that she conveyed through a chronically clogged nose. Ruth was just so transparent, so disingenuous, so cloying, so suffocating, so much the type of women I truly didn’t like a lot.

Nevertheless, Ruth was a popular little Miss nicey-nicey, chirpy-chirpy, brown-nosey to everyone, earning her favor by supplying our communal office of eight women with free donuts most mornings and coffee every afternoon.

The thing with women working shoulder-to-shoulder in one room is that their eyes are always peeled and ears cocked, providing the perfect stage and an instant audience for anyone enjoying fanfare, which Ruth invariably made whenever leaving me a box of candy, or personal note, or annoying tchotchke — then yelling from her desk, “Did you get the gift I left?”

Oh-h, I got it all right.

I just didn’t give it. I didn’t eat the donuts, or drink the coffee, or accept the gifts, or read the notes, or engage in conversation — even when she was hovering over me, talking at the top of her elastic sacs.

One day upon returning home from work I found flowers had been delivered, not by a florist, but by Ruth, personally, giving the bouquet and card to my landlord with her delivery instructions.

The next day, she crowed, “I was late to work yesterday morning because I rode all the way up town in order to deliver you flowers. Did you get them?”

“Yes,” I cawed back, “and assured the landlord the flowers were for him and I gave him your telephone number as you requested.”

Soon after, Marion summoned me into her office to tell me she was letting me go for causing too much trouble in her department.

To my chagrin and our surprise, I burst into tears, blubbering my side of the story from the minute Ruth laid eyes on me until my moment of breakdown before her.

Marion listened, stone-faced until I finished. Then she offered me a tissue and said she’d handle it — which she did. But she never said how, we never spoke of it again, and I wasn’t fired.

Hours later Ruth announced her engagement to a dweeby, much taller, older account executive who wore his suspendered pants up around his atrophied pecs; a bloke who’d been transferred to our Chicago office that very same day, taking Ruth to the windy city with him. The other communal room women shunned me afterwards.

Over the next six weeks I was assigned to a task no other employee (past or present) had been able to complete. I tackled it by initiating an unorthodox protocol, earning me a promotion and my own office.

Upon becoming Marion’s executive colleague, the walls came down. We sat together at department head meetings and lunched together regularly. She learned I was single and living in Manhattan. I learned she was single and living with her cousin on Long Island. The weekend she invited me out for a visit began a quintessential friendship lasting for years — right up until the day I discovered the two women weren’t cousins, but a couple.

I had an inkling, but I never completely understood why everything suddenly changed after that. Our daily routine ended abruptly. I ceased being invited to their home. Marion took another job at a different agency. Eventually, so would I.

Over time we continued to touch base, but seldom, until not at all.

I fell in love and my life took many dramatic turns. We ended up living in the same Long Island town as Marion and her partner. The company we launched and grew was in stark contrast to the enterprise they undertook. For fifteen years we rarely crossed paths. In 1990, we semiretired to Florida. They remained on Long Island.

Then in October of 1994 I had a premonition. It prompted me to write Marion a long letter saying how much I loved the two of them and always would. Essentially, I thanked Marion for being my friend and confidante during a still-single period of my life when I needed guidance and protection the most.

I mailed the letter. I don’t know for certain if she ever received it.

But a week or so afterwards, I began getting phone calls at odd hours of the day, at least once a week, from someone who just listened to my voice and stayed on the line for as long as a minute before hanging up.

I sensed it was Marion. It might have been her partner, but it felt like Marion.

Nearly five months later, in late February of 1995, the weekly phone calls mysteriously ceased. It wasn’t until May that her partner called to say Marion had passed away on February 28th.

I immediately got online and searched for her obituary. There wasn’t one — so I dug deeper.

This is all I ever found:

During the late 1600s, the first woman fleeing France to America with Marion’s last name married the first man fleeing France to America with my last name.

We shared their DNA.

Marion Deyo was my distant cousin.

# # #

Marguerite Quantaine Copyright © 2014

If you’re at all enchanted by this story, I promise you’ll be charmed by
Imogene’s Eloise: Inspired by a true-love story.

