December 25, 2017
MONTPELIER – At just past six on Christmas morning it was still quite dark outside, but the house was lit inside as if by night lights by what the old-timers, in the days of lamps and candles, called snowlight. Dead dead-quiet in the house. I sat in a circle of warm electric light with a cup of reheated coffee, a banana I needed to save from going by, and the dog curled up (anti-clockwise this time) two inches from my left elbow. But if I turned my head to look at her, I encountered one brown eye peeking out at me through facial fur. She wasn't eager for Christmas – had no idea what it is – but she's always eager for something. Breakfast, I expect, that time.
How different this was from past Christmas mornings! Somewhere around the place I have the old 8mm color movies my father, with his wind-up Kodak movie camera, shot of my sister and me shuffling into the living room in our pink and blue Dr. Denton's and blinking in the bright floodlights. The tree, nine feet tall to reach the ceiling of the old house, was hung with antique German ornaments and draped with lead foil icicles. But it was what was under it – an electric train named the Commodore Vanderbilt, and beautiful, bright gifts – that completed the magic. About noon we got dressed for the ride in Grampa's Chevy to our grandparents' flat for feasts whose aromas I'll remember as long as I live.
A few years later my father was ordained, and Christmas changed a lot for us. We lived in a new city, and at Christmastime he officiated at wall-to-wall services. But there were still, whenever he could get free, the full tree and presents, and now, on the edge of a city instead of in the middle of it, a world-class sliding hill up on a nearby reservoir-topped drumlin. Our second year there was the Christmas of my incredible Flexible Flyer, the bridge between childhood and adolescence.
Shortly after that, I was off to school, and Christmas became pretty much a vacation my mates and I counted down toward. Once home, I was antsy for old friends and parties, and less and less interested in the lives of my parents. That was inevitable, I suppose, but it still seems selfish all these years later.
I started college, sort of in lockstep with my peers, found it uninspiring, dropped out (unlike my peers) to go West and climb, and eventually returned East in an old Plymouth sedan and desperate financial straits. I drove to the Adirondacks, which I'd found entrancing on earlier visits, lived in a leanto and later a screened shack, and found laboring jobs to keep going. It got cold, so I found a $10-a-month apartment, and sat around playing my guitar and feeling sorry for myself. On Thanksgiving weekend the Plymouth threw a rod far from home. I gave it to the tow truck guy in exchange for the tow.
It was not a great holiday season. I was cutting brush for work, at $1.35 an hour, and got laid off on Christmas Eve. Next morning I went out, cut a scrawny little two-foot spruce in the woods, and stood it up in a corner, unadorned, on top of a table. I guess you could call that the worst Christmas ever, even though the Garrisons next door brought me a cake that afternoon and invited me over for Scrabble later.
Things got better soon. Could they have gotten worse? After a frustrating wrangle with local politics and an angry letter to Governor Rockefeller (who got my very last Republican vote), I landed a job at the bobsled run near Lake Placid. State pay, too. I was even able to buy a new Beetle convertible that March, and a few months later, took a young woman out in it for our first date. We were married about twelve weeks later. I didn't know it yet, but Christmas for me was about to change forever.
Mother, as she's almost always been called, brought to events like Christmas a Busby Berkeley approach direct contrasting to my Anglican, Silent Night, Kings College Chapel themes. There was no resisting it; every Christmas saw a beautifully trimmed tree, brightly wrapped presents, church at midnight, unwrapping one at a time next morning, and a feast in the afternoon with invited guests, often needy ones.
The kids grew up, went off to college, and moved away. We got older, and Christmas got quieter. The tree was still there, decorated just the same way each year, wherever we were. And then, all of a sudden it seems, Mother wasn't home anymore, but in a nursing facility.
This was our second Christmas in her room. Two friends have brought her a tree with bright lights and trimmed it. She gets more cards than she can read. And today one of our kids, our daughter Martha, and her husband brought a magnificent roast beef dinner with all the trimmings. We even had the woman from across the hall join us. A far cry from our first so many years ago, but in many ways more precious: just being quietly together to commemorate in our small way the great gift given us so many years ago.