LETTER from TERRY BERKSON
A Christmas Story
One Brooklyn morning many Decembers past, I heard a scratching behind the wall of my work place in the attic. I glanced out the window and spotted a squirrel emerging from a hole between the rain gutter and the shingles on the roof.
He looked at me with a smug expression as if to say, “I moved in and I’m stayin’.” The intruder jumped to the leafless maple in back of the house and was gone.
I’d heard stories about squirrels destroying houses as they chewed through walls and lead plumbing and electric lines. The thought of a critter storing his acorns under my rafters was too distracting. I shut the computer and descended to the kitchen for coffee.
On the phone an exterminator quoted a painful price to set a Havahart trap that would catch the animal for transport to Prospect Park. “It’s time consuming,” the man explained. “We’re not allowed to kill them.”
When I didn’t jump at his services he offered to sell me a trap for $75, but I thought a bird cage we had in the cellar would serve just as well.
Walter Haskel, my editor, had called the day before to remind me about a deadline on a story. I felt I’d do a better job if I didn’t have that squirrel to think about. Peanut butter for bait worked well for mice, so why not for this guy? In my yard he was a squirrel but in my house he was a big rat.
I used a chopstick with twine attached to it to hold the cage door open and a Ford accelerator spring to slam it shut. I placed the cage near the base of the maple and ran the twine to the door of our back pantry.
The advantage of using the exterminator’s trap was that it would catch the squirrel automatically. But it was expensive and I was sure my bird cage would get this rodent without losing too much time.
When my irascibly pregnant wife Alice came home from work and saw my set-up she asked, “Get much writing done today?”
I explained the gravity of the invasion.
“Should’ve hired the exterminator,” Alice said.
Late the next day the squirrel made his way down the tree and jumped to the ground. He approached the cage and when near pressed against the bars to smell the peanut butter. Then he stuck his head through the door and I was about to pull the string, but a stray cat appeared and frightened him off.
The next day Alice arrived home and was getting out of the car with her arms full of Christmas packages when she spotted me idling at the window. “Told you to get the exterminator!” she called. I obliterated her from view by fogging the glass with my breath.
In the morning, I spotted the squirrel slowly creeping down the maple. I ran down and out to the pantry and took hold of the line as he once again poked his head into the cage – but not his whole body. I wasn’t wearing a jacket and soon began to shiver.
Inside the house the phone on the wall rang. It continued to ring as I shook from the cold. Through the glass in the back door the caller I.D. showed that it was my editor Haskel. I was supposed to be working.
The squirrel entered the cage cautiously, his hind legs holding on to the outside of the bars. I waited as he scooped paws full of peanut butter out of a birdseed cup. The more he ate the more his body advanced. I looked in at the phone which was still ringing. “Remove all distractions,” Haskel had said on another pressing assignment.
When I turned back, the squirrel was completely inside so I yanked on the twine and the door snapped shut. I had him! He was circling his cell in a frenzy. To calm him I covered the cage with an old blanket that Alice had draped over an antique chair in the cellar. Soon fat snowflakes began to fall.
After drinking a celebratory eggnog, I went upstairs and flipped on the computer. My heart sank when the screen came up blank. I checked a backup file but it too was empty. The deadline! How could I face Haskel – or Alice?
My wife showed up just before dark and followed me out to the cage in the backyard. When I removed the snow and lifted the blanket to show her my prisoner, she said, “So, now you’re going to let him loose in the park without his acorns – that he’s been gathering all year. How would you like it if somebody separated you from your work?” The squirrel sat there looking pathetic.
“Yeah,” my wife continued. “He’ll be panhandling, getting chased off by other squirrels.”
“After all this work,” I protested. “You want me to turn him loose?”
“It is Christmas Eve,” she said matter-of-factly.
Later that evening as Alice prodded me on, I walked out to my prisoner with some walnuts and water. Then I replaced the cover. I had a restless night thinking of editor Haskel’s advice, my computer problem, and the squirrel panhandling in the park.
