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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Some Words on Words

At bedtime most nights, I do the newspaper crossword puzzle. I feel increasingly justified in spending time this way because neurologists are saying that such mental exercise is good for the brain. Crosswords are words, of course, and Hubby and I enjoy talking about words. We have frequent conversations on etymologies and usages, and we are glad to be native English-speakers because that language has by far more words than any other. It offers lots of choices for nuance and precision.

Other languages with more limited vocabularies repeatedly use the same words, and it is up to the conversationalists to figure out the intent. A friend who lived in Micronesia for many years told us that verbs there lack tense, which means that when someone says the equivalent of “go fish,” he might mean that he went fishing yesterday or is planning to go tomorrow – or maybe is fishing right now. Such lack of clarity leads to randomness that those of us with European heritage find exasperating, but randomness is the very definition of an “island time” attitude -- and some people prefer that philosophy of life.

Philosophy and language indeed are very closely linked, and philosophers spend a lot of time thinking about how one might think without language. My observation is that animals, especially highly evolved ones, do this all the time. Animal behavior, however, still is a new research subject. Most universities don’t even have a department devoted to it, and with the scorn currently heaped on abstract questions, it’s unlikely that we will see such any time soon. We don’t know what we don’t know, and the guys who fund education like it that way.

But back to languages with limited vocabularies: this often results in the same word being used for vastly different meanings, with the speaker adjusting the volume and tone of voice to convey intent. A word can have an exactly opposite meaning depending on how it is spoken, which is a problem with languages that traditionally were not written.

This rarely occurs in English, but it happened with the crossword puzzle that inspired these thoughts. The clue for the six-letter word was “to pay back,” and I wasted a lot of ink trying to define it as “redeem,” as in to pay back a debt – but the intended answer was “avenge.” Those words have really opposite meanings, especially in religious terms.

Hubby pointed out another English word with opposite meanings: “cleave. “ It can mean cling, or hold tight, as in wedding vows in which couples promise to “cleave” to each other. It also can mean exactly the opposite, as to cut apart. A butcher “cleaves” a large piece of meat by cutting it. The instrument used, of course, is a cleaver – which led me to think of the old television show with Beaver Cleaver. Why would any scriptwriter name a family for a big bloody kitchen tool? But you see how one word leads to another…

Christmas Memories in Minnesota

Publisher Patrick briefly sat down next to me at LaGaceta’s holiday party last week, and we talked of the newspaper editions that, this year, will come out on the weekends of Christmas and New Years. “I’m not going to write about anything important,” I said, “because no one will read it anyway.” (If you are reading, please let me know.) He encouraged me to write of Christmas memories, so that is what I will do.

I don’t remember my oldest brother ever living at home. He was thirteen when I was born, and he lived most of the year with Grandma and Grandpa Schultz in New Ulm, Minnesota, where he could attend a Lutheran prep school. My only memory of him and Christmas is unhappy: I was excited about the holiday and him being home, and I made so much noise that he scolded me. I went to my bedroom crying, and he soon came in and apologized. I’ve never forgotten, though, and I try never to dampen the enthusiasm of joyful children.

My older sister was nine when I was born, but I don’t remember much about her and Christmas, either, although I remember her confirmation in the Lutheran church, her graduation from high school, and other things – especially how I joined with the brother who is just eighteen months older than I to shamelessly rip off her teenage boyfriends by feeding them information about other boyfriends. They paid us in nickels and ice cream. Mostly, though, Christmas memories center on the four of us who were younger. Our six-child family is unusual in that the birth years range by twos from the 1930s to 1950: Dad called us “the first crop, the second crop, and the third crop.” There wasn’t any family planning to this; it just happened.

The Christmas with the most photographic memory comes literally from a photograph that I can date to 1952 because my younger sister appears to be about two in it. The four of us are sitting on a rug in the living room, facing a colorful tin Ferris wheel that the youngest brother, who then was four, got for Christmas. It was a fantastic present for the time, and I think the others of us took as much joy in it as he did. Years later, Dad won a contest for a beautiful big bride doll that younger sister got for Christmas, and again I think we all were as thrilled as she.

