2020: X – April A to Z… Family Stories
I’m back in 2020 for my fifth year of participating in the yearly April A to Z challenge… and as usual I’ve racked my brain scribbling ideas on paper since the end of last April. It wasn’t until January, that the light bulb finally went off in scrolling through the 85+ of unfinished blog posts in my draft folder. Bingo… there was my A to Z topic…
Family Stories as told to me… mostly by my husband!
From the moment I married into this Italian family… I fell in love with their stories… their memories… and the family. My husband grew up in West Haven, Connecticut… where there was so much to enjoy as a young boy… especially a place known as Savin Rock… although long gone now. It somewhat once resembled Coney Island… and even larger when his parents, aunts and uncles grew up. They had stories… and I was always an eager listener whenever they told those stories… remembering, and scribbling down to preserve, just as I did with the family recipes that had once only been in their heads. 2020 has became the year I’m telling many of those stories… along with my husband’s memories to preserve for the generations to come. Many of those who told me their stories, are no longer with us… and I hope to keep their memory alive in these stories… as they are now my family also… and I love them all!
My previous years of A to Z Challenges are:
- 2016: A to Z Southern Foods and Memories… they said write what you know… and being a girl born in the South… well this was what I knew.
- 2017: A to Z Conversations with Mama… it was a somewhat easy one for me to write as I’d journaled our conversations for years… I researched favorite topics to write.
- 2018: A to Z All About Nancy Drew… this one has been my favorite topic so far, and I don’t know if I’ll ever come up with another one to equal it
- 2019: A to Z Italian Famiglia Foods and Memories… I felt it was time to finally write the favorites of my husbands family foods.
Come sit a spell and enjoy!
Steve Insalaco with Aunt Dolly (Cambino-Alfonso)
My mother tells me that Christmas never seemed to appeal to me… no matter how hard she tried. Christmas morning would come… and being the strange child I was, and maybe still am… walked by the living room where the tree was… looked in… and walked on. What was wrong with me? Supposedly, a few days later I’d go in to see what Santa left under the tree. I truly must have been a one of a kind child… if mama remembers correctly! All my grandchildren rise very early… begging to go see… and usually yelled at to go back to bed until they see daylight! This past Christmas I heard one was up at 1 a.m…. way before Santa even arrived!
Did I have a Santa phobia when I was young… in wanting nothing to do with that jolly ol’ man? Daddy’s best friend came to the door once, dressed as Santa with a doll for me… I took one look and ran… hiding under the bed until he left. Maybe he traumatized me… and mama remembers that I never played with that doll! Possibly I waited so long in checking out my new toys… thinking that Santa would suddenly jump out from behind a chair… who knows what thoughts ran through my child mind!
While watching a Xmas movie of a family buying a Xmas tree, I asked Steve about his Xmas years… “We always had a live tree, no one had artificial trees except for, maybe, rich people – they were still new at the time. We would go out about a week before Xmas to pick out our tree – and we all went as a family. There were a few lots around town – one was across from Armstrong Rubber, another one was across from where Clancy Brother’s was, which was across from the Armstrong Warehouse, and another was on Campbell Avenue… across from the VA Hospital. They all had colored lights strung up over the lot, Xmas music playing and fires blazing in the steel drums to warm your hands… just like you see in the movies today; it was exciting and fun to go with the family to pick out your tree. Today Xmas is ruined when they put up the tree and decorate it so early… I liked it better back when I was a kid. I even remember the Xmas trees my grandparents had on the farm, but they were only small trees there… we were poor. After moving to 1st Avenue, they had bigger trees as Johnny and Freddie bought them and they were generous with their money. Freddie even bought the bedroom suite my grandparents had… my mother later used it and my daughter uses it today… it’s very classic, and well-made.”
I blogged “25 Days of Christmas in 2015 year and these were Steve’s memories.
