A Christmas Story


I remember vividly my first Christmas spent on Shelter Island. It was 1974.

My young and growing family (my wife and two of our children, age 16 months, 6 months and one on the way), decided to take a break from upstate New York living and have Christmas in our recently acquired Island bungalow. It was supposed to be for the summer and that meant no insulation or central heat.

But we were young and had heard that Shelter Island never got too cold in the winter anyway. We had a potbelly coal stove and an old-fashioned kerosene heater. Prior to our arrival, I made arrangements with Piccozzi’s to have the outside tank filled up, the outside coal bin loaded, and I made sure Jack Cahill delivered a full tank of propane. I did not want to run out of gas while cooking the Christmas roast.

We packed up our four-door 1969 Dodge Polara. It was a former sheriff’s car with 150,000 miles on it that I had recently purchased for $500 from Everett LeBlanc’s salvage yard in Bennington, Vermont. It ran well and held piles of stuff you need when traveling with kids. I made even more room in the cavernous trunk by mounting the spare tire on the trunk lid.
Karen, Richie, Lora and I made the five-hour trip from snow-covered Hoosick to the Island, which was about as warm as it is now. I even went clamming.

The first order of business when settling into the house was getting the place warm and removing the dampness and the scent of mildew. I fired up the kerosene heater — called a Florence heater — and very warm but strongly scented heat began to drive out the dampness. When the coal got burning in the potbelly stove, everything became toasty. However, the burning coal had a scent all its own. But everything was well-vented and the house was very comfortable.

While getting the temperature up, I also started up the water pump, one with a large wheel, that was located in a pit below the kitchen floor. It made a reassuring clunk every time it turned around.

Next on the list was getting a Christmas tree. We decided to get one that we could plant as a testament to our first Christmas here.

I went over to Blaise Laspia’s nursery with my son, Rich. He had a nice selection, though not very big. And at $25, they cost more than the cut ones. I rationalized the small size by saying that the ball of soil would raise the height of the tree. So I bought it and stuck it in the wheel on the trunk lid. It fit perfectly.

During the short drive back, my son, who standing in the back seat and looking out the window, said “Tee, tee!” I thought he was excited about just having a tree when I glanced in the mirror and noticed that the tree was gone.

So we turned around and I found the tree in the middle of the road. I tied it on the car this time.

We arrived back at the bungalow where my wife was playing pioneer woman, baking bread and pies and stringing cranberries and popcorn to place on the tree. She was also keeping the coal level up. The house stayed warm.

We decided on a suitable place in the living room for the tree, which did not look that small inside the house because the ceilings were low. We spent the rest of the day decorating it.

In the early evening, we went to Bliss’ Department Store to see Santa. A line of children went all the way out the door. Rich and Lora loved it. I took their picture with Santa who was, I believe, my uncle’s buddy, Ray Case.
We took turns shopping the next day and were able to do it all on the Island at Bliss’, the House of Glass and Jack’s. We were so surprised to discover that all the merchants here wrapped the presents!

The next day we went to Bohack’s to get our Christmas rib roast. We bought the smallest possible piece and it cost $16.
On Christmas Day after Santa had arrived, the whole house smelled of the wonderful scents of roasting beef and baking bread and pies.

It was a memorable time. That Christmas tree from 41 years ago still stands in the front yard on Midway Road. I planted it before we left, leaving the cranberry and popcorn strands on for the birds to eat.