Karen Carnabucci: During the past year-plus, I've had the opportunity to work closely with Regina Moreno, the daughter of Dr. J.L. Moreno, the developer of psychodrama, and his second wife Florence Bridge Moreno. Gina is writing her long-awaited memoirs, and it's been fascinating to hear Gina's stories of growing up in the Little House just down the hill from her father's famous mental hospital with the psychodrama stage. Here, she shares a memorable Christmas story, as a guest blogger:
By Regina Moreno
Mommy was busy wrapping presents in the upstairs bedroom with door closed on this Christmas Eve. I knew Daddy had bought something very special during our recent trip to the winter wonderland known as Macy’s Department Store in New York City. I couldn’t to wait to open the special package.
But first, it was time for me to get dressed. In this scene, I am five years old, and Mommy is helping me into my new red dress with the pretty swirling skirt. My wardrobe includes a red coat and a matching hat with earmuffs, along with fancy boots decorated with pompoms. Finally, I have a little muff to keep my hands warm from the winter chill.
Then all of the carefully wrapped gifts were placed into the rumble seat of our black car. I loved riding in that seat, but Mommy said we needed a safe place for the presents. Daddy carried a big bag.
“What’s in there?” I asked Daddy.
It’s a special surprise,” he chuckled as his belly bounced up and down like the Santa in the big Macy's store. Mommy got into the driver’s seat as always. Daddy climbed into the passenger seat.
My father never learned to drive. My mother told me that many people from large cities in Europe did not drive. They traveled by street cars or taxis and likely my father did when he lived in Vienna.
We slowly drove from our house -- which we called the Little House -- up the hill to the Big House, which was the nickname for the sanitarium that my father J.L. Moreno opened in the late 1930a in Beacon, N.Y. The tall trees were bare of leaves and covered with white blankets of newly fallen snow. I could see the river dotted with islands of ice down below.
It was starting to get dark when the big white building came into view. With its three stories and large square windows, the Big House looked like a home for a giant. We parked the car, gathered our many packages and started up the steps to the threshold at the entry door. There was a fancy roof with a Christmas wreath hanging over the top of the door.
A woman dressed completely in white with a white cap on her head threw open the door. She had a big smile and twinkly eyes. Her name was Quinney, and she was the head nurse at the sanitarium.
“Merry Christmas, Florence,” she said, giving my Mommy a hug and “Doctor” another hug. “Merry Christmas, Regina,” she added as she bent to give me a long hug. She introduced the other nurses, and I got more hugs.
I always liked Quinney. I smiled when she said she loved my outfit and how grown up I looked wearing it. My mother told me Quinney, or Miss Quinn, had a a very important job at the hospital as the head nurse. She was amazed at how calmly Quinney dealt with even the most difficult patients.
“Why are they difficult?” I asked. She didn’t answer.
Mommy was actually smiling today and seemed relaxed. She was a master at putting on a charming front. Daddy disappeared with his bag into a large office room near the entrance. Was he seeing the patient, a former doctor, with the water pistol? Or another patient? What a surprise when he came out with a red and white Santa hat and a long white beard! The nurses laughed and wished Santa happy holidays. He turned to me: I think he might have been wearing a Santa costume – or maybe I just want to remember him that way on that Christmas Eve.
“Hello, young lady,” he said in a deep voice that sounded a little bit like Daddy. I loved the game of role play. I asked him if it was very cold at the North Pole.
“Yes, but it is warm and cozy here.”
Mommy whispered in my ear: “I saw a picture of Daddy when he lived in Vienna. He had a long thin beard when he told stories to the children in the park.”
“But he IS Santa, Mommy,” I insisted.
Finally Santa said, “Let’s all go into the sitting room and meet the rest of our family.”
The tall Christmas tree
He opened the glass doors to the large sitting room. Inside, two impressive picture windows faced the front of the house. I could see heavy white snow falling again outside in the darkness. My eyes became big when I noticed the tall Christmas tree that touched the ceiling of the otherwise plain room. The tree was decorated with strips of tinsel that reflected the glowing lights that cast shadows around the dimly lit space and glass ornaments of every color, shape and texture. Beautifully wrapped packages, including the ones we brought from our house, were nestled under the tree.
By contrast to this magic, the furniture in the room appeared drab and ordinary. An upright piano, with scratched wood and yellowed keys, stood near the tree. Despite the less-than-perfect instrument, my mother went right over to the piano and started playing carols and singing in her lovely clear voice.
Santa-Daddy joined in, singing with his booming voice, and I jumped and clapped. Daddy picked me up and danced me around the room. The nurses joined in. I was bouncing with excitement and felt like I could take off and fly.
Others in the room
Then I noticed other people in the room. There were six older women and two older men sitting quietly, each in their own chairs, staring ahead but not really seeming to see us. I knew they were patients admitted to the sanitarium, and that my father treated them for their problems. Their expressions seemed neither happy nor sad.
I suddenly felt sorry for them. What were they thinking? Did they miss their families? Where were their families? I wanted to run over and hug each of them. On one side there was a younger man who got up from his chair and jumped around, shaking his head and making funny noises. Quinney went over to him and firmly danced him around the room.
Soon it was time to open presents. Santa directed, “Let’s start with Regina,” and everybody clapped. It was like being in a play and I was on center stage! I skipped over and picked up the largest package that had my name on it, the one my father had carried in, and quickly began tearing the wrapping paper and scattering the shreds everywhere.
I remembered to open the box with greater care. And there she was, her blue eyes staring up at me. I tipped her head forward and her eyes closed. She wore a bright red Christmas dress, just like one the one I was wearing. Her hair was dark brown and curled all over her head like mine. She was just as I remembered, the pretty doll standing on the shelf at Macy’s Department Store on 34th Street. I held her close.
There were more gifts for me and gifts for Mommy, Daddy, Quinney and the nursing staff. Someone brought out pitchers of eggnog and a huge tray of decorated Christmas cookies and marzipan in the shape of animals. I looked over at the old people sitting in the chairs quietly munching on cookies. I asked my mother and Quinney why there were no presents for them and wondered if I should share my gifts with them. Everyone assured me that their families sent them gifts and I did not need to share my gifts.
Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP, is an author, trainer and psychotherapist who promotes, practices and teaches experiential methods including psychodrama, Family and Systemic Constellations, sand tray, mindfulness and Tarot imagery.