TODAY'S PAPER
38° Good Afternoon
38° Good Afternoon
OpinionEssays

Gifts not the same anymore

Credit: Getty Images/jayk7

In the years after the world wars, Farmingdale welcomed the displaced, as did most other towns on Long Island. There was no talk of walls or fences. They found homes, jobs in defense plants and sent their children to school and prospered. The largest group, Italians, settled along the streets behind Main Street, just behind the A&P, reaching to the railroad tracks.

Walking those streets was like visiting a town in Italy. The children spoke perfect English outside the house and pure Italian inside. After work and on weekends, the families tended neat gardens, growing familiar vegetables. Some had goats, others grape arbors. Bocce courts were all over the neighborhood, a pleasant area to stroll. My dad, Benjamin, was the letter carrier for the area, and when he delivered mail, he was greeted in Italian. He answered with a large grin and a wave.

Around Christmas, it was traditional to tip the letter carrier. I remember Pop coming home with envelopes containing good wishes for the holidays and New Year and a dollar or two folded neatly. Many on his route would give him homemade gifts and jars of food. This presented a problem, as they were not aware of our family’s Jewish dietary laws.

Pop would put the jars of mysterious ethnic specialties on the table, and my mom, dad, sister and I would open them, including the insalata di baccalà (salt cod salad), spaghetti with anchovies, and frittelle (or zeppole, Italian-style Christmas doughnuts). We’d smell them and try to determine if they were forbidden foods. We were unsure of the grilled eel. My mother would keep a record of which jar each food was in and the label. Most of the distinctive containers started life as peanut butter or jelly jars. Most of the gifts, though, were acceptable.

Homemade wine graced some gift baskets. I recall a nearby wine press and the old men arguing about "too much sugar" or "too much water." Either way, the wine was good, red and hearty. Dad would have a glass when he came home on a cold winter’s day.

At Hanukkah, after a few glasses of the wine but before dinner, we’d light the candles and hear the story of the rebellion and how the oil lasted eight days, with Pop chanting the blessings in his rich, Lithuanian baritone. Then the real fun came, opening the rest of his presents.

Italians weren’t the only ones on his route. Homemade knitted gloves and socks from the Norwegian and German women were made of wool thick enough to stave off the most violent storm. The socks had a seam that went along the bottom of your foot, and if you got that wet and cold, it was like walking on a razor blade. Pot holders displayed scenes of their home countries.

To keep his head warm, Dad received knit hats, which weren’t exactly in compliance with U.S. Postal Service uniform regulations. And, occasionally, he’d get a sweater designed to fend off the next ice age. All were accepted with grace, cleaned jars returned, along with a kind note thanking the giver.

Pop’s favorites? They were the few jars of sweet gherkins from Stern’s Pickle Works, containing enough spice to keep him going for a winter and a half, and the hot peppers which would melt that next ice age.

Reader Fred Marks lives in Wantagh.

Columns