My mother grew up in a house where men were irrelevant.
The shooting death of her father — a young, rookie policeman in Philadelphia who was killed in the line of duty in 1933 — left her mother alone to raise three young girls. To help the family survive, two maiden aunts moved in.
Fanny and Ella were tough and stern. In a tintype, Aunt Ella looks like the mean neighbor lady in the “Wizard of Oz” who turns into the Wicked Witch.
These ladies were already old when they moved in; they took over care of the girls while my grandmother went out to work.
For my grandmother, the transition was stressful but positive in many ways. My grandmother was tough, bright and social. She thrived in the work environment in a large insurance company but never made a lot of money. Indeed, in those days, there was no widows’ and orphans’ fund or police union to help the family. Those three ladies pooled their money, but it was always tight.
They lived in a rowhouse in a blue-collar neighborhood in North Philadelphia and were not much worse off than their neighbors, but there was very little left over for extras.
There were some brothers, male cousins, and uncles around, but frankly, they weren’t always helpful. There was an unfortunate abundance of men who drank too much, like the cousin who died after drinking a bad bottle of cheap hooch and was found literally in the gutter.
So these tough women soldiered on. And for the most part, they accidentally taught my mother, Mary, and her two younger sisters that, if you wanted to accomplish something, you could do it yourself and you didn’t need a man to do it for you. Fairly revolutionary for the 1930s and 1940s.
However, other than God (my mother and her sisters were raised as strict Catholics and attended 12 years of Catholic school), there was one man that my mother always knew she could count on.
In my mother’s Depression-era world of scrimping and saving, Christmas morning was always truly magical.
There were always dollies and kitchen toys and blackboards and clothes under the tree. (Fanny and Ella would brook no “dangerous” toys. Bicycles and roller skates were forbidden. Apparently even Santa was afraid to deliver them. My mother always obeyed the edicts, but my aunts — Joan and Helen — would go around the corner and ride other kids’ bikes. My mother never learned to ride one.)
For one day a year, I think my mom did not feel like “that poor Dolan girl whose father was killed,” but a girl just like all the others in her elementary school.
It was a tremendous gift. It was a gift, however, that would cause her some trouble in her early teens.
My mother resolutely repeated her devotion to St. Nick to anyone who would listen. Which is why she was angry and devastated when, at 14 years old, someone at John W. Hallahan High School tried to tell her that Santa Claus was a myth.
My mother, who never got in trouble, got into a fistfight over Santa.
As she tearfully told the nuns, “Santa has to be real, because there is no way that my mother would have ever been able to afford the presents we get on Christmas morning.”
I think of my mother as her awkward 14-year-old self, skinny, plain, and with her hands balled into fists, and I get a lump in my throat.
I love that my grandmother was able to give my mother and her sisters that magical holiday. I love that strangers, more than likely, helped to make that magic possible.
And I love that my mother was willing to fight to keep that magic intact.
Now that my children are older, I retell this story every year. It serves to remind them of how lucky they are and to be mindful of helping others who are less fortunate.
It also reminds me that coming from a line of strong, independent women is a gift that I should be grateful for all year.
This column first appeared in the Stowe Reporter and Waterbury Record newspapers in Vermont. Archangelo is the publisher and executive director of the Notebook. She moved back to Philadelphia in March 2016.