Between hiding from family members on Thanksgiving, and sneaking Christmas trees into Saudi Arabia, these storytellers reveal their classic holiday memories.
Guests: Chris Lundy, Megan Hicks, Sara Ray, Geoff Jackson, Dan Gasiewski, Martha Cooney, Dave Hillis, Jamie Brunson, Nina McKissock, Lisa Lapp, Annette John Hall, Marjorie Winther
Hospice for the Holidays
As a hospice nurse, Nina has spent many holidays with patients who have a difficult decision to make: live or die.
Holiday traditions wax and wane naturally over generations. Three guests share their own renditions of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah.
Read the transcript
Jamie J: Welcome to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY to bring you true, personal stories for the pressing issues of our time. I’m your host Jamie J.
Love them or hate them, the holidays come around every year. I don’t know about you but for me the holidays are like the American dream --- aspirational. I mean, I have this vision in my mind of what holidays should be and every year I hope for the best!
OK – let’s start with Thanksgiving…that feeling in the air, the hustle and bustle, energy in the grocery store the day before, when you and everybody else are buying last minute turkeys. We all feel it. It’s joy and anticipation. And, of course, Thanksgiving’s all about feeling grateful— for the people in your life, your work, your health— but for Chris Lundy, Thanksgiving at his cousin’s house was all about paying up.
Chris Lundy: So about a month ago I got a text from my cousin, Bobby. Her name's Gabrielle, but we call her Bobby. And the text said, "Do you have any plans for thanksgiving?" So the truth is I did not have any plans but I couldn't tell her that. She lives up in Brooklyn and it's not that the food isn't good, the food's great. Family's nice for the most part. But she's got these two daughters, Marley and Maya, they're three and four and I'm petrified of them. They're terrifying and I'm gonna tell you why.
So the last time I was there, Bobby was in the kitchen, she's cooking dinner and she didn't want them to be in the kitchen while she was cooking so she said, "Hey girls, go play." And they looked at me and they said, "Hey do you want to come play with us?" and I'm like, "Sure, what do you wanna play?" They say they want to play restaurant. So I’m like, alright, I'll play restaurant. So we go down into the basement where they have a new restaurant play set, I mean the whole thing was decked out, nothing like they had when I was growing up. This this was a masterpiece. SO I go down there and I see the whole layout and Marley pulls out the little toy chair. And she's like, "Have a seat!" And you know, that little chair, I can't sit in it, I'm full grown, I'm an adult. And that's how I pronounce adult when I'm talking to kids it kind of establish superiority. I’m an adult, I can’t sit in that chair.
But she insists. She's just standing there like no, sit down. No you don't understand I can't and then out of nowhere Maya goes, "Sit, here." And Maya doesn't really talk often so for her to jump out there like that I'm like, alright! Ok! So I sit down, knees to my chest, I can barely breathe but it's for the kids so OK we're gonna do it. So I sit down and Marley comes up and she's like "Well, well, what do you like to eat" and I wanted to make it easy on them, I saw out of the corner of my eye I saw a little rubber chicken. So I said, "I'll have the chicken please" and she says "We're out of chicken." And I'm like, "No I think there's chicken there. I would really like chicken," and Maya comes again and, "No chicken!" What is going on? What kind of establishment is this around here? So I'm like "Alright, um, what do you have" and Marley goes, "Ice cream!" and now I'm lactose intolerant and I don't know if that carries over but as an adult our imaginations aren't as strong as kids. "And I'm like, No, maybe if you have something else I really don't want ice cream." "Ice cream!" Maya right here spit all on my ear everything so I'm like "Alright, OK, maybe I'll take a pretend lactaid pill and you know, everything's all good." So Marley brings me over a little pretend ice cream cone and I'm like, "Ooh! Chocolate flavor." And she goes, "No, no, no. Mustard." I’m like, “Have you girls heard of yelp reviews yet?” I know you're kids but let's take this whole restaurant down. So you know I eat it and I'm like “Oh, this is delicious, thank you so much but I really gotta get going now.” So I stand up and Marley goes, "Oh wait! Let me get your check." I mean she is refined, this little one. So I'm like, "Oh! Okay." So she brings it over, I take a look and I'm like “That is quite reasonable. Here you go, ten dollars. Thank you so much.” And she goes, "No," and I go, "You know what, you're right. I'm a pretend cajillionaire astronaut baseball player so why not splurge." So I said, "Here's one million dollars for that mustard ice cream," and she goes "No, that's pretend money." Wait a minute, why would I give you-- we just pretended. We had pretend food, like, why would I give you real money, right? Smile leaves. Maya shifts between me and the exit door and I realize this is a f***in' shakedown. The four year old and the three year old had me right where they wanted me. So I'm standing there and I'm like come on man, I'm 6'1", 200 pounds I could take these two little girls, I know I can. But then I started thinking back to the movies like Children of the Corn and The Omen and I'm like, "Alright, so I reach into my wallet and I pull out an actual dollar, US, true currency. And I hand it to Marley and she takes it and puts it into her little pretend register and I see two other dollars in there. That means there were two other victims, it wasn't just me. And so I take this opportunity to jet back upstairs. I see Bobby and I'm like, "Get off the phone," she's on the phone now, she's almost finished dinner. "Get off the phone, I've got to tell you what just happened, I've got to tell you, your kids are running a racket downstairs." So she gets off the phone and she's like, "What? Well, what'd they make for you" and before I could tell her about the mustard ice cream, a little voice goes, "chicken!" Oh my god! So I turned to Bobby and I go, "Ch-ch-chicken." So needless to say when the text came through, "I have soooo many Thanksgiving plans, maybe next year. Thanks." Send. So that was it, that’s my story.
