Friday, December 18, 2009
[The title refers to my previous (and annual) posting, The Gift. If you haven't read that piece, you can probably still enjoy this. However, it may not make sense in spots. That would be consistent with my life philosophy overall, though, so it's OK.]
I went through some old photos a few weeks back, specifically in search of Christmas-related stuff on which to base a fresh holiday post. I knew I had a couple of good ones in the can, and I was fine with re-running those, but I wanted to publish something new as well. I gathered about 25 photographs from Christmases past (trees were prominently featured; that's how I knew) and, while looking through them in search of inspiration, I realized that many of them could act as visual proof of what I wrote about in my story, The Gift.
Before we go on, I want to be sure you know something about how I put that story together. You might look at these photographs and say to yourself, "Oh, now I see! He had these at hand when he wrote it, so all he did was look at them and cobble together some connecting material to tie up what he saw. And all this time I thought his memories of Christmas were strong and beautiful, and he wrote the story from those memories. I've been duped!" You would be wrong to think that. I did work from photographs, but the photographs were (and are) in my mind. It was only during the past couple of weeks that I realized there were actual hard copies of my memories.
As for the "Backstage" title of this piece, it's just whimsical. I've come to think of The Gift as a sort of secular 1960's passion play (as, it seems from the comments left during it's various runs and re-runs, some of you have, too.) So, let your imagination churn a bit and pretend this a peek at the principals, props, stage dressing, and other paraphernalia one might find behind the curtain and in the wings.
First, some prologue that wasn't in the story...
The gigantic fellow on the right is my Dad. He was at least nine years older than any of his three siblings, so he appears to be some sort of pituitary freak. In reality, he stood about 5' 9" (if any of my foreign readers need that in metric, it's 175 cm; not extremely short, but hardly a giant!)
My Uncle Jimmy (second-oldest, in the middle) tells me that this was a somewhat not-well-to-do Christmas for his family, but - as with so many families in such a situation - they didn't realize they were poor. He recalls that the baby carriage came used from a relative and that my grandfather repainted it prior to my Auntie Ba - here about five or six, I would guess - receiving it as a gift. Jimmy also says it was family tradition for the younger kids to believe that Santa Claus decorated the tree on Christmas Eve, but in actuality it was my father who did so each year after attending midnight mass.
Speaking of mass...
This is Saint Gregory's, in my childhood hometown of Dorchester, a section of Boston. It was where we attended mass every Christmas (as well as every Sunday, every holy day of obligation, and for the occasional ceremony of a wedding, funeral, or christening.) I was baptized there, received first communion there, and also was confirmed there by the late Richard Cardinal Cushing, celebrated in Boston Catholic lore. At age 34, this was where I married MY WIFE. It was - and is - a magnificently warm house of worship. In particular, the stained glass above the altar is quite beautiful when the sun is shining through it in the morning hours, dust motes swirling in the colorful sunbeams, and the particular smells of an older church (aged wooden pews, incense, candles) are inhaled concurrently. Should you enjoy such places, and ever find yourself in Dorchester, have a visit. You'll be delighted.
Every Advent, a creche (manger scene) was set up on the lawn to the left of the church. The baby Jesus wasn't included, of course, as He hadn't been born yet. Come Christmas, all of the kids in the neighborhood - who had been admiring the creche all during Advent - would check to see if Jesus had made His arrival. He always had, and we were always pleased by that minor bit of Catholic hocus-pocus.
My Dad once again, looking a bit more his normal height. This was Christmas of 1956, about two months before my birth. My Mom took the photo, so I'm just out of sight in the foreground, hidden beneath a maternity dress. This is the living room of Caddy Road, where the tree always was, and where we always exchanged gifts, and where cats always played with low-hanging ornaments.
And that brings us to...
The Cat. Real name: Blackie.
(I get enough grief about that choice of name from MY WIFE without YOU piling on. She looked black when she was born, what with all of the amniotic fluids and gunk, OK?)
Here she's battling a silver bell ornament. I know for a fact she didn't defeat it since I still have that ornament on this year's tree. Notice the big-ass old Admiral TV in the background. The best furniture talks to you and shows you pictures! One of the boxed games on the left was called Feeley Meeley. I have no recollection of how it was played, but it sure sounds unsavory.
Which brings us to our next character...
Me (as well as my Christmas stocking.)
This would have been 1959, I think. It is probably the stocking's initial appearance at Christmas.
Here is the stocking at a later date, closer to the time of the story, hanging from my bedroom door, full. Santa has come and gone, obviously. I am on the other side of that door, sound asleep, with my transistor radio playing "Silver Bells" or "The Little Drummer Boy" to my unconscious self.
