You’ve Been Bullied, Charlie Brown

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The other night I watched back-to-back Charlie Brown Valentine’s Day specials. It had been years since I had watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with my kids, and I was in the mood for a bit of nostalgia. Imagine my surprise when I found myself slightly disturbed by the stories in “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown” and “A Charlie Brown Valentine.”

The gist of the plot in “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown” is that Charlie never gets any valentines from friends or classmates. He sits forlornly by his mailbox waiting for the impossible: that someone will like him enough to send him a heart-shaped missive. I’ve always known, of course, that the whole persona of Charlie Brown from Charles M. Schultz’s comic strip and TV specials is that of an unpopular loser. His classmates openly make fun of his attempts to direct a Christmas play and his choice of a spindly little tree that is like a kindred spirit to Charlie. He’s clumsy and glum and never seems to catch a break.

But something in these Valentine’s Day specials really struck me as hard and mean-spirited. First of all, from today’s perspective, it is horrifying that kids would be allowed to bring to school valentines for some, but not all, of the children in their classes. Charlie stands there empty-handed while Schroeder publicly hands out all the valentines. Of course, there are none for Charlie Brown.

On top of the humiliation regularly heaped upon Charlie Brown in these cartoons, the other kids are openly hostile to each other. When Charlie’s little sister Sally pesters Linus about getting candy or a card from him, he shouts at her and tells her he’s not getting her anything. Ditto with the exasperated Schroeder dealing with the ever-persistent Lucy. Even Charlie himself is no Galahad as he spurns the advances of both Marcie and Peppermint Patty in “A Charlie Brown Valentine.”

The world of Charlie Brown is perhaps meant to signify the meanness of adults as seen through the eyes of children. Or maybe modern society has evolved into insisting that children treat each other better, at least on the surface. Imagine a modern elementary school that would allow kids to openly exclude another child from a valentine or an invitation to a birthday party. Maybe we have turned into a kinder, gentler society after all.

My sense of nostalgia definitely was not awakened as I watched the lovelorn world of a Charlie Brown Valentine’s Day special. When you really think about these stories, an apter title for them all would be “You’re a loser, Charlie Brown.” Next time I’m in the mood for nostalgia, I’ll pick something more wholesome, such as “Psycho.”

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Christmas Memories

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242AB00E00000578-2881290-image-a-28_1419262681192.jpgAlthough I am mostly a forward-looking person, at Christmas I enjoy indulging in a bit of nostalgia. As a writer, I have always appreciated the Christmas vignettes of well-known authors, such as Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and the poet Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” In that spirit, I’d like to reminisce about my own childhood Christmases in a family of 13.

Christmas Eve seemed to take forever to arrive. After weeks of thumbing through the dog-eared pages of the Sears Roebuck & Company Christmas wish book, we kids were beside ourselves anticipating Santa’s visit and the toys we were dreaming of being placed magically under our Christmas tree.

Just a few days earlier, my father had bought a real balsam fir from the local tree lot and set it up in our basement. He’d wound the colored lights around the tree with the patience of Job. Then began our painstaking job of hanging the tinsel. Strand by strand, we hung each piece just so on the branches until the tree shimmered. Finally, we were allowed to hang the ornaments, many of them homemade by us and Dad, who loved art projects, paint by numbers, model airplanes and the like. I still have a couple of the sorry looking satin ball ornaments I decorated years ago with the bare minimum of flourishes. Art was never my strong suit.

But baking was. My favorite Christmas activity was baking cookies with my mother and sisters. Our table was covered with cookie pans, colored decorations, flour and the cookie press, which made adorable and delicious little spritz cookies that looked like trees and stars. My mother would color some of the dough green and red for an added festive touch. While we rolled and decorated and baked, we listened to Christmas songs on the hi-fi and sang along, attempting harmonies we’d learned in chorus class.

In school we cut out snowflakes and made cards with a lot of glitter and thick white paste from a jar with a plastic stick. We visited the Nativity scene at church and noticed that the manger was empty, awaiting the baby Jesus’ birth on Christmas. We sang the traditional carols of the season and lit the Advent candles each week – first one, then two, then the pink one, and finally all four in a circle, the four Sundays of waiting for Emmanuel.

In our big Catholic family, religion was central to our identity and to Christmas. Before we were even allowed to peek at what Santa had brought us on Christmas morning, we would bundle off to Christmas Mass. It was so hard to sit through an hour of prayers and songs, kneeling, standing, and sitting. All I could think about was my present under the tree. Even the arrival of baby Jesus in the manger couldn’t distract me.

The night before, Christmas Eve, I had found it so hard to sleep. I lay snug in my bed near the hissing radiator and strained to hear reindeer hoofbeats on our roof. I was sure I’d never fall asleep until, all at once, a filtered light shone through the curtains and onto the snow-ladened yard, and I knew Christmas had come at last.

All eleven of us kids sat at the long table in our breakfast room and choked down food, scarcely noticing what it was. We dressed in our red velvet jumpers, each of them painstakingly sewn by Mom. Our hair was brushed, and our patent leather shoes shone, and we passed the closed basement door longingly, knowing that Santa had come last night and deposited the mother lode down there under our tree. Into our galoshes, our coats, and our mittens, which were attached by a clip to our coats so that they wouldn’t get lost, we ventured into the cold and piled into our station wagon.

