Christmas is a house

by Brian Clarey

Christmas is a house

The house at 43 Morris Ave. in Morristown, NJ went on the market in October, a fivebedroom Colonial built in 1919 near the center of town. The asking price is $699,000, a fair sight more than my grandparents paid for it back in the 1950s, when they moved in as a young family with my mother, her brother and sister.

My grandfather, Dr. Lewis Pagano, a dentist, bought it after returning home from the war and building his practice in Morristown through engagement with church and civic groups and strong ties with the Italian- American community there — as part of his policy he would fix the teeth of the nuns at’  the Villa Walsh for free, earning him a front-row seat at midnight mass for decades at the beautiful old church at the top of the mountain.

He and his wife Josephine, my grandmother, raised their children there and kept the place up through the 1970s, when my sisters and I came along, the first grandchildren in this long and fruitful line.

It took about 90 minutes to drive to my grandparents’ house from ours on Long Island, over the rivers and through the industrial section of New Jersey, but it felt much longer than that when I was a kid trapped in the back seat with my sisters, my dad yelling at traffic, chain-smoking through a cracked window and listening to static-filled dispatches from 1010 WINS news radio.

We went there all the time — every birthday and holiday, and sometimes just for the weekend. Every summer my grandparents would host the grandkids for two-week visits, one of us at a time, during which every whim we had would be granted: ice cream, movies, miniature golf… whatever we wanted. It was hard to come back to my normal life after a couple weeks at my grandparents’ house.

But the most special times in that magnificent old house were always at Christmas.

We’d head over there as soon as school let out — Santa Claus accommodated by visiting my house a few days early, a tradition that continues today with my own family — and stay into the new year. As the holiday drew near, the house would fill with relatives and the smells of my grandma’s cooking, and there was room enough that everyone had a bed. My sisters and I would dig through the toys up in the attic, where my Aunt Lisa kept her bedroom; play mercantile in the cutout window at the staircase; scare ourselves silly in the warrens of the basement, which included two spaces we had dubbed “spooky rooms.” We would sit by the fire my grandfather insisted on keeping in the big hearth, near the Christmas tree that was almost too big for the room.

My grandfather had an electric ornament, a bird in a birdhouse that, when plugged in, emitted a piercing whistle that could be heard in every corner of the house. He’d pull me close to the tree and turn it on with a mischievous grin, and within seconds everyone would be screaming for him to turn it off.

My grandfather loved Christmas, loved seeing his home filled with family and waking early to play with the children, loved larding the place with fresh fruit and nuts in the shell and torrone candy, loved giving gifts and eating shrimp marinara at the Christmas Eve vigil before heading to midnight mass at the Villa Walsh to sit in the front row, which he also loved.

He’s a different man now, in his nineties, reclusive, living out his days in the part of the old-folks’ home that they lock at night. But I remember the way he used to be when he lived in that house.

It’s hard to believe my grandparents moved out more than 30 years ago, that so much time has passed, that things could be so different. I can scan through photos of the house as it is now on the internet: the wall-to-wall pulled from the living room to reveal an amazing parquet floor, the casement in the dining room stripped down to the natural wood, my grandma’s sewing room blown out to make a big master suite, her kitchen upfitted with new appliances and modern cabinetry. The vast fireplace now runs on gas jets, and the sunroom, a freezing space where my grandfather kept a stocked bar and watched TV, is done up like a home office. I can only assume the cutout window along the stairwell, where my sisters and I spent so much time playing, is still there — real estate websites can only convey so much.

But the trees out front still spring from the ground, inconceivably bigger now than they were more than 30 years ago, they cast shadows across the windows of the façade and on the front stoop, made of brick and slate, where my sisters and I used to sit, waiting for our grandfather to come home from work, ready to play.