Dec. 1, 2015: Day 1: Trees… “Holidays weren’t as commercial as they are today… no one brought a tree home any early than a week before Xmas. There were Xmas tree lots set up all over West Haven… wherever there was free space, someone opened up a tree lot. A typical tree lot had lights strung over the tops of trees clustered together… trees sitting on those “x” stands… and it seems like Silent Night was always playing. Most times it was snowing when we went to pick out our tree… which always put you more in the holiday spirit. Snow on the ground always seemed to make it feel more like Christmas was coming. It was usually the four of us, me, my brother and parents that went to look for the tree. All the lots were the same, so my father probably stopped at the first one we found… my parents weren’t picky, as I don’t remember us looking for a long time. We went there, found a tree, tied it on roof of the car, and home we went. Most times, we even put it up that very same night.”
“At Christmas Freddie and Johnny always brought home the biggest tree they could find. One tree was so tall that it couldn’t even stand upright in the living room… and what did Johnny do – he just cut off the top of the tree – making it fit!”
An early Xmas tree at hubby’s house… even blurred, it’s a treasure!
Another classic Xmas tree photo… same curtains as photos above. Smaller TV here with what looks like a car trophy on TV… could that have been one from Uncle Johnny’s many wins at Savin Rock? Everyone used tinsel and beads on their trees.
Dec. 2, 2015: Day 2: Christmas Cards… “Mama sometimes hung the cards received on the living room stairs ~ I would tape them along the handrail and they’d cover all the way up… or I’d hang a ribbon from one end of the wood cornices, over the curtains, to hang the cards. Mama sometimes sent out about 40 or more cards… my job was to seal the envelopes and add the stamps… and probably mail them also. As the years went by, less cards arrived … and fewer cards were mailed out. As postage stamps increased, everyone complained about sending out cards. (The wood cornices were made by Uncle Jimmy Donahue) He made them for everyone in the family and they often held the Christmas cards from a ribbon strung across.
Dec. 3, 2015: Day 3: Music… “Everything was not like it is today; the music didn’t really even start until about two weeks before Christmas; we only had a AM radio back then. Mama never had any Christmas albums but I remember she playing Italian music all the time – Mario Lanzo was her favorite… and playing them on her Zenith blonde finish Hi-Fi console. Everything in Christmas past was not like it is today. She played many records but they were mostly her Italian music. I don’t remember my mother having any specific Christmas albums years ago when I was young. If we listened to Christmas music, it would have been on a radio – and there were only A.M. stations back then. Today, the Christmas music starts before Thanksgiving and you find the trees up in the stores, before Halloween even begins… often now even in July… it so ruins the holidays!”
Dec. 4, 2015: Day 4: Lights… “No matter how many lights we had – we always ended up at the hardware store on Christmas Eve for a few replacement bulbs. I love the big colored lights we had on our tree… they were the best. The big pine trees on the side of our house were once much smaller than the 35 – 40 feet they are today! My father dug up those trees at his mother’s house in Shelton on Kneen St… and until they grew too tall for our ladders to reach, we hung lights on them every Christmas. My father had one of the electricians at Armstrong Rubber make him several light sets and we filled them with the biggest colored bulbs we could find. Daddy hung the lights himself until I was big enough to handle the ladder and reach the top. I then hung them every Christmas until the ladder didn’t reach any more… and then that was the end of lights on the pine trees. The pine tree on the left we were still able to hang lights on – but by 1971, when I married, it was way too high… now the “impossible” unless you had a bucket truck.”
“Uncle Johnny bought the first bubble lights in the family, and hung them on the tree at First Avenue. My father wouldn’t buy them – it wasn’t something he was going to spend his money on… to only use for a week and a half. Uncle Johnny was single… living at home… so most times he was the first one to buy something new… and always had the biggest tree in the family. One year it was so tall that they had to cut the top off to even bring it inside. I remember the huge lighted Santa face he bought and hung on the front of the house. My grandparents house on Christmas Eve, on First Avenue, was always alive with lights, family, fun and food.”
Dec. 5, 2015: Day 5: Christmas Recipes… “As a young boy, I paid no attention to recipes, I just wanted food… and I could eat you out of house and home! Holiday dinners were the best, as the house was usually filled with all your cousins. Xmas Eve was even better though, as everyone gathered at my grandmother’s house on First Avenue in West Haven. The tables were loaded with food, desserts, liquor and cordial bottles – everyone had to toast the holiday! The Xmas foods at my two grandmothers varied so differently… in Shelton I remember only having home-made pizza on Christmas Eve. When we arrived at my grandmother’s house in West Haven, they were serving seafood sauce over pasta, several types of fried fish like shrimp, smelts, cod, scallops, and calamari. And after all the food, came the desserts… trays and trays of cookies, and then fruit and nut trays. How did we eat all that? My grandmother Minnie and her daughters usually made the Zeppoles (fried dough balls) early Xmas Eve morning… serving later with honey drizzled on top. They were my favorite, and the first thing I ate when arriving.”