On Christmas morning, I awoke to a cranked up rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Alice was curious to see how the squirrel had fared, so before opening presents I dressed and waded through a snowdrift to the cage.
When I lifted the blanket it was empty. The door was shut tight and there were no breaks in the bars. Two faint snow blown tracks were nearby.
“Well?” my wife called from the window.
“Did you let him loose?” I asked.
“Absolutely not,” she said shaking her head.
That evening, after pushing aside plum pudding, I grabbed my coat and gloves and went outside to shovel the sidewalk. Later, I crawled up to the attic and once again heard rustling behind the wall. That squirrel was back. To add insult, the task of resurrecting my lost work looked impossible.
When I turned on the computer, the mouse seemed curiously warm in my hand. Then the screen lit up and there to my joy and amazement appeared my story! I could hear Alice laboring up the stairs.
“How’s the work going?” she asked as she reached the top step.
“Fine,” I answered suspiciously. There was some chatter behind the wall.
“Well,” Alice said looking towards the noise. “He’s home for Christmas.”
“A good ending,” I imagined editor Haskel saying.
“At least he won’t be panhandling in the park,” Alice murmured while putting her arms around me.”
“I met her embrace and realized, “And neither will I!”
Need Some Ideas? Just Look Around
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
While making gifts for family and friends, Sara O’Brien realized that she could not only bring a smile to someone at Christmas, but to her fellow cancer survivors.
“Tracy Abrams hasn’t been able to do fundraisers for her Wigs for Wishes charity because of the pandemic,” she said. “I took a few of the ornaments over to her, and she called me back that night and said they’d all sold.”
Wigs for Wishes ($5)
They were in such high demand that she brought in Abrams, Gail Baden and granddaughter Susan Morell to help cut, glue and finish each handmade wooden ornament. “We’re making 160 of them,” she said.
The ornaments, which sell for a suggested donation of $5 each at Abrams Head to Toe salon, will help raise money to give free, custom wigs to women undergoing cancer treatments.
“Some people have donated more than $5,” said Abrams. “But we wanted to make them available to everyone.”
O’Brien’s handmade Rocky ornaments are just one of many local gifts you can pick up this Christmas, with many stores offering curbside pickup, online shopping or shipping to keep shoppers safe during the pandemic.
• TO DO:
Billed as this year’s big after-dinner party game by Nate Roberts, owner of Serenity Hobbies, “Half-Truths,” created by Richard Garfield (“Magic: The Gathering”) and “Jeopardy” champion Ken Jennings, asks players to place bets on which three of the six answers are truths, and which ones are lies.
“It follows the logic that everyone can play,” said Roberts. “Even grandma and the little kids, who might not have that trivia knowledge, because it’s multiple choice, so they can still guess.”
The game, which got started on Kickstarter, includes more than 500 questions, plenty to keep the party going. “It’s a party game that makes you feel smart,” he said. “And it’s a laugh riot.”
• TO WEAR
Poncho and scarves, Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery, The Artisan’s Guild, (Price Varies)
It’s rare that you get to see exactly where your garment came from, but with each hand-spun and hand-woven scarf and poncho, you get a photo of the Icelandic sheep who gave the wool.
“This poncho came from Fosco,” said Roxanne Marcellino. “All of these are made from the wool of sheep raised on the farm.”
In addition to the Holy Myrrhbearers garments, the Artisan’s Guild also offers handmade capes and children’s clothing, hand-knit scarves and hats, dyed silk scarves and other locally made crafts.
• TO READ
Richard Duncan, “Otsego County: Its Towns and Treasures” ($39.99)
Photographer Duncan wants you to see his “Otsego County: Its Towns and Treasures” book as a window to the world.
“I hope it stimulates memories,” he said. “Since there isn’t a whole lot we can do right now, we can look at pictures of places we used to go.”
The coffee-table book, his third, uses his own photos of the county, taken over two years, as well as photos from days past.
