Friday, December 18, 2009

Backstage At "The Gift"



[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.


44 comments:

Janet said...

This was lovely. I so enjoy your trips down memory lane. I do love the Grove O'Christmas complete with bears, too. As to live trees, we take ours to the woods and fill it full of peanut-butter-and-sunflower-seed-covered pine cones for the wildlife. This is, of course, easier when you live in the middle of a forest. A very Merry Christmas to you and your wife.

Craig said...

Thanks for this, Sully. This is great stuff. . .

Man, I wish I had the kind of treasure-trove of old photos that you do. . .

Expat From Hell said...

"hidden beneath a maternity dress". Classic, my friend. As are your recollections. Merry Christmas to you all: past, present, and future. EFH

Eva Gallant said...

What wonderful pictures and wonderful memories! Thanks so much for sharing this beautful post with us! Merry Christmas to both you and your wife!

Jazz said...

Loved it. But then I'm biased, I always love your recollections.

Land of shimp said...

Something about the holidays does make us all march back through time, doesn't it? I particularly liked the picture of your dad looking like Gulliver in amongst the Lilliputians.

Whenever anyone gives you guff about the cat's name all you need say is, "Clearly, I have always had a rich appreciation of irony."

Fun post, and fun parade of pictures. I don't mean to alarm you, but your trees appear to be multiplying towards the end. The next step, as we all know, is organizing. If you hear any "OoeeOo!" coming from the tree area, it might be time to grab the bears and make a break for safety.

Teacher's Pet said...

I savored every word you wrote. I looked at each photo...noting the love (especially the photo of your Aunt Ba..what a giving and loving lady.)
Thank you for reminding me that some people have a different attitude at this time of the year because of experiences in their lives. What a gentle reminder to me to be more understanding and loving to all. I want to have a heart more like your Aunt Ba.
This post touched me a lot. You are such a fine man...truly a fine man. Please, give your wife a warm hug from me. I can tell that you are an awesome couple.
Have a blessed Christmas.
Love,
Jackie

not your Uncle Skip said...

You are truly a rich man with all the great memories you have to share. Having the pictures to go along with the story is a bonus.

Ananda girl said...

I like walking down your memory lane. Good words too. I can think of nothing worse than to be alone at Christmas. Family is a wonderful thing. Thanks for sharing yours.

Karen said...

Wonderful traditions... yes, they and family are what makes Christmastime so joyous! Merry Christmas!

Mushy said...

Great "more better" stuff! Thanks for sharing.

Merry Christmas!

Jeni said...

This post explains exactly why I love visiting your place, reading ALL your posts! It's your unabashed sentimentality and love you show for all sides of your family.
I smiled, chuckled and yes, cried too while reading this post -especially about Christmas memories and special people that brings to mind. My parents are both gone -one for the past 65 years, the other only 30 years as are my grandparents, all my aunts and uncles too -all who made my Christmases such a delight and make me want, every year, to try to recreate the feelings I had then for my children at each of the years I have had with them. They're a much smaller scale, people-wise, here than they were when I was a kid, and sometimes I wonder if I've achieved my goal with them. Some years, it seems to be really difficult to bring us all together and also, to be friendly to one another too. But most of the time, when my kids come together here under this roof for this particular celebration, I realize how tight my kids really are with each other, with their niece and nephews too and hear the jibes they pass back and for to each other, about each other, about me, to me and it doesn't erase my longing for those times I loved as a child but it does keep them very much alive as wonderful memories, all of them, of the people I loved then and today, the most!
Don't ever change your mode of operation, Suldog!

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Love these photos, I will echo Craig's sentiment, wish I had some old photos from my childhood. You're right, when you have family and happy memories Christmas is wonderful, for some, it's a sad desolate time of year.

Buck said...

Merry Christmas, Jim.

Your photos look like they could easily be snapshots from my childhood, even though we're 11 years apart in age and worlds apart in physical location(s) when we were kids. This was just an excellent post in each and every regard.

Thumbelina said...

I love how you connect to your past. These are beautiful memories. Family is so important, and it is the memories and family time we cherish isn't it?
As you know, we don't celebrate christmas, but we sure enjoy the time off to visit our families and have a real good time. It is good to see them all again. :)

Dianne said...

I love the photos, reminds me of my own past

I love Blackie is named Blackie, it's whimsical

tshsmom said...

I was going to ask if that was an Admiral TV. We had the same model.

I still hang my childhood stocking too. My husband never had one UNTIL he married me.

All of our tree ornaments have a memory. That's why decorating the tree is my favorite part of Christmas.

Thanks for this wonderful post!

