At the beginning of August I decided to challenge myself to read 50 books by the end of the year. Since have also recently turned 30, I am calling this challenge #Project50for30
- What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen by Kate Fagan
- Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts by Ryan Holiday
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
- The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
- Blue Nights by Joan Didion
- Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
- Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What The Rich Teach Their Kids About Money – That The Poor And Middle Class Do Not! by Robert T. Kiyosaki
- The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
- How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish
- We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
- Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Abridged) by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson
- Fitness Confidential: Adventure in the Weight-Loss Game by Vinnie Tortorich
- The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
- When to Rob a Bank: …And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
- Pastoralia by George Saunders
“I am glad to be away from home today, to be off in the heart of a landscape that is unknown to me, glad to be bumping up against a world that is not mine or of my devising. There are times when life seems not so great but better than anything else, and when you’re happy to be alive, though not exactly ecstatic.”
-Richard Ford, The Sportswriter
“Wisdom [is] a question of grasping the coherence of things and time, of deciphering oneself, and of penetrating one’s own becoming and dying.
The truth is always an abyss. One must — as in a swimming pool — dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order later to rise again — laughing and fighting for breath — to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.”
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!'”
~Hunter S. Thompson, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967
Mikey trampled down the stairs and saw the living room decorated with all the colors of the Christmas-rainbow: walls bedecked with holiday prints and family photos, red ribbon-festooned wreaths, a mantle blanketed with faux snow and Santa knickknacks, and an evergreen ornamented with burnished bulbs and garlanded with silvery tinsel—a golden-haired angel of Bethlehem resting her white wings atop. So much color and glitter, so much seasonal joy, that guiding stars were reflected in his wide eyes.
Humming “Jingle Bells,” he ignored his mother’s calls to water the tree and take his slippers to his room. The shiny packages underneath the tree were of higher importance. He shook the ones with his name on them once more to be certain that what was inside each was not clothes or something else soft and presumably unexciting. To his satisfaction they jingled all the way like toy-stuffed box bells.
“Do we need to practice your lines for the Christmas service tonight?” his father asked as he stepped out of his pine-paneled den in a cloud of pipe smoke, the radio’s Dickens performance completed—Tiny Tim’s fragile voice exalting “God bless Us, Everyone!” still echoing in his ear.
“No,” Mikey said confidently.
“That was a rhetorical question,” his father returned.
“What is ‘retorekikal’?” Mikey asked.
“It means you have to recite your lines to me now, no questions asked.”
“Owww, c’mon,” he whined as he hopped to his father’s side on the big sofa. The boy then said from memory selected passages from the Gospels and New Testament and one from the Old Testament. His pace was choppy and his pitch was high.
Mikey was named for his father, Michael Oren Aldridge—the thin and stately insurance man with the kind, soft face and the large, white colonial at the end of the block—though they never called the younger Michael “Junior.” Mikey had had two that went by Junior in his 1st grade class and Mrs. Palomino thought that to add another would be particularly cruel to her, so he went by Mikey. Mikey made no objections.
Shaking his head and gently patting him on the knee, his father said, “We can save diction for high school forensics.” The little guy would get the point across, he thought. Besides, there would be twenty more kids shouting it the same way. There was no use throwing them off.
“Can I go now?” Mikey asked—energy coiled up in his tiny legs, readying to spring forth toward the train set around the tree.
“Yeah, you can go,” his father said with a smile. He unfurled the leaves of the drab daily and buried his nose in it for another solitary hour of relaxation on his much needed days off.
“I don’t like Dickens’ Christmas stories. They’re ghost stories. Who wants to hear a ghost story on Christmas?” he overheard his mother say to his father in the other room, as he made his way from the train towards the aroma of baked cookies in the kitchen. “Every Christmas story is a ghost story,” his father announced. “Jesus was born with the explicit purpose for death.”
There was a knock at the door and his father met the mailman, Mr. Francis.
“It don’t snow here no more like it used to,” Mr. Francis started, in the middle of things, as he was wont to do, trudging through a foot of white accumulation.