“I went to every historical society in the county and asked them to send me photos,” he said. “There’s a romantic bent to it, we have all of this precious land to take care of.”
The Utica-printed book is available at The Farmers’ and Fenimore museums, and through their website, and at the Green Toad Bookstore in Oneonta.
The photos range from a parade of elephants down Oneonta’s Main Street, to an early 1900s Decoration Day in Unadilla Flats.
“If you have the COVID blues,” he said. “Go for a drive with my book and try to find where I stood to take each picture.”
• TO EAT
Custom Gift Baskets, The Fly Creek Cider Mill, (Price Varies)
It’s easier to survive these dismal times if you’ve got the right kind of snacks.
That’s Bill Michaels’ approach at the Fly Creek Cider Mill, where he’s spent the last two weeks in his own version of Santa’s Workshop. “We do 60 percent of our online business during the holidays,” he said. “You can go online, fill your cart and we pack it up for you.”
Pick out some of the mill’s famous cheese, sauces and jellies, apple goodies and maybe some fudge, and Michaels will box it, tie it with a bow and mail it to the recipient of your choice. “This year, our corn salsa has been really popular,” he said.
But if you’re in a hurry, there are pre-made gift baskets ready to order, including a “Stay At Home Survival Kit” – with pancake mix, fudge, maple candy, apple crisp mix and more – or a “Celebrate Your Heroes” snack basket, with cheese, sausage and, most curiously, gummy frogs.
And he even throws in a few extras, including a catalog, a map of the Cooperstown Beverage Trail and an Otsego County Guide – for when the pandemic is over and they can come visit the mill for themselves.
• TO DRINK
Tay’s Tea (from $4) and Roman Roaster Coffee (from $10) Green Earth Market
“Nini Ordoubadi is very particular about her tea,” said Mike Shaughnessy, manager, The Green Earth. “And she does it very well.”
Also from Delhi – and new to the Green Earth – is Roman Roaster Coffee, an artisanal, small-batch roaster owned by Andrea Ghersi, a former chef who moved to Delhi to open his business.
Both use sustainably sourced and fair trade ingredients in their blends.
“Buying local helps all of us stay in business,” said Shaughnessy.
HAPPENIN’ OTSEGO for SATURDAY, DECEMBER 12
FOOD DRIVE, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. – Help the Cooperstown Food Pantry by contributing food and personal care items at the annual Cooperstown Emergency Squad food drive in the Price Chopper parking lot, 113 Chestnut St. Canned tuna, peanut butter and jelly, and items like shampoo or body wash, etc., especially needed. The goal is “to fill the back of the ambulance, maybe twice!”
OTEGO HOLIDAY TOUR, 4-6 p.m. – See Otego during holiday season. Enjoy treats from Santa, drive thru nativity scene, opportunity to view Otego Christmas tree, a holiday dinner (pre-registration preferred). Please wear a mask & practice social distancing when out of the car. Please bring dry goods or hygiene products to donate to local food banks. Presented by Harris Memorial Library. 607-988-6661 or visit www.facebook.com/events/3708320132564206/
Fenimore Museum Dips Into Its Collection
For Cards, Toys, Other ‘Holiday Goodies’
When people around here think of Christmas, they think of…monkeys?
At least they used to.
“In the 19th century, they were still developing Christmas imagery,” said James Matson, Fenimore Art Museum assistant curator. “Images of animals had a more exotic appeal, and animals like monkeys were associated with the circus, with fun.”
Two such playful monkeys adorn one of the many Christmas cards at The Fenimore’s “Decking the Halls” exhibit, open through Dec. 31.
“It’s something delightful for the holidays,” said Chief Curator Chris Rossi. “It’s been fun to go through the archives to find these unseen holiday goodies.”
The exhibit features ornaments, paintings, toys and illustrations celebrating Christmas not just across the country, but right here in Cooperstown.
Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote about local Christmases in her “Rural Hours,” said Chief Curator Chris Rossi. “She writes about the greenery and gifts, and we thought it would be fun to include her voice in the exhibition.”
She wrote, “Christmas must always be a happy, cheerful day. The fresh and fragrant greens, the friendly gifts and words of goodwill, the ‘Merry Christmas’ smiles on most faces one meets, give a warm glow to the day.”
“Things haven’t changed much,” said Rossi.
Among the Christmas cards in the exhibit is a 1931 example sent out by Edward Severin Clark, Jane Clark’s great uncle, as well as a “Christmas in Cooperstown” contributed by the Afton Historical Society.
“They found it in their collections and were kind enough to bring it our way,” said Rossi. “The timing was right.”
You’ll also see an image of Thomas Nast’s original Santa Claus, in the Christmas 1862 issue of Harper’s Weekly. “Nast is credited with the definitive ideal of how Santa looks,” said Rossi.
Early depictions, Nast’s and others, show him alone making the toys, she said, adding, “We know Santa has elves, but we don’t see them in any of the works in this exhibit.”
Elves, like the famous red velvet suit, came more into prominence in the 20th century.
The card case isn’t the only place a playful monkey is featured. A hearth filled with toys includes one on a pull-string. “The monkey is the hidden theme,” Rossi jokes. “Making the tableaux was the most fun, getting to pick out a mantelpiece and all these toys.”
There’s a teddy bear, of course, and building blocks, as well as an elaborate dollhouse. “Dollhouses were fun to play with, because a little girl could learn about housekeeping and furnishing a home.”
Christmas trees didn’t come into fashion in America until Queen Victoria put one up.
Dried berries made for a festive garland and cotton stood in for snow, with paper cones that could be filled with sweets for the children.
But without electricity, the glow of the tree had to be lit with thin white candles. “You would only light them for a few minutes,” said Rossi. “Otherwise, your whole tree would go up in flames.”
In addition to homemade ornaments, a number of glass ornaments from the late 19th century were brought out of The Fenimore’s collection, as well as silver tinsel trim. “With the candles, it must have looked very bright,” said Rossi.
This year, with no Candlelight Evening – The Farmers’ museums’ usual seasonal centerpiece – “Decking The Halls” is one of the alternatives developed for the Christmas of COVID.
At The Farmers’, Holiday Lantern Tours are being offered, this coming weekend and Dec. 18-19.
“I don’t want to be too modest, but The Fenimore and Farmers’ Museum makes a considerable contribution to how Christmas is celebrated in Cooperstown,” said Matson.
LETTER from K. WAYNE BUNN
To the Editor:
I just viewed the 4C’s video of Santa and Mrs. Claus arriving at their cottage and lighting the Village’s Christmas tree.
Wow, what a wonderful video!
It was very creative and so well done. Congratulations to you and everyone else who planned and produced it. You can be very proud of it.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!” I would encourage everyone to Google and read that famous editorial published in The New York Sun newspaper on Sept. 21, 1897, from which this saying was taken. We all need to believe in Santa Claus for hope after this awful year of COVID.
Merry Christmas to all!
K. WAYNE BUNN
Otsego Lake resident
HAPPENIN’ OTSEGO for FRIDAY, DECEMBER 11
OPEN HOUSE – 3 – 6 p.m. Stop by to enjoy the Winter Show featuring 7 artists with spotlight on plein air works by Ursula Carr Bower plus cameo of scarves and necklaces from the Taj Garage. Call or text to reserve viewing slot. The Art Garage, 689 Beaver Meadow Rd., Cooperstown. 607-547-5327 or visit www.facebook.com/TheArtGarageCooperstown/
Restored Five Years Ago, Jolly Elf
Reclaims His Stature In Downtown
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
Even Santa Claus sometimes needs a little work done.
For the past five years, he’s been a Christmas Time treat at the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, but for many years after Bresee’s Department Store closed down in the 1990s, he was out of the public eye.