Jamie J: Chris Lundy is a published writer and a former host of First Person Arts slams. He now spends his holidays hiding his wallet from the little entreprenaurs and, I do not blame him. Now, what would the holidays be without a heart warming story full of carols, cookies, and – falling for love. Here’s one of first person arts’ favortie storytellers…Sara Ray.
Sarah Ray: It was Christmas of 1999 in a small town deep in the part of Maine where Steven King places his novels, but people don’t actually go. I was 13 years old and I was standing with my sister and my two brothers at the front of the town church. Truth be told we weren’t doing so hot. The problem was that my mother had volunteered her four children to be the youth choir for the church’s Christmas cantata. A compounding problem was that the elderly pastor’s wife had taken the opportunity to personally compose all the carols to be sung by the children’s choir - population us four. But by far the biggest problem of all was that people quite unexpectedly were showing up to the Christmas cantata. You see, my town had less than a thousand people in it. The church’s congregation consisted of my family and the town’s nursing home. So as western Maine’s prodigal Christians filed in and filled the pews I stared with mounting horror at our song sheet for our opening number, a pastor’s wife original ditty titled “Snowflakes”.
And that’s when it happened. The church door blew open in an icy blast, and my older brother said “Oh, god!” It was the Turnbull family. Now, you guys don’t know the Turnbulls. But everyone among you has your own personal preteen version of Jason Turnbull…aka the hot chiseled piece of man meat, high school junior that I had spent my entire 8th grade year lusting for, and who now was walking through the church in his finest camel brown Carhart jacket (Jesus!). This was such a worse case scenario that it honestly hadn’t even occurred to me as a possibility. You see, I was convinced in that way that only a 13-year-old girl can be convinced that Jason Turnbull was my soul mate. And I did not want my soul mate to witness me singing “Snowflakes”. I did not want anyone witnessing me singing “Snowflakes”, but that ship was halfway to China at this point. So he eased every ounce of his perfectly sculpted body into the pew. And he looked up and we made the most soul crushing eye contact of my life to date. The piano cued…(sings) ”Snowflakes will come, come, come…and we’ll have fun, fun, fun…oh how we’ll sing, sing, sing…our voices will ring, ri…”
You guys are being nice, I mean that’s so uncomfortable to listen to, for even twenty seconds…this song had 30 verses, of which that is one. Right? And, point of clarification, my sister is mouthing the words, my little brother is eyeing old ladies, I don’t know what the hell he’s doing, so, leaving it to me and my equally horrified 15-year-old older brother to just sit there and carry the Canton Baptist Church Children’s Choir. Oh my god, it was really bad, really not great. So on the ride home my heart was heavy with the knowledge that Jason Turnbull would never ask me to the Pine Cone Formal.
But what is the Christmas season all about without stories of hope and redemption? Now, two days later our family was delivering plates of Christmas cookies to families in town on our way to a holiday party. And when we pulled up to the Turnbull’s house my mom suggested that Sara bring the cookies to the door. Like, way to be a bro mom, I see what you’re doing here. Like, you know, solid work, check beneath the tree because I think a special lady just earned herself two scented candles this year, right? So I bundle my way like, out of the van, I’m wearing a f***in’ like, puffy jacket and long Santa hat because I hadn’t yet figured out that quirky you can only pull that off if you’re attractive and not just actually weird. And so I make my way to the door and Jason Turnbull answers in all his chiseled beautiful angelic glory, and say, “Hi Jason, um, here you go I made these for you there’s the Christmas cookies that cause it is that Christmas so you can have them to enjoy here with your family in, in the yuletide season.”
Nailed it, right? Satisfied that I had handled that transaction flawlessly, I turned to walk down the icy walkway, made it about two steps, and you guys, yeah you guys see where this is going, right? I slipped…like, not even like oopsie daisy, like, cute little slip, but FOOM! Like, full on, parallel to the ground, this Santa hat bane of my existence, like right behind me. Perfect luge form at least, you know, just really bad. It felt like I was falling forever. Sometimes I wonder if the past 16 years of my life haven’t actually been a figment of my still falling imagination, like when someone’s in a coma and they have to finally say “I’m in a coma!” to wake up from the coma, like maybe that this is that moment for me to realize that I’m still falling…and yet eventually I crashed into the ground beneath the watchful gaze of my beloved Jason Turnbull. “Uh, So, you all right there, or a…?” “Yeah, I’m fine, I just did that as a joke to be funny for you…uh…bye…” So I go, of course, back the van and my brothers are laughing like hyenas and I cried all the entire way to the holiday party…and that, First Person Arts, is where I came from…now I’m gay.