“Your boots would seem to disagree,” said Michael.
“Naw, that’s what they’re for. I’m telling you, Michael. We used to get more. Back in aught-nine we were buried up to the eaves.
“You sure you’re not pulling my leg?” Mikey’s father asked.
“Why, I wouldn’t do that.” The friendly mailman shot Mikey a wink as he looked around the wall into the foyer. He shuffled though his bag for letters—some of them in envelopes of green and red and gold. Just by seeing the letters pulled from asunder the mail satchel’s flap and handed to his father, Mikey felt a flutter of anticipation. Perhaps one of the letters contained a card from Grandma in Ohio, and within it a dollar that no soon would be spent on candy at Mitchell’s Drugstore.
Michael Sr. traded the letters and a package for a bottle of scotch wrapped with a red ribbon sticking out of a little green bag. “Dick,” Dad said. “Merry Christmas!”
“What else is in here?” Mr. Francis asked, digging in the bag he was handed.
“Just a little bottle of after-shave.”
“Do I stink?” he asked, chortling.
“No, no,” Michael assured him.
“Merry Christmas, Aldridges!” Mr. Francis shouted into the house. Mikey’s mother returned the sentiment in her high voice from the kitchen.
“Have a Merry Christmas! Tell the Mrs., Merry Christmas from the Aldridges.
“Oh, I will Mr. Aldridge.”
He stepped off of the stoop and pirouetted on the layer of iced under the powdery snow. His rickety mail truck quaked as he turned the ignition and throttled away.
“What a strange, strange man,” Mikey heard his Father mumble under his breath, but Mikey didn’t think he was strange at all.
There was a plate of frosted gingerbread cookies on the dining room table. Gingerbread cookies made the young boy salivate like the family’s fuzzy Bearded Collie, Buddy; and so it was also the case that Christmas Eve Day as he sat up and stretched his hand up to the plate and readied himself to stuff one down, but the gingerbread man’s feet did not touch his lips before his mother pounced, swiped the cookie from his hand, and put it back on the aluminum plate.
“You’ll spoil Christmas Eve dinner!” she exclaimed.
“Oww, c’mon just one,” he begged.
“We are eating a delicious brown sugar ham after the service,” she said, adding a special mustard to the pronunciation of ham. “You can have one for desert,” she said.
“And eggnog?” he asked.
“Yes. Sure,” her sharp chin poised, and her eyes narrowing, unaware that her son truly did enjoy eggnog. “But be certain not to get it out of the same punch bowl as Uncle John,” she added.
Mikey sat staring at the cookies. His mother realized she had lost his attention and supplemented her instruction with a stern “Okay, Michael?”
“Good boy. Now, don’t go jumping on your bed. I’ve laid your new church clothes out.” She turned to him, bent at her waist, her apron collapsing into the yellow folds of her dress, and patted his head. “You’re going to look so handsome up there,” she said.
The reminder of the children’s Christmas Eve service bustled some nervous anxiety in his belly like snowflakes in the easterly wind, but he could not properly process the sensation. He could, however, comprehend that he had never felt quite that way before to know what it was. Still, he was more excited for the night’s other events and, especially, presents, than he was or could ever be nervous about anything in the world.
Kenneth Landgon walked across the earth-hued, tiled patio room of his girlfriend Claire’s parent’s home, debating whether to step into the subzero out-of-doors for a cigarette or keep his warmth secure inside by the fireplace. He chose the fire, and sat beside Claire on the deep stone hearth, and as soon as he had sat down she immediately got up and went to the kitchen.
“Eggnog?” Claire offered upon her arrival again, her tiny, outstretched hand cupping the small glass with a string of ornate holly and berries painted on it. He took it and pulled it to his lap.
“Is their alcohol in this?” Ken asked.
“Not right now. Dad will mix the alcoholic batch later,” she said, snuggling up against him. He shifted the glass to his right hand and put his left arm around her. Her hair smelled like Woolworth’s perfume aisle, and he found himself speculating at the surely intense aroma of frankincense and myrrh.
“No. No, thanks,” he returned.
