Talk of old movies and holidays tends to remind me of family members, past and present. Right about now, with my birthday fast approaching, I think of Uncle George. The oldest sibling in my father’s family, he was tall, a bit shy, and quite handsome. The legend goes that my cousin Ted and I came running into the kitchen one day to tell whoever was within earshot to come and look at the television set. Uncle George was on! The story of Clark Gable’s resemblance to Uncle George would be, and still is, told around the family table.
Uncle George died on my birthday 23 years ago. This sad event heralded a string of family members passing away on birthdays. It wasn’t until Heather gave birth to Scott on my birthday years later that the cycle was broken, bringing a smile to my heart in so many ways.
In this season of Advent and anticipation, I think frequently of Uncle George. We have to get through my birthday in order to start Christmas. This worked well as our girls were growing up. It gave them a day and a date to look to before our holiday preparations began. It still does. Penny’s birthday followed by St. Nicholas Day, when the decorations would appear, slowly at first, then, with the purchase of a tree, with more zeal. I like that. I like the slow opening of seasons and celebrations. My birthday, that miraculous birth that my mother likened to that of the Christ child, was the starting point of it all . . . I once again digress and will tell you more about my wondrous birth another time.
I have been, you see, thinking about the joy of anticipation; for celebrations and presents, for decorations and births, and for rites of passage. I was thinking, as well, of Uncle George. Born soon after the dawn of the 20th century, my uncle must have always had a liking for well-cut clothes. He stands as a young lad of about twelve in this picture, my dad to his side, my grandfather seated. George was already a dapper young lad at the time of the portrait and he must have eagerly anticipated the day he would no longer have to wear those cropped breeches.
The story goes, as I recall, that he finally reached the day when he would no longer have to wear knickers – pants young lads wore in the early 1900’s that came to the knee. Now, I know knickers are a name for women’s undergarments in other lands, but, they were the name for boy’s pants (and baseball uniforms) when my uncle was a boy and graduating from knickers to long slacks was an anticipated male rite of passage. Off George went to school his first knickerless morning, probably feeling quite pleased with himself and his newfound station in life.
Newfound stations come and go quickly sometimes. The tracking of information in the close-knit Greek community was like that of so many other ethnic groups of that era. It was as swift as the information highway we now take for granted, and likely more accurate and fact based. A death, a birth, an injustice or offense spread quickly from mouth to ear, from store to church to home.
My grandmother, Yia Yia, was wise and welcoming and truly the salt-of-the-earth sort of woman. At well under 5 feet tall and as round as the powdered sugar cookies she made, she also ruled the roost with good-natured humor coupled with steely determination. Her children were to obey the rules or there would be a price to pay.
With six mouths to feed and shelter and clothe, every penny counted. My grandfather had a good job, but, the immigrant experience was one of hard work and thriftiness and remembering how far one had come. Clothes were most often hand made, handed down, repaired and restyled. Nothing was wasted.
George returned home that first day of long pants, coming through the door at just the right time, schoolbooks in hand, a jaunt to his step. Yia Yia greeted him with a stern look – and a pair of scissors. The rest is legend. Family lore. Punishment swift. A cautionary tale for his siblings. A reminder that rules were not to be broken. My grandmother, already shorter than George, assigned him to the top of a chair and to his horror she started to snip, in a nice straight line, snip, snip, snip – the easier to hem. The long pants fell, right below the knee. George’s knickers reborn. How did she know that this come-of-age boy had skipped school on his very first knickerless day?! Alas and alack, ach Columbus, etal, after all that anticipation, Uncle George had not yet earned the right to wear long pants.
Anticipation is good. It helps us appreciate what we are given; to savor and treasure and respect it until it is just the right time.
Don’t you agree?
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