I welcome your feedback, so go ahead and let me have it by commenting here, or Liking and Sharing this on Facebook.

My heartfelt thanks to you and yours, now and always.

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ONE INCOMPARABLE CHRISTMAS

C L A N C Y

C L A N C Y

There was this dog we loved and lost on Christmas morning, 1951.

It changed everything.

We lived in a clapboard farmhouse then, built a hundred years earlier and insulated with Civil War era newspapers layered between the rafters and floorboards. It was a rickety-rackety place that sweltered in the summer and shivered in the winter when no amount of coal heaved into the basement furnace could sufficiently heat the cast iron radiators, or warm the boiler of bath water. The windows rasped with the wind, the floors creaked with the rain and the back door flew open unexpectedly.

“It’s just a spirit visiting,” mom would say, having given up on getting my father to replace the antiquated latch.

We were born in that house; three brothers, two sisters and I. Our childhood was spent clamoring up and down its winding stairs, playing board games on its covered porch, wishing on the first seen stars in the night sky from its roof, and never suspecting life would be any different than it was each day we were living it.

Advertised as a White Elephant for three thousand dollars with nothing down, my folks bought the house because it was the only place they could afford. Ours was a life of necessities: three meals a day, twice removed hand-me-downs, a block ice icebox, a single extension phone, broomstick horses, pillowcase capes, corrugated carton sleds and summer vacations camping in a W.W.II army surplus tent at state parks where mom boiled coffee and cooked meals over an open flame while we faux-fished with safety pins tied to kite string, scouted butterflies and floated on boats made from inner tubes wrapped in clotheslines to resemble canoes.

They were wondrous years made better by the presence of a ninth member of our family adopted on the morning of my birth. Her name was Clancy. She was our family dog.

“It’s written,” said my mother, “that the original Irish setter wasn’t the pure mahogany color we see now, but a burnished red with a snow white bib and matching diamond set in the center of its head.” Clancy was born with both and – even though we boasted about the markings of her ancient pedigree – we secretly believed she possessed the heart of an angel.

Clancy was our comrade and confidante. She accompanied us on errands and watched over us when chores needed doing. She got us to school on time and waited there to greet us at the end of each day. When we ate she sat near the table. When we bathed she stood near the tub.

When we read she rested her head at our feet. When we played she kept watch over our safety. Games were intensified by her barking approval, birthdays were celebrated with her howling accompaniment, sorrows were soothed by the gentle touch of her cold nose on salt-streaked cheeks and many a bitter winter night was made warm by her body filling the cold void at the bottom of one of our beds.

But my best memory of Clancy is of the Christmas morning in 1951 when we awoke to find her gone.

• • •

A fortnight before my father made his instructions clear. “Each of you is to make a list of everything you want for Christmas.”

“Everything?” I asked, eyes wide with surprise.

“What did I just say?”

I winced. My father was a disciplinarian who expected to be obeyed without question. That wasn’t hard, since he worked eighty miles away and often forgot to check for compliance whenever he came home on alternate weekends.

“Everything,” he reiterated, “no matter how ridiculous. Is that clear?” He stood glaring at our frozen forms before taking a Chesterfield from it’s crumple-pack, lighting it, removing a stray tobacco bit from the tip of his tongue and continuing on. “In one week you’ll each give me your list in an envelope with your name on it and I’ll mail them. Dismissed.”

My mom was as affectionate as my father was aloof. It was she who encouraged us to always make amends after arguments and share our few possessions.

“You six are the only people on earth you’ll ever know your entire lifetime,” she’d remind us. “Cherish that.”

What began with cooperative glee quickly turned into the drudgery of pencil shavings, eraser residue, wadded-up paper and the sweet smell of spent crayons. Each night before bedtime we’d meet to exchange ideas, promising no duplicates would be recorded and agreeing that the first person to list an item would own it and regulate borrowing times.

“It’s the perfect plan for maximizing returns,” the eldest of us assured.

“Who’s Max?” I asked.

