Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Spirits

A handwritten sign for a tag sale on Meriweather Lane caught my eye as I drove home after some Christmas shopping.  A tag sale!  In December!  Did I really want or need to shuffle around a chilly garage perusing someone’s cast-offs?  Of course not.

But I took the left on Meriweather, pulled over to the curb in front of a brick McMansion, and parked.  I silenced the radio and Perry Como’s jolly partridges and pears and pocketed my keys.  As I walked up the driveway, a dog barked inside the house, and a male voice called out, “Be there in a minute!  Just putting on a sweater!”

The garage door gaped open to admit me, watery sunlight, and raw cold.  Tables laden with books, worn holiday decorations, tin cookie cutters, clay molds, stacks of vinyl record albums, craft supplies, and a battalion of miniature Eiffel Towers were set wherever they could fit.  I had to inch past a folded wheelchair to view items toward the back.

Drawn by the cover illustration of a koala, I flipped through the pages of a children’s book.  The colorful pictures of raccoons, owls, and bears were appealing, so I decided to buy it for my grandson, Paul. Other than that, my browsing was done and when the homeowner appeared, I was ready to leave.

He was pale and slight of build, and his flyaway, graying hair was disheveled, no doubt from the tussle with his argyle sweater.  He gave me a rundown on general pricing then added, “unless it’s something unique... like Susan’s wheelchair.”

He was clearly disappointed when I held up my lone find.

“Oh.  Well. That’ll be $.25.”

As I rooted about in my pocketbook for a quarter, I remarked on his courage in holding a December tag sale.

“Truthfully, I’ve been holding them off and on since July.  My wife – that’s her wheelchair – died in June.”

“Oh no.  I’m so sorry….”

“They wanted to put Susan in a home, but I promised her that as long as I lived I would take care of her here.  And I did.”

His eyes reddened as he spoke with admiration of Susan’s degrees, career, and command of five languages.  “When I think of her at a podium, speaking before large audiences… or here, hosting parties for her students… yes, she was like that.  We always had groups of students around.  And then," he paused, his voice wavering, "she had a stroke.  So, take care of any little health issues you have: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes.  These took Susan down.”

He pulled out a handkerchief and wadded it to his eyes as tears flowed. My own eyes filled as I imagined the difference in this man and this house when Susan - vibrant, brilliant Susan - was here as companion and hostess. 

Christmas is poignant even in the absence of loss.  The plastic bins hauled from our attic are filled with memories.  Christmases past are layered between white sheets of tissue: popsicle stick ornaments made by my kids in elementary school, the velveteen Santa from my parents for Tucker’s first Christmas.  Ornaments of bread dough and papier mache that conjure family craft projects in the early eighties.  So many Santas, angels, and artfully decorated Styrofoam balls given or created over the years by friends and family.  I miss those days when my own parents were youthful and strong, when our kids, giddy with excitement, snuggled in bed to wait for Saint Nicholas.

But Christmas Present is richly blessed!  The day itself has not yet arrived, and Dave and I have already celebrated in Rhode Island with my side of the family.  We attended a joyful musical performance at our grandniece’s school and reveled at the cascades of confetti at its end. We have gathered with friends over too-much food, joined the shopping bustle at Barnes and Noble and the mall, and listened, happily, to countless versions of “White Christmas.” And we helped our daughter and her husband prepare for their first party in their new house.

How many times have I looked over at my Dave through all these festivities and felt a prickle in my nose at seeing that dear, beaming face loving these people and cherishing these moments as fully as I am?  Soon enough, these will be the days that make me misty even as now I miss their brethren past.

We recently discovered a treasure from 1982, a tape of Tucker reciting "The Night Before Christmas” with the help of a few cues whispered in the background by his dad.  Dave and I listen and smile, eyes bright and damp as our little one’s childish sing-song voice announces, “BUMPF! Down the chimney Saint Nicholas came with a bound,” adding that ”BUMPF!” as we always did in reading the story to him, just as we add it now while reading to Paul.  And Paul hoots, “BUMPF!” with the same exuberance his father once did.

