A Christmas Memory

By John Baskin

My grammar school was condemned. Does that explain why I was a backward child, unable to spell out my desires at Christmastime? I hated the linoleum on the floor of my unheated upstairs bedroom because on winter mornings when my feet touched it I thought my heart would stop and so I wished for carpeting. “What’s carpeting for a child to ask at Christmas?” said my father. I learned carpeting was adult, and so desire persisted, having nothing to do with carpeting anyway.

I thought I wanted Mary Frances Verdin, too, but that could have been because Toby Hunter had her. Toby Hunter’s house had central heating and Toby Hunter had Mary Frances Verdin. That was the way I saw it.

I wanted, of course, what I could get, but that was secondary. Anything I could name I supposed I might be able to get. Even though I wanted Mary Frances Verdin, I was careful not to pray for her.

If anyone in the family had read, they would have given me books. Only my grandmother read, however, and very carefully as though reading were a barefoot act in a rocky field. For Christmas, someone gave her a hardbound copy of Catcher in the Rye. She found that Holden Caulfield took liberties with the language, turned to the back to see if he talked any better and when he didn’t, she burned the book.

We cut the tree on the first Saturday after school was out. I was fourteen, the oldest, and so in charge. My two brothers went with me into the cedars on the hillside pasture. I was looking for a symmetry which, of course, I could never quite find. Because it was Christmastime, my brothers deferred to my impossible standards. After an hour or more, still unsatisfied, I made my choice.

The tree went in the front room, which was never used except for special occasions, and the Christmas lights lit the gloomy front of the farmhouse. Uncle W. W. fell into it once, after he had made too many trips to the laundry hamper. He kept a bottle of whisky under the dirty clothes at Christmastime. Both the tree and Uncle W. W. recovered, although it was touch-and-go with my grandmother.

Grandfather never drank but once, a fact which spoiled my grandmother. On a trip to New York, my grandparents went to a night club because they had never been to one. My grandfather ordered a mint julep. It was served in a tall frosted glass with a large clump of mint and an exorbitant bill. “The goddamned shrubbery is sure high out here,” said my grandfather.

Half the family was present, my mother’s side, twenty-five in the farmhouse on Christmas Day, mamma’s bed sagging under coats, family gifts piled in tiers around the tree, the laundry hamper armed. We spread out to keep the house from listing.

When we went in for dinner, a cat was sitting on the linen cloth lapping gravy from a china bowl. Father picked up a hammer on the pantry shelf, tossed it at the cat, struck him on the head and he leaped to fall dead on the floor, the hammer sailing into a chair, not a dish broken, grandfather saying, “Praise God for eyesight to protect a man’s hearth and gravy!” And we ate.

There are moments when we are young, and all of time seems neatly balanced. Past, present, future, all aligned, as though the machinery of the universe had inexplicably hesitated, allowing me sight that was curved, like time itself was said to be. It was after dinner and I was lying behind my grandfather’s chair, to one side of the fireplace. The voices in the room blended into one pleasant droning sound.

I imagined my grandfather’s life, occurring to me then as a series of images accompanied by sensations that unreeled in my mind like a film speeded up. I saw myself in the pause, the waiting time of my life, and then I saw myself as my own grandfather, more a sensation of how I wished to be than a picture.

Desire, uncalibrated, unknown, moved me, and I knew I wanted everything, or nothing, though I could not name anything. O, I thought, almost in pain, for it was what I could name, for my parents, grandparents, uncountable sweetly sweating cousins, fat uncles, all the Christmas lights, warmth, and pleasures of this room forever!  

Amen.