1. The Night Sea Journey
On the night before the night before Christmas we drove down from our home by the ocean through the rain forest of Connecticut, watching the sky turn to moist, violet hues as we pushed into the ambient light pollution of denser realms. Human settlements: cars and houses and shopping centers. The rain passed, we were home free, or so we thought, but somebody had reorganized the highway since our last visit and we found ourselves staring the Tappan Zee Bridge in the ominous face before choosing the desperate extremity of “last exit.” Last exit deposited us into a bedroom community where Santa tiptoed on cat paws, but neither of us had ever set foot.
“Hastings-on-Hudson,” I marveled. “What kind of a name is Hastings-on-Hudson? If you see Jacob Marley hitchhiking, don’t pick him up.”
It was a magical place. It had mansions concealed behind big wrought iron fences where old Dutch planters lingered in great halls, coaxing visions of sugarplum faeries from their meerschaum pipes.
“Which way now?” I was marveling, but Sharon was driving.
I was echoing the question, but she took it as an answer.
We took a right and then another right, passing through shiny black streets between picturesque brick buildings wherein elegant homesteaders kept to themselves. No one on the streets; lighted fir trees glowing conically from the tiny town triangles; occasional non-conformists blowing off the town zoning code by lighting up their lives in full spectrum displays which revealed more wattage than taste, but were comforting since we lived in a town where people did those things.
“At least they’re not all rich buggers around here,” Sharon said.
“You mean burghers,” I suggested.
We passed a sign saying we were entering another town we had never heard of – Ardsley? What sort of people live in a place called Ardsley? Don’t they realize they’re mere minutes from a major metropolis? – but nobody else was on the road, it was Christmas Eve, and I knew it would be all right because (I had faith) we were heading south.
“That’s your road,” I said. “Turn left.”
I had to admit it didn’t look like the road to the city. It looked like somebody had tried to shove two things together that sounded alike but didn’t have anything to do with each other, like Morey Amsterdam and Old New York. The chosen road hugged a narrow river, humped over some rickety bridges, skirting ancient stoplights and abandoned mills, and somehow landed us in the city. That was the road we wanted. The other dribbled along through bedroom communities (because you go there to dream?) where people who ought to know better kept believing in illusions, like supply side economics. Like Christmas. That was the road we were on.
So I told her to turn left where the pavement looked too narrow, and she did; and we traveled between hammer and anvil, passing under a drawbridge that carried lost souls to another century, and found ourselves with a “yield” sign and a too-short approach to the road we had always meant to be on before the ghost of the Tap-tap-tap-pan Zee Bridge stared us down.
My wife was driving because I cannot stand being trapped in traffic, or even the possibility of being trapped in traffic, in some place as crowded as the greater New York metropolitan area. I have confessed this to a psychiatrist.
“Don’t yield,” I advised, thinking never, never yield. And one road led to another, and one thing led to another. And our river became a sea.
Sharon’s parents stand at the door. They say we’ve made good time.
2. Christmas at the Gershams
“We came up with a double play,” said Grace, Sharon’s mother. “The Botanical Gardens in the morning. Then we can come back and have lunch and then go to the Met in the afternoon. We’re in luck because it’s open late today.”
“You mean a double-header,” I corrected, politely. “A double play is a bad thing if it happens to your side.”
Sharon had her own critique. “The only problem is that there isn’t any morning,” she pointed out, “since it’s already noon.”
“The museum is open very late.”
The Gershams are tolerant of Christmas, though Sharon, in her core values, hates it. She hates the rush, the hype, the commercialism, the fact that no one is at their desk or can be expected to accomplish anything for a month beforehand, and that all important decisions must be put off until “after the holidays.” What “holidays”? she demands. We are not talking Ramadan, witches’ solstice, kookie Kwanzaa or heaven forbid, Hanukkah (which even Jews cannot agree on how to spell). We are talking Christmas.