Recently my sister Rita sent a nostalgic text after she’d re-read a commemorative book she’d made with the hymns, readings, and eulogies from my dad’s funeral.  “I honestly thought it had been four years [since he died],” she wrote, “I’m losing time!  It’s been six!”  It’s hard to believe my big, solid, mischievous, boisterous, funny, beloved father has been among the ghosts of Christmases past for that long.

The other night, Dave and I were out to dinner at Molto, one of our favorite restaurants. Surrounded by the chatter, lights, and festivity of the season, I borrowed Dave’s handkerchief and tearfully confessed my maudlin musings.  I mentioned my nostalgic memories, and touched on my clash of joy, guilt, and sorrow in the staggering contrast between our lives and the suffering people of Syria, the hurricane-bereft homeless in Florida and Puerto Rico, and yes - the starving children of India.   I was on a roll, and I snuffled into his handkerchief while ranting about our poor country, upended by violence and inept governance. 

Dave regarded me, his brow furrowed with loving frustration.  “You have too many black crayons in your crayon box,” he said.

Maybe.  Maybe.  But it’s not so much about shadows as wishing everyone could have it as good as we do.  And I want better from our leaders. As he did to Scrooge, I want Dickens’s Marley to shake his chains and wail in fury at those driven by power and money. I want them to absorb his remorse over his pursuit of gold when he should have known that “mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business:  charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”  Let’s add the health of the planet and well-being of our fellow creatures to that list, while we’re at it.

And oh, how I wish Susan were still here to celebrate Christmas with her grieving husband on Meriweather Lane.  After paying for the koala book, it was time to leave.  Why would I linger longer in that cold, sad garage? In parting, I drew the man in his argyle sweater into my arms, and the two of us cried and held each other.  Then I returned to the blessing of Perry Como and my cozy car for the drive home to my Dave.   

Friday, December 8, 2017

The National Christmas Center, an Endangered Pennsylvania Gem

No offense to fans and practitioners, but in my husband’s opinion, the road to hell is a gauntlet lined with the wheeze and whine of bagpipes.  He might be alone in his view, and, in fact, I recently learned at the National Christmas Center that, for centuries, bagpipes were used by shepherds to soothe their flocks, and may have played a lullaby for the newborn Jesus.  For a short time longer, the Christmas Center invites visitors on an extraordinary journey into the season’s history, cultural impact, fun, and inspiration.

With my mother and sister, Rita, I drove past rolling fields, silos, farms, and Amish carriages to reach the National Christmas Center in Paradise, PA.  Like a geode, the plain exterior betrays nothing of the sparkle inside.  Nor does the foyer, or the glimpse of the gift shop.  Near the ticket counter, a life-sized mannequin in Victorian garb slouches against the wall.  While his hang dog expression reflects more the post-Christmas exhaustion of vendors and parents than the holiday’s magic, he is a charming hint of what awaits in the rooms ahead.

I was not the only one barely repressing the urge to clap my hands, jump up and down, and say “yippee!” like a child on Christmas morning while viewing this extraordinary collection of Christmas memorabilia, full-scale re-creations of iconic settings, and even a walk-in Woolworth’s.  The piped-in hymns and Christmas carols harmonized with the visitors’ chorus of “Wow! Beautiful,” “Oh my gosh, remember that?” or, “I had one of those!”  Exhibits range from kitschy to reverent, from familiar to novel, from historic to nostalgic, rekindling that wonderful childhood December immersion in commercial and mystical promises.

We walked galleries of cobbled streets winding through softly lighted “villages” and peered through multi-paned windows to learn about Christmas crafts, traditions, and beliefs from around the world. I stood eye-to-eye with stunning, remarkably life-like representations of Father Christmas. We were enchanted as any small child by the animatronic reindeer and elves in Santa’s workshop, and the detailed vignettes that embody the story of the woodland creatures of “Tudor Towne.”

