Twenty-three years ago, Ria Del Bene and I sat before a fireplace in Jean Block’s Greenery to verbally reconstruct some of our Westhampton Christmas memories. Since then, those that I jotted down have reappeared in this space. And here they are again. Merry Christmas.
Now that the last Noel has been sung, and the last glass ornament made from the prism of our memories has been hung on the tree, and we’ve roasted the chestnuts of the past on the open fire of the present till they’re as palatable and pleasant as pastry, some of us, who like to nibble at the edges of the Christmas bliss of the rest of us, have been known to suggest that next year we might better spend our time in absolute truth, rather than the more preponderant other kind. It might be a good idea, say these few true realists, to, instead of indulging in December delusions, hire a Diogenes to turn his lamp on our collective past, looking for an honest memory. It might be a fruitless search, these few hard-edged fellows say, but at least it would be a noble enterprise, in tune with the nobility of the season.
Well, my answer to these probably right-thinking people is this: If you want to do it, it’s all right with me. And while you’re out there looking for an honest man to find an honest man, I’ll grab a few more reminiscences, in the same way that I used to filch the top layer of the best of the warm and soft and soothingly sweet Christmas cookies my mother used to bake before each Christmas, filling our house with such maddening smells that no small boy could help but enter a life of crime, for the time being, anyway.
I loved my mother, but I didn’t worry too much over her mystification when the tins she’d just filled till they were about to cascade cookies like the contents of a cornucopia, were always, after I’d cheerily galloped through the kitchen, emptier than she remembered. No, I’ll take reminiscence, with all its glorious imperfections, for our memories are the children and the artists that forever reside deeply within us. They paint the past in whatever colors we wish, and rewrite yesterday as if there were a truth beneath the truth. Which there is.
Were our hometowns better places at Christmas when we were young? Of course they were. Did we have more fun then? Of course we did. Did it snow more, did we sing more, did we love more? Naturally.
The past was when each of us was younger, before we began to bargain with life and notice our nemeses and compromise with the abiding demands of ideals. The past has no pain and no wrinkles and no arthritis. There are no Marley’s chains of mendacity there, and the breeze brought on by the fluttering wings of fear calms when traced by the meteorology of memory.
As adults, we know what we want. That’s the best of it. The worst of it is that we also have a tendency to want what we know. And that’s the sinking counterweight that sends the child in us, the artist in us, flying up and out of sight. The past, like the imagination of a child, has a bright outlook, a lifetime of a future. It selects, it focuses, it modifies. But it also intensifies.
Okey Overton, our village jeweler, didn’t always wander up and down Main Street, his hands locked behind his back, his steel-rimmed glasses tucked up under his green eyeshade, muttering, “I dunno, I dunno.” But in my memory he does. In my memory, I walk again into his wonderland of a store, his Geppetto’s workshop, where everything seemed splendid and shining and crying out to be bought. I’d spend hours, days, created eternities making up my mind and matching that with what I’d saved from my allowance to buy presents at Christmastime.
And then, probably on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, I’d go back to Okey’s private wonderland, and he’d look at me, gimlet-eyed, and become Scrooge for a moment. “Come on now,” he’d cackle, and his lips would draw tightly back over his gums. In those days, after a certain amount of time on this earth, you either had all of your teeth or none of your teeth. Okey had none.
“Can’t waste any more time. I dunno what gets into young folks today. I dunno,” he’d conclude, with all the finality of a papal proclamation. And he’d begin to shuffle back to his bedlam of a workroom in the back of the shop. “Wait a minute,” I’d say, fearful that he’d stay there until New Year’s and my mother and grandmother would be without presents. Then he’d stop, and about-face, and come back, and I’d point to the silver spear of a lobster fork, or the curled scroll of a lapel pin, or possibly, if I’d saved long enough, a silver charm in the shape of a cocker spaniel, because Lady, our cocker, was my mother’s bane and blessing, the small child that had replaced me when I betrayed her and grew up.
But wait a minute. Was Okey really that way? And was his shop all that magical? And did I really grow up? And was it always snowing at Christmas in Westhampton? Did we, when school was let out for the holidays, always soak ourselves into ambulatory icicles, hurling snowballs down the middle of Main Street? And was Cook’s Pond frozen over all winter long, and did the hockey games in that little parenthesis of a cove really happen? Were there really championship matches dominated by the big guys—Dode Hulse and John Culver and Adam Novak and Freddy Palmer and Georgie Raynor and Rodney Pugh—each of them shining giants who skimmed the surface of the ice like barreling Baryshnikovs, and who built the bonfires on the shore that sent lapping tongues of orange flames leaping into the December darkness, while I, my ankles practically brushing the ice, careened crazily between the twin poles of danger and disaster—did they really happen?
I’m not entirely sure. Nor am I entirely certain that exactness matters. For, if I squeeze my memory like a washcloth, and draw out of it some few drops of negative reality, I can remember Christmas Eves spent on the precipice of tears. My parents had put up the tree. And my father, with drill sergeant commands from my mother, had managed to plant the lights within its branches. And Santa Claus would, after I went to sleep, join them and help them decorate the tree and put the presents under it.
But how could he? I remember frantically thinking. Where there should have been icicles, there was dripping rainwater. Where there should have been snow, there was the miserable mundaneness of grass. Where there should have been the beacon of a moon to guide him to our roof, there was fog. But my parents, who, like all parents at Christmas, were ramparts against reality, patiently calmed me, telling me, with irrefutable logic, that Santa’s sleigh had wheels as well as runners for just such an emergency.
And although I tried mightily to stay awake to see this eighth wonder of the world, I never could, even on my sixth Christmas on this earth, when I was confined to my bed with pneumonia, and the Christmas tree was in my bedroom. Santa Claus, while I slept, managed to touch his amphibian of a sleigh soundlessly down on the roof, chat with my parents, smoke a pipe, decorate the tree, unload 20 or 30 green-and-red and silver-and-gold wrapped presents gloriously around it, and slip away while I serenely slept on.
What if my parents lied? What if, that particular Christmas, they slipped a mickey into my bedtime Ovaltine? They were doing it out of the most generous kind of love—to sew a memory to warm a colder Christmas decades later.
And that’s why it doesn’t matter a bit if all of what we recall didn’t happen quite that way. This is Christmas, and that was Christmas, and that’s all that really matters. The bells we heard, the carols we sang, were always in tune. The angels we made by lying on our backs on newly fallen snow were always mysteriously convincing. And the engulfing love we felt for the world leaped skyward like the flames of bonfires or the lacings of light at the melting summits of Christmas candles; or the warm, shared embers of shameless emotions when the goodness in us touched the goodness in others.
It can happen today, when our hearts desire more than our hands can gather. It might be happening this moment. Because, in an instant, Now will become the Past. There. It just happened. And when we remember it, Christmases from now, through the hall of mirrors of our memory, it won’t be untruthful, just intensified.