“The 7 Fishes of Christmas Eve dinner’
“Today, I make the seafood sauce for Christmas Eve… and I’ve perfected it as the best! I take it another step by picking all the meat out of the blue crabs to put back in the sauce; it enhances the taste and as no one ate the crabs after the meal anyway – the meat was being wasted. I hate wasting food! I haven’t attempted the stuffed shrimp yet as Jeanne still makes it. I always felt Christmas Eve is the best of the holidays… waiting all year for the seafood sauce as it never seems to taste right any other time of the year!”
Dec. 6, 2015: Day 6: Santa Claus… “I always knew who Santa was – it was so easy for me to figure out which uncle was playing him that night. Our first stop on Christmas Eve was always to Nonni’s house in Shelton. Usually after dinner, one of the uncles disappeared and soon you’d hear bells jingling as he came up the cellar stairs; they changed in the basement. It was often Uncle John, Uncle Tony or Uncle Hubie who played Santa. All the kids gathered in the living room… anxiously waiting to hear their names called as he pulled presents out of his big red sack. I remember one year I received a gas powered small airplane, but it was mostly clothes in those wrapped presents. Santa always made an appearance in Shelton, but only once in awhile did he stop at Grandma Minnie’s in West Haven – and it would be Uncle Mikie, my grandmother’s brother. I have no memories of going to see Santa as a child, sitting on his lap, or even telling him what I wanted for Christmas. Believing in Santa Claus wasn’t anything that I ever believed in. Why – because I had two uncles, Johnny and Frankie… who told me all about how the real world was… never telling me any make-believe stories or sugar-coating any stories. They were my idols – I believed in everything they did – and wanted to be just like them!”
Dec. 7, 2015: Day 7: Christmas Television and Movies… “I don’t remember watching any specific Christmas movies, but all the regular TV series had their own Christmas episodes. A few of my favorites were The Donna Reed Show, Ozzie and Harriet, Jeff’s Collie, and Leave it to Beaver. I basically watched whatever my parents watched, as there was only one TV set, and no remote control… it was the kids who they sent to change the channel. I liked the Ozzie and Harriet Christmas special the best – they made you feel like you were part of their family. Most of the programs I watched with my mother – she was the movie buff; we watched many Christmas classics together like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol or White Christmas with Bing Crosby… I don’t there’s anyone who hasn’t seen that one. Where was my father – well he was usually in the basement – working on a project; he seldom sat down to watch TV, until he retired. ”
Dec. 8, 2015: Day 8: Christmas Shopping... “I don’t remember any specific Christmas shopping – boys don’t care about shopping in the same way girls do. We only had one car, so if we wanted to go Christmas shopping in the city, we had to take the bus… and it wasn’t a short walk to catch it. My mother never took me downtown New Haven to shop, but I went a few times with my godmother Aunt Catherine, and one of those times was at Christmas.We went to S.S. Kresges, Grants and Woolworths – they were all on the same block. Woolworth’s always meant a seat at the counter for a sandwich; that’s where I had my first triple decker sandwich! One gift I remember she bought me on one of those trips was a new pair of shoes.”
Aunt Nancy remembers… “I have memories of going to Shartenburg’s in New Haven at Xmas, either with my mother or my sister Catherine. They had a wishing well in the middle of the store, and for a quarter you could fish and win a prize. I’m told now they also had a large train there at Xmas that kids could ride on… I kind of remember it, but not sure if I really do.”
