I’ll be home for Christmas / You can plan on me / There’ll be snow and mistletoe / and presents by the tree.
Hallmark provides the answer to all the dread of our times. The company has been producing cards for over a hundred years reminding us of those white Christmases we ought to have had. They also churn out their own made-for-T.V. mushy movies whose theme seems to be the perpetuation of the Norman Rockwell canvas. Warm hearth and good cheer with frost on the window and presents galore. There is usually a heartless Grinch around the edges who just doesn’t get it. He is probably one of those urban sorts who has lost his way unlike the real Americans in the rural heartland.
Humbug is a forbidden word. It is practically subversive to resist the monetizing of the holidays or the family traditions associated with it. Somebody once said, tradition is the illusion of permanence, but he has been gagged with duct tape and deposited in the basement for the duration of the season. I have come around to accept many of these family rituals as serving a valuable human need. In these days of social upheaval and divisiveness the agreed-upon customs shall prevail. They cut across tribal tents, even joining coastal with fly-over America for the last two weeks of the calendar.
As for Christmas childhood memories I have none. My mother declared it a goyish holiday and Chanukah hadn’t much traction with us either. I worked in a Christmas tree lot one year in Forest Hills but didn’t return when my nose fell off into a cup of hot cider. As a designated Listener in elementary school I was consigned to the last row as the (mostly Jewish) class sang about Baby Jesus born in Bethlehem. Why not? It’s all part of the package.
Absent any snowmen or sleds here in Southern California there is still the coming-home of grown sons and daughters. The home, the haunt. That word, haunt, originally meant to visit or appear frequently or as the noun... an old haunt. Nothing haunts us like memory. So we return hoping to recover shards of it which is to say, to recover our youth as it might have been but probably wasn’t.
In Greek mythology Agamemnon returned from the Trojan War and got a short, sharp shock in his kishkes by his wife, Clytemnestra. Ulysses took his time. After bouncing around for ten years he assumed a disguise before revealing himself to Penelope. Take note, prodigal children. Being expelled in Greco-Roman times was the closest thing to capital punishment. Ovid was exiled and never heard from again.
Peggy and I are celebrating our 33rd holiday time together. The shower of presents has been abolished; we’ve also given up the tree. What’s left is my step son and extended family of two more generations. We feast, we giggle, we wow at the tree, remember absent members and marvel at the new. All illusions of permanence we happily endow another year.
My brother was never at home in this world. He returned after three years in the army and remembered why he had left. Within a month he was gone again in the grip of his haunts.
My life is haunted by visitations. Not spooks but good spirits hovering. My three daughters are thousands of miles away yet they feel close to me, in this room. We are singing off-key in our separate versions of what was, exchanging the gift of ourselves and our amazing journeys.