Thursday, December 30, 2010

First Footing

On New Years Eve my family always celebrated Hogmanay (First Footing).

The Wikipedia version: 

This is a Scottish ritual of going out on New Years Eve and partying with all your neighbors. For good luck bring whiskey (preferred, but beer will do), a lump of coal for their fireplace and maybe a black muffin (fruitcake). And of course, it should all be delivered by a tall, dark and handsome man. Scots have a thing about "tall, dark, handsome men," maybe because so many are average-height redheads.

Now here's my family's version of First Footing: 

Before midnight gather all the cash you can find. Check books and credit cards count. Add fresh fruit, candy, bread, cheese, real butter, a ham (if you have one handy). Then take the filled basket and go out a back door. Walk around the house to the front door. A few minutes after midnight ring the bell. Someone lets you in and good luck (translation: food and money) will be coming in the door all year.

My first experience with First Footing was at the flat in Detroit with my great aunts, great uncle and great grandmother. I remember being exhausted waiting until midnight. Someone went out the front door, and came back in the front door (it was too scary to walk around the outside of the flat at night). I stayed up late for this? I was expecting something fun.

My mother and grandmother lived together for many years. One year, when my grandmother's short term memory was failing, she heard the doorbell ringing frantically. When she finally went to answer the front door she was totally surprised to find my frozen cranky mother standing there with a basket.

If it's true that what comes in the front door after the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve, comes in for the rest of the year, then for the next year everyone who came in their front door was pissed off. 

I still First Foot when I'm awake enough to stay up past midnight. My daughter, Sue, always First Foots. My son, Jim, doesn't, in fact his wife Bonnie had no idea what I was talking about when I asked her.


I lived with my grandparents for the 10th and 11th grades of high school. In art class we were doing contour drawing. It's a great way to develop good eye hand coordination. Keep your pencil on your paper. Try not to lift it. Now don't look at your paper, just follow the object you're drawing with your eyes and let your hand take the same direction. 

My grandmother posed for me. She held very still. She had her legs crossed and one foot was up. What can I say. That foot was the closest thing to me, closest things are biggest things. It was a great drawing. But when she saw it, she was furious. She tore up the drawing and stomped out of the room on her big feet. I can say this without guilt because my feet are bigger than hers ever dreamed of being.

However, she was very sensitive about her feet. When she was a young woman she bought shoes that were too tight, several pairs, in fact, because they were on sale. Basically she smashed her feet into those little shoes, and then suffered the rest of her life with crossed over toes and nasty bunions.


My New Years wish for all of you: may the first foot that crosses your threshold bare the symbolic goodies that will sustain you throughout the year, and may your feet be pain free to carry you wherever you wish to go.

Friday, December 17, 2010


When I was seven or eight I rode a bus downtown with my great aunt Mary. Another child on the bus loudly said, "Hey, look at that lady," while staring at my aunt. His mother shushed him. 

Look at that lady? Look at my great aunt? I looked at her for the first time. She was small, maybe under five feet tall. She had sharp features. She wore suits, perfectly tailored custom-made suits and silk blouses. She walked tall with extreme dignity. And she had an enormous hump on her back. It stuck out a good four inches from her thin frame.

When we got off the bus I walked behind her. She looked weird. I saw other people turn their heads to stare at her as she passed. I couldn't walk with her.

She knew I had seen her, knew why I was keeping ten feet behind her. We walked that way for a while, and then she stopped and had a little talk with me. I can't tell you exactly what she said, but I know it was about how she felt when people stared at her. It was about judging books by their covers.

I don't think I've ever been so ashamed.

This was the person who shared my bed and bedroom. She was the one who took me downtown to Hudson's to have lunch on the mezzanine and shop month-end sales. She taught me good manners. 

She was a talented milliner. She taught me to sew. When I cut the center out of a wedding veil she was making for a client, she didn't kill me, but I think it crossed her mind. 

We had tea at bedtime in china cups. When the tea was finished she'd turn the cup upside-down on the saucer, turn it around three times, and read my fortune. The tea leaves always said the I'd marry a tall, handsome, dark-haired man. I married two of them, probably because the tea leaves said it so many times. 

She told me stories when I couldn't sleep. When I dreamt that the house was burning down, she was the one who comforted me. She held me together while my parents were slip-sliding apart.

My great-grandmother (her mother) and her two single siblings lived in a flat near 13th Street in Detroit. She moved back in with them after my parents divorced. Over the years the neighborhood, mostly rentals, had changed. All white (before my time), then Hispanic, and when the neighborhood was basically shot to hell the black people got to live there... except for the enclave of whiteness in my family's flat. 

My great uncle Bubs (Rob to the grownups) whom I dearly loved, didn't love anyone who didn't look like him. When Sammy Davis Junior came on the tv, blam, the tv was turned off. He used the "n" word and said that "they" shouldn't be allowed on tv.

One day he and I walked to the corner store. He held my hand. It was very cold out. A rat ran behind a garbage can in the alley. The apartment building across the street had cardboard in the windows. I saw a kid, younger than me, no shoes, standing on the porch. We stared at each other and I felt pain in my chest.

My mother told me that the prejudice was about job competition. Immigrant Scots competing with blacks for jobs. I think it was about the "hump", the judging of  the external without knowing the internal.

In 1967 I was married to the first of the two handsome, dark-haired men and living in Massachusetts, when all hell broke loose in Detroit. Riots. 12th Street, the epicenter, was a block away from the flat my senior relatives had fled from more than a decade before. I thought of cardboard windows and bare feet in the cold, of people judged, seen but not seen.

My President is Black. People in my country judged the man, not the cover. Thank you.

Happy Holidays.


Note: There are folks out there who didn't vote for President Obama for purely political reasons (race wasn't the issue). There are some who voted for him in reaction to G.W. Bush (race wasn't the issue). And I guess that's my point. Mostly,
race wasn't the issue. Oh, sure there are the birthers and "the people who want to take their country back". But again, in 2008 race wasn't the issue. And it's about time.