The Book and Other Gifts

The Grill
6th and Penn Streets, Camden NJ
owned by Dorothy and Richard Large

The Book and Other Gifts

     The small rectangular gift sat on the top of a pyramid of Christmas gifts on the top of the pool table in Aunt Helen’s basement. The table held about fifteen piles of gifts, all of the mounds higher than my six-year-old head. The extended Large family was a large family, and each of the cousins received gifts from each aunt and uncle. Stores such as John’s Bargain and Harry’s Discount made Christmas shopping easy and affordable for growing families in 1960, and the boxes seemed to follow a somewhat predictable pattern. For example, the boys under age ten all had a big gift wrapped in a snowman motif at the bottom of their piles. I knew those gifts held plastic World War II style rifles, because I was with my parents when they bought them on sale at the toy store. 

     The cousins were allowed to open only one gift at the party. I had to choose carefully. I was such an Oh So Very Clever Girl because I had a gift-opening plan: if I waited until a few of the female cousins in my age range opened their gifts, I would have an educated guess as to each package’s contents. One year, almost all the girls received stuffed Lassie dogs from Uncle Phil; another, Mr. Potato Head from Aunt Marie. 

     Aunt Dot’s gifts were often unusual. Aunt Dot was different from the other married aunts. She did not have children. Aunt Dot was a businesswoman who owned a bar, the Grill in Camden, with my Uncle Rich. They lived above the bar, where Aunt Dot had her own office in which she “kept the books,” which were full, not of words, but of columns and columns of numbers. Her apartment had a roof deck, which she allowed my brother Jimmy and me to visit from time to time, if we were well-behaved. From the roof, we could see the Camden City Hall, probably the tallest building in the world after the Empire State Building. Aunt Dot had a Hummel figurine collection, which I was not allowed to touch, no way, no how, and I never did. Her kitchen had what she called a “dumb waiter,” which was a contraption that sent food and plates down to the bar and up again. She also employed a housekeeper who kept the apartment spotless.

     These unusual Aunt Dot-isms meant that the gift on the pinnacle of the pile was either a gem or a dud. I was fixated on that small package. Was it worth the risk? If a dud, I would be stuck with it while the other cousins played with their new toys.

     I stood on tippy-toes and picked the small rectangle. It had a solid heft in my hand, which was unusual. I hesitated for a moment, then tore off the wrapping paper.

     A book. The gift was a book. More specifically, the gift was the novel Heidi by Johanna Spyri. 

     I didn’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed. I was in first grade and had just begun to learn to read that fall. I had only read school books and primers about John and Mary (the parochial school version of the Dick and Jane series). I had certainly not read any book so thick and with no pictures. I thought awhile, then decided that the book was special. I felt grown up just owning it. I would read it and become just as smart as all my older cousins plus all the adults in the room. I would know the secrets known only by those who could read. 

     One day that January, after the excitement of the holidays wore off, I sat down with Heidi. I was not prepared for the effect that reading a novel would have on my mind. My small world expanded to include foreign lands and new emotions. My brain swelled with new ideas and possibilities, and my heart burst with love and hope and miracles. While I was reading Heidi, I was not in South Jersey, but in the Swiss alps with Grandfather and Peter, and the blind grandmother. I wanted goat’s milk and cheese for lunch, even though I hated milk and didn’t like cheese without bologna. 

     I held my breath as Clara took her first steps without her wheelchair. The nuns had taught us about God, but Heidi introduced me to Mother Nature. In a world of plastics and disposables, I learned that the environment could cure ills both physical and emotional. 

     The book from Aunt Dot was just one gift that expanded my thinking. My aunt showed me that that women could run businesses and have offices. A woman could live in an apartment in the city and collect delicate figurines. A woman could stand on her own roof at night and gaze upon a world that I could only see through books. Eventually, those books would lead me to explore that world on my own. 

My first house? Yes, in the city with a roof deck and a library.

…And, that’s what Deb said.

A POLISH CAMDEN KITCHEN

by Deborah Large Fox

My dziadek, Watson (Wencel) Burdalski,
in his kitchen at 1545 Mt. Ephraim Avenue, Camden NJ
about 1950

            “Children should be seen and not heard.”

            To use another saying common to my parents’ generation, if I had a nickel for every time I heard that admonishment as a child, I’d be a rich woman. But I have since learned to be thankful for those mute occasions. I sat quietly in the background– an odd, quiet child registering sights and sounds and smells other people missed.

            Being out of sight, out of mind had its advantages. I was allowed to keep my Polish “Dzia Dzia” company while he worked in his produce store.  I sat quietly, watching, listening, smelling, sometimes tasting if permitted. And while I cannot recall dates or names without error, I do remember the shiny black patent leather shoes the local bookie wore, the feel of sawdust scrunching under my white Keds sneakers, and the smell of fresh fish on ice. If today I see a blank fish eye staring back at me at the supermarket, I freeze. I am five years old again, surreptitiously poking at the shiny fins and gills.

            What a time machine our senses are–memory keepers ready to transport us over years in an instant! I catch a whiff of cigar smoke outdoors, and I am sitting on Dzia Dzia’s lap.  I taste dill in a noveau cuisine restaurant dish, and I am at his dinner table, almost a half century ago, savoring every drop of his wild mushroom soup, forbidden to me when my parents were present, for no one knew what sidewalk crack spawned the possibly poisonous fungi. The smell of onions baking in butter produces a tear in my eye, but not from the vapors. My throat catches because I am suddenly in a Camden kitchen again, feeling the heat of the oven, smelling the sizzling chicken fat, rolling the bitter sauerkraut on my tongue. 

            Every fall, I buy a pomegranate.  The sight of its leathery skin evokes the feel of the red juice running down my fingers, the crunch of the seeds on my stained teeth, and the face of Dzia Dzia, smiling as he watched me devour every last juicy seed.  I place it on my windowsill and glance at it while I am cooking, and Dzia Dzia is with me still.