“He had been in our warehouse, and we rescued him,” said Elaine Bresee, Milford Center, whose husband Marc was one of the last family members to manage the namesake downtown Oneonta department store.
“We had him outside in our sleigh every year,” said Elaine, but as the years went by, the wintry weather took its toll on the 1930s fixture, which was a centerpiece of the department store’s holiday decorations for decades.
“He was starting to get pretty trashed,” she said. “His fingers had broken off, and he was starting to fade.”
So in 2013, the couple had him repaired, and in 2015 donated the figure to the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, where it has once again become part of downtown shoppers’ Christmas expectations.
The restoration was done by Marjean McCaslin-Doyle, the costume shop manager in SUNY Oneonta’s Theatre Department, and it was a challenge.
“Someone had tried to curl his beard at one point,” she said. “But it’s synthetic hair, so it had gotten singed.”
She bought him a new mustache and gently cleaned and restored the original beard.
His hand-tied wig also needed restoration, and worse, no longer hid the holes in his head. “I had to fill, paint and seal the scalp,” she said.
His lips were similarly deteriorated, with holes between the beard and mustache.
“The face was in the worst condition,” she said. “The rose in his cheeks had been rubbed off, and there was a lot of effort in trying to match the original colors.”
She ordered a set of plaster mannequin hands, but also made a cast of one hand. It came out so well, she doesn’t remember which hand is bought and which one she made.
“It took two years, but she restored him,” said Elaine. “She was so careful in ordering just the right hands so that they matched the rest of him.”
His costume – one of the two original Bresee’s Santa suits – was restored by Kathleen Moore, one of Marjean’s colleagues in SUNY’s costume department.
“The collar and the cuffs are real rabbit fur,” she said. “And the suit is very heavy wool, not like the material they use now. It’s amazingly made – it wouldn’t have lasted this long otherwise.”
Once restored, the Bresees donated the plaster Santa – as well as the Santa Chair and the mailbox – to GOHS in 2015.
“Letters in the mailbox were always answered for the longest time,” said Marc Bresee. “There would be about 75-100 of them, but then when people started really coming, we couldn’t answer them all.”
Instead, Marc said, each visiting child was given a candy cane and a coloring book, with a promise that Santa would read the letter.
Even now, a letter still shows up on occasion. “This one says, ‘I would like robots, please!’” said Bob Brzozowski, GOHS executive director. “But I don’t know who sent it!”
And Santa can’t sit in an ordinary chair, but instead, sits on the Bresee’s Santa Chair, which was made by the store’s in-house carpenters for the Jolly Old Elf to meet with visitors.
“We toyed with donating these for about five years,” she said. “I always have trouble parting with things from the store.”
But they haven’t parted with all of the store’s Santa ephemera yet.
Bresee’s kept two suits, as well as a wig and beard on hand, so that one could be sent for cleaning while the other was being worn – including by Bresee’s most famous Santa, Clark Chaplin.
“Of course, Clark always had his own beard,” she said.
Marc wore the suit to dress up for his children when they were kids, and for his father, Phillip, when he was at the Thanksgiving Home.
“They were having cocktail hour one Thursday, and in he came in the full suit!” he said. “They were all very happy to see me.
In 2019, the Bresee’s loaned the second suit for Orpheus Theatre’s production of “Elf.”
Santa’s sleigh – also a decoration from Bresee’s – has returned to the couple’s porch, with two former store mannequins, a boy and a girl, dressed in cozy red pajamas as they wave to passerbys.
And a new Santa is there too. “He’s not as beautiful as the other one,” said Elaine. “But another one will come along.”
Joyce Mason Saved ‘Lord’s Kitchen,’ An Much More
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
In 2008, Joyce Mason, working as a missionary in Honduras, got an urgent message that she was needed at home in Oneonta.
“Opportunities for Otsego had decided to give the Lord’s Table two weeks’ notice that they would no longer run it,” she said. “And although they tried to limp along, it wasn’t enough.”