After Mass and the riot of 13 people removing all their winter outerwear (and, of course, hanging it up neatly), it was finally time. We lined up in the kitchen from youngest to oldest. My dad opened the door and went down the basement stairs with his camera so that he could film us coming down. Then pandemonium. We galloped down the stairs with shrieks of glee and ran to our spots around the tree.

The mountain of gifts seemed enormous. In reality, we each received two or three things. Our excited chatter filled the room, and my parents wearily watched us from a couple of easy chairs. Dolls, toy cars, games, soft and cozy pajamas. One year my younger sister and I received a joint gift – a beautiful dollhouse with tiny furniture and a little family. I still remember my favorite piece from that dollhouse: a red velvet chaise longue. It seemed so elegant, as if a rich family resided in that toy mansion. After sufficient oohing and ahhing over our gifts, we checked the socks we had hung by the fireplace. Invariably, there would be plenty of hard candy stuffed inside and, at the bottom, a perfectly round tangerine.

Later on, we would have an early Christmas dinner in our dining room and then visit relatives. After a long, full day, we would go to bed and sleep heavily, our days of waiting and longing finally fulfilled. And in the morning, if we were lucky, there would be snow to play in. And I could start dreaming – of my January birthday!

 

 

Sweet Sundays

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When I was young, Sunday was a family day. First and foremost, it was a day to dress up and go to church. My sisters and I always wore dresses, nice shoes, and hats or chapel veils on our heads. The boys wore nice slacks and freshly ironed shirts while my father wore a suit and tie.

On Sundays, we stayed in our dress clothes all day long. This practice was inadvertently responsible for my ruining my First Communion dress. My mother had sewn a white eyelet dress for the occasion. After I made my First Holy Communion, my practical mother decided to dye the dress green so that I could wear it more often. One Sunday I was sliding down a slide in my green dress when the skirt got caught and ripped horribly.

We had our biggest meal mid-afternoon on Sundays. It was usually something like a beef or pork roast. Afterwards, we would often visit one of my grandmothers. Grandma I. lived in the upper apartment of a two-flat. The vestibule always smelled like home cooking, and in the summer the Cubs game was always on TV. Grandma C. lived in a little bungalow with a large garden filled with Grandpa’s tomato vines. My Italian Grandma C. loved to feed us, and Grandpa C. would exhort us, “Mangia, mangia” from his place at the head of the table.

In the good old days of my youth, most businesses were closed. There was nothing much to do except play outside, read, visit family, or go for a drive. My dad loved to take us on these Sunday drives. We might visit the arboretum or a park called Cantigny, which was filled with World War I relics. Sometimes we would drive into Chicago and run around Buckingham Fountain, an ornate structure on the lakefront.

Sunday evenings meant suppers, a more casual, snack-like meal than our usual dinners. Being a picky eater, I found this simpler fare much more to my liking. Then our whole family would gather around the TV set and watch The Lawrence Welk Show or The Wonderful World of Disney. Sometimes my mom would make popcorn. I especially loved Jiffy Pop because you could watch the flat aluminum package swell up on the stove and hear the magical kernels popping.

Sundays nowadays are just as busy as every other day of the week. My kids have sports, my husband often has work calls or emails to make, and most stores are open so that I find myself fighting the crowds at our local supermarket. The days of visiting grandparents and aimlessly driving around are long gone.

I miss the peace of those Sundays. Maybe it’s time to bring backs those days of sweet nothings.

Scary Sixties Music

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When I think of popular music from the 1960s, bouncy, happy tunes come to mind: “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Twist and Shout,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Most of us think of the Sixties as a simpler, more innocent time in the world of music.

The other day, though, I heard the old Monkees TV series theme song and was a little creeped out with the following lyrics:

“Any time
Anywhere
Just look over your shoulder
We’ll be standing there”

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Can you imagine Mickey Dolenz peering in your window at you? I shudder at the thought.

Hearing those lyrics reminded me of a Beatles song from the Sixties called “Run for Your Life.” It’s a bouncy little ditty, so I never really reflected on the lyrics. Here are some of them:

“I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.
You’d better keep your head, little girl, cause you don’t know where I am.
You better run for your life if you can, little girl,
Hide your head in the sand, little girl
Catch you with another man
That’s the end (uh), little girl.”

And I thought Eminem’s spouse abuse raps were bad!

For some reason, there were lots of songs about death back in the Sixties (apart from Vietnam War protest tunes, that is). The song “Leader of the Pack” is about a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who dies tragically in a car crash. And “Ode to Billie Joe” features both suicide and infanticide.

But the ultimate creepy song that haunted the Sixties for me was the ghostly “Laurie” by Dickey Lee. If you haven’t heard it, give it a listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0N4nyYS5aA&list=RDM0N4nyYS5aA#t=113

So next time you go romanticizing the feel good songs of the 60s, remember: “Strange things happen in this world.”