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Happy days: Readers' special moments

Gavin Donohue and his cousin Caitlin O’Hara, both

Gavin Donohue and his cousin Caitlin O’Hara, both 9, December 2004. Photo Credit: Handout

We asked Act 2 readers to tell us about their happiest holiday moments. The stories they share here are about their children, grandchildren and cherished memories of bygone days.

A jolly, healthy little elf

In the fall of 2004, our 9-year-old grandson Gavin Donohue was diagnosed with lymphoma. He was a very sick little boy. He went through spinal taps, chemo, radiation, frequent hospitalization, and came through in mid-December, free and clear of tumors.

Each Christmas, our 23 grandchildren take turns playing Santa and Mrs. Claus. In 2004, we had 19 grandchildren, and it was Gavin's turn to be the jolly old elf.

We put off Christmas for one week, to make sure the rest of the children were germ-free, and sure enough, we celebrated with our first bald Santa! The wig and beard covered all his hairlessness, and we were so thankful to have our little guy well and ready to party.

He is 17 now, a senior in high school, waiting for his college acceptance; tall, dark, handsome and healthy. We are forever grateful.

Lois McDonald, Merrick


Santa didn't forget

It was Christmas 1960 in the beautiful Bronx. My sister, Mary Grace, was 12 and a half, I was 8 and a half, and our baby sister, Roxane, was not yet 6 months old. This would be her first Christmas. I was so excited to finally be a big sister! It seemed that I had waited forever for my parents to give us a younger sibling, but I had already had multiple surgeries and many hospital stays in my young life, and was always told that God would send a new baby when the time was right.

We never had a car or went on vacation when we were young, but we never realized that our parents' finances were tight. My dad was the only one of his siblings to marry, and somehow Santa always seemed to leave that special present at Grandma Nonna's house. Nonna would tell us she would go up on the flat roof of her house on Christmas Eve to wave down Santa Claus with her broom to remind him to leave something there for her grandchildren, and, of course, we believed her.

That year -- the last before I found out the truth about Santa -- was not a good one. Nonna had been in the hospital, and, as 1960 was before the inception of Medicare, my aunt and uncles, who lived with Nonna, were paying her hospital bills. We were told that Santa would probably only leave one present each at Nonna's house because Santa had a very long list that year.

I wanted a Thumbelina doll, and my older sister, a budding adolescent, wanted a transistor radio, but mostly, I hoped that Santa knew we had a new baby in the house and would bring something for her as well. As Christmas Eve approached, I remember asking my mother if we should leave Santa a note, telling him about the baby. My mother, born in Italy, came to America as an adult and really couldn't write in English. I wish that note had not disappeared because I can only imagine now, between the two of us, how we composed it! Christmas morning finally arrived, and the first thing I looked for was a gift for my baby sister. I was so happy to see something for her amid the gifts under the tree! I can still see that little baby toy -- the type that attached to the inside of the coach carriages in style back then -- it was red and white and made a rattle noise. Only then did I look to see what was for me: A large Disney puzzle and a wooden table and chair set, which my little sister and I used for years (and which I still have in my basement). And, yes, Santa left Thumbelina and a Motorola transistor radio at Nonna's house. Nonna may have been too sick to climb up to the roof, but she waited for Santa to fly over her street and flagged him down by her pantry window!

The radio has been gone for decades, but Thumbelina is royally ensconced in an upstairs bedroom and is still in perfect working order. However, what I remember best about that Christmas 52 years ago is that I would not have enjoyed it if my sister did not receive a gift, as little as she was. Of course, my parents would have gifts for the baby under the tree! But I couldn't have known that beforehand. I must have taken to heart the Bible lesson drummed into me by the nuns who taught me to love thy neighbor (or sister) as thy self.

No other Christmas stands out in my mind more than that one, and I guess it will always be my favorite Christmas.

Diane C. Hunter, Plainview


It was only a lump

Our son, Alec, was born in 1966, a year after we moved to our new home in Stony Brook. In 1967, I noticed what I thought was a mosquito bite on his thigh. Then, at his regularly scheduled pediatric checkup, the doctor assured me that it was not a mosquito bite. The suspect lump was biopsied and sent to a laboratory.

We told no one about the biopsy, keeping the dreadful fear to ourselves and started preparing for a large family Thanksgiving gathering. The Grumman Corp. made a gift to their employees of a huge turkey at either Thanksgiving or Christmas. My husband opted for Thanksgiving, so we had a 30-pound gobbler for our feast. I had kept my mild hysteria at bay by cooking and baking everything a big refrigerator could hold, but it was a lame plan. My husband and I were on the thin edge.

Then, in the middle of the night, the night before Thanksgiving, the phone rang. The caller was the head of Pediatric Pathology at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital and she said that she was calling at that hour because she didn't want us to worry one extra minute. The biopsied specimen had been examined by several doctors, including herself, and their opinion was that it was not malignant!