“Just do as you’re told!” he demanded, knowing I rarely did.

During our final review of lists I noticed my brother Kit had added a P.S. to his. “Dear Santa Claus,” he wrote, “I’m tired of sharing Clancy. Please bring me a puppy.”

Certain I was the only sibling who felt the same, I promptly drew a puppy on my list.

The next morning our signed letters in sealed envelopes were handed over. As we stood at attention accepting praise from my father for this mission accomplished, none of us knew that each of us copied the request for a puppy originated by Kit.

• • •

Every Christmas Eve Clancy accompanied us on our journey to find the sweet smelling blue spruce my father had tagged in a tree camp, chop it down with a Boy Scout axe, tie it to the roof of our maroon Ford station wagon and cart it home for trimming to the sound of carols playing on the Victrola and the comfort of Big Top peanut butter on toast dunked in mugs of Ovaltine. The trips were always cold and cramped and ripe for disagreement, but especially so that year when the predicted ‘light flurries’ became a heavier downfall. Even Clancy was agitated. She wailed with the whipping wind all the way home.

Tree trimming included hanging aluminum-hinged Shiny Brite glass ornaments, thumb thick multicolored Royalites, peppermint canes, silver tinsel and a garland of popcorn and cranberries draped under a white plastic angel with spun glass hair and a die-cut skirt of stars that glowed from a small yellow bulb tucked inside.

That angel was near and dear to my mom. Each year she watched my father teeter on a chair to place it on the treetop, signaling our time for bed. On the way upstairs we’d stop at our red brick cardboard fireplace to thumbtack our stockings to its flimsy black mantle where mom had balanced a glass of milk, molasses cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer.

Even though Clancy scratched at each of our bedroom doors, no love would jump onto our beds to guard our hearts that fateful night. We all ignored her pleas by forgetting her faithfulness, preferring the promise of a puppy.

• • •

A blizzard engulfed the house while we slept. The weight of its drifts barricaded the downstairs windows and forced open the back door.

Most mornings, the first boy up would check the fire in the furnace and shovel in more coal as needed. By the time he finished, the gas stove would be warming the kitchen and momma would have oatmeal ready to quell our chant, “Food for the inner-man!”

But that Christmas morning was different.

We six awoke and sprang from our beds as one, fueled by anticipation and oblivious to the unusual cold as we felt our way down the darkened stairs, huddling close until Kit flipped the switch turning on the overhead globe and illuminating a living room piled high with gifts.

There were bikes and baseball mitts, sleds and skates, trumpets and teddy bears, dolls and drums, trains and planes, chemistry sets and butterfly nets, kites and cowboy hats, battery operated cars and trucks, books and balls, and clothes and caps arranged around our very first television set!

It was as if all my wishes on first seen stars had been granted in one felt swoop and – by possession of them – I’d never again enjoy the luxury of wishful thinking.

My siblings sensed it, too. Somehow we knew we’d committed the crime of excess; having everything we’d ever imagined as glorious within our reach. And yet – instead of joy – we felt a collective emptiness.

“Where’s Clancy?” I wondered aloud, not noticing the absence of puppies. Twelve eyes darted in six directions.

“Here Clancy, here girl,” Kit called out, whistling for her to come. We joined him in calling her. “Come, Clancy. Come!”

“She’s gone,” my father declared, already dressed to leave the house through a second floor window, hoping to spot a sign of her from the porch rooftop. “She got out the kitchen door last night and was caught in the blizzard. She couldn’t get back.”

“It’s my fault,” I blurted, my lips curled and quivering with regret. “I asked Santa for a puppy. That’s why Clancy ran away. Oh momma,” I blubbered, burying my face in her lap, “I didn’t mean to do it.”

Kit immediately confessed to asking for a puppy, too. And then, one by one, the others exposed what proved to be our family folly.

Momma comforted us as best she could while watching the day die in our eyes. It was more hurt than she could bear.

“Kit,” she urged, “check the bin to see if we have enough coal to last. It could be days before we get dug out of here and no telling of what’s going on with the neighbors until your father returns. Take your sister along. Let her help you.”