She hates the December Dilemma. We solved the so-called, over-hyped bi-religious dilemma at home by putting the Hanukkah candles in the dining room and the sacrificial tree, symbolical axis mundi of the pagan solstice festival, in the living room. The kids get twice as many presents. We eat latkes on the first night of Hanukkah, seasoned with a little blood via hand-grating the potatoes. We exchange Christmas presents some evening, or morning (never on December twenty-fifth), whenever it’s convenient to our travel schedule. We travel to nostalgic New York to spend the day of days with my parents in the house where I grew up and seem unable to get away from, at least far enough to have an excuse not to go there for Christmas. But we also go to the Bronx, to see Sharon’s parents and watch a video treatment of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” which is exempted from Sharon’s core values because it goes beyond mere warm-and-wonderful nostalgic to non-denominationally entertaining. So she says. Actually, I think she’s jealous.
Unfortunately, everyone else makes a sacred New York City-for-the-holidays pilgrimage as well. There you are, a kid in a candy store: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, the Museum of Natural History, Rockefeller Center at your feet (which complain at the mere mention of such places), but you cannot go to any of these signature Manhattan attractions because they are mobbed. Or they have been closed to the public for shooting Woody Allen films.
Nevertheless, despite the unseasonably mild and spring-like weather, we set off to the botanical gardens to see the model train village, decorated with the natural products of the abundant botanical outdoors in imitation of an old-fashioned “holiday.” By the time we arrive cars are being directed to a college campus in a nearby borough for parking, though we somehow luck onto the last semi-legitimate parking space. After a healthy hike around the outdoor gardens, our outing degenerates into a confused trek to find a cafeteria situated on the far side of some further child-mobbed attractions, yet we are determined to sit down somewhere “nice” and “have a little something.” All of New York wants to have it too. We never get anywhere near the model train village. Trudging back to the parking area (having sat somewhere sort of nice and settled for tea and pretzels), we pass a long line of lost souls determined to expose their little darlings to the warm and wonderful experience of an old-fashioned landsmen’s Christmas, founded on model trains.
Sharon stops to beg a particularly bedraggled looking festive family group to turn around now and go home. Your children will die of hunger. They will need to use the bathroom! They will never see the model train village!
I step between my wife and these unfortunates. “These people live in the Greater Metropolitan Area,” I explain. “Waiting on long lines for family attractions is a way of life for them. Besides, it’s nature’s way of culling the population.”
Meanwhile, Sharon’s parents have sufficiently recovered from the near-death experience of searching for a nice cup of tea and a soft piece of bread (or maybe sponge cake) to insist on taking us downtown to the museum. Her father, Max, will drive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, it should be acknowledged, has a famously decorated tree in its lobby celebrating some sort of holiday. I can almost remember this holiday’s name, but my memory starts to fail when my feet get tired and I am forced to endure large masses of my fellow creatures.
Grace is a volunteer docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and often it appears to me that this august New York institution is the Gersham family’s personal faith-based institution, its broad stone stairway serving as the center of the universe. Much the universe is waiting there, hanging on cell phones and looking frantic, when we arrive. Inside, we are joined by our college student son who has at last found his way through the New York City subway system, where everybody not clogging the lobby of the Met to goggle the specially decorated holiday day or trying to park in the Bronx, has been packing the IRT trains to midtown to enjoy a family value-laden crawl through Rockefeller Center. Since Stephen is in the hopeful, open-minded stage of life, we leave the Greek statues and the pleasing Impressionists behind, to explore the nadir of mid-twentieth abstraction and minimalism. In my humble opinion Jackson Pollack is merely Normal Rockwell on speed compared to what came after him.
After a few long-faced stares at the streak-of-color-on-a-blank-canvas school, we are all surreptitiously looking at our watches until Stephen agrees it’s time to find a nice place to sit down and have a little something. The cafeteria is strangely deserted, most of the crowd not privy to Grace’s insider knowledge of the museum’s extended evening hours. We feed on red meat, a wolf pack at its kill, and leave when the guards start staring at their watches. I loll in the back seat of our chariot as the traffic parts for us like the Red Sea beneath the brightly lit cathedral of the George Washington Bridge. Or maybe I fell asleep and dreamed that.
Christmas Eve. We used to go midnight services with my mother; no more of that.
The Gershams’ house is quiet. We open a window, because it is late December in a co-op building where nobody wants to face what it would cost to install a heating system with a working thermostat. My son takes a college-student phone call and disappears, leaving the rest of us to choose among Grace’s collection of favorite “holiday” videos, a category that includes “Candide” and “The Mikado” because we watch them every year. We decide, after all, to watch “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” yet again. We want to hear the perfect little boy say “it’s lovely, Granddad.”
