Saturday, December 25, 2010

Saturday Musings, 25 December 2010

Good morning,

The house still sleeps -- all the sentient beings, including any crickets still breeding in the walls from the long-ago days of the African fat-tailed leopard gecko named Galadriel, to whom we fed great globs of the gleaming, wiggling critters while many more escaped into the cracks of our hardwood floors. I grind the coffee, check the weather, and slip the gaily wrapped trinkets into the stockings hanging from the mantel. It is Christmas.

In my son's childhood, I created and perpetuated many rituals which have now become passe: The first present, a gift from the Tree Elf to my boy, which appeared the morning after we decorated the tree, resting on an ornament-laden branch. A train running beneath the tree every Christmas morning. The decking process itself, when Patrick and his friends would haul each ornament from the many boxes in which they lived all summer, exclaiming over the ones they remembered, puzzling over ones since forgotten. The annual acquisition of one special new ornament.

These little celebratory gestures supplanted those from my own childhood. I often felt like a cheat creating them, because they had no history -- only that which I fabricated for my only child of a single mother. Even in the years during which we had a resident stepfather, the habits of our holidays arose from my imagination rather than either of our pasts. With no living grandparents, and only far-away aunts, uncles, and cousins, my little household fended for itself.

We borrowed other people's rituals: the occasional Midnight Mass; an extra chair at someone else's family meal. I wrapped a plethora of wine bottles to bring as hostess presents, and we straggled into other people's houses, my little boy wearing a small red suit, or a green sweater, or a corsage of bows from his morning present frenzy. We resembled the ragamuffin children of the dust bowl days: dragging an old bunny, holding one of his mother's hands, my child entered other people's lives for a day, blending with their families, borrowing their laughter.

As he grew older, the gatherings at our own table finally evolved. A family with whom we became close shared a meal with us, if not on Christmas Day, then close to it, and for Patrick, these good friends somewhat compensated for the distant, absent family. I do not think he realized that other people had more family surrounding them during the holidays than we did, largely because I developed a healthy cadre of family-by-choice.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of celebrating Christmas here at the Holmes House (our name for the house in which we live, which is on Holmes Street) centers around the decided lack of Christianity in our world. I confess to being a cradle Catholic, and my son was baptized. However, I have through conscious choice abandoned that religion and even a true belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ -- although, as one good friend knows, crossing a bridge during a flood summoned a litany of long-forgotten prayers from the depths of my fear-wracked belly.

My son has always been told the origins of Christmas. I sometimes entertained him with descriptions of the rituals of my childhood that centered around the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

We would group around the couch on which my father sat. My father always gave off a slight odor of stale sweat, beer and Old Spice. On Christmas Eve, I willingly took my place at his side, watching as he turned the pages of the Bible, listening as he read in his quiet St. Louis twang:

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed . (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed , every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered . And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."

My father's voice always hesitated there. And always, he would glance at my mother, and say, Should I go on? And she would look at him with something close to love, and gently assent, and then he would continue.

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field , keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid . And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold , I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. ."

When he finished, no one spoke, or moved, for a long stretch of time. Then my brother Frank, ever earnest, ever serious, carried a small plate of frosted cookies from the kitchen to the table in front of the couch, and one of the older children set a mug of milk beside it. Stephen came forward, his pale blue eyes round above a smattering of freckles. He unwrapped his fingers from the little ceramic baby, lowering it to its place between Mary and Joseph in our old Nativity Scene, under the angel who eternally spread her chipped wings and stretched her tiny hands to beckon the wise men coming from afar. Last of all, I moved to the window and lit the Mary Candle with a match struck by my father. The candle illuminated the path for the travelers -- the carpenter and his pregnant wife, coming to be counted. The next person to knock on our door would symbolize the Christ Child.

As all this unfolded, year after year, my tired mother hovered in the background. Her furrowed brow gradually relaxed, and she gathered us to her, briefly encircling a little gaggle of her own babes with her endlessly comforting arms. Then, with a laugh and a tickle, she ushered the little ones to bed while the older kids got ready for church. On Christmas Eve, in silence, in peace, we slept, and in the morning, we rose to the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus, and the heady smell of freshly-baked candy cane cookies and hot raisin bread.

My son and I never did any of those things, except perhaps leaving cookies and milk for Santa. We never stayed up late for Midnight Mass, or marveled over the shepherds keeping watch while the Babe slept. We borrowed the day, but not the reason for the day. So, having no other reason to celebrate, we made of it our opportunity to give every friend a gift, and welcome them into our home, sort of an annual Holmes House Appreciation Day, with reindeer.

This year, the day will be different. I have a fiance', and he has parents, and children, a sister and brother-in-law, and a couple of nephews. There's an extra pile of presents by the tree, to be taken to my future in-laws' home; and the booty to be opened at the Holmes House this morning has mushroomed by three-people's worth. I have an engagement ring on my hand, without which I once laughingly told him that he should not dare suggest marriage, way back when we first started dating: If you ever propose, I said, you better bring a big damn diamond. And so he did.

His people are Episcopalian, sort of a "Catholic-light". I'm not unfamiliar with that faith, as my best friend and her family are long-time practitioners of it. My son and I have even spent a number of Sundays at their church, and Patrick did his community service there during high school. But for many years, I have kept myself distant, and insulated, from all things formally holy; yet here I am, marrying into a family that has long-standing ties to an actual organized religion, and it's not even Roman Catholicism.

It's been a long, intriguing year. Between last Christmas and this, so much has happened that I find myself uncharacteristically quiet more often than usual, fascinated by the turning of the world, the shifting of the sands, the changed direction of the wind. Friends have drifted west by northwest; others have fluttered east. I've closed cases, and opened new ones. I've burned a bridge or two, but not without long thought and immutable reason. As I float into the last week of 2010, I will be cleaning closets, moving boxes on the basement shelves, and re-arranging furniture in anticipation of adding new occupants to our home.

While the coffee finishes brewing, and the little beagle yawns and whines in the kitchen, I'm sitting at my old iBook G4, listening to the rise of the winter wind and thinking about the hours that I have spent here musing about the kaleidoscope world in which I have grown to middle-age. In a little while, I will break eggs into a mixing bowl for Schmarren, and cut the Christmas bun that my friend Katrina gives us every year. I'll make hot cocoa for the boys, and they, in turn, will patiently listen to me reminisce about other breakfasts, on other Christmases, in the home of my parents, when we were young.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

25 December 2010
Brookside, Kansas City, Missouri

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.