I was born in 1954 to a typical Schenectady family — blue-collar, Italian, Catholic, patriotic, somewhat neurotic, but thoroughly family-centric. Now that I have had ample time to reflect on my childhood as juxtaposed to the “great cultural enlightenment” of the last 40 years (a k a the de-volution of society), I can truthfully say that growing up in Schenectady at the time I did was “A Wonderful Life.”
I always felt my hometown was kind of magical, and never more so than at the darkest time of the year, when the sun set early and the first downy flakes began to fly. Undaunted, and in spite of the dying of the year, the city “that lights the world” truly lived up to its reputation, beginning with the parade down State Street in late November.
My father loved a parade. We would be bundled up to the point where we walked about like the unfortunate dead in zombie movies, put into place along the road, and then treated to the colorful stream of high school musicians, puffy politicians, marching veterans, and yes, oh yes, Santa himself!
Beautiful carl co.
The streetlights boasted tinsely finery and storefronts bedecked themselves with frosted windows, merry elves, snowmen and all manner of glorious Christmas imagery. Carl Co. department store had the best, and you knew there was a God in heaven after viewing their annual Christmas display.
Santa shopped lightly and carefully at Carl’s and other downtown stores for our gifts. Always thrilled with the “bounty” underneath our skinny balsam tree, we secretly suspected that we were the richest people around. Sure, Dad was a construction worker who would be pink-slipped as soon as the ground froze. But that meant that he was there all winter to work on his “inventions” and repairs down in the cellar. I would be working too, right beside him, banging nails into blocks of wood mostly, but having a glorious tomboy time of it!
He also had leisure to take us sledding at the golf course and skating at Central Park. We would take weekly walks to the Woodlawn Library (as Dad loved detective stories and was always in need of a fresh supply), and sometimes we’d just trek through the frozen wilderness behind Bishop Gibbons school, looking for animal tracks.
I also remember having a child-sized snow shovel, and while my big brother was out earning money by shoveling snow for the neighbors, I would be my father’s right-hand girl, enduring with him the frustration of having the snowplow come and push all the snow off the street and back up onto our just-finished driveway. My father would say words I never heard him say in front of my mother, but were reserved for outside misfortunes and banged fingers down in the cellar workshop.
These memories and many more came rushing back to me the other day when my husband was doing some minor repair work in our Virginia Beach home. I went to see how things were going, and there, with other tools he had left on the counter, was the little hammer that I used as a child down in the cellar of the white cottage on Albany Street. I guess my husband must have taken it when we were clearing out the old homestead after my mother died. At that time, still full of grief and loss, I remember not caring about any of the fancy, “for-show” stuff, but making sure I took her rolling pin, her measuring cup, and the big metal spoon, relics of a wonderful woman’s hard work and devotion.
As I remember, my parents and my childhood were not unique, but rather like most others at that time and place. Would that, once again, regular folks had steady, good jobs and wore their modest, pay-as-you-go lives like a badge of honor. The taxes would go down, wouldn’t they? And maybe the crime?
Plenty to praise
I am so thankful for the city and the people that formed me. We were a somewhat gruff, exteriorized people, but loyal and generous to a fault. There is something grand, and yes, magical about the place: its traditions, its beautiful buildings, the alleys, the magnificent park, those little bomb-like lanterns that used to mark out street work being done, the food (still unsurpassed in any place I have seen in the States or abroad), the fragrant, runny mud of spring, the green freshness of summer, the audacious color of autumn, and yes, the long, sleepy winters — they all form a most wonderful, unique world.
And after having traveled and lived in many different places, I can assure you that the people of Schenectady are themselves larger than life, characters all, a splash of vivacious color on an otherwise gray canvas of the run-of-the-mill. If we could afford to live there, we’d be back. (I have some ideas about this, but alas, I am now an outsider).
You are a people and a place which vastly underestimate yourselves. Perhaps that is still what makes you so special — you are not self-conscious, there is no contrivance, no “marketing” of your life. Just the simple, unconscious piety, the family, the underlying good nature, the holiday parade. You truly are an electric city. Have you ever secretly suspected that you might be the richest people around?
Gail Garrasi Aggen grew up in Schenectady and lives in Virginia Beach, Va. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.