3. The Day of Days
It’s hard to imagine things having gone much better. All in all. In view of the circumstances – and in the city, there are always circumstances.
Once on a long ago Christmas visit, when we were too young to know any better, we left the Gershams’ safe and comfy (if somewhat overheated) cave in Riverdale to visit the temporary home of some friends of Sharon’s in Jersey City. We drove around in the dark for an hour or two, hopelessly lost, and then drove home. One of the problems with New York City is that when you go there, people expect you to visit them in northern New Jersey. Other dear ones move to addresses in Brooklyn, which can be equally challenging. Once, setting off for an outer-borough pilgrimage we were misdirected off the Cross Bronx Expressway (it’s remarkable how often this sort of thing happens) and discovered a string of previously unexplored neighborhoods in the East Bronx – cheerful, peaceful, holiday-decorated places – where no one imagined there were such places. However, having left the Cross Bronx Expressway, even under misleading circumstances, you can never get back onto it because it is a road which exists not to take people to or from the Bronx, but safely beyond it. And yet once – one final once – an even longer time ago, we made our way downtown to a pretty East Side neighborhood in the lower Twenties during a snowstorm on the day after Christmas, and did not get lost at all. No one else got lost either, despite the snow, and the whole crowd enjoyed the champagne brunch in a lovely old hotel and got along splendidly. At least they said they did. Of course, that was our wedding, so you’d expect them to say nice things. But you can’t get married in a lovely hotel every Christmas, people would begin to smell a rat and run out of gift ideas (and you couldn’t afford it), and so other traditions grow up to take their place. You stay with your parents. You stay with your in-laws.
Sharon’s in-laws – which is to say my parents – have been our destination on Christmas Day every year since we’ve been together. This year, however, we are breaking the string of years, like an old garland of popcorn and cranberries strung by a needle on a doubled thread. (Which in fact can be exceedingly hard to break.) We are not going to my parents’ house this Christmas because they don’t live there any more. Their house was sold just last month, and Mom now lives in the Harland House. Dad of course doesn’t live anywhere, except in my shirts.
Dad got an LL Bean flannel or woolen (or corduroy) shirt every Christmas. He unwrapped the gift box with slow, inordinate care, as if to preserve the paper for reuse, though Mom was sure to tumble it into a black plastic garbage bag with all the other wrappings as soon as we were finished the gift exchange. Sometimes before we were finished. At last Dad got down to the box, and if the old man got lucky and things fell out the way he wanted, no one would be watching when he opened it to gaze upon the treasure within. Then he would put it quietly aside, without having to register publicly the less than monumental experience of discovering his Christmas shirt. Was it blue this year? Some kind of plaid? Perhaps he would softly murmur, “Thank you, dear, very nice” in the direction of Mom. Who of course would not hear this, on account of being hard of hearing. Then, a little later, she would realize something had slipped her attention and expostulate – “Oh, that’s right! Your present, Al! Let me see it!” – and then Dad would thank her again for the gift (“very nice…”) which he had so painstakingly, but inconspicuously unwrapped – thereby attracting to himself the general attention he had, for reasons of his own, sought to avoid.
“Well, Dad,” my sister would remark – since she, the baby of the family, was no doubt responsible for picking out the present – “what do you think of your shirt?”
Dad would grimace a little and search for something appropriate to say, and promise to wear the new shirt when we all go over later that afternoon to my brother’s house: “I can always use something warm over there.”
An allusion, as we all understand, to his susceptibility to the chill in the homes of his energy-saving children.
But he must have worn his new Christmas shirt some time or other, as I know myself – by touch, by smell, by the cigarette burn-hole just above the breast pocket. I own his shirt collection now.
Someone else is living at my parents’ old house in Nassau County this year, and I hope they’ve unpacked in time for their first Christmas. I see myself pulling off the old highway exit on our Christmas morning sweep from the Gershams’ townhouse in the Bronx out to Mom’s new place, the road so familiar I imagine dropping the reigns and letting the car nose its way home to the old, too crowded garage.
Howdy, we say. You folks the Johnsons? Just wanted to take a peek at the old place, see what kind of shape it’s in. Make sure you folks take care of it now.
“Take care of it? We ain’t just barely unpacked! Listen, stranger, things have changed around these parts, and you better get used to it!”
