My grandparents had a neighbor named Anna Lanza. She was lonely because her husband worked evenings as a waiter at Sardis in Times Square. He was home late. She was so lonely, in fact, that on some evenings, she turned on her radio and danced around her apartment with a broom. My father watched from across the alley.
One Christmas Eve about 9 p.m., Anna showed up at my father’s apartment with a ragged Christmas tree. She said it was being discarded by a man who’d been selling them on Ninth Avenue and Thirty-ninth Street, in the Italian/Irish neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. My grandparents, Tony and Desolina, had no idea what to do with the scrawny pine. Northern Italians — especially poor ones — did not have the rich Christmas traditions of Italy’s South. If you had a pine tree in winter, you burned it for heat.
Finally, my father explained that the tree should be decorated — but with what? They had no ornaments.
To make ends meet, my grandmother made pom-poms for hats, slippers, and shawls. It was piecemeal work she picked up in New York’s Garment District a few blocks away. She worked at a special table my grandfather built for her. It had two pegs on the front corners. She wrapped yarn from peg to peg and held it there with clothespins. With a piece of string, she tied the yarn very tightly at regular intervals, tying off each section as one does to make sausage. She cut each section in the middle, and with a steel comb, teased the wool into balls. She made a thousand pom-poms per week, which brought in about $20, nearly half of Tony’s salary as a stonemason.
My father and his parents stared at the empty tree. They seemed to get the idea at the same time. Desolina sat down at her table and made two dozen pom-poms — red, blue, yellow, and white, which my father and grandfather hung on the tree. Everyone marveled. At midnight, they bid each other a “Buon Natale” and went to bed.
A coda: Christmas trees that were not sold by midnight were thrown into a pile and burned. The light was said to guide the Wise Men to the Christ Child.
This story originally appeared in Eat Now; Talk Later: 52 True Tales of Family, Feasting, and the American Dream (2014).