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.