Jamie J: Hailing from western Maine, Sara Ray has lived in Philadelphia for four years, while pursuing a doctorate in the history and sociology of science at Penn…and she’s also a member of the Backyard Writers fiction group,
Jamie: You’re listening to Commonspace. I’m your host Jamie J. And today we’re sharing stories to guide you through the holiday season. So…what if celebrating your favorite holiday is against the law? That was Geoff Jackson’s childhood dilemma.
Geoff Jackson: I spent most of my formative years in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia. My mother is English, my father is American. I grew up in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia in an oil company town. It was constructed entirely by this company, Saudi Aramco, which is the largest oil company on earth. It was a gated community, armed guards, very strange place. That’s where I grew up. So we love Christmas! I was actually just sending text messages with my sister about Christmas. My parents now live in Arizona, they just picked up the Christmas tree, his name is Theodore. Just got that information. We Love Christmas. Now, it’s easy now for us to celebrate Christmas, and to love it, but when we lived in Saudi Arabia, it was not easy to love and celebrate Christmas, because Christmas was explicitly forbidden. Now I want to be clear, I don’t have anything against the people of Saudi Arabia…the problem with Saudi Arabia is that its political imfrastructure and its religious infrastructure are the same. So if you have any questions about how to survive in that environment and to practice something that is strictly forbidden by your theocratic totalitarian government, I will be happy to speak with you after the show.
So we loved Christmas, but how to celebrate the Christmas? Some infrastructure problems. First, whenever anybody lands in an airport in Saudi Arabia, the first thing that happens, you get off the plane. Everyone's bags are opened and searched for contraband. Contraband included anything like a Christmas movie. How can you determine if something's a Christmas movie? They had a great workaround for that problem. This was in the 1990s so VHS was the primary delivery mechanism for movies. They had a room at the airport, just a wall of televisions all connected to VCRs and they would put the movies on, they'd plug them into the VCRs and watch them on fast forward and they would keep their eyes peeled for guys in red suits with big beards. Also, movie they didn't like. Star Wars Episode 4: New Hope. They didn't like the cover. They didn't like the way Princess Leia was dressed. They took that from me. I grew up watching Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Other things that were forbidden: Christmas cookie cutters! This tree shape, we know it's not a tree. We know it's a symbol for a thing that we don't like. So we're taking that out of your bag. You can't bring it in. How does one celebrate Christmas then? Very carefully. Christmas lights! Oh, it's just a string of lights that plug into an outlet? OK that seems fine, but I notice that these are red and green. Uh-uh. Can't have red and green together. We're taking that from you. Icicle lights were fine because icicle lights show a complete lack of taste.
So you could bring those in. How does one get a Christmas tree you might ask yourself. The answer: smugglers. Any time that something is forbidden, anything that something is prohibited, of course a very vigorous and powerful smuggler community will seek to fill that market need. Now you may know smugglers from drugs, weapons, etc. The smugglers I knew growing up: "we can get you a plastic christmas tree. It's gonna be a couple hundred bucks. Do you want it?" It was somebody like a friend of a friend, "I know a guy that's on an American military base. Their bags aren't searched. He's bringing plastic christmas trees. He was home on leave in Texas, he packed his suitcase, he's just trying to make a little extra money because they don't pay him enough. He's trying to turn a profit." Crazy, crazy stuff.
Now my mother was very successful at smuggling in these cast iron molds that were her grandmothers. She used them to make these gingerbread houses. They're a void-- if you look at them, it doesn't look like anything at all. But if you fill them with gingerbread, they look like the most beautiful thing in the universe. The most difficult thing to bring into the country: wrapping paper because there isn't a gift-giving culture visually within Saudi Arabia. They give gifts at -- there are two eids: Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, but they don't really wrap the presents. So there isn't wrapping paper that's available so we were able to smuggle wrapping paper in in small portions, folded up inside of other things. Hide them inside a copy of a boring book, it's just a dictionary don't worry about it. But if you open it up, folded up pieces of wrapping paper. Consequentially, Christmas morning, children, so excited about Christmas and life and family and fun carefully opening the presents. We were not allowed to tear the wrapping paper because every boxing day my mother would iron it because we needed it for the next year. So to this day when people give me things, I'm like, "Oh! I'm so-- I'm so appreciative. Thank you so much--...." and they think I don't like it. I do like it! I love it so much. And I love Christmas. More than I could tell you in the time I have available. So thank you for your time and attention.
Jamie J: Geoff Jackson now celebrates the holidays stateside - so
you can catch him hosting his monthly show “Schooled” at the Good Good Comedy Theatre in Philadelphia.
Jamie J: You’re listening to Commonspace…a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY…and it’s been supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Please subscribe to our podcast at iTunes and Stitcher. And while you listening, give us a rating! I’m your host Jamie J.
Now, our next storyteller is someone from the Commonspace creative team - Dan Gasiewski. Now, Dan’s family has strong holiday traditions, but one year, Dan decided to start a new one.
