21 December 2006

Short Day, Long Life

Welcome winter solstice. Today, actually this evening, we reach the perigee of periodicity, with maximal dark and minimal light.

That’s only for us northerners. Lest I appear to be hemispherically chauvinist, folks in Rio and Buenos Aires and Capetown and Sydney are lolling in mid summer. I once chanced upon a poem called Christmas in Africa that noted the cultural dislocation, noting the blazing heat of the day instead of ‘earth was hard as iron, water like a stone.’ Whenever someone bemoans the lack of snow I am tempted to remind them that Bethlehem is more like Palm Springs than St. Paul. We forget how much of Christmas is really yuletide, the cultural and pagan elements that have nothing to do with the religious feast at all.

Enough pedagogy. Back to the sentiment…

… Only once in my life did we spend Christmas vacation on vacation. My memory is unsteady about some details, but somewhere are around age 13 we decided to see Williamsburg VA, which was a long day’s drive from our Baltimore home.

The story actually begins before we went, when on Christmas Day my father left with my two younger sisters to take the overnight train from Baltimore down to the colonial peninsula. I envied them, but fair being fair, my brother and I had traveled with dad another time – to Cincinnati and back. This was the balancing occasion.

That meant mom and my brother and I were by ourselves for Christmas dinner. We went out. I know it’s done more now, but back then (mid 1960s now) it was rare. The three of us got dressed up and went to a better sort of place with table cloths and stuff like that. It was odd, as we were used to the raucous gorging of years past. And of course being only half the family the usual din and uproar was gone.

The next day we tore out in our two tone 1962 VW bus with the canvas sunroof. I do not remember that journey as much as the ride home. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

We stayed at the famed inn and I remember the vast steaming breakfast tables of food at the hotel and the cold that had suddenly descended with the holiday. The visit to those restored houses and places made an indelible impression, showing me the allures of history and its proximity more than its remoteness.

Wendy and I later took the boys there over the summer, when the heat was as thick as the cold. Aaron was but a boy and Steve was a toddler requiring a stroller which does not travel well over those authentic gravel and sawdust paths. Aaron was not impressed then, but a few years later, over an election day weekend when his school was going to DC for a trip, he and I went on our own and he truly enjoyed it. So did I. Someday, before Steve is gone I should enjoy doing the same with him. But it seems less and less likely.

What I remember most of that exceptional holiday was the ride home. A storm blew up, sending ice and snow before us as we traveled north. My mother, who preferred to drive, clung to the bus-like steering wheel, peering ahead into the lowering gloom as night combined with the flakes to make the passage slow and fearful. Her cigarettes came one after the other, and her manicured nails began to dig into her hands instead of being relaxedly extended.

Then the wipers failed. This could have brought us to a crashing halt except that in the 1962 VW bus, the wiper motor was a simple affair that was accessible directly under the dashboard. Reaching under it one could manually move the blade by twisting the end of the rotor. It was hard but it could be done. I was appointed the task of sitting in the front seat and moving each wiper every few seconds. This meant bending down and twisting my shoulder a bit to get some leverage. Not a comfortable position, especially with a set belt on, but it could be done.

Some hours later, near midnight, we rolled and slid our way up our tiny inclined driveway. My hands were stiff a cold because the rotor was metal and gloves reduced my grip. All the years later, though, that hardship sharpened my memory of the whole trip.

Sometimes a difficult and even painful thing can serve as a welcome prod to good memories as well. These stories I have recalled have all had a sorrow or a pain in them, but this does make them unhappy memories at all. Far from it. Many Christmases passed without moment, indistinct one from another, the predictable pleasures and repetitive joys making them unremarkable. They might as well have never happened.

Those that stand out have a difference, be it sad or funny or odd, and so many years later I am deeply grateful to have them so keenly in my mind. So I wish you a poignance along with your peace, to seal the day and the season within you and give you cause to tell stories when the winter days grow weary and the heart droops.

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