Earlier in the week...
... I had my green rubber boots on in the snow. I probably made the decoration (or, at least, that part of it that only involved cutting letters from construction paper.) I may be gathering inspiration for a trip to the store to buy THE GIFT for...
Auntie Ba. When last you saw her, up above, she was about 15 years younger and pushing a doll in a baby carriage. She now has two real children. How time flies!
This is hardly the best photo of her. It does, however, show the amazing floor-covering hard-to-walk-through nature of her place on Christmas morning. She was the indisputable Queen of Christmas Generosity. No expense was ever spared, and she was usually broke because of it. And she wouldn't have had it any other way. She'd give you the shirt off of her back, even if it was snowing and she didn't have another. God, I miss her.
Now, a slight trip back in time...
Christmas 1959 again, probably. Auntie Ba, looking much lovelier, is second from the left. I'm the little guy clutching some goodies in another stocking. On the right are my Sullivan grandparents, Ma and Pa. Could I possibly have ever been recipient of a more loving gaze than that being bestowed upon me by Pa? I doubt it. This was the first stop on Christmas after my aunt's (and this was prior to her having her own place, and may have been during the time period when she lived with me. I'm not totally sure.) My mother is directly behind me, and behind her is my grandfather, Fran Drown, no doubt at my other grandparent's home because we will be going in his car to Weymouth, the final stop on each Christmas, then as now.
Just one more photo from the past...
This was Ma & Pa's Christmas tree from that same year. I show it for you to notice the star atop it. It is the same star we later put on trees in Dorchester. It is the same star MY WIFE and I now feature on our...
... Grove O'Christmas (trademark pending.)
As you can see, we have more than one tree. MY WIFE got them from a store she once worked at. They were part of a window display. When they decided they weren't going to use them anymore, she asked if she could buy them. Until then, we had always had a real tree. Just as well this way, as I have always been so damn sad throwing the live tree to the curb in January. It never seemed right to have loved it so and then just tossed it aside. A live tree is lovely and fragrant, but these guys are easier on my conscience.
I always wait for a day when MY WIFE is working - and I'm not - then I set up the trees and decorations while she's not home. This particular year, I decided it would be cute to put all of our teddy bears (and assorted honorary bears) under the tree. Until then, I had no idea what a huge bloody lot they had become. I literally could not fit all of them under the trees or into the photo. This is about 3/4 of them.
(Say what you will concerning our sanity, but they don't eat much and they scare away the burglars. Would you break into a home with 50-some-odd bears in it? I think not!)
And here is this year's version of the same.
Notice the stocking in the background? Same one I had when I was two. And the star? It was on Ma & Pa's tree, then my parent's, now ours. And that's the overarching theme here, I suppose: connections to the past. What my father delighted in doing during his teens, decorating the tree to surprise and delight others, he delighted in still during my childhood, and I delight in now. My Auntie Ba's acceptance of the re-painted baby carriage as a wonderful gift led to her being just as happy to receive my silly sponges, which in turn leads to me having never been ungrateful for a present at any time in my life since. As I saved my stocking and love bringing it out each year, so I made one for MY WIFE and she has it hung each year, and she in turn made one for her brother and we bring that one out each year. Heck, one year we gave everybody on our list a full stocking as their gift. The list of connections goes on and on, from my family and hers. I've been lucky enough to gain many others by marriage (such as the traditional changing of my sister-in-law's "NOEL" decoration to having it read "LEON" at some point, which always brings muffled laughter from us and a groan from her.)
What makes Christmas a wonderful holiday for some - and less so for others - are these connections to loving family and pleasant traditions. The more tenuous those connections, the less jolly a time it is. Those who are without loved ones to share the time don't feel the same warmth as those of us who have the blessing of living ties to the fondly-remembered past. When you run into a humbugger, stop and consider that perhaps that person has a serious hurt inside. Severed connections can be quite painful. Maybe your kind word or action can reconnect them (or, if you are blessed, connect them for the first time) to the magic. You won't know unless you try. And, if nothing else, you'll be happier for the trying, believe me.
If you are a humbugger - or just seasonally sad, for whatever personal reasons - my well-meaning advice would be for you to attempt making some connections of your own. Start a tradition, if need be. Every earthly thing of good has had a beginning somewhere by somebody. How fondly you'll be remembered by those whom you include in your passion play!
And that's it for me until the new year, my good friends. Be safe, be loving, smile as often as is possible, and maybe attempt one serendipitous good deed that you weren't originally planning. When it gets down to the heart of the matter, YOU can be Christmas to somebody. Make it so, for your own soul to flourish.
Soon, with more better stuff.