Dec. 9, 2015: Day 9: Christmas Crafts… Unfortunately I have no Christmas craft memories… but I’ve contributed by helping over the years, as there was always something I needed to cut, glue or paint for my mother. I do remember one Christmas that I made her a white birch log candle holder in Boy Scouts. We had one of those fake cardboard fireplaces at Christmas in the living room… it seems everyone had one. She put it on top of that fake mantle… I cut pine branches off our pine tree to lay underneath it.”“
Dec. 10, 2015: Day 10: Christmas Traditions…“Christmas Eve was always the best day… besides the abundance of foods served at the evening meal, Santa came that night. I had two grandmothers nearby, and we went to each of their homes on Christmas Eve. Christmas at my other grandmother’s house in West Haven was the best place on Christmas Eve. We didn’t usually eat there as we arrived late, but if Grandma Minnie had stuffed eel left over… it was mine! We only had eel on that night if Uncle Freddie had caught them… they were never bought. She made the best, but unfortunately no one ever learned how to cook them. Some have tried, but she took that recipe with her… some dishes just can’t be duplicated! I never was around for the making of the Zeppoles, or ‘zapes, as we called them, but it was traditional to serve them Christmas Eve. Grandma, along with her daughters mixed up the dough early in the morning – then the painful process of all the frying began. The dough balls were piled high on a plate and drizzled with honey before serving. They were the first thing I ate whenever I arrived… no matter my age! Grandma Minnie’s house was always bustling with family, foods, drinks, and cookies… and by nights end, the presents under the tree were piled high! All the cousins gathered, anxiously waiting for their name to be called. Paper, ribbons and empty boxes soon took the place of where all those nicely wrapped presents had once sat. I remember my mother always saying that she often didn’t even know who gave us what… we never paid attention to the cards that came with the gifts – we just ripped into those presents – looking for a toy! Even at my house, Santa arrived on Christmas Eve – Christmas morning was just for playing with the new gifts and eating a holiday dinner. We didn’t have to wake early to see what had arrived, but we still woke early to play with our new toys.”
Dec. 11, 2015: Day 11: Christmas at Church … “Going to St. Paul’s church every Sunday was not something my family did weekly, but they did go several times a year. My best friend, Louie, went to church every Sunday with his parents and I often went with them. My family never went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve either – why I don’t know! I remember a couple of my aunts would leave near midnight to go to mass, but the majority of everyone there that night didn’t go.”
Dec. 12, 2015: Day 12: Fruitcake, Friend or Foe… Steve laughed when I asked him and “you mean that cake that gets passed around that nobody wants?” So I guess that means no memories! I did learn from Aunt Nancy that not all fruitcake is bad… she makes a fruitcake every Xmas… buying the nuts and ingredients even before Thanksgiving. You can read about it and see the recipe over HERE.”
Dec. 13, 2015: Day 13: Christmas in School … “I remember Christmas pageants in grammar school, but as we grew up, all that stopped. In high school we didn’t do anything, because we were all working and had no time.”
Dec. 14, 2015: Day 14: Christmas Cookies … “I never gave much thought to recipes in growing up – I just ate whatever my mother baked. Christmas cookies weren’t of much interest to me, as I’m strictly a Chocolate Chip Cookie man and my mother never made those at the holidays. If I was lucky, one of my aunts had my favorite on their cookie tray, along with Anginettes, another Italian favorite cookie of everyone. The original Anginette’s were made with orange juice in the batter – and while they were good, they don’t hold a candle to my mother’s Ricotta Anginettes. No one made them as well as my mother, except my wife, but now I’ve perfected them since I began making them… want the recipe, it’s over HERE. It was more my wife who paid attention to Christmas recipes and baking in years past… and she acquired all the family cookie recipes. She loved all their cookies – the very ones I never liked.” My favorite Christmas cookie my mother in law taught me is Cherry Winks. You can read the story and recipe over HERE.
Dec. 15, 2015: Day 15: Christmas Tree Decorations… “The one decoration that I haven’t parted with yet is the vintage snowman we had at my house when I grew up; I took it from my mom’s house a long time ago. She bought it at Barker’s Dept. Store in Orange – and it’s always been my favorite Christmas decoration.”
Dec. 16, 2015: Day 16: Christmas Travel… “Our travel on Christmas Eve was the same every year – first to Nonni’s house in Shelton, and later to Grandma Minnie’s in West Haven… which was always the most fun. It usually snowed lightly, either before we left, or at some point during our traveling; seeing the snow fall always made it feel more like Christmas. Traveling on that night was basically the same with our children as when I made that trip with my parents. The only thing difference was that it was mostly married adults when we took our children… while it was my single aunts and uncles when I was small – and they all gave gifts… as I was the first grandchild on both sides.”