It was fortunate that I had done so much cooking before Thanksgiving; that morning found us too happy to think straight. Our banquet was set out on the only table we owned, a long aluminum beauty on U-shaped legs. Thinking that the crowd would have better access to the food if the table was moved a bit farther into the room, I stood at the back of the table and pushed.

No magician could have pulled off a better trick; the rear legs caved, and the table became a sliding pond. The tablecloth, bearing the turkey, platters and bowls filled with food were suddenly arranged across the kitchen floor! Not a drop spilled, not a single drop!

At that point, I totally lost my cool. Through tears of relief and happiness, we told everyone the reason for our joy. It was the most wonderful Thanksgiving!

Frane L. Helner, Stony Brook


Mom's cookie helper

Every year around this time, my mother would transform our kitchen into a very productive, well organized cookie factory, aka "Operation Betty Crocker." As a child, I knew when baking day was drawing near. A plastic container filled with red and green sprinkles would appear on the kitchen counter with two family-size cookie tins, one decorated with the familiar Currier & Ives sleigh ride scene and the other with the most effervescent Santa Claus my little eyes had ever seen.

Instrumental to the success of baking day was the arsenal of supplies used every year and then carefully stowed away by my mother for safekeeping until the next year. On that beloved day, I would follow her down the hallway. A petite woman, she would stand on a chair and reach high, very high, into the pantry and retrieve the items.

First, our uniforms: matching Christmas aprons, beautifully handmade by my mother, with embroidered poinsettias on each pocket. Second, a corrugated box overflowing with tin cookie cutters and third, a very special book.

With uniforms on and hands washed, we would begin. I saw myself with quite an important role, second in command, personally commissioned by the most loving person in my world. I was on a mission, and I was determined to carefully place a pleasing combination of those red and green sprinkles on every cookie. The reward for my laborious efforts: licking a spoon that was lathered in a silky smooth, sweet batter. I had first dibs on that spoon, no negotiating with older siblings. To my delight, baking day commenced at 8 a.m. on a school day for my four older siblings, and I was not of school age.

As the cookies baked and a delicious aroma wafted through the house, my mother would carefully remove the very special book from the Saran Wrap it had been encased in and begin to read "The Gingerbread Man" to me. Oh, how I loved that book. The cover was a bit tattered, the pages a bit stained, but it was a true Christmas classic! The story came alive for me with my mother's sweet voice.

Only a few short years ago, my mother passed on. As the holidays approach, the sadness and sorrow seem magnified. I also do not have the recipe for those Christmas cookies. But my heart tells me this: As my mother's soft voice read the story to me year after year, she was really providing me with ingredients to a much more important recipe -- a fond memory with her that would last a lifetime.

Thanks Mom. Merry Christmas.

Patricia Sorrentino Rossi, North Merrick


The clan was all there

Since I come from a large Italian family, gathering with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins was the norm. It never dawned on me as a child that this was "tradition" in the making. The celebration of Christmas was my favorite of all holidays for many reasons, but the monumental ones in our family were the celebrations of my Uncle Sal's birthday on Christmas Eve and my dad's birthday on Christmas Day. My grandma would make the traditional Italian fish dishes, and afterward, we would attend midnight Mass. Once back at the house, we gathered in the living room and passed out copies of Christmas carols. We all joined in until Grandma called us to the table for some of her delicious desserts. Her struffoli were incomparable. Better known in today's bakeries as "honey balls," these little fried confections of dough were tossed in honey and adorned with chopped nuts and glazed cherries. Presents always seemed secondary to all the love and fun that flowed on these memorable occasions. I find myself hanging onto some of Grandma's traditions with my own family. Many years have passed, and I reminisce about the days of yesteryear surrounded by a loving family.

I will always l be grateful for the lifetime of memories this holiday invokes.

Diane Sciacchitano, North Massapequa


Tears of joy, not sadness

After three miscarriages, my daughter, Lisa, was finally able to carry her baby (with the help of daily injections) full term. Lisa was considered to be at high risk and needed to see a specialist as well as her obstetrician more frequently than usual during her pregnancy, with sonograms being done monthly. One of her many, many tests revealed the baby might have Down syndrome. We anxiously awaited a confirmation one way or the other, and our wished-for results came while we were having our annual family Christmas breakfast. We were downstairs when the phone rang upstairs, and Lisa answered it. She began to cry furiously. Her husband, Patrick, was ready to jump the entire staircase in one leap when, with a mother's ear recognizing the sounds of the crying, I quickly told him that Lisa's tears were tears of joy. And, thank God, I was right. Everything was fine with our as-yet-unborn little girl, Mackenzie.

Christmas 2007 remains our "happiest holiday." However, since we now have three healthy, beautiful grandchildren -- Mackenzie, Aubrielle and Devin -- to celebrate with, every Christmas is the "happiest holiday."

Lynn Stankowitz, North Babylon

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