Christmas brings memories by the massive bundles that are bigger than Santa’s sack… memories of other times, other places and other people!
by Charlie Leck
Here’s what I think of on Christmas Day – other Christmas Days past. I mostly remember people who have faded from memory in so many ways, but I can bring them back to mind in startling realism on Christmas Day. Jesus, I sit down on Christmas morning, before the big kids (now really adults) awaken, when the house is remarkably quiet, and I remember faces and places and times long ago.
I remember a cousin who I loved like – like what? – like she was the most important possession in life to me. Only, I didn’t possess her. I saw her far too seldom for my own likes. When I was a kid of nine years, she would have been seven, but, to me, she seemed twenty-one. She was remarkably wise, kind and sensible. She respected me. That’s what I appreciated most. In a family of much older brothers and a sister, I was generally treated like an after-thought – like an unwelcome, awkward after-thought. My cousin didn’t treat me that way. She looked me hard in the eyes and smiled widely and let me know I was cool (though we didn’t use that word back then) and important. When she would reach out and touch my arm it felt so remarkable; for this was loving, human contact with someone who cared for me as much or more than anyone in my life ever had.
I must have been about nine when she and her mom spent a couple of days over Christmas with us. She was from the Bronx, in the big city, and my family lived in what people in the big city called “the sticks” – a place far out in the country, even though our two homes were only 45 miles apart. Now, I’ve been through nearly 70 of these gatherings around the Christmas Tree – these gift exchanges – and there is no Christmas I remember as I do that one. It comes back to me with a strange mixture of detail and vagueness even on this Christmas morning when I’ve so much to do and so little time to think. It invades something deep inside me – like my soul – and it spreads a warmth and happiness over me.
For my special gift from Santa that year, I received a nifty six shooter, holster and belt, chaps, vest and a cowboy hat. I buckled the holster low around my waste, so it would ride on my hips; and I showed off my slick quick-draw, looking as smooth and skilled as Gene Autrey himself. My sweet, pretty cousin got some girlish things, like little blankets, a doll and a stocking cap. I remember her wrapped in a little, fragile scarf that someone gave her. She was so beautiful it took my breath away. She kissed my cheek for something inane that I gave her
I shiver still, when I remember that kiss. I still feel the warmth and genuineness of it. I remember her fresh and innocent breath and the glow of her incredible eyes.
Christmas is, I guess, for children; though there is still a child in me and he remembers back over years and miles to Christmases long ago.
My bedroom had two big windows, nearly floor to ceiling, that looked out on Main Street of our little, country town. Straight out there, across an intersection of streets that came together into an outlet on to Main Street, I could lay in my bed and see the village park. An evergreen tree in the middle of the park was decorated with colored lights.
I was filled with the excitement of the coming morning, anxious to see the transformation of the tree that now stood bare in our livingroom. While we slept, Santa would magically arrive and decorate the tree and scatter wonderful gifts beneath it. He'd stuff full the stockings we hung around the room. He’d also devour the little snack I had left out for him and he’d read my note to him and leave one for me, expressing his thanks.
Sleep, however, did not come easily for me. Wide awake, I looked out at the lights on the town’s Christmas tree. I listened carefully for the sound of sleigh bells and, perhaps, for Santa’s voice, shouting commands to his magical, flying reindeer.
After some long time, I would conclude that it was the lights from the tree that kept me awake, so I would stir and roll to my other side and try to close my eyes, begging for sleep to come. Soon, however, I would flop back over to look out at the tree in the park and I’d watch an occasional car or truck rumble down Main Street.
As if it happened by magic, I would hear voices all around me, stirring me awake.
“Pop is checking to see if Santa came,” one of my big brothers would tell me. “He’s down there now, checking!”
I jumped up, surprised that I had been asleep. The night sky was being pushed away by the gray-white light of morning. I could barely tell that the lights on the town’s tree, across the way, were still glimmering. Dressed in my pajamas, I jumped out of bed and showed my readiness to descend the stairs.
“He’s been here all right!” My father would call from the bottom of the stairs. “You can all come down now!”
There was a ritual to our descent of the stairway. My mother always went first. She wore a warm, woolen robe and her night dress showed beneath it, from knees to her ankles. Big, warm slippers covered her feet. Her hair had already been neatly brushed. My big sister, Jean of blessed memory, followed her. She too wore a robe and slippers, and, like mother, she had tended to her hair. Brother, Frank, seven years older than I, went next. His feet were bare and he wore pajamas that had both long legs and long arms. His hair was wildly unbrushed. John, my brother who was a year younger than Frank, followed next in line. He had pulled on a pair of jeans and he wore a tight, white undershirt that showed his muscular chest and arms. His hair was already thinning and it didn’t matter if it were combed or not, because it always looked the same.
I, of course, followed, last in line, and I was made to wait near the bottom of the stairs while everyone else gathered in the livingroom to watch my reaction.
“All right, Bubb,” my father called out, “you can come down now.”
I took the final step downward and turned the corner to descend the two stairs that led to our kitchen. From there I could see through the kitchen and into the livingroom, to the big tree that stood in the corner, covered with bright colored lights and a hundred decorative ornaments. I screamed and ran to the big room and slid on my knees to the front of the tree where dozens of gifts were scattered beneath it.
Each Christmas there was some very special gift – a new train set from Lionel, or a new bike, or that six-shooter on the year my pretty cousin and I shared Christmas together.
It seems so long ago, but, in my mind, it was only a few nights ago and mother and father and sister are so real and alive that I can hear them laughing together as I discover the year’s great surprise that was waiting for me beneath the tree. The laughter is palpable and rises in volume now, as I write these words.
Santa was generous in those years of my boyhood, even as he has been on this year, late in my life. Ghosts return to me at Christmas time and I can see them clearly and I distinctly hear their voices and laughter. My mother’s hands are clasped together and rest on her chest, just beneath her chin. An enormously wide smile is spread across her face as she watches me tear open the special gift that Santa has left for me. My sweet cousin is giggling uncontrollably and jumping up and down, shouting to me.
“What is it, Charlie? What is it?”
Christmases long ago seem so very near, indeed!