Dec. 17, 2015: Day 17: Christmas Stories… “Uncle Freddie and Johnny always brought home the biggest Christmas tree they could find. One time the tree was so tall that it couldn’t even stand upright in the living room… and what did Johnny do… he just cut off the top of the tree… making it fit!”
Dec. 18, 2015: Day 18: Christmas Baking… “My mother made the best fudge, but she never made it at Christmas, that was for baking cookies. It was only made when the mood happened… or often when I started it.. then she would finish. It had to be stirred for an exact sixteen minutes – that I could handle, but I never could manage to make it come together at the end. Often she didn’t either, and she had to put it back on the heat to cook more. My wife is the one who perfected it and makes it the best. I’ll start it now, but I still can’t finish it… I always call her to pull it together… she knows the look and feel.” If you’d like to try Celia’s fudge… check it out HERE.
Remembering the Xmas cookie bakers over HERE…
Dec. 19, 2015: Day 19: Christmas Gifts… “I don’t remember receiving big or expensive gifts like my kids have gotten. I’d get one big gift… and then that was pretty much it; my parents got even less than I did. Xmas was fun back then though, not commercial like it is today. People looked forward to it… we didn’t decorate until about two weeks before, not like today when they begin several weeks earlier.”
“I still have a few Christmas presents that managed to survive through the years. One is my Brownie camera… and until I went in the Air Force, I still even had the original box… but it wasn’t anywhere to be found when I returned home. I took quite a few pictures with that camera at holidays; the most expensive part was paying for the film developing.
Young boy on sofa is hubby… maybe age 6 here. Sure wish the picture was clearer so I could check out the gifts under the tree. Note the leaf patterned rug and his mother’s “must have” sectional sofa he remembered. What I first noticed in this photograph was the “baseball” on the floor. It makes me remember the missing ball he lost in the attic, as a young boy… and still searched for everytime he was in the attic.
Dec. 21, 2015: Christmas Wishes…“I was in Okinawa from October 1968 through April 1969. Bob Hope came in Xmas of 1968 on a USA Tour… and I wanted tickets. Who got tickets for the show – the officers, not us poor working slobs. That was my first insight into how politics worked, and I quickly remembered my Uncle Johnny’s words of telling me how things really worked.”
Dec. 21, 2015: Day 21: Christmas Parties … My father worked at Armstrong Rubber,and they had Christmas Parties for the children; I remember my mother taking me. When my kids were small Armstrong union also had parties for the families at Xmas… they gave out really nice and expensive toys… it was held in the auditorium of Gianotti Junior High (which previously had been a high school). One year Stephen got a nice Tonka truck and I think Melissa received a wagon full of blocks.”
Dec. 22, 2015: Day 22: Christmas Homecoming… My best homecoming was the day I was picked up at the airport in September by my father and wife… I was returning home from Thailand… and spending my first Christmas with my wife.”
Dec. 23, 2015: Day 23: The Meaning of Christmas … Spending with Family!
Dec. 24, 2015: Day 24: Christmas Eve … “Every Xmas Eve Uncle Johnny went to Chancey Brothers to buy Xmas gifts; a large store at Savin Rock. I remember him coming in that night with a big box of toys. He was my brother’s godfather and he brought bring him a seperate big box of toys. Uncle Johnny never shopped any earlier than Xmas Eve! One Xmas he came with a huge Santa head that he put on the front of the house – it looked just like a Santa face… and it was huge! You never knew what he would come in with – always bringing in the biggest; this was before he married.”
Dec. 25, 2015: Day 25: Merry Christmas 🙂 “On Xmas day we usually ate dinner at home, as we had spent Christmas Eve with both grandparents… sometimes we ate with Aunt Catherine… it was a day I’d rather stay home to play with my toys.”
To see more Xmas photos that went with these stories, click over HERE!
Maybe this deer hunting trip also brought a Xmas tree! (L. Freddie, R. Johnny, kneeling George Froehlich)
“I remember my uncles often bringing home Xmas trees from their hunting trips. You’d see them pull in with this huge tree strapped on the roof of the car and a deer tied on the front… they never came home without a deer.”
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