A tinny, stringed version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” filled the room. He didn’t know what to do. The fire was too warm. The room felt small and stuffy. He took his arm from around her shoulder. “Where are you going?” she said, as he got up.
“I need some air,” he said, gently tugging at his shirt collar and undoing another pearly button.
He needed that cigarette after all. The year’s end brought on so much stress. He longed for his childhood, when nothing mattered more than Christmas morning. Those days were long gone. Just back from deployment in Korea and a year of quota-meeting at his uncle’s furniture upholstery warehouse took all the fun out of the season. He knew he didn’t deserve the tie-and-clipboard job that the experienced laborers subordinate to him certainly could, he felt, do much better than he could. Regarding his brothers in arms, he latched onto survivor’s guilt with an extraordinary firmness.
Now, even the thought of Christmas brought on feelings of pressure and negativity. He fantasized about how it was easier to feel joy in the presumably less desirable times of his Depression-era childhood. He couldn’t surmise even a modest chortle during the spells of banality that he was enduring in his post-war adulthood, treating men as automatons. It was cliché to complain about his present age. He knew it was ugly and he felt terrible about wishing to be less fortunate. Or to be alive when so many others—“better men”—were not. “It’s just too bad,” he thought to himself, “that the childhood feelings of excitement and hopefulness don’t continue on into maturity. What is maturity anyway?”
He took one last drag on the cigarette and tossed what was left of the sparked stick into a snow bank, creating a deep, thin cavern. Claire’s father Robert backed into the driveway and emptied his trunk of split logs for the fireplace.
“Give me a hand?” he requested.
Robert handed over a bundle of logs.
“I didn’t know you smoked.” He said in a fatherly way, but with astute discretion, appreciating that Ken was not his own son, so he couldn’t really instruct him on what to do or how to be.
“I picked it up over there,” Ken said, the “over there” vague and all-too obvious at the same time. “I should quit soon. I’m gonna quit soon.” He shook his head repeatedly as he spoke.
Mr. Aldridge looked up from his chore and said, “You seem delirious, son.”
“Too much eggnog, maybe?” Robert chuckled.
“Yeah, that’s probably it,” Ken said, relief in his half-smile.
Inside, Claire and her sister Beth and her mom Susan were cheery upon Robert’s return, but soon turned unhappy, recognizing that he had forgotten to purchase eggs from the new supermarket. Their bountiful quips and jeers patronized the proud paterfamilias. Robert’s women were perhaps often a little harsher on him than they intended to be.
“You can never want to be too perfect. It gets their hopes up.” He said it in a whisper, so only his daughter’s beau could hear.
It was hard for her to get out of bed earlier that morning. Her bones ached, and it was exquisitely demanding to position her mind above the pain. She was still active enough for her age, though; and the prepped sugar cookie dough was dolloped on the sheet and in the oven just minutes after her awakening. Yet, there was no doubt in her mind that this would probably be her last Christmas. If you were there, and if you chose to look, you would have seen it in her eyes—those eyes. The Christmas Eve church service and party that night would elevate her spirits. Children will return with their children. Grandchildren will abound. And although her Love is gone, everything on this earth will be okay for one, holy night.
Her dark silhouette crawled sneakily against the hallway’s sienna-stained paneling. The hall was lined with black and white portraits of loved ones in burnished frames. The door bell had been ringing for awhile before she was able to walk to the door, and the icicles hanging from the gutter made for a deathly trap.
When she opened the door she heard: “Mom!”
“We should get going. But first I’m gonna knock down these icicles. Somebody’s gonna get killed.”
“Yes…you better. We don’t want that.”
She knocked them down with the snow shovel by the door.
“Let’s go…we’re gonna be late.”
“Shush! You know I can’t move quick no more.”
“Alright, let’s hurry now,” she said, grasping her mother’s red mitten, helping her down the cement steps, the crimson-wrapped box of frosted cookies under her other arm.
