Nancy Stearns Bercaw
At 26, I was living the dream: single, unemployed and sponging off my parents. No rent, no responsibilities, no life. How did the downwardly mobile bachelor fill his days? By watching the entire PBS Civil War series; reading Anna Karenina; and ingesting hearty doses of anti-depressants.
When that failed, I auditioned for the part of Santa Claus at a local shopping mall. I was hired for the weekend shift at eight dollars an hour.
Nine years earlier, I had worked at the same mall in a radically different capacity, as the Easter Bunny. Since then, the mall had witnessed the ascendancy of retail dynamos like Van Heusen and Farberware and rechristened itself The Outlet Center.
I had followed college with a string of bad professional decisions.
Ho! Ho! Ho! If I chuckled this with sufficient enthusiasm, I thought it might deflect attention from the squalor of my costume. The sagging synthetic beard tested the faith of each child who dared take a hard look. I also suffered from inadequate belly stuffing and a young face. This was not lost on passing shoppers.
Can I see some ID there, Santa?
Kiss my arctic ass.
Interrogating youngsters about the state of their moral character did not provide the sadistic titillation I had counted on. The downright earnestness of the kids was humbling, if often pathetic. I quickly learned that as a character, Santa is one-dimensional, inchoate. What do we really know about his elf laborers? His wife? His distribution system? During my tenure as the Easter Bunny, I was instructed not to speak, which served to shroud me in mystery. Kids had fun trying to make me talk. Santa offered no such protection. To make things worse, I discovered many parents were using me as a training-wheel Santa for a pending pilgrimage to the real Santa Claus at FAO Schwarz or Macys.
On my second day, there was such a paucity of shoppers that I concealed a novel in gift-wrap. I said it was my list the one I checked twice. So what if Tolstoy wrote it? During one of very few busy periods, a girl of no more than 7 inquired about my cookie and milk preferences for Christmas Eve.
Ill pass on the cookies, but Ill take any Zoloft you might have.
The girl gazed up at me with fear and a nascent incredulity.
Ho, Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!
Still, a few Christmases past do stir sweet memories. And this December thoughts focus particularly keenly on a succession of holiday seasons beginning around 1966.
Those were coming-of-age times a special stretch of life when the advent of personal independence coincided with the onrush of a crazily exciting era. It was also when grade-school infatuation and panting adolescent lust gave way to something resembling true love.
So now these images come cascading back: wintry walks, hand-in-hand, along the Rockaway shore; midnight subway rides to see the towering tree and the deserted skating rink below it; whooping New Years Eve parties in apartments hung with tin angels and Fillmore East posters. How beautiful all of us are especially her in those unfaded moments. How certain we are of loves permanence and our individual immortality.
Impossible though it seems, first love does, of course, get supplanted by other loves, which draw each half of the original pair further and further apart until, eventually, there are different families living hundreds of miles from one another. The holidays of middle age, with the ever-more-distant memories they enkindle, only confirm how separate two once-mingled lives have become.
Friends of friends do provide occasional news, however: the birth of a son, the wedding of a sister, a completed marathon, a new job back in the city now that the kids are almost grown and the suburbs have become insufferable.
Then, one day September 12, to be exact a final piece of news arrives. Oh, no, Kevin, you wont believe it. Rene was working on the 96th floor of the north tower, and shes not been heard from since the first plane hit.
The memories this Christmas are all the sweeter for the sorrow they entail. I write in love and homage to you, Rene. Im so sorry how it turned out.
Kevin J. Kelley
The scary one had a bundle of switches, a.k.a. long, thin sticks, over his shoulder, and regarded me menacingly. The other man resembled Santa Claus in Druid mode I learned later the Germans called him Saint Nicholas. The large bag of candy he carried was enticing, but his long robe and pointy beard were off-putting. Like one of those evil Grimm Brothers characters who tries to lure children into harms way, he didnt seem to have the costume quite right. And Im certain he didnt say Ho-ho-ho or shake like a bowlful of jelly as a real Santa should.
Though the Scary Man with Switches spoke to my mother in halting, guttural English, I was given to understand that one of his sticks was to be applied to my rear end if I had not been a good little girl. By this point I was hiding behind my mother and grasping her skirt in trepidation, guiltily recalling several times I had, in fact, been oh-so-slightly naughty during the preceding year. I looked hopefully to the Nicer Man with Candy, but his formidable expression did not seem capable of twinkling.
My mother fudged for an eternity, finally deciding that I had been good enough, whereupon the Nicer Man with Candy must have given me some. This point I dont recall for sure, but I do know that I was spared the rod. And to this day I have my theories about the terrible psychology of Germans and the excellence of their chocolate.
Hows Marlene? My grandfather had been asked while she was still in the hospital.
Shorter, he snorted.
