A CHRISTMAS STORY - 2019
Some of the magic of Christmas stems from its ability to resurrect old memories, bring them to the surface from the murky depths like deep sea divers retrieving precious antiques from ancient shipwrecks. They appear unbidden. Called forth by the crackle of a piñon fire, the scent of baking cookies, a few notes of an old carol, each brings a flood of remembrances.
Time evaporates. Memories from a Christmas decades past are as fresh and new as if they happened yesterday. Seen in the mind’s eye people long gone are alive again. The smell of Grandma’s perfume. Of a dear Uncle’s cigar. A laugH.
When I was growing up I had six cousins roughly my age and every year on Christmas Eve we would gather in the attic at my Aunt Esther’s old Victorian house in East Orange for a sleep over and wait-for-Santa party. No one slept but I still remember all of us going outside to look for the Christmas star. It’s been years since I’ve seen those cousins but they live on in my mind’s eye.
When I went off to college, Christmas break became a time to catch up with high school friends. And bask in the glow that you get by being a college student wandering your old high school haunts.
Mostly because I was new to the area I was tapped to be Santa Claus at the nurse’s party the first year I started practice in Newport Beach after I got out of the Army. The staff talked about that and teased me every Christmas for years.
Being an obstetrician, I always seemed to be on call on Christmas day and invariably it seems I spent part of every Christmas in the delivery room. Even had a Christmas baby named after me once.
As Santa to three kids I kept the mystery alive as long as I could. Read everyone THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS on Christmas Eve and only realized years later that I was the person I kept the tradition alive for. Even to eating the cookies that were left for Santa by the fireplace, careful to leave some crumbs and a thank-you note.
Lots of shimmering images. The Christmas recitals at Harbor Day followed by hot chocolate and cookies. The boat parade of lights in Newport Harbor, green lights lining the forestay and the backstay of LUCKY PUFF. Michelle, our oldest, making cinnamon buns with icing on Christmas morning. From scratch. Brian, the middle kid, the champion decorator and cosmic light wizard.
The first Christmas JoAnn and I spent together we went back to the Cape, to Duxbury, a small town straight outta TOWN & COUNTRY, where her sister, Leona, and brother-in-law, Kevin, had a house near Plymouth close by the Atlantic Ocean. Not far from where the Pilgrims landed. It brought THE PREPPY HANDBOOK to life. A scene from Currier and Ives. Big fire in the fireplace, garland on the mantle, candles everywhere. JoAnn’s Mom, Doris (who became my adopted Mom), and Max, her career Naval officer Dad enjoying every moment with their sometimes raucous family. Kevin always had a parade of college friends that dropped in for one of the famous Kavanagh Irish coffees.
We got married near there, seventeen years later, ten days before Christmas, on a cold, blustery day at the chapel at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where JoAnn’s Dad had been stationed. The lure of New England was irresistible. There still is nothing to compare with walking in to THE BLACK PEARL, an old restaurant on the water in Newport, home of the world’s best clam chowder, on a snowy winter’s day with the windows frosted up, a fire in the fireplace, the smell of damp coats scenting the air. When you sit own in from of a bowl of that chowder (chowda to the locals) and a Bloody Mary, all’s right with the world.
And the Christmas mornings in Newport Beach when our three kids would come over to our little condo in Newport for brunch and Max the dawg and Vincent the cat would crowd in to see what they could panhandle.
One Christmas Eve JoAnn and I decided to go to Midnight Mass that was going to be sung in Gregorian chant by the Norbertine Fathers at St. Michaels Abbey, high up on Saddleback Mountain in Orange County. Way off the beaten path. Loren, our youngest, was about seventeen. “What are you guys doing tonight?” he asked. When we told him he cancelled the plans he had with his friends and never one to ignore the lure of a new adventure, he joined us.
Midnight Mass just about anywhere has the ability to make your hair stand on end. When conducted by group of two dozen or more monks replete with white robes and cowls chanting the medieval words in Latin a cappella in a small wooden church lighted only by candles without a word spoken it transports you to a whole other place and time. Druids. Stonehenge. Mistletoe. Merlin could have walked in, staff in hand, without attracting even a sidelong glance. Outside, after the mass, the stars crackled in the velvet sky. Somewhere up there, you knew, was the Christmas star.
Christmas has the ability to change. And remain the same. The superficialities change, the places, the faces. What doesn’t change is the feeling of magic, of a special time of year two millennia ago when the world shifted on its axis.
Our family is scattered now from New Hampshire to Yorba Linda to Pasadena to Bayberry Bend on Cape Cod. Montana. New Mexico. Some of the treasured faces have been lost. Sam the dawg’s furry face. There are some new ones. This year will be a little different. We will resurrect some of the old traditions, JoAnn and I, and maybe start some new ones. That’s the thing with tradition. You don’t realize it’s happening until years later when someone says: “Do you remember how Mom always did this…”
The important thing is not to spend too much time looking back and not too much effort thinking about the future but to be present in the moment, in the here and now. And know, really know it’s perfect just as it is. Because it is. And it will be even more perfect in time to come.
We just brought a tree in tonight from Rodriguez, the local nursery. Carried it home in the back of the red truck. The living room smells of pine. Christmas is about three weeks away. For a few precious moments I was a kid again. The kid who always loved Christmas. We’ll watch a Hallmark tonite, sip on an eggnog, pack the worries away for another day and dream happy dreams.
JoAnn and I wish all of our friends and patients a blessed Christmas and memories to last long after the tree and the lights and the tinsel are put away for another year.