Mikey got in the bathtub and showered like his mother asked. Though, he filled the ceramic tub up and sat in it as the shower rained on him. The boats and toy soldiers bobbed in the waves of the soapy sea. He was nervous about that night, stressed even, though he didn’t know what it meant and would not be able to verbalize it to his parents. It was simply fear; but a good fear, the butterflies in the stomach find of fear that he would surely come to know was what made him human. As he grows up he might even be one relish it—let the bitter buzzing fly away like doves to fill that new emptiness with strength and fortitude. He did know his lines and the words to all the Christmas songs. His nerves, unbeknownst to him, were surely wasting his youth.
Grandma Marie had to be picked up because she no longer drove, but she left home often because she could not bear to be shut in. After all, she did still live alone in the same old, big house and she got on just fine without a great deal of assistance. Driving was done, though. She couldn’t handle it at night especially.
Christmastime makes her think of Christmases past. December 25th will mark her 84th, and if you asked her she would say that she could remember the previous 83—all 83, every single one—but that would be an obvious fabrication. Though, no one would ever call her on this lie.
He lost the Spirit you could say. Kenneth Langdon doesn’t know where it’s gone. He knows there’s still a little there, but that it’s nearly all vanished. He’d never be an overt Scrooge—he knows when and how to put on the happy face—it’s just that he has no feeling behind his words. They are spouted off perfunctorily, because that’s what he’s supposed to do. He tends to do this on other occasions and in other situations and he wonders if this is part of a direr problem.
That Christmas season was worse than any days and weeks had been before.
With his distaste of the festivities of the holiday season came something he had a greater trouble understanding. He had developed a serious and deep aversion to most people, especially as he was a part of bigger groups. This wasn’t quite new, he’d felt it before, but it had reared its ugliest head at Christmastime. The friends he’d tolerated the rest of the year became utterly intolerable: co-workers at holiday parties, friends at pre-Christmas gatherings, even those he loved he’d try to avoid. He’d asked Claire about his what he refused to call “depression,” but she started to overreact and he quickly eschewed the conversation. He didn’t know what it really was, how it emanated, or from whence it came. He liked to think it was stress brought on externally, but he felt that was only passing the blame. It was deeper than that, more engrained. He was a bad person.
“Let’s go,” Claire called to him as he stood in the bathroom, still fixed affront the mirror, touching up his hair and adjusting the knot of his cranberry red tie. They were heading to a children’s Christmas Eve service that Claire’s cousins were participating in at their church. Ken didn’t really want to go, but everyone else was going so he had to follow along. He promised to spend all of Christmas with her family. He’s the youngest of five. His parents are in Arizona now. “Some Christmas that must be,” Claire’s mother Susan once scoffed.
The ride was tight. Five of them: him, his girlfriend, her father, her mother, and her little sister Beth squeezed into the Plymouth sedan. His knees were being squished in the backside passenger seat.
And Claire said, “You guys wanna sing?”
And Robert said, “Yes!” and began to belt “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and everybody joined along at the first refrain, except Ken.
Claire questioned this.
He said, “I don’t sing.” This was a lie and she knew it. She’d heard him sing along to the radio all of the time. She brought up this damning fact.
“You sing along to the radio all of the time.”
“No, I don’t,” he knee-jerked.
“I’ve heard you.”
“I just—I, I’m sorry.”
“He doesn’t have to sing if he doesn’t want to, honey,” said Susan, her mother.
“No, no…Let’s sing!” he exclaimed, albeit unconvincingly and dispassionate. They spent the rest of the ride in stillness.
As soon as they got out of the car in the church parking lot, Claire tugged at his forearm and pulled him aside. “You can’t act like this. Tell me what’s wrong?” she pleaded.
“Don’t talk to me like that. Let’s go inside,” Ken insisted.
“Please,” she begged. “Please tell me. Why can’t you tell me?”
“Would you quit asking after me? I told you what you wanted to hear.”
“What?” she asked, confused. “I want to hear everything,” she said. “I want to hear everything,” she repeated.
“Why do you have to act as if you’re perfect?” he asked.
“I don’t,” she protested, lifting her dangling hand to her restful hip inside her open coat, her red nails rattling on the chiffon.