While the rest of the family blindly waved their glasses around the table, arguing about George McGovern, I morosely stayed with my grandmother in the bathroom. The dark glitter of her jewelry and ungents was enlivened by the glint of those steel bars and pulls necessary to aid those who can no longer walk. Once settled on the pot, she handed me a book. Read to me, she entreated, holding out a Bible written entirely in French, not the native tongue of a family whose last name is OConnor. Jesu Cris, I miserably began as she grunted softly.
When we returned to the table almost an hour later, no one looked up.
My grandfather was a fighter pilot during World War II, but he rarely speaks of his war experiences. He surprised us by muting the television to tell us a wartime story.
One Christmas Day, he said, he was called up to fly a mission over Italy. A dogfight broke out. Many planes were lost. He was lucky to have survived.
Unfortunately, he had become disoriented; cloud cover obscured the ground. He wasnt sure where he was or what was beneath him.
Soon two other American planes appeared; my grandfather knew one of the two pilots. United, the three of them flew on together, relying on their instruments to find their way. As their fuel dwindled, the third pilot suggested that they descend below the cloud cover to see where they were. My grandfather, a born skeptic, disagreed. He didnt know the guy, didnt trust him.
When the other two planes broke off, he continued on his course, until he was sure he was flying over water. Then he descended to get his bearings. He made it back to base, barely arriving before his fuel ran out. Days later he learned that the other two pilots had dropped from the clouds and smashed into the side of a mountain.
We were all stunned into silence. What do you say to someone who survives something like that? What do they say to themselves? My laconic grandfather is not one for public introspection. He said, simply, Best present I ever got.
Being the newest male specimen at Christmas time, however, entailed a more serious duty: donning a Santa Claus outfit for the company party. I dreaded it, especially when informed that the previous years Santa, a guy from Brooklyn who spoke fluent Japanese, had sung weepy Japanese ballads through the karaoke machine. Id be expected to sing, too.
The holiday blues hit hard on the day of the party, when the other gaijin on duty an upstate New Yorker named Shannon and I were asked to decorate the school. We were provided a box of ornaments, relieved of our lobby-talking duties and trusted to do our best.
After decking the halls in grand style, Shannon and I ducked out for a stroll through the underground malls of our ward. Seeing the store windows decorated in Christmas motifs, and sharing the company of another North American, put me firmly in the holiday spirit. Little did we know that while we were out, our Japanese coworkers were redecorating.
Although some of our decorations remained in roughly the same places, our notion of what a Christmas party should look like had clearly served only to inspire the Japanese variation. Their decorative scheme was more efficient, I had to admit. But, then, Id never thought efficiency a particularly Yuletide value. I felt very far from home indeed.
If anyone had looked deeply into Santas eyes that night, theyd have seen it. If theyd listened closely to my rendition of White Christmas, theyd have heard it. Karaoke never lies: I really was dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.
His proclivity for the newfangled and the offbeat really emerged one Christmas, a holiday that invariably persuaded my Jewish atheist parents to cave in to the peer pressure of our devout Catholic neighborhood in Queens. They would never go so far as to have a tree, of course, but their three children came to expect well-wrapped presents from an ambivalent Santa on the Danish Modern coffee table next to the fireplace.
When I was about 6 or whenever youre too old for a tricycle but too little for a two-wheeler my father bought me what he mustve thought was the greatest Christmas gift of all time: a four-wheeler. The non-motorized bike was bright red and shaped like the chassis of a car. I thought it looked bizarre, and Ive never seen another one since. Back then, I was mortified. Kids want to fit in. It was bad enough we didnt attend church like everyone else on the block. Did he have to choose a bicycle that would make me a freak?
I thanked him, but immediately hid it in the garage. And thats where some friends soon spotted the red menace. Although I steeled myself for ridicule, the envious youngsters scrambled to take turns riding the quadracycle. Jewish or not, I was suddenly the most popular girl on 45th Road.
As an adult, I came across a wise saying: Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people expect the world to adapt to them. There-fore, all progress is made by unreasonable people.
Only in retrospect am I truly able to appreciate my otherwise conventional fathers unreasonable pipedreams. I dont think four-wheelers ever became a national phenomenon, but maybe theres still hope for the Audio Robot.
My in-laws knew my sister had been severely anorexic for 30 years, weighing in that Christmas at about 45 pounds. But nothing could prepare them or any of us for the sight of her strolling down the beach, a walking skeleton. They all had theories, especially my brother-in-law. Hell of a way to get attention, he hissed after a couple of cocktails. What happened to her, anyway?
The next morning, my sister didnt wake up. She lay in bed, eyes open, in a coma, clutching the covers around her neck like a baby bird. My husband couldnt find a pulse, but determined she was breathing. We called an ambulance the ambulance, I should say, because it was the only one on the island. It took an eternity to arrive over roads washed out by a recent hurricane, but the nurse, in a starched white uniform, managed to find a vein and got her hooked up to an IV. My sisters glucose level was 18.