After locating a landline phone to talk with the staff at St. James Episcopal Church, Mason came back to Oneonta as director of the nightly feeding ministry and the Loaves & Fishes food pantry.
“I got home on May 31,” she said. “I went into work on June 2, and I’ve been here ever since.”
And at the end of the year, Mason will retire from feeding families, the elderly and the disenfranchised after 22 years of service.
“If people are hungry, you have to feed them,” she said. “That’s important. It doesn’t matter if they’re rich or poor or sideways. Anyone can come.”
A native of Forrest Hills, Mason moved to Sidney with her husband, James. He passed away in 1995, leaving her with their two sons, James and Peter.
“After they graduated high school, I became a missionary,” she said. “And I was sent to Honduras.”
But when she got back, there was much work to be done to get the pantry and the kitchen where they needed to be to serve the city’s hungry.
“When I got here, it was not a happy situation,” she said. “So much of what was in the freezers wasn’t labeled, and I had to throw everything in the dumpster. It made me very sad.”
She immediately set to restocking the fridges. “I ordered food from the Regional Food Bank and, sometimes, from restaurants or catered events, like weddings,” she said. “And I started calling every group I could get to help serve the meals.”
With the First United Methodist Church hosting Saturday’s Bread, and the Salvation Army offering the “Meal With a Message,” a hot meal is offered free of charge seven days a week in the city.
“There is no place else between Albany and Binghamton that does that,” Mason said. “And in a town this size, we’re absolutely blessed to have three meal service programs.”
In 2018, Mason spearheaded the formation of the Otsego County Hunger Coalition, creating a network of all the food pantries, feeding programs and farmers’ markets in the county to make sure everyone has access to food wherever they may be.
But there have been challenges along the way. “After the flood of 2011, we were the Otsego County Disaster Feeding program,” she said. “St. Mary’s was housing people, many of them from
Lantern Hill” – the Southside trailer park – “and we had to feed them three meals a day.’
She was preparing lunch for the flood victims one afternoon when she smelled smoke. “The food pantry was on fire,” she said.
Rather than shut down, the pantry moved into St. James and continued its ministry. “We were closed from Friday to Tuesday,” she said. “We had to keep it going.”
The pantry was rededicated in March 2012, and Mason was lauded by Father Kenneth Hunter for continuing to feed the most needy among them.
And this year, the ministries had to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the Lord’s Table to go to take-out only.
This year, 3,642 households have received food, the highest number in five years.
“It’s tough for the older people especially,” she said. “They need that socialization of sitting down and having a meal with somebody. It’s not available to us right now, but as soon as we can reopen, we will.”
It has also limited the food available at the pantry. “We’re having a lot of trouble getting beef or pork,” she said. “It’s just not available.”
While Mason is leaving her post at year’s end, she doesn’t expect to stay put for long in her retirement. “I’m a missionary at heart,” she said. “I go where I’m needed.”
HAPPENIN’ OTSEGO for WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 25
DINNER – 12:30 – 2:30 p.m. Friends of Christmas, and Saturday’s bread join forces to present holiday dinner for all. Enjoy baked pies, fruit breads, dinner rolls much more donated by the community. Free, takeout & transportation available. First United Methodist Church, 66 Chestnut St., Oneonta. 607-435-7188.
Fifty protesters gathered in Oneonta’s Muller Plaza this evening in support of the impeachment of President Donald Trump, which may be voted on by the House of Representatives tomorrow. Above, Alice Lichtenstein, Becca Brooks, Elayne Moser-Campoli and others flash their signs as passing cars while organizer Amy Pondolfino, right, read selections from Congress’ Articles of Impeachment, which charge the President with Obstruction of Justice and Abuse of Power stemming from charges that he withheld military aid as a means of pressuring Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to perform favors for him. The crowd followed by singing seasonally inspired songs like “‘Tis The Season For Impeachment.” (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)