“I can’t,” he murmured, cutting the silence.
“You have to tell me what’s wrong with you lately. What happened?” she asked, cutting the question short the two words to that one song about Americans in foreign wars.
“You want to hear this? You really want to hear this?” he whispered crossly.
“Ye-es. Tell me. You can tell me anything.” She grabbed him and looked up into his eyes—her chin in his chest—as she hugged him. “I’m going to be your wife, Kenneth William Langdon. You can tell me everything. Any time.”
Ken started slow, quivering, if not from the cold then from something else. “It was night and it was cold,” he said. “People don’t think it is cold there, but it gets mighty cold. We were taking turns keeping watch, as we did. Our C. O. was a strange, strange man. He said he heard something. He said someone or something was close and were going to overtake us—even though that could not possibly be, as we had high ground. We often didn’t believe his crazy whims, but we had no choice but to obey orders and follow him when he started to move. And he moved fast when he got going.”
“What time?” she asked. “What time was this that this happened?”
“Late—or early—oh-two, oh-three-hundred hours.” Ken, again, fiddled with his red tie, pulling the knot away from his collar. “So, we moved down through the thick trees, sometimes single file through the dense forest.”
“Were you?—never mind.” She started then stopped. Her pale sepia swing coat gathered winter’s moisture. He saw her red heels dance in the cold, each clop a spray of wet snow.
“No. What?” he asked.
“Were you afraid?” she finished.
“No—Well, yes. But I was used to it. We were always in that perpetual state of fear, so that you couldn’t remember what it was like to feel normal.”
“Do you remember now?” she asked. She didn’t usually ask blunt questions, but she felt she had no choice. She would lose him, if his heart could not be reached.
“Yes, of course,” he said, shaking off any notion that the anxieties of war could still be present in him, just as he shook new fallen powder from his charcoal Chesterfield overcoat with his black leather gloves.
Claire was unconvinced but remained silent.
“No, I am,” he reassured her.
“—What’s the rest? What happened?”
“Stupid, silly C. O. was right. There were some Comms in the glade, just down by a river bend. They fired first, but we returned fire with a torrent of might. Alls I heard was the whirring and whishing of bullets flying by my head. Some from affront, but most from behind.”
“From your soldiers?” Claire asked.
“Yes…from my friends.”
“My, oh, my!” she exclaimed.
“And you were completely uninjured, yes? You never told me of any wounds.”
“Not a scratch,” he assured her.
“That’s unbelievable—the fortune!”
“I hate to call it ‘fortune.’”
“You’re right. God’s Divine Providence. I needed you here. We all do.” She clasped his downward facing palms, the heat of their hands insisting through the leather.
“I don’t know that God had much to do with it,” Ken said. He lit a cigarette, blowing the smoke out of the corner of his lips and into the night. He watched the snow flutter in the streetlight.
“How could you say that?” she asked.
“If you’d have seen what I saw, you’d know that God is not here. He certainly was not there.”
“That’s silly talk,” she said, motioning him toward the sanctuary doors. A chill made her dance, if only to warm herself. “You’re still coming to church. Now let’s go.” She started walking, her quick heels like a team of ponies on the icy pavement.
“I know,” he agreed.
She turned and said: “I love you, Ken. Please know that.”
Grandma Marie met Grandpa Dep before all this—all this war and devastation; before the thought of a day with grandchildren had ever crossed her mind. Back when she didn’t think she’d grow up and grow old and still be alone. She was now in the “letting go” era. She’d settled down into an acceptance, a readiness, to be gone, to leave it all behind.
She remembers all of the times Dep almost left. All the nights when he said they’d be better off without him. Those months when the mortgage bill had gone unpaid and he’d packed the saddlebags of his old Indian and promised that he’d be in Santa Monica by daybreak even though that was impossible.
But, he didn’t leave. He never did. Until he did on the day he died; the day that their granddaughter Beth was born. Twelve years ago. She didn’t cry then like they expected her to. She never exhumed the devastation she felt within and put it on the outside—unloading that heavy burden on others. She carried it and she didn’t know that that was wrong.