Innumerable threads weave through each person’s sense of Christmas, and Jim Morrison, the founder and curator of the Christmas Center, seems to have thought of them all.  There are vintage decorations, china sets, advertising art, countless Santa interpretations, a vast collection of crèches, and a desk formerly owned by Clement Clark Moore, author of “The Night Before Christmas.”  A flickering newsreel of an aging Virginia O’Hanlon runs in a loop as she recalls the letter she wrote in 1897 as an eight-year-old with a faltering belief in Santa.  Spurred by her father’s confidence that, “If you see it in The [New York] Sun, it’s so,” she wrote to the paper, seeking truth.  Newsman Francis Pharcellus Church provided the paper’s reassuring, hopeful response, “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist…”

As Mom, Rita, and I neared the end of our tour, glass cases filled with crèches gave way to narrow alleys and the gray stucco walls of ancient Bethlehem.  We visitors became pilgrims joining shepherds, wise men, donkeys, sheep, and a camel to circle close and behold the Holy Family.  

Remember the goony be-speckled kid in the pink bunny pajama suit in “The Christmas Story”?  You’ll spot him at the museum.  Remember Patty Play Pal, pink and blue plastic piggy banks, and Ginny dolls?  They’re there too.  Remember velvety nights lying on your stomach under a Christmas tree studying a creche, surrounded by the glow of lights, and suffused with joyful anticipation? You’ll feel that at the Center. 

But not for long. 

Unless a patron miraculously steps forward, the National Christmas Center is closing in January… So make a plan to go; you do not want to miss it.        

Monday, November 6, 2017


I’m all about visuals, but during this Boston trip, sounds have led to adventure. So when Dave, Paul, and I heard the sonorous blatt of tuba and trombone as we headed home at the end of an evening playground romp, we changed course to investigate.

A jostling, foot-tapping, dancing crowd, drawn as we were, had gathered in yet another playground near Davis Square. Dave lifted Paul onto his shoulders and we inched in and angled for a better view.

The musicians were a motley group of older men with graying hair pulled back in ponytails.  Most wore black shirts, shorts and socks, and we bobbed and swayed along with them.  Heavy on horns and snare drums, they played a loose New Orleans jazz that flowed into a jerky Arabian accompaniment for the belly dancers.

Belly dancers!  My heavens! Three women in garish, burgundy harem garb tapped finger cymbals and gyrated gleefully in unison.  Ample, naked, midriff flesh rippled, as trained, while two apparent acolytes followed the lead of their seasoned mentor, a middle-aged gypsy with flowing raven tresses.  They spun and gestured, their penciled eyebrows arched, scarlet lips upturned in come-hither smiles.

 “Wow, Paul!  What do you think?” 

What was the child to think?  And could he hear me over the tinny din and eager applause of the crowd? From his perch on Dave’s shoulders, he watched intently, his face impassive, his gaze unwavering as the women wiggled and tapped their cymbals.  

The music wound down, and the dancers shimmied to the side. In a quick, smooth transition, the Dead Music Capital Band took their place.  Yes, their faces were painted skull white, and yes, fake blood dripped from a hatchet in one musician’s head, but their extensive horn section and bass drums produced a powerful, swelling, fill-your-chest-with-joy volume of sound.

 We’d grasped that Halloween in the offing would explain the blood and skeletal affectations, but still….”What’s this all about?” I asked a woman near me.

“It’s the Honk!” she said. 

Oh, that explains it….

“The parade is tomorrow!  Starts at noon from Davis Square!”

Well! As we wheeled Paul home to dinner and bed, he stretched out and relaxed in his stroller, satisfied by the evening’s entertainment. We still had no idea what was going on, but sure as hell, we would be at Davis at noon!