That Minnesota living room floor featured an electric train that ostensibly belonged to my older brother – but it was Dad and a bunch of uncles who spent the holiday running it. Electric trains were new, and we kids raced old-fashioned push cars while the (male) adults got the modern toy. Mom and the aunts, of course, were in the kitchen, preparing and serving food. Roast goose was Mom’s preferred Christmas dinner, but unless one of the farmer kinfolk brought it, we didn’t have it – both it and other poultry were relatively much more expensive then than today.

On Christmas Eve, Mom made Dad’s favorite Norwegian foods – most of which I hated. I liked the oyster crackers that came with oyster stew, but in landlocked Minnesota at that time, the oysters were canned, not fresh or even frozen. Dad got the majority of them, and we kids had mostly oyster-flavored warm milk. Dad’s preferred entrée was lutefisk, which is cod preserved in lye and then boiled. It was a staple of Norwegian life, and now is the source of countless jokes. It tastes pretty much like glue with butter on it. We didn’t always have lutefisk, but we always had what translated as “sweet soup.” This is a boiled concoction of prunes, raisins, lemons, and tapioca. Some of my cousins still make it, using a sweet red wine. They also still gather for an annual lefsa-making. That’s a sort of crepe made of boiled potatoes and flour. Served warm with enough sugar, cinnamon, and butter, it’s pretty good.

After the Christmas Eve meal, we went to church for the annual children’s pageant. We rehearsed for several Sunday afternoons prior to it, with each of us memorizing at least one “piece” to recite. The church had trees on both sides of the altar, with room for presents to and from Sunday school teachers. Ushers delivered the presents to us in our pews, as well as a paper bag for each child that always contained the same thing: an apple, an orange, various nuts in their shells, and hard ribbon candy. We thought it was terrific.

Dad sneaked back home meanwhile, and we arrived to find that Santa had been there. I never really believed, though, as Dad usually added a line about wishing Santa would pay the bills. We opened our presents on Christmas Eve in Dad’s Norwegian tradition, and on Christmas morning went back to church. Christmas Day was not nearly as exciting as Christmas Eve, but what we called The Second Day of Christmas was fun. My Norwegian grandparents had died by then, and we went to the German grandparents on the 26th.

That was always a crowded gathering, and we kids were largely relegated to the basement. I’m not sure how many cousins I had at that point, but eventually 56 grandkids descended from my grandparents’ twelve children. Not surprisingly, Grandma didn’t shop individually. She went to rummage sales throughout the year, and at Christmas, she held out two grab bags, one with items for boys and one for girls. I remember being thrilled once to pull out a little blue purse made of plastic – another new and marvelous material in those postwar years. I wanted a plastic doll instead of the porcelain one I got.

Christmas memories in Arkansas

My parents moved us four younger kids to Arkansas when I was ten, and for the first time, we cut our own trees. The portion of Minnesota where we had lived was prairie, not forest, but after we lived in the Ozarks, there were plenty of trees. We kids would pick out one in the summer or fall – usually a cedar, but sometimes a pine – and knew exactly where to go when it was time to chop it down. Arkansas, of course, was much poorer than Minnesota, and we were one of the few families to display outdoor lights. Dad used nails to create a tree pattern and strung the lights so that, from our high hill, the image could be seen by people passing on the road below.

That was nothing compared with Minnesota, where the town not only hung lights across the street, but also decorated lampposts with swags of fresh fir. But Dad never regretted moving, and the first year we lived in Arkansas, he plowed a field on Christmas Day just so that he could say he had done that miraculous thing. Mom and I, in contrast, found the weather too hot for baking Christmas cookies. The German pfeffernusse was her favorite cookie, but finding the essential cardamom was impossible in Arkansas.

They bought the farm that they did because there was a Lutheran church nearby, and again we went to church twice within a few hours, with services at night on Christmas Eve and in the morning on Christmas Day. Churches and schools in both places gave performances and held gift exchanges, both with a mixture of religiosity and secularism. I remember my older sister singing “O Holy Night” at the Christmas party given by her employer, the local pickle plant. Dad’s employer, a turkey researcher, also gave a big party with a full meal and presents for everyone. I also sang “O Holy Night” as a teenager, carrying a candle down the church aisle and worrying about both the flame and the high notes of the song.

If you celebrate Christmas, may it be merry – and may all of us have a happy, healthy, and peaceful new year.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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