Some years ago (and I won’t say how many), I was a child of Pasadena, which was good thing, especially during the holidays. There were so many things to see and do. My mother worked at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. I would spend blustery cold afternoons sitting at the end of the counter sipping hot apple cider through a paper straw and wandering around the store looking at the eclectic collection of holiday decorations neatly arranged on the shelves.
If I was a very good girl, my mother would reward me near the end of her shift. I would return from wandering the isles to find a saucer at my seat, a neat stack of Saltine crackers and two miniature candy canes! Sometimes, she would let me count up her tips for the day while she cleaned up behind the counter. Her with stacks of coffee cups, saucers and glasses, and me with rows of stacked quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies — cracker crumbs everywhere and the minty sweet tell-tale signs of red candy cane around my mouth.
On Christmas Eve, we would all pile into the family’s wood-panel station wagon. As the youngest, I was sent to scramble over the rear bench seat and ride in the station wagon’s seatless (and seatbeltless) cargo area. My sister (18 months older) took up a perch opposite me in the back of the wagon.
The rear seat was reserved for our elder sister and brother. My Dad had disconnected the buzzer wires on the sensors and the seatbelts were shoved haphazardly into the red patent leather cracks between the front and back bench seats.
Even though the roughly carpeted backseat was less comfortable than the center of the benches, and we had to hold on tightly during a sharp turn, everybody wanted a window seat for our annual Christmas Eve ride. Besides, my brother was of an age where flatulence was his weapon of choice in his ongoing war with his little sisters, and the center of the front seat was occupied by a Styrofoam cooler full of Hamm’s beer.
The blue and silver cans might have struck me as having holiday flair of their own, had they not been a daily feature of our lives. In fact, any time my Dad was driving after noon or so, you could always find one of those blue and silver cans perched in his right hand or resting on the seat between his legs. My mother, who couldn’t hold her liquor and therefore rarely if ever drank, sat (sober as a pin) dutifully in the front passenger seat while my inebriated father took his un-tethered brood on a driving tour of the Pasadena area’s best holiday decoration offerings.
The first “stop” was a rolling tour through Hasting’s Ranch. My face plastered to the rear window I was in awe of the neatly manicured lawns with matching decorations on each street. We went slowly and the local AM country music station (KLAC) played holiday classics through the car speakers.
After what seemed like forever, we would wind our way out of Hasting’s Ranch and make our way over to New York Drive and then up Allen to the Balian Mansion on Mendocino Lane. Here, depending on how cold it was, we got to get out of the car and walk the length of the house’s south and west side, decked out in what to my young Santa-believing eyes was on par with the North Pole. Back then the Balian’s handed out little cups of ice cream that we ate with the little wooden spoons provided. I loved the strawberry swirl and ate it all, even though it was so cold outside.
We would all pile back in the station wagon and drive across Mendocino, past Lake Avenue to “Christmas Tree Lane” (Santa Rosa Avenue in Altadena). The car’s heater never quite reached the cargo hatch and I was usually tired but too cold to fall asleep. But, when we pulled into the driveway, I would shut my eyes tight and pretend. And my father, smelling of cigarettes, beer, and sawdust would carry me up the stairs and put me in my warm bed.
Christmas morning was always magical. I would wake to the sounds and smells of every imaginable pork product sizzling on the stove. Mom was in the kitchen, Dad still in bed, Santa’s milk and cookies gone and presents under the tree.
A lot has changed since then. Kids don’t ride their second-hand bikes up and down residential streets, seatbelts are the rule, drinking and driving is much less prevalent, and pork is apparently bad for you. The Balian’s don’t hand out ice cream anymore … but Pasadena is still an awesome place to be a kid at Christmastime.