The Christmas service was the same as it always was year after year at the little, old white church, but Mikey wasn’t mature enough to know that. His father and mother and sister and his grandma, aunts, uncles, cousins, and his cousin’s new fiancé watched him sing at the front of the church and were reminded of the peace on earth and the joy to the world.
“He’s great,” Michael whispered to his boy’s mother—in his eyes, still as beautiful as the day he met her, sitting in front of him in the second to last row of the Majestic Theatre.
Carol Ann responded with the bat of her lashes, her pastel blues welling up with joyous tears. “I know,” she said.
They left the packed sanctuary, Mikey tightly clutching a gift of a brown paper bag filled with an apple, an orange, peanuts in the shell, and tinfoil wrapped chocolates of Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus in the manger as he made his way through the flannel suited and long, velvety skirted-legs of the church family that was his own.
At the party Claire again asked Ken how he felt—if he was any better. Ken wanted to tell her that he didn’t feel anything anymore, but he knew how she’d react and he didn’t want to fight the words through the tears that would certainly accompany them.
“I’m alright,” he said through a half-smile—a look up to the room’s corner and back down again.
“Good, Sweetheart…cheer up.”
She pecked him on the cheek, and then swiftly wiped away the holly-red lipstick smudge.
The farmstead took up twelve snowy acres on the town’s northeast end. Because he could, Uncle John had constructed the barns and the multi-porched, white-hued farmhouse himself. And as the ice gathered over the eaves they were welcomed to warmth, carrying our tarts and cookies from the gravel drive.
Grandma Marie watched Mikey—a candy cane hanging out of his mouth, a brown cowboy hat on his overlarge head, red chaps, and an official Roy Rogers toy pistol in the burgundy holster at his hip—and his other young cousins run around the hors d’oeuvres table nearly knocking the crystal plates and bowls of salted nuts, assorted cheese and crackers, and a relish of green olives to the floor. They had eaten a wonderful meal of honey glazed ham, parsley potatoes, almond green beans, cornbread, and a Jell-O mold; with apple and pumpkin pie and eggnog and coffee for dessert. Everyone was full, and complained that they’d eaten too much. Uncle John got out the cards and cribbage board and started pouring more after-dinner brandies for the adults. Ken was quick in line for a second glass; Robert quick behind him. After the barrage of gift opening the kids went to one of the bedrooms to play—a loud, joyous shriek heard every ten minutes or so—and everyone else raved about consumer products like the new Kodak and complained about the harsh cold and questioned the legitimacy of Mamie Eisenhower’s fudge recipe.
Uncle John had built the fire higher with branches of dried white oak, a splay of silvery hair escaping his buffalo check hunting cap. This is nice they all seemed to say. It was bitterly cold. John and her daughter Anna Marie had built a big homestead; though the stress of operating on a farmer’s tight margins year after year were starting to take their toll and he became hard and slightly bitter. She loved him as a son, though. He was convivial and warm, gregarious even, when you melted his icy façade.
There were workhorses and dairy cows in the barn—and can you imagine? a sleigh—and in the morrow they all could rush through the fresh powder; if not to grandmother’s house than to the wooded pond—not yet abandoned by the mallards, their emerald and orange stark against the muted winter—on whose blanket of white was only the star-shaped footprints of the masked raccoons.
They wouldn’t be going to her house on Christmas Day and her sleigh riding days were likely over.
Sitting quietly in an easy chair, Grandma Marie recalled her husband, ole Dep, dead over ten years, and his love of the holidays—his smiles, the tears that filled his eyes watching his children and then grandchildren open gifts, moved by the joy on their faces when they received something they really wanted. And that is the truest gift, she thought. Not the things, but the hailed, and all too fleeting, joy and its companion, love—for both the giver and receiver—in those wrapping paper-strewn moments. She was happy to see the group—a clan that was her own and that she dearly loved—but, she was also disturbed by their lack of respect for the truth in the season. It wasn’t like it was when he was by her side. Her family’s collective dissonance was not overt, but she was troubled by some of the things she overheard and sensed she needed to take action.