If you were to meet me, you may not immediately guess that I'm the product of, well, what my Irish grandmother called "a mixed marriage." You know, Irish and Polish. If you don't think that's a big deal now, it was back when my mom and dad got married. The different neighborhoods were totally at war with each other. The kids from the rival gangs were Irish vs. Polish. And there were a lot of differences in our families. By babcia and dzadzia-- they spoke Polish! They spoke Polish around us a sort of secret language so us kids were always sort of mystified when my grandmother would come over--when my babcia would come over and grab us by the cheeks on our way out and say, “budgie grudcizc” - and my dad would always translate that for us as, "Oh well she's just telling you, 'God is gonna get you,'"
So we actually had an intern at First Person Arts who was from Poland, and I couldn't resist, I grabbed her one day and I said “let me just run something by you. And I said, “budgie grudcizc”, and she just started to laugh and she's like, “well, you would only say that to a child," and I said, "Well, does it mean God is gonna get you?" and she said, "yeah!"
And on the Irish side, of course, they were right from Ireland, or half of them were anyway and the families just did not get along.
Add to that the fact that my dad is one of seven children, and they all had seven children, and all down the line - a lot of kids - and my mom is an only child.
So, you know, there’s always those battles in any marriage about “which family is going to get which holiday”, and my dad won a lot of them - especially Christmas Eve, because on Christmas Eve, there’s a traditional Polish vigil feast called Wigilia, which is a vegetarian feast, where people make potato pierogies and mushroom soups, and it’s big family thing. So of course, with 100 people on his side, that’s where we went for Christmas Eve, and we would eat and sing songs, not in English, go to midnight mass, also in a language that we did not speak - because it’s Port Richmond, where you can I think still go and hear mass in Polish because there’s still a lot of Polish immigration there.
So it was this strange and enthralling experience for me all through my childhood.
But when I got older it suddenly occurred to me “Well, what does my Irish grandmother do on Christmas Eve? You know, it’s a big family holiday, and we really don’t have a lot of family on that side. So I asked my mom and she said “well, I guess she just spends it alone”
So that year I went to spend Christmas Eve with the Irish side of my family -
My Irish grandmother was a woman who loved routines. Lunch or dinner with her was always done exactly in the same style--in the kitchen, at a little pull-down Murphy table, you’d have your meal, she would have a cocktail, then her secret cigarette, then she would just hold her empty glass at you and look at you and when you said “well, do you want another?” And she would give you this rye little look, and say, “How am I supposed to fly on only one wing?"
And that is when the stories came out, after the second drink.
So it was after that second glass that I asked her, well why is it that you don't really hang out with anybody or do anything else on Christmas Eve?
And she said, “Well, it’s tough for me.” You see, in her family there are, again, two very distinct sides. Her father came over from Ireland with a wife and three kids, and the wife got tuberculosis, so he had to hire someone to come in and help her out on what ended up being her deathbed. And before she died, he end up starting a relationship with that woman and that woman, the nurse, is my great-grandmother.
Needless to say, there was a lot of tension in the family, and things were tough with relations between those two sets of kids. So each set really stuck together, through a lot of really tough experiences, and my grandmother developed a really close relationship with her older brother - she almost developed a little puppy love crush on him, which you know happens.
So, Christmas Eve comes, and who knows where the rest of the family was - the older kids probably were out and about somewhere, her father was probably off with some woman who wasn’t his wife, possibly another family, which my grandmother always swore that he had because he'd go away and not come back for weeks. His wife was very possibly passed out by that time in the night, and my grandmother was alone, waiting for her older brother to come home. She had laid out a big Christmas surprise for him - she had saved up her money and had bought him gifts, set up a trail of candles leading up to a new suit of clothes that she had bought him. He was out at work for a work party on Christmas Eve - I think he was a postal worker or something, I don’t remember that, but wherever he worked, they had worked right up to the end of Christmas Eve, and celebrated with a big party, so my grandmother knew that she’d be waiting a while. That he'd be home late. But still, as time went on she started to wonder where he was and what was going on and that's when the phone rang. And the person on the other end was calling from the morgue, and they needed someone to come in and identify a body.
My grandmother just put on her shoes in a daze and walked a mile and a half to the morgue - she always said that it wasn’t until she got there that she realized that she had put her shoes on the wrong feet, and her feet were killing her.
But I guess that somebody realized that they had reached someone who maybe wasn’t appropriate to do the identification of the body, and one of her aunts or uncles was already there and had already identified the body of my grandmother’s favorite brother.
See, he had been at the holiday party, and he had had a couple few drinks, and he was waiting on the el platform when he felt like he was going to be sick and he leaned over to throw up into the train track bed just as the el was coming around the corner, and it hit him and flipped him onto the tracks, and ran over him.
And as she told me that story, she cried. I mean, you know, this had happened 40, 50, maybe even 60 years before and every year on Christmas Eve, she would sit there and think about this brother who she had loved and lost so young and so tragically.
I couldn't do anything about the pain that she felt but I could do something to make sure she didn't have to spend Christmas Eve alone anymore. So that was the year I called up my Babcia and I got the recipe for pierogies and from that next year on, I made my babcia's pierogies for my Irish grandmother.
Dan Gasiewski is Director of Production for First Person Arts. He’s also the co-founder and director of the Morris Park Restoration Association. Thanks for sharing Dan, we love ya!
Now, when Megan Hicks thinks about the holiday season, she remembers the best Christmas present she ever received...