4. Twelve More Days of Christmas
The sun is shining. I am not insomniac or flu-ridden. The Christmas Day visit to the Christian side of the family is safely behind us, Mom has been safely and reasonably tucked back into the Hartland House, a land of present-minded old women who remember their names and look forward to dinner. We trot back and forth across the dense shopping-center lands of Long Island, crisscrossing the cities of the plain from Smithtown to the upper Bronx as a spectacularly frigid pink and orange sunset gilded the flatlands of western Suffolk County in one of the greatest displays of divine intervention I have ever experienced on that ordinarily unappealing slab of glacial outwash. Then slow down on the Southern Parkway – a stubborn, pointless homage to the old byways I can’t seem to avoid.
Arriving after dark in Riverdale that evening, we made a rushed sortie on a Westchester County movie theater for the latest episode of a multi-installment blockbuster, an entertainment we could undoubtedly enjoy anywhere else, even in the provinces, but have chosen to see on opening week in the Greater Metropolitan Area, along with thousands of our kind. I shift into my frantic, manic last-parking-space-in-the-mall driving mode, making unorthodox maneuvers best left unremembered, while pouring scorn on the creeping, cowering, sheep-like conduct of the weary tribes of ancient Westchesterians – “Bet you don’t see anybody drive the wrong way into oncoming traffic to jump to the head of a stalled queue in Port Chester!” – and power my way into the last parking spot, climaxing this maneuver with a tension-releasing expletive which draws from my wife one of her most memorable basic-values rebukes:
“Don’t say fuck in front of my father.”
From poor, over-stimulated Max: silence.
And so we have returned to the Gershams’ townhouse co-op for a last few days of city fun, before returning to the provinces. Equanimity restored, at first things go well. Grace shows off more of her beloved museum, and at the end of a long day of high culture, soft rolls, and nice places to sit, no one is snapping at anyone.
One thing leads to another – Central Park West leads to Fifth Avenue – “Candide” leads to “The Mikado” – the Henry Hudson Parkway leads to tea and cookies – and now it is the good morrow. The car is packed, the sun is shining. We have been gifted with a new CD from my sister and her husband, it appears to be some kind of contemporary sacred music composition – real voices, real string section, real synthesizer – and I am looking forward to popping it in for the ride home. Christmas does not end, at least for me, on the date arbitrarily chosen by the western churches for the feast of the nativity. At the very least, according to the folk traditions (northern folk having nothing better to do this time of year), you get twelve days. None of this clean-up-your-loot, give-me-back-my-living-room, and throw the tree out on the curb, a few pathetic strands of tinsel waving forlornly above the dog-doo. Oh no, not for this holiday worshiper! I vow to listen once more to the old songs, to the old tales told around the fire by the old men of tribe, in spirit at least, alone at night in the mid-winter silence. The music of the heart does not stop because a page has been torn from the calendar.
I pop the new recording into the car’s CD player, riding the uplift of these wholesome seasonal meditations, and begin backing the family car out of my in-laws’ underground garage in my patented one-finger style when a loud, sickening crack announces a premature end to my revels. It’s the sound of automobile fender hitting cement post, a slap upside the head from concrete reality.
I know in my heart I deserve it.
Robert Knox is a Boston Globe correspondent, a poet and fiction writer, and the author of a recently published novel based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, “Suosso’s Lane.” The first full novel written about the famous case since Sinclair Lewis’s “Boston” (published in 1930), “Suosso’s Lane” centers on the life of anarchist and Italian immigrant Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Plymouth, Massachusetts, before his 1920 arrest. Published by Web-e-Books, the book has received good reviews and been praised by readers. It’s available at: www.web-e-books.com/index.php#load?type=book&product=suosso
His short stories have been published in periodicals. “Lost” was excerpted on the Massachusetts Cultural Council website after he was named a finalist for a fiction fellowship and published in The Rambler.
His story “Marriage” placed in a Words With Jam competition, published in the anthology “An Earthless Melting Pot.” His stories have appeared in The Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, and 3288 Review, among others.
As a contributing editor for the online journal, Verse-Virtual.com, his work appears regularly on that site. And his chapbook “Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty” was published in May of this year. The poems in “Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty” discover a universe in a perennial flower garden. A reporter and a novelist, Robert Knox’s poems are as immediate as today and as universal as the weather.
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