“The store is going to the birds. The whole world is going to hell. Who would have thought we would have made it out of the war and things would deteriorate so fast?”
“It’s as though things will never get better.”
“We’re in the midst of the great rebirth!”
“Or are we headed toward an inevitable depression?”
“The store doesn’t have the meat that the butcher shop has.”
Susan came to her, asking if she would like anything to drink. “Do you have any spirits of Elderflower?” she inquired. “I don’t know…Let me look,” Susan said.
“I’ve got something you all should hear,” she announced to the room as she walked to her big purse on the bureau and pulled out a faded and yellowed paper that had been neatly fitted in a laminated folder.
“Everyone gather ‘round now, this is something you all need to hear,” she said.
It is uncommon for her to address them like this. In fact, rarely has the family been one for this type of verbal demonstration. They pay attention, though, if only for some inherent respect for the matriarch that they love indeed.
“This,” she continued, “is a letter my grandfather wrote to my grandmother while he was away at war during the American Civil War. This was even before Christmas was considered a national holiday. Soldiers that were fortunate to be granted furlough to go home were greeted by their own children as near strangers. The president, Abraham Lincoln, instituted the holiday as a day of celebration to create the illusion of love and peace at a time when very little of that existed in their daily lives. I think…judging by the looks on your faces now and your behavior tonight…I really do think that these words will be especially poignant. Is not the meaning of this night and the greater consequence of our lives more important than what market has the most tender pork loins and what dime store’s socks do not easily snag?”
Grandma Marie gently fit her reading glasses low on her aged nose and paused to gather her thoughts. She read the letter in its entirety without interruption, surprisingly not even by slight peeps from the naturally unruly children, little cowboys and cowgirls lowering themselves to the floor and sitting Indian-style. They, too, seemed to recognize the import in her voice.
December the 24th, 1862
My Dearest Emma:
Your image in my mind’s eye is fading and I’ve never wanted to see you so much as I do now. The charming, little epistle you sent reached me, and I do myself the honor to answer it immediately, thus complying with your request to write soon. Probably you were not quite well, my little dove, when you wrote to me, for a note of real gloom pervaded your letter. I recognized in it a nature closely akin to my own. I know the feeling only too well. In my days, too, there are moments, in which everything looks black, when I am tormented by the thought that I am forsaken. The indications are strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps tomorrow, and I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye, lest I shall be no more.
Tomorrow is Christmas Day! A day which was made for smiles, not sighs—for laughter, not tears—for the hearth, not the battlefield. This morning the sun shone feeble through a thin cloud, the air mild and pleasant, and a gentle breeze made music through the leaves of the lofty pines that stand near our bivouac, jingling a sleigh bell in the soldier’s ear, and puffing in his pale face a breath suggestively odorous of eggnog. Tonight all is quiet and still and that very stillness recalls some sad and painful thoughts of last Christmas, and my mind wanders back to that home made lonesome by my absence, while far away from the peace and quietude of civil life to undergo the hardships of the camp, and in time the battlefield. I think of the many lives that are endangered, and hope that the time will soon come when peace, with its innumerable blessings, shall once more restore our country to happiness and prosperity.
I cannot begin to describe the sound of two-hundred beaten-down, melancholic soldiers singing softly the verses of “Silent Night” as the winter moon dips lowly in the cool air. They now sleep around me, many of them enjoying their last, perhaps, before that of death. How many thousand families are celebrating Merry Christmas, drinking health to absent members and sending upon the wings of love and affection long, deep, and sincere wishes for their safe return to the loving ones at home? And I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me, am communing with God, my country, and thee. But, my dear wife, I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with sorrows.
Our movement may be one of severe conflict and death to me—not my will, but thine Oh God, be done. Fear not, my courage will not dissipate. I understand the meaning of our fight; the chains of men must be broken just as Christ, our brother, has broken the chains of Death. Yet, I pray daily—when will this fighting end? When will He return me to you? Will another Christmas pass and find us all wintering in camp? Shall I spend it at Peace with God, waiting for you? Oh Emma, I wait for you there! Come to me and lead thither my children.