At 12:00 on the dot the next day, the three of us joined thousands of other enthusiasts on the sidewalk on Mass Ave.  Paul was back at his station on Dave’s shoulders, his expression still inscrutable, which seemed about right given last night’s introduction.

By now, Dave and I had Googled the Honk and learned this was the 12th anniversary of the “Festival of Activist Street Bands.”  Last night, the message had not been the focus, but this morning, the full array of Boston’s diverse population and social consciousness was literally on parade.  Stilt-walkers, cyclists, floats, and bands marched or danced or wheeled on by, exuberantly proclaiming solidarity with groups and causes close to home (a faculty walk-out) and across the globe: climate change, clean energy, Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights, peace on Earth, Dreamers, and Freedom for Tibet.

Lady Liberty was well represented in green foam headdresses and large-scale statues, her promise of equality and welcome deeply meaningful for this city of immigrants, for this country of immigrants.  And my heart was lifted, in these troubling times of competing fears and worries, to see so many people out creatively declaring their commitment and concern.

While Paul remained transfixed more than overjoyed, we delighted in directing his attention to the startling mix of outrageous fantasy and the comfortably familiar portrayed in vibrant costumes, crepe, and papier mache.  “Look Sweetie!  What’s that?”


“Yes!  An elephant!”

 “And look! Butterflies!”


“Yay!  Whoa! Check it out, Paul!  A dragon!”


And so, in being with our grandson, led by our senses and open to opportunity, we happened upon the Honk with its belly dancers, bands, community … and dragons.



Sunday, October 22, 2017

Adventures Everywhere

As I rocked my grandson in my arms in the darkened room before settling him into his crib for the night, I whispered, “You had so many adventures today!”  Paul snuggled against my chest, waiting...  My son and his wife started this routine when Paul was an infant; after putting on his pajamas and reading a few cozy stories, they turn down the lights, and in soft voices, review his day.

“You saw the men fixing the sidewalk this morning, remember…?”

Dave had been taking a shower, and Paul and I had gone outside to retrieve the sponge Red Sox baseball bat Paul tossed over the balcony.  The bat was in the neighbors’ yard, under a small fir tree.  “Do you see the bat?  Can you get it?”

I opened the gate to the fence, he fetched the bat, and raised it proudly for me to see. 

Suddenly, the pounding of a jackhammer shattered the morning quiet.  “Wow!  What’s that?  Let’s go check it out!”  I said.

“Check it out!” replied Paul as we walked toward a sound from which most people would flee.

Paul is 22 months old and fast on his feet, so I have terrifying mental images of him smacking his head on the sidewalk or darting into the road.  So, “Take my finger, sweetie,” I said.  “Good boy.  Thank you,” and we headed toward the noise. 

While one might think curiosity about that thundering sound would override all else, there was much to inspect within the block and a half we covered.  

Paul stopped, pointed, and squatted on his haunches.  “Those are ants!”  I said.

“Ants!” said Paul, his voice gentle and intrigued.

“See how busy they are? They’re helping their friends take food to their home.  See the hole?  That’s their home.”

“That’s their home,” he said… or something close.

With his eyes, Paul followed the scurrying ants while shamelessly I indoctrinated him with the value of even the smallest lives, the importance of helping, the satisfaction of good work. 

Nearby, drifts of dried maple seeds had collected in the dirt at the base of a small sapling.  Yesterday, Dave demonstrated the fun of these “helicopters,” so Paul scooped up two handfuls and tossed them in the air. “Watah-fall!” he cried as they spun and tumbled. 

“Wheeeeee!” I whooped, as I tossed high another handful.

“Wheeee!”  Paul joined in, as seeds rained down around us.

Oh, being with our boy reminds me of the joys and wonder of this world.  The fascinating industry of ants.  The exhilaration of maple seeds swirling as they fall.  The allure of a jackhammer ratcheting against concrete.  Hm.  Yes.  That too.

Finger in small fist, we resumed our walk toward the deafening report.  “Big truck!”  Paul said with glee.