Megan Hicks: This story happened in 1961. That's how old I am. 1961 was one of those years that you could flip on it's head and it would still read 1961 and it was the year my status in the family flipped on it's head and I went, at 11 years old, from being the baby of the family to being the big sister. My mom and dad had decided to adopt a baby all year long they'd been filling out forms and doing home visits and signing legal papers. Finally, the adoption went through. We were adopting a little baby from Seoul, Korea. And we were gonna take delivery on our new baby-- on my new baby sister-- December 17th, 1961 in San Francisco International Airport. I was getting a baby sister for Christmas! Cool!
But it was also kind of anxiety producing because I had gotten Christmas babies before and it had never worked out. My first Christmas baby was a Raggedy Anne when I was four years old. We lived in Riverton, Wyoming. I loved Raggedy Anne, I took her with me everywhere and one day I took her outside after a Shinook wind and come in and melted all the snow. But then I had to go in for lunch and I had to stay in for my nap and while I was taking my nap another blizzard came and Raggedy Anne was buried under like three feet of snow by the time I woke up. And by the time the thaw happened there she was all sodden and grey. I don't know-- I looked at her and it was just never the same between Raggedy Anne and me.
I let her sink to the bottom of my toy chest and that's kind of where she stayed. Well the next Christmas I got a doll that was called a Jenny doll. Now Jenny doll was made to look like a real little girl. She had little school clothes, little black patton leather Mary Jane shoes, real little girl hair. It came braided and of course the first thing I wanted to do was comb were real little girl hair so I took out her braids and all of a sudden her hair went SPROING and the little comb and brush set that she came with just would not handle that hair. I couldn't get it back in the braids so I thought, well, maybe a trim. So i got my mom's scissors and by the time I was finished with Jenny, she was hideous. She was ugly, I didn't want to see her again and she sank to the bottom of my toy box with Raggedy Anne.
Well my mom didn't bring a baby to me again for two years but when I was seven, Betsy Wetsy was released. Betsy Wetsy came with a couple of little flannel diapers and a little bottle. She had a hole in her mouth and a hole in her bum. Fed her through her mouth and she peed on you! Well the first time that happened I was kind of grossed out but I thought well, this is how babies are. But then I put milk in her little bottled and she gurgled. And Betsy Wetsy didn't even make it to New Years Day. She was out on the curb with the Christmas tree, December 29th.
So here I am 11 years old, contemplating another Christmas baby. And I'm kind of nervous. We're walking across the parking lot at San Francisco International Airport on December 17th and I look at the traffic, or the parking blocks and I think "Man, what if I'm carrying my baby sister and I trip and fall. And I smash her flat. Or what if I got her in the stroller and I forget about her and she rolls into traffic and a truck hits her. Or what if I blow it? Maybe I'm not gonna be a very good big sister." Well we went to a waiting room there at San Francisco International Airport. It was about the size of this room right here. It's full of I'd say 80 other people. THere were gonna be 40 babies coming in from Seoul, Korea from this one particular orphanage on this day. And all these prospective parents were there. I was by far the shortest person in the room. I was standing there in standing room only. I'm standing there looking at earlobes and shoulder pads and nostrils and we're waiting interminably until finally a door in the corner opens and out stands a man with a clipboard. And he reads some stuff to the grownups that I don't understand or pay attention to but then a nurse came out from the back. The babies had been in quarantine, they were being checked over. A nurse came out from the back and she was carrying a little while bundle. She handed the guy with a clipboard a card, he read out a name, and the woman behind me said, "Oh! That's us!" And this lady, she walked up and she received that baby in her arms and she looked like a pro. She carried that baby backed to her husband with a big grin on her face and I thought, "Oh, I want to learn how to do that." And that's how it went. A nurse would come out from the back with a little white bundle. The guy would call a name, somebody would come and collect their baby. And then all of a sudden I heard them say, "Hicks!" And I don't know what came over me but I just felt my legs start to move. I plowed through all those big tall grownups and I said, "That's my sister!" And I held my arms out and to this day all these years later I can still feel the weight of that little 10 lb 6 month old baby girl coming into arms. Solid, anchored. I looked down at her. She was just coming off of chicken pox, it was all scabbed, her hair was plastered to her head. She had jaundice,. This kid is gonna pee on me! And I could not quit grinning. I was head over heels in love and that's the minute I knew, "Oh this isn't just some Christmas baby. She's not just coming home for the holidays. No. This is my baby sister. She's coming home for keeps."
Jamie: Finding love during the holidays has to be the very best gift ever. And you know the love is real when urine is not a deal breaker! Megan Hicks has travelled the country and the world as a professional story teller, and she hosts the Rose Valley Storytelling House concerts, and teaches origami and storytelling.
Jamie J: You’re listening to Commonspace…a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY…and it’s been supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Please subscribe to our podcast at iTunes and Stitcher - and give us a rating! I’m your host Jamie J.
Jamie J: For some folks, having a full and happy holiday season can depend on the charitable thoughtfulness of others…our next story teller, Martha Cooney, realized she was going to have to use questionable means to fulfill her desire to be charitable…
Martha Cooney: So I was standing in the middle of the hallway of my high school, bunch of students behind me about to carry out some stolen goods. And it's my job to act as lookout. And all of a sudden I realize, I can't see anything.
When I was in high school, I was willing to do anything to feel cool. And I was also willing to do anything to not have to wear my glasses. Growing up in my family, money was not something to be spent on clothes for fashion purposes. Clothes were meant to protect you against the elements. They were to be procured as cheaply as possible. They were meant to be worn until the last patch had been frayed into dust.
