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Dora Silvers is a longtime Norwalk resident who grew up in New Jersey, south of New York City. Her recollection of one Christmas Eve in the 1940’s gives an intimate glimpse of Jewish/Catholic relations during the difficult time of war and lingering Depression. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
It was 1943 and our family had just finished a Hanukkah dinner with potato pancakes and applesauce when my friend Sylvia knocked on the door. We were both 14 years old and looking for something to do.
It was also Christmas Eve and the stores were open late, so we decided to walk to the five-and-ten and buy a jigsaw puzzle to put together.
It was a cold, windy night, but we enjoyed the walk with the brightly lit decorations and Christmas trees on display in the windows. A block from Woolworth’s, we passed the Catholic orphanage where a nun was sweeping snow from the steps.
I knew the nun because I went to school and was friends with some of the children at the orphanage. Not everyone who lived there was an orphan; some parents were unable to support their children. This had happened to some of my own family members in New York when an uncle needed to have surgery and his wife went to work.
“Merry Christmas, Sister Ana Marie,” I said.
“Merry Christmas, girls,” Sister Ana Marie replied.
“Is the tree decorated?” I asked.
“The children will decorate it after dinner. There aren’t many gifts this year,” she added a little sadly as she went indoors.
“How much money do you have?” Sylvia asked me.
I looked in my wallet and found $4. “How much do you have?’ I asked her.
“I have $3 from baby-sitting.”
A big sign at the five-and-ten – “Clearance Sale” – suddenly gave me an idea.
“Why don’t we buy things for the children instead of ourselves?” I asked Sylvia, who quickly agreed.
It felt good to get out of the cold and into the warm store. And so many items were on sale! Jigsaw puzzles were 25 cents, so we picked out four. Hardcover books for boys and girls also cost a quarter, so we chose four of those too. Knitted caps were 50 cents, so we bought two in blue and two in red.
On a nearby table were sheets of holiday wrapping paper for just two cents each; we bought twelve. Then we chose fourteen candy canes for a penny each. The two extra were for us, because why shouldn’t we have a little treat as well?
“How are we going to get the gifts wrapped and give them to the nuns?’ Sylvia asked.
“The library hallway is always open for people to return books,” I remembered. “Let’s go there.”
We walked the two blocks. “This is a great idea,” Sylvia said. It was nice and warm inside.
As we savored our candy canes, we wrapped the gifts in the pretty paper. Then we started to walk to the orphanage, but changed our minds and returned to the store and bought some big five-cent cookies. What a treat they would be!
When we reached the orphanage, the children were already in bed waiting for Santa. Sylvia and I put the presents under the decorated tree and stood there looking at it. Now the kids would have extra gifts. What a good feeling!
Then the nuns invited us into the kitchen for homemade fudge. “In the Bible, it says ‘Do a good deed,'” Sister Ana Marie reminded us. “Girls, you have done a good deed.”
“Thank you for having charity in your hearts,” added Sister Grace.
We thanked them for the delicious fudge and walked to my house. It was nine o’clock and it was time for Sylvia to go home.
When I went upstairs, I discovered that my older brother had bought a jigsaw puzzle, and all six of us children gathered eagerly around the dining table to start it.
Published: Dec. 19, 2013 – Volume 12 – Issue 36