Lake Town Christmas
I’m remembering Christmases when I was a boy living in the country, and my favorite relatives came out on the train from Chicago to stay through the holiday, but these aren’t the memories of time and place that can be entered into a book or an album of photos or recorded on film. I’m remembering a dream of Christmas. I’m inside the dream, at its center, and around me are voices tangled in laughter and shouts and song. People appear and disappear. Some are gone forever, some come back older, fatter, thinner, with different hair, and I remain in the center of this dream and my face is stiff and even sore from smiling. I’m happy. I remember that as a fact as certain and solid as a tree, and I embrace this tree and hang on, my happiness imprinted on my face forever in the memory of muscle. I’m so happy I can hardly speak. Speaking means shouting, because the volume of the voices is so high, and sometimes I add my shouted words. Sometimes I’m being asked questions. My favorite uncles are asking me, with straight faces, questions I find so funny, that I can’t answer them. I try, but mostly I laugh so hard that my eyes tear. I’m so very happy.
It’s 1953 and also 1957 and all the years in between knotted together, and I’m twelve and also fourteen and twelve again and then fifteen, and I stand or sit in the center of the dream, and I’m in the dining room or the living room or the kitchen of our house in Round Lake, Illinois, and it’s the night of Christmas Eve, and if I could grasp the dream as if it were spinning around me like dark silk, all the images and faces appearing on the dark silk, if I could put my hands into the dream and follow the fabric of it to the beginning, it would start with the fall of darkness, the chilled, early December darkness that settled in quickly because nothing could move slowly in that dry, dead cold that caused the snow to squeak under my shoes and caused the branches to cry out as though they were aching when a wind moved them and caused the earth to freeze tight and even the air to clench and wait, wait for the seeming impossibility of spring, and I was waiting, too, waiting at the window, though it was far too early for the cab to come, but I wanted to picture in my mind the cab coming, bobbing like a boat over the mounds of moonlit snow on the road in front of our house, so I would stare through the chilled glass at where the cab would come, where it had to come, where it must, and then I would listen, because sometimes I could hear the train from Chicago as it called out and said in a weak voice, a frail voice, that it was coming, coming soon, coming swiftly now, even now on Christmas Eve, coming to the station where the cabs were waiting, bringing Inez and Tony and Jim and Carolyn and Motts, bringing them to our house, to my family, to me.
Inez was my mother’s sister, a tavern lady full of mirth and mischief, a barmaid ready for a joke, with a look that held on my face and said, truly, that she loved me and loved knowing me, me, this shy, unfinished boy, and Tony was her husband, dark, leathery, with threatening eyebrows, but eyes that sparked beneath them, humor flaring in a small spark in each eye if you looked quickly and if you caught it. Tony Pappas, a driver of cabs and private cars, driver of gangsters sometimes, driver of Golf Bag Sam, a name whispered by my brother Paul and me as modern mythology, and Jim was their son, my cousin, but already a man, dark and Grecian like his father, with an eyebrow slashed from a boxing wound and with a trained and powerful singing voice, an entertainer in the neighborhood clubs of Chicago who had spent whole summers living with us, being a third brother to Paul and me, and he had been in the Air Force in Louisiana and brought us a gift from there, brought me a gift of great value and delight, brought me Carolyn, his wife, a reader of books, like me, a pretty, loving girl who talked to this eager boy of authors we shared and films we loved and spoke all of this in the soft rhythms of a south deep and old, and with them came my mother’s brother, Motts, with a wife or between wives, Motts, the wise guy, the clown, a plump, fast-talking Mickey Rooney, a man who made me laugh by simply appearing at the door because I had saved up so much laughter for him that it was already spilling over.
They came in shivering and tramping off snow in the tiny foyer, wiping shoes, bringing the cold inside on their urban coats and jackets, and they filled our small house with voices like large bells ringing Christmas, and our voices rang in answer, but quieter, my older brother pleased, but restrained, my father a happy spectator, and my mother in the throng of her family, her old family, her history, turning into a girl.
Oh how the tension was exploded by the opening of that door. All the anticipation swelling inside of me, all the fear that they might not come, not ever, because I wanted so achingly for them to come, all the watching out the window for the lights of a car, all the cars that rolled by not being them, and then the cab, and the voices outside and my hurry from the window to the door with happiness filling me, a tangible, thick, sweet liqueur, moving through me with my blood, and my smile stretching impossibly wide, and all of this running inside my mind now like a flickering film, even now, more than fifty years later, and I’m seeing the opening of that glass-paned door, seeing the flood of them, seeing all of this and seeing even my face somehow from the inside, from the memory of mirrors and photographs, seeing the boy of me and his pure, deep, unguarded joy.
Part 2 next week ...