I had two older brothers so I wore their hand-me-downs. I wore hand-me-downs from the older kids on my block. I wore hand-me-downs from my cool cousin in California and there was one day I went to the House of Bargains and I spent a dollar on a neon pink hat. That was a good day.
This philosophy extended to my whole family, which is why my dad, life-long Philadelphian, obviously Eagles fan, had a winter coat with the New York Giants logo on it, cause my mom had found it for sale at Burlington and he had to wear that coat for six years. And we grew up in North East Philly and we almost got beat up on a daily basis and I don't blame those kids cause I'm still having identity issues about that. But anyway, it extended to glasses as well. I wore glasses in Elementary school and the trend in the 90s was like big, wire-rimmed frames. When I got to high school that trend had passed. But do your glasses still fit? Yeah. Can you still see? Yeah. Then shut up! Money is not meant to be spent to prevent you embarrassment, it's for two-for-one macaroni deals at Acme. Now sit down in the kitchen so we can trim your bangs here because only fools pay money for haircuts.
So because contact lenses would be an extraneous cost for someone who had glasses that functioned, I had to wait until I was 17 for contacts. And I got contacts and I got up an hour early before school every day because it took me that long to put them in. And I would be in my parents bedroom because they had a full length mirror and in my bedroom there was only a little, tiny mirror and I needed the full length experience reflected at me with all the squinting and the tearing and the hopping up in down on one foot like, "get in!"
Three out of the five days of the week, senior year, I was going to school with one contact lens in. But I was not gonna wear those glasses.
I went to catholic school and I like really wanted to be a rebel. I was listening to a lot of Joan Baez; writing quotes about war and peace on my folder. I just wanted something to protest. I just wanted to circulate a petition. For what? Whatever! Just give me a cause. And I had this idea that if I became know as a cool activist then everyone would forget that I used to be a dork with uncool glasses. I thought being an activist would be acceptable and cool in high school somehow.
So I ran the community service club and senior year they instituted this thing where we were required to do 40 hours of required service so all of a sudden everyone had to talk to me because I was hooking them up with all the service projects. So I was like Leslie Knope, huge binder, like I'm very important, everyone's coming up to me I'm not wearing my glasses anymore I'm like, yeah. And I ate it up, I was running a mafia-like situation and we had this big toy drive at Christmas called Operation Santa Clause and headset, clipboard, we're getting all the toys. So we got a lot of toys. It was really successful and we had all these toys collected and we had way more than we actually needed than the families that were on our delivery list. And a couple weeks before we were supposed to do our delivery I saw on the news the Salvation Army in North Philly was saying they needed extra toy donations because they didn't have enough for their families. So I go in the next day to our faculty advisor, I'm like, "Mrs. Connelly, I know where we can bring all the extra toys…the Salvation Army. They need them, dah dah dah," She said, "No! We're a Catholic school; we can only give to a Catholic charity. This is how it works. Stay within the network, it's all politics, dah dah dah dah dah dah, knee socks, abortion, going to hell, whatever!"
So I'm like, I'm not even gonna argue. This is my moment. I haven't been listening to all these Pete Seeger lyrics for nothin'. So I go back to the bio lab where all the toys are stacked up and all the student volunteers are and I'm like guys, come here. We're gonna steal these extra toys and we're going to bring them to the Salvation Army. And like, they don't really question or care they just know they're gonna get an extra hour of service time so they're in. So I'm like drawing a map of the school on the black board, calling football plays on my hand, you're gonna get your car, you're gonna be a runner, you're gonna be a lookout, you're gonna do this, you're gonna do that. You have a beeper so someone’s gonna call you from the payphone in the cafeteria-- it was 1999. And that's how we're gonna know that you're here. So we get all situated. And Mrs. Connelly is in her office downstairs and she always took the elevator up so when you heard the elevator ding you knew she was coming. SO I was the lookout so I'm in the middle of the hallway and I'm waiting for the person to run up the stairs and give the signal and I'm also looking to make sure Mrs. Connelly doesn't come up and catch us and then I realize, crap. I only have one contact lens in today. I can't really see anything. I can't tell if the person down the end of the hall is a random freshman going into their locker or the person I need giving me the signal and if the elevator--someone comes off it, it might be Mrs. Connelly, it might be somebody else. And then I'm gonna be caught and I'm gonna be screwed and no one's gonna know that I'm a badass rebel, they're just gonna remember me as the girl with the glasses. So I'm panicking, I cover one eye like a hysterical pirate so I can focus and then I run back and forth and then I can see. And then they give the signal; I yell go-go-go like we're in a platoon somewhere. Six trash bags full of toys they run down the hallway, down three flights, they throw them in the back of this girl's car, she had the loudest transmission ever! Cigarette hanging out of her mouth, tires squealing, she pulls out delivers the toys to the Salvation Army down Broad Street and I'm like, I did it. Pulled off a Robin Hood with one eye.
17 years pass and actually two or three weeks ago I ran into this guy that I hadn't seen since high school and this event in Philly. I was like, "Brandon! We went to high school together. Hey! What's up?" he was like, "Sorry, what's your name?" I was like, "Martha! Martha Cooney!" he goes, "Ohhh. Did you have the glasses?"