The steps to the cellar were thick-pitted pine, worn smooth on the edges from a century of use. I slid butt-to-step down them into the pitch black, whimpering, until seized by the sound of a soft, steady thumping.

“Is that the monster you said lives down here?” I whispered to Kit as he fumbled for the lights.

“I was just teasing about that,” he hushed back.

He grabbed my hand as the lone light from a hanging, 40 watt bulb flickered on, shedding a soft glow directly below it. And there, in its corrugated remains of the television box was our tail-wagging best friend, Clancy, proudly nursing her six newborn puppies.

• • •

By the time the puppies were weaned, we’d assured my folks we were happy to share our one red setter. But it wasn’t until the last of the litter was adopted that we realized we’d been promised and given everything we’d wanted for Christmas – yet none of us could recall what we’d gotten, except for those puppies that we gave away.

Nine years later Clancy died. We buried her in the back yard, her grave shaded by a pear tree my father planted when she, the tree, and I were all the same size.

Thirty years would pass before the pang of joy replaced the pain of loss and I adopted another Irish setter. She looked a lot like Clancy. She had the same white diamond on her head and white vest on her chest. She was as loyal and as loving and as totally trusting of me as Clancy was. I adored her in every way.

But somehow, come December there’d be those bittersweet moments when she’d remind me of a Christmas tree with only old ornaments and popcorn streamers, a cardboard fireplace with Orlon socks dangling, a hard plastic angel, six little kids and the joy of a solitary present to pine over.The Clancy Christmas

The holidays are – and will always be – a beautiful time of year.

A time I remember that giving is its own reward, sharing is the truest joy, and love is the greatest gift.

A time and a spirit likened to, but never quite the same as it was – as we were – that one incomparable Christmas.

# # #

This freshly edited essay was first published in 1976 in The Antiquarian Magazine. Copyright by Marguerite Quantaine © 1976 & 2013.

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I’m all eyes and heart.

IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU (TOO)

Marge & Mike

Marge & Mike

Were I to write my epitaph, it would read, “She lived a charmed life.” Those who have only known of me might not agree — but those who’ve known me well, would.

Consider this as evidence of that.

August often stifles New York, as it did forty years ago, with temperatures so high and rain so scarce a brownout swept over all five boroughs, leaving the city sweltering in virtual darkness from dusk until dawn.

We were living in Bensonhurst by then, renting the upper two floors of a 1925 three story duplex; a stucco, fort-like house located on a tree-lined street between Avenues O and P, not far from a rumored underboss residence. It was a neighborhood where no one locked their doors at night and old-country madonnas garbed in basic-black sat in fold-out lawn chairs on cement sidewalks, waiting for the intense fragrances of Sicilian sausage, fennel seed biscotti, and basil-based sauces to waft through their kitchen windows, signaling meals had simmered to perfection and were ready for serving.

Our home’s private entrance had four steps up to the front door. Once inside there was another seven steps up to the hallway landing leading to a bedroom, living room, dining room, and bathroom, with a second flight of stairs to two more bedrooms. A doorway leading off the dining room opened to an eat-in kitchen. Another opened from the living room onto a second floor veranda stretching 25 feet long and 15 feet deep, with a 4-foot high wall leveling off just below the treetops.

We loved that place and porch, especially in August when sleeping outside beat the heat of the house by thirty degrees, and the starlit sky with its dreamsicle moon overhead was about as romantic as any heart could wish for, or mind could imagine.

It was after 10 one night when we were out there, lying on army surplus canvas and wood framed cots, listening to the neighbors battery operated radios synchronized to Casey Kasem naming, And I Love You So, by America’s favorite barber as “holding at 38” on the Top 40 charts when we heard a knock on the door and Liz called out, “Who’s there?”

“I’m looking for Marge,” came a baritone response.

“Who are you?”

“Mike Kelly.”

“Are you Irish?”

“I am.”

“Then the door’s open. Come on up.”