He was right!  A dump truck and a backhoe were waiting to haul away broken chunks of sidewalk.   “Look!  See that man?  He has a pickaxe.  Can you say ‘pickaxe’?  (Of course, he could!)  He’s breaking off pieces and putting them into the shovel.  Look at that big shovel on the backhoe!” 

“Shovel on the backhoe!” repeated Paul, or something close.

We sat on the stairs of a house across the street from the action and watched as I rattled off explanations and questions.  “What color is the dump truck?  That man’s shirt?  The backhoe?” 

I’d mistakenly told Paul that vehicle was a steam shovel, but not wishing to misinform my grandson, I asked one of the men and he corrected me; the good men of public works were tickled to have such curious, enthusiastic spectators. Periodically they waved or gestured toward what they were doing.  In parting, I yelled over the clamor of the engine to tell them they might have a young apprentice.  They called back, “Nah!  This work’s too hard.  Tell him to stay in school!”

Later that day, after lunch and Paul’s nap, Dave, Paul’s “Tato,” joined us for a trip to the grocery store.  As if the Universe had not been generous enough in providing this morning’s backhoe and dump truck, hook and ladder engine #9 was parked in the back of the lot.  “Look Paul!  What do you see?”  We whooped.

Pointing with a chubby, index finger, Paul hooted, “Big fire truck!”  Not just close this time, but clear as day.

Two firefighters manned the truck, both named Mike.    “Fist bump?” Mike #1 asked Paul.  Oh yeah.  Tiny fist met meaty fists as Mikes #1 and #2 greeted our boy.  “Want to sit in the truck?”  said Mike #1 as he jumped down from his post. 

“Whoa!  Look at you,” Dave and I crowed as Paul perched on the seat… too close to the edge I thought.  So I hovered, hands raised in case he lurched forward, while the two Mikes smiled their encouragement.

But there was shopping yet to be done, so Dave and I gushed our thanks, and we all waved bye-bye.  So many dear, burly men in Paul’s wake today, grinning at our little one and waving bye-bye!

For young parents, grocery shopping is one list among many, exhausting if it follows a day at work, an annoyance on the weekend when it takes up free time.  For us, Paul’s Tato and his LeaLea, it was anything Paul wanted it to be, as long as we wound up with the makings for dinner.  

Usually, I don’t take time to notice, much less marvel at the shapes and colors tucked in the shelves of Stop and Shop. But with Paul, I saw the beauty in mounds of shiny apples, ponderous pumpkins, and dimpled oranges.  We pointed, and Paul named them, as shoppers around us smiled and said, “Smart boy!”

We’d decided on tilapia for dinner, and wheeled over to the seafood counter, totally forgetting the surprise that waited there.  OMG! Lobsters! Could this day get any better?

Dave lifted Paul out of the cart so he could study closely those crusty creatures, their waving antennae, and spidery legs.  Paul noted the big ones and watched as some little ones took their naps.  I threw in a comment about playing nicely with friends as a bully of a lobster clambered over those napping babies.

Having never done this as parents – we were too busy!  We had things to do! – we set Paul free and followed him as he dashed down the aisles, weaving around displays and indulgent, smiling shoppers, stopping dead periodically when something caught his eye.  In the pet department, an elderly woman quizzed Paul on animal names, then looked at me and said, “Treasure these times!  It goes so fast…”

As if I don’t know!  We last saw Paul a month ago, and already he is taller and slimmer.  Already he has dropped some endearing words and gestures as his pronunciation improves and he mimics more accurately.  Already, he is more of a person, surer of what he wants… and what he doesn’t.  As I did with Tucker and Casey, I try to freeze our time with this little boy, much as I know it can’t be done.

In the darkened nursery that night, with Paul snoozy in his striped pajamas, snuggled close to my chest, I whispered, “and you sat in a fire truck.  Do you remember the two Mikes?  And you went to the grocery store, and watched the lobsters play with their friends.”