She regained consciousness in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital. But not before I attempted to explain to the island emergency medical technicians how a beautiful, educated American woman who was also rich in their eyes would deprive herself of food to the point of starvation. I was working on the connection between body image and self-esteem when they stopped me. No need, mon. Last week, they learned all about it on Oprah.
This last stop was the real deal. Heres where the six of us would settle in and spend the fat part of the day. The enormous Federal-style house would be filled with vases and vases of deep red long-stem roses later I learned a rose grower lived down the street, with whom my uncle had brokered some deal. There were tables set everywhere: a few in the dining room, more in the foyer, and usually one or two in the Siberian-like and otherwise unused parlor. The sideboard groaned with a regal prime rib roast and a turkey and a ham.
As each family arrived there were lots of us back then two or more dishes were added to the spread. There were creamed onions, creamed corn, green beans almondine, Yorkshire pudding, chestnut stuffing, celery stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, at least three kinds of Aunt Janes pickles, rolls and a wilting iceberg lettuce salad.
Afterwards there were pies and chocolates, a piñata for the kids, and then wed all change into our country clothes and pile out into the snow for snowmobile rides, walks and general roughhousing. Finally, wed squeeze back into the station wagon and make our way home in the early winter darkness, satisfied and secure for yet another year.
Exercise was once enjoyable to me. During high school, I had a fairly successful skiing career that provided me with a fair level of fame. In my final year, though, I traded in athleticism for rock n roll, turning my back on skiing. In 1997 I was fully immersed in my first year of college, and the family had not yet caught on to the fickle changes in my lifestyle. They decided to spend the afternoon skiing, thinking it would please me.
With the family positively beaming and me cowering, we packed the cars and headed for the snow. Although repulsed by the idea of this very un-rock activity, I suited up, strapped on my skis and ventured into the cold. Suddenly I was filled with utter joy and a sense of empowerment. Ive still got it! I yelled across the slippery expanse, as I imagined my family members as fans. I felt like I could conquer the world. I deserve to be famous!
I rounded a corner and kicked hard, gaining speed. Look at him go, I heard them call. How graceful.
I hit a large drift, jumping into the air. Twisting at the waist, I flew in an arc above the glimmering snow. As I soared, I realized that I missed this attention, and grieved for the excitement of my prior life.
A patch of thick ice greeted my return to the ground. Pitching forward, I felt my pole snap as I collapsed on the trail, badly breaking my hand. As cheers turned to laughter, I sulked off the hill, dejected.
I spent that Christmas with a hand swollen like a planet and a seriously damaged ego. As the holidays passed, so did my illusion of fame. Now, post-meal calls for exercise just cause groans, and gluttony sometimes doesnt seem so bad.
Back then, Innsbruck still didnt have a McDonalds, let alone a place to get stuff for American-style celebrations. So for our first Christmas there, Mom made it a personal mission to find something suitably American for Christmas dinner. And she did: a somewhat scraggly, extremely expensive frozen turkey at one of the local supermarkets, imported from, of all places, Virginia.
But Europeans at least the Austrians dont have the giant refrigerators that we Americans do. Theyre more the size of hotel minibar fridges. Mom couldnt cram the bird into ours, but she thought it would be okay if she left it outside the pantry window, as long as it was securely wedged behind the iron security grate. Mom was wrong. Because all quaint Austrian villages much like all quaint Vermont villages are just lousy with resourceful barn cats. At some point during the night, feral cats somehow insinuated themselves between the bars and attacked our turkey.
Heres where we get to the part that is either disgusting or funny or both, depending on your point of view. Mom, having spent a good deal of time and money looking for that damn turkey shes famous for this kind of thing in our family decided it would be safe to eat if she prepared it carefully enough. So she sawed off all the chunks that had been munched on by the cats, washed the turkey in hot water, tied what was left together, and took a picture of the whole thing. Then she fed it to us. She claimed to me the other day that she couldnt find the picture, but Im pretty sure she destroyed it.
It was either that or admit that Christmas itself might be a fraud and a disappointment, and I wasnt prepared for news that bad. Really. They could get you up on charges now for telling the truth about Christmas to a kid like me permanently warping, post-traumatically stressing forever a helpless, just-out-of-knee-pants GLBTQIA, who still believed in Santa Claus, miracles and the Virgin Mary, and who, like Mae West, wanted nothing more out of life than happiness, with a gardener and a swimming pool. If you catch my drift.
No? Then let me be perfectly clear: Christmas stopped being magic and enchanted for me the day I found out that Agnes Moorhead wasnt really Endora. And dont think I didnt believe that one, too, for a while. I even sent her a letter in California, saying, Get me out of here!! Nothing came of it, as you can see.
Nowadays, of course, if your boys a little bit that way, he can get married and have Christmas like anyone else. In the spirit of the season, I give you Miss West