Mr. Knucklehead said...

Jim, you've got to be the most Christmassy guy I know. One of these year, you'll have to fly out here to SoCal and we'll go caroling. The weather's perfect for it. As I type, it's 9 PM on Dec. 18th and it's about 65 degrees out.

Tis the season, my friend.

Granny on the Web said...

Lovely for you to have such a comprehensive set of photo's from Christmases past.
Lovely post Suldog!

Love Granny

SweetPeaSurry said...

That was FANTASTIC. Actually after the new year ... my project is to scan and sort all of the boxes upon boxes upon boxes of photos from my parents and both sets of grandparents ... I may have bit off more than I can chew here!

Happy Christmas!

slommler said...

I loved your trip down memory lane which prompted my own trip! Thank you so much!
Hugs
SueAnn

Michelle H. said...

Beautiful. What a wonderful trip through christmas past. Thank you for the journey. Merry Christmas, MLGF!

Hilary said...

Somehow when hearing your childhood tales, I feel like I've been there. I'm even beginning to recognize your family photos. Thanks for those inclusions. :) Merry Christmas!

♥ Braja said...

That was a veritable book, my friend :) Good stuff...but I think that photo of you with the stocking is later than 1959; if you're born in 56, you look older than 3 in that pic....

Theresa said...

You never cease to bring the past back to glorious life. The way you tell your stories makes me feels as if I was there.

What a great Christmas post! Thanks for sharing...

Sniffles and Smiles said...

Such a beautiful and heartwarming post, Jim...thanks for taking us backstage!!! Your Auntie truly was an incredible lady...wish there were more like her...she sounds a lot like my mom. And your Christmas grove is such fun!!! Love it! May your soul flourish as well, my friend! You bless so many of us with your kindness and generosity! Merry Christmas! Hugs, Janine

Woman in a Window said...

Suldog, there is something about nostalgia that settles deep into my bones and won't let go. Your pictures are gorgeous, your family, your stories, your heart. Merry Christmas to you and yours. Thanks for sharing.
xo
erin

Ericka said...

"Soon, with more better stuff."

unlikely my friend - your christmas posts are, imho, among your best.

have a wonderful christmas!

Reasons said...

You are a gem Suldog. Lovely post. Wishing you a wonderful, happy time. Thank you for your friendship. xxx

i beati said...

the reaL THINGS IN LIFE - SUCH TREASURE. I PITY THOSE WHO DID NOT HAVE A CHILDHOOD SUCH AS YOU AND i WITH LOVING VIVID CHARACTERS. mEANWHILE THIS YEAR, MY DOGS ARE EATING EVERYTHING ON THE TREE..SIGH

Jenn said...

Jim this is so great! I love that you gave us a behind the scenes look into your building joy for the Christmas season. I hope you and your WIFE celebrate in just the way you want and have a warm, safe, loving holiday season! Happy new year as well & see you in 2010!
Peace, ♥ & :-)

Eddie Bluelights said...

Wonderful traditions, Jim and thanks for sharing. It would be nice if there were more like you around. Gosh what have I said? says he, smiling? That is not possible, for there is only one Suldog and none of us would have it any other way.
Merry Christmas ~ Eddie

TechnoBabe said...

You are a kind person to mention the people hurting. Your photos and memories are wonderful.

lime said...

it's really true, the most special things are the connections and i think what makes it sad is feeling a lack of them. part of what has frustrated me this year is feeling a lack of time to make them properly and an active working against them by certain parties. thanks for a really lovely reminder of some of what makes the season so special.

Moannie said...

Thanks Jim, that was lovely. Photos are the first things I would save from a fire...after Milou and the cat, and JP, of course.

Joyous Noel, cherie.

Teacher's Pet said...

I came back over to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas.
Warmest hugs,
Jackie

Carolina said...

And a wonderful and warm Christmas to you too dear Jim, and to your loved ones. May your days be merry and bright...

Cindy said...

Well, I am glad I took this trip even during the last sprint towards Christmas Eve! I followed your comment on my blog (thanks by the way). Hey, this is the first time I have ever gotten to go "backstage"! Laughing and getting lost in my own sentimental memories here -

Merry Christmas!

addhumorandfaith said...

What a wonderful heart-felt post. You are blessed and, even better, you KNOW you're blessed.

Ayurvedic Medicine said...

congratulation. and its really great to see the whole family celebrate together.

Cirque du Soleil Ovo Tickets said...

These snaps are look great and such a good description of memorable moments.

Love sms said...

its really very nice and fantastic posting thanks for sharing this with us..

swords said...

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Daggers said...

its a informative post thanks for sharing with us.