Now I can see so much more clearly that even though I was willing to do anything to see me in a certain way, all that really matters was how I saw myself. And I think I was pretty cool.
Jamie J: Martha Cooney founder and director of Story Up, a mission-minded enterprise that supports literacy education through interactive improv comedy shows based on children’s stories. Martha is also a teaching artist with Mighty Writers, and has published a variety of work for children and adults. I’m sure all her little storytellers can depend on her to be a look out for their charitable projects
Jamie J: The holidays are all about celebrating with family and friends, right? Eating delicious food, sharing gifts and stories…sounds nice! But sometimes, we get so caught up in the spirit of the season that we forget the holidays bring on a lot of stress for people…and for many that stress is financial. And in this age of Identity Theft, there’s always a danger that your money could end up financing someone else’s holiday cheer. Our next storyteller, Dave Hillis, found out how a guilty pleasure could put his finances at risk.
Dave Hillis: There’s something about coming home for the holidays that everyone seems to enjoy. For some people it’s the pleasure of seeing loved ones who you don’t spend enough time with. For other people it is the subtle enjoyment you get out of seeing the people who were popular and good looking in high school slowly become middle aged and overweight. But for me, the thing that sends tingles of pleasure up my spine, is the fact that if I’m home for the holidays it means that I have a car. I don’t look it tonight, unless you get up like really close and see the gobs of bike grease on my shirt, but I’m from West Philly and I – yeah one person made the trek out, true West Philly style, we usually don’t cross the river it’s scary around these parts. But I think of myself as a good West Philly and I go to the Clark Park Farmers’ Market, every weekend, I shop for records at The Marvelous, I buy bike tires from Firehouse Bikes, and I never have a car (laughter)…I don’t know why that’s funny, that’s just how you live in West Philly, you bike everywhere. And when I have a car…well, I have a confession…I’m a good West Philly and 364 days of the year. But there’s one day, when I’m home for the holidays, with my car, and I stop at the Big. Box. Store. And I load the f*** up. I buy like, two hundred dollars worth of s***, which goes a really long way at a big box store. Forgive me anarchist ‘zine writers of West Philadelphia, for I have sinned, and I will sin again. So a few years back, right when I got back to Philadelphia from Virginia, I got a call. And it was someone from my credit card company and he said, “Hey we have some suspect purchases on your card, can I just run the last couple of things you bought by you?” And I said, “Yeah sure.” And so he asked “Well, when was the last time you used your card, and where?” And so I thought for a second, I’m like, where did I last use it…Oh, s***, it was at Target. Because I’m not some kinda of goddam monster, when I go to a big box store, I’m not going to Walmart. I’m going to Target, where they do all the horrible things that Walmart does, but have like, an aesthetic sense.
And so he’s like “Where did you last use your card?” And I didn’t want to answer, so I said, “Oh, it was like, uh, it was like last Saturday,” because I would rather have someone think I don’t know the meaning of the words you learn in preschool than know that I shop at a big box store.
And the guy on the phone, who was a trooper was like, “Ok, but what was the name of the store?”
And he’s like “I’m sorry I couldn’t quite hear that, can you say it again?”
“What? Can you say that a little louder I’m sorry I think you have a bad connection.”
“I ADMIT IT I SHOPPED AT TARGET AND I LOVED IT AND I HATE MYSELF FOR LOVING IT AND I WILL DO IT AGAIN!!!!”
And he says “Oh, ok, so…thanks… and that means you didn’t spend $34 at Lenscrafter?
“No, but, that seems like a very affordable set of frames?”
“And you didn’t spend one cent exactly at Mack Cosmetics?
“No, pretty sure that wasn’t me.”
“And you didn’t get membership at Match.com?”
“And you didn’t get a membership subscription at EHarmony.com?
“That was not me either.”
“And you didn’t get a subscription at Matchmaker.com?”
“No. I did not. Because I want love, but I don’t want it so much that I’m willing to spend like $40 a month to try and find it. You know, that just seems kinda high for true happiness, right?”
So, the credit card guy cancels my card immediately and I don’t have to pay for any of theses fraudulent purchases. But, you know, I’m not an expert, I’ve never done credit card fraud, but I always thought that, like, when you get someone’s information, you like, go and buy as much shit as you can as fast as you can, like electronics, or you know, computers, or at least like $200 from a big box store. Uh…and just, the purchase was just so different from that, that it’s always stuck with me. Because I have to believe that somewhere out there, there is a credit card fraudster who bought a very affordable set of glasses, took a look at yourself in a mirror and said, “Wow, I look amazing, except for this one blemish…” went to the nearest cosmetics store, bought one penny worth of blemish remover…applied it, and then said, “OK, it’s f***in’ gonna happen, and it’s gonna happen now. Signed up for Match.com, and then said “No, you know what, I’m gonna go for broke.” And signed up for two more dating sites, and did it on a stolen credit card that would get cancelled within a few days anyway…’cause if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen before the holidays are over. And I get it the holidays are a really fraught time, and it’s a really hard time to be alone. So, credit card thief, I hope you found what you were looking for, and everyone else, the next time you go, and buy a shower curtain, a head of lettuce, and bleach, at a big box store, I suggest you pay in cash.