At the time, I was still recovering from a crash that left me chronically disabled the year before. As predicted, I’d regained my ability to walk, but still needed a wheelchair or walker, occasionally, and a cane, always. As I struggled up and into a lightweight, summer robe, Liz donned hers and, with a Coleman lantern in tow, greeted the fellow, leading him out onto the porch, and offering him a seat at the fold-out card table stationed there for Canasta and Hearts competitions whenever family or friends visited. Then she excused herself to get us all some iced lemonade while I tried to read his face by candlelight.

I liked what I saw. Mike Kelly had a crinkle-eyed smile plastered to his super-sized mug, with a pencil mustache complementing his noggin of silky grey hair.

“I’m sorry to bother you so late,” he began, “but you never contacted us. I had to take the Long Island Railroad from Port Washington after work and two subways — then got lost while walking here from the El.

“Why should I have contacted you, Mr. Kelly?”

“Mike, please.”

“Mike.”

“Didn’t you get our telegram about winning Publisher’s Clearing House?”

I laughed out loud. “Come now. You can do better. Although, I must admit, I’ve never heard that line before.”

He grinned. “Darn. I wish I’d thought of it before I got too old and too happily married for come-ons to matter anymore.”

“What’s so funny,” Liz chimed in, sliding a tin tray of refreshments onto the table.

“I was just telling Mike here about my last encounter with Publisher’s Clearing House.”

“You had one?”

“Sort of. While I was partially paralyzed for a few months last summer I passed the time by answering all those ridiculous Cosmos questionnaires before playing wastebasket wad-ball. I confess. One of the wads was a Publishers Clearing House entry.”

“She’d ordered a photography and a camping magazine,” added Liz.

“True, but I figured I’d never be going camping again, and wouldn’t be anywhere interesting to shoot photographs for a while — so I wadded it up and made the basket.”

“Well, that explains that,” chuckled Mike.

“What?”

“Your wrinkled entry.”

“But I didn’t . . .”

“I did,” Liz interjected. We both turned towards her. “I took it out of the wastebasket and smoothed it out the best I could and mailed it in. Whenever a magazine came in the mail I hid it. I thought I’d give them all to you on your birthday. I guess I was hoping, by then, maybe, you’d feel like camping and taking pictures again.”

I turned to syrup inside.

Mike Kelly beamed. “This is where I tell you – again – you’ve won Publisher’s Clearing House.”

I’ll end this on that high note — but not because there isn’t more to tell about the trip around Manhattan included with the monetary prize; our suite at the Waldorf Astoria, the nights on the town, dinner at the Rainbow Room, orchestra seats to A Little Night Music, the yacht ride to Port Washington, the catered brunch, a tour of the PCH facility, the awards ceremony, the photographer and limousine at our disposal for the weekend, the parties, the clubs we closed, the new friends made, the fun and the fanfare. It’s just because — you really had to be there. (And I’d rather not ruin the surprise.)

Receiving the 1973 Mystery Prize check from the President of PCH.

Receiving the 1973 Mystery Prize check from the President of PCH.

The following year I agreed to make (what I was told was) the first televised commercial for PCH. It ran between 11:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. on all three of the only networks back then. If you were watching television in December of 1974 and saw a news program, soap opera, game show, sports event, or family favorite like The Rockford Files, The Waltons, Kojak, Medical Center, Mash, and Chico And The Man — yep. That was me saying it could happen to you (too).

There’s no drawback to the entire Publisher’s Clearing House experience except in one, small respect, and that is — no matter what I’ve done with my life, who I am, where I live, whom I love, what I’ve accomplished, or contributed — each time I meet those from my very distant past, the first thing they mention is that I won Publisher’s Clearing House, followed by the implication that my life has been “easy” because of it.

And, I always let it pass.

Because — even though the $17,500.00 was before taxes were deducted, and the balance went in one lump sum to pay off past-due medical bills — I’ve led a charmed life.

I know it.

And for this I am, truly, grateful.

# # #
Copyright by Marguerite Quantaine © 2013.
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Did you ever with a sweepstakes, contest, or anything at all? How did it affect your life?
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I’m all eyes and heart.

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