Hence, the memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. Know it is hard for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen William and Edward grow up to honorable manhood around us. The happiest moments in my life are with my little family. I will always have with me the small moments we all shared. The sounds of a beautiful boy’s mirth or the simple nudge of a baby not yet born. You know not the extent you have been me my world entire. If I do not return, my dear, you must ne’er forget this.
My love for you is boundless. I shall always be there with you flitting amidst your happiest scenes and embracing you in your darkest hours. I’ll be in the sun, shadows, imaginings, and joys of your life. Emma, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again. We share, my dear, the promise of Salvation that is bestowed us in Christmas, and if that be all that bonds us for eternity, then what greater gift?
God’s blessings be upon you and all family at this Christmastime and in the New Year. Truly, He taught us to love one another, and I pray that peace may soon be restored to our young, but dearly beloved country and that we may all meet again in happiness. I love you all, not only because you are my relations, but because you are the best people in the world.
I love you.
The room was the kind of silent only known when the reality resonates that there are two-dozen people in a room and it is expected to hear the routine pattern of breaths and movement, but it is not possible because the ability has been collectively taken.
“What happened to him? What happened to James?” They all seemed to ask, but the question was never delivered audibly. They seemed to know the answer.
And Grandma gave it. “He died in battle a week later,” she said, another soundless moment skipped for impact. They were evermore silent
“Grandma,” her 13-year old granddaughter Beth, sincerely responded, “Thank you.”
The others echoed this statement in a cacophonous jubilee reminiscent of carolers. They could not believe that they’d never heard the letter before. Was grandma hiding it? How wonderful, they said, that such an amazing story was part of their family history. But, maybe they had heard the letter before and the memory of it had just been buried under a million personal worries.
Christmas did not change, not dramatically. The night went on as it would. The moment passed as moments tend to do—quickly and without patience—and yet there was something different about the communal mood. The meaning of their celebration was brought to the fore in a way that only grandma could have done it. And they remembered.
The once-soldier Ken was especially touched by the letter, not expecting to be moved emotionally on the holiday that had become so meaningless to him. He could not fathom the magnitude and had trouble processing it. But, it curdled in the pit of his stomach, and he felt without touching, the salty tears that ran down his worn cheeks.
He was outside, alone. He wanted to smoke, but couldn’t. Looking at the cold moon surrounded by darkness, he contemplated the holidays falling on the shortest, darkest days of the year—stolen from the pagans. Claire found him out in the bitterest cold and they talked—about the letter, about grandma, about them. He attempted to be profound about his holiday sadness, but realized he truly couldn’t, and more importantly, didn’t have to be. His melancholy was, for the moment, somewhere else; gone, he hoped. Warmness grew out from his belly, and he struggled to distinguish it from the effects of the Mouquin brandy. He felt different and he channeled that change into a kiss. He told her that he loved her back—“I love you, darling”—and meant it. They kissed again and came back inside to the indoor warmth—of the heated house and comfy couches, of family and holiday cheer.
All of them, together, sat around the hearth, toying with new gifts, drinking hot chocolate, and telling stories. Every once in a while someone broke into a verse of an old carol—“Deck the Halls,” “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful.” Robert tried his hand at “Away in a Manger” on the old, beat-up upright in the room’s corner.
The second hand on the clock passed its smaller counterpart on the brassy numeral twelve. Mikey played with his new toy fire trucks on the hardwood floor, Christmas Eve becoming Christmas Day. He didn’t notice the passing; he was simply happy that his mom and dad had let him stay up late, as they drank old-fashioneds and played pinochle. Although his energy was rapidly fading, he lay, belly-down, on the maroon throw rug and wheeled his trucks with his left hand—back and forth, back and forth—metal tires squealing. His heavy eyes drooped as he began to repeat, tenderly and arrhythmically, the words he had been instructed to memorize over the last several weeks:
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
His eyelids dipped for the last time and he fell asleep.