Jamie J: Dave Hillis lives in West Philadelphia, where he writes, plays music, and works as a business analyst. He’s a longtime storyteller at First Person Arts. You know, there’s nothing like the unbridled…and sometimes uncontrollable…joy the holiday season lets loose in children. So…to take us all home, I thought I’d share a story I told at a first person arts Holiday Story Slam.
Jamie J: My very first Christmas memory…I musta been 4 or 5 years old. So, in October, the pre-Christmas shakedown started, OK?
“Little Jamie…if you don’t eat your spinach, Santa is not gonna come and bring you anything, OK.”
“OK, I’ll eat my spinach.”
“Little Jamie, if you don’t put Snoopy the dog away, after you finish playing with him, I’m gonna tell Santa you were naughty.”
“OK, and if you’re naughty, what do you get in your stocking for Christmas?”
“That’s right! I don’t want coal, I don’t want coal!”
So the shakedown started in October. And I did everything right. OK? I did everything, I turned off the tv, I didn’t talk back, I put Snoopy away, I did it all. Because I was told, Granny told me that Christmas night, Santa Claus was gonna be laid back in his chariot, diamond in the back, sunroof top, diggin’ the scene, with the gangster lean, right on! And he had, you know, all these reindeer, and they were gonna land on the roof of our house. He was gonna shimmy down, you know, the chimney, and he was gonna
leave us toys AFTER granny told them whether we were naughty or nice. Alright? I was ready…’cause I had done everything. So…the whole house is asleep, OK? And you know, keeping in mind, we had this beautiful tree. I mean back then we strung popcorn, OK, we put that all around, we had an angel on the top of the tree, and the tree was shimmering with light in the living room, and it was just calling to Santa…
“Santa!” You know, come and bring toys. So I could not sleep, I was so excited. Santa was coming and it was like, 1 o’clock in the morning, and I heard it…I heard Rudolph’s little bell. You know, the little tingly tingly tingly…and I heard the noise on the roof. And everyone else was sleeping. And I couldn’t help it I got up, and I ran downstairs, and under the tree musta been a thousand presents…OK! I was good! There were a thousand presents under the tree, right? So I run down there to the tree, and I open up the first present, right? And I pull the wrapping paper off, and it’s like this huge long sock. Right? So I put the sock on, but it like went up to like, my hips and I said no, I don’t like that, so I you know, threw that…the next one was like a big box, right? And so I rip the paper off if it, and
I open up the box, and it’s like this metal magic box. And I can see my face in it. And it’s got a long black tail, with two prongs hanging out the end of it. And there’s these two slits in it. And I remember seeing Granny put bread in the little slits, you know, before the toaster broke…you know, and I’m lookin’ at it, I’m shaking it, and I thought, I don’t like this. So I threw it up in the air, and I just kept digging through all the presents. All of them. Every one of them. Every one under the tree. I’m pulling the wrapping paper, and I’m throwing it up, and I’m opening boxes, and I’m throwing it up, and finally, I went through every present under the tree. Opened it all up. I’m laying back like a drunk in an alley after finishing a bottle of wine. I’m just drunk with the Christmas spirit. I’m just so joyous, Santa Claus has bought me stuff I didn’t even know I needed. OK? I’m just thrilled. And then, at the head of the stairs, I see a figure in the darkness. And I think, “He came back, to bring me more!” OK? And then as the figure moved toward the tree, he began to come into focus, right? And as he walked under the light of the angel, I could see it wasn’t Santa, it was my uncle Jimmy. And he looked around the room at me laying in this pile of wrapping paper and bows and empty boxes socks and toasters, and he looked and his face…his eyes
became saucers, and it looked like he took a big exhale like a tornado…and he went “ahhhhh!!”
and that’s where the memory ends for me. I don’t really remember what happened after that. But I know that that was not the end, but the beginning of a lesson for me. You see, Christmas is not something that you spend alone. It’s not just about one person. The joy of Christmas is the joy that we share, in being with people that we love and care about…and gift giving is just that, giving, and it’s about love and people. So I thank you, and I’m so glad I’m here with you guys celebrating.
Jamie J: You’ve been listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY, and it’s been supported by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Commonspace includes a monthly broadcast and podcasts available on iTunes and Stitcher. Please subscribe. Now, since the holiday stories in this show revolved around Christmas, we’d like to ask you to be sure and jump over to our Kwanzaa/Hannukah podcast! Special thanks to Naomi Starobin, who executive produced this episode. I’m Jamie Brunson, host, producer, and co-writer. Elisabeth Perez Luna is the Executive Producer. Associate Producer Ali L’Espearance wrote this episode. Our Commonspace team members are producer Mike Villers, Dan Gasiewski of First Person Arts, and Associate Producer Jen Cleary. Our archivist is Dr. Neil Bardhan. Our studio engineer is Al Banks, and our theme music is by Subglo. Now, as we sign off, I’m gonna let you all in on a little secret. Today’s episode wraps up Season 1 of Commonspace. But don’t you worry. We’ll be back with Season 2 in the spring, with more great stories…on Commonspace. Wherever you are, what ever you're doing this holiday season….do it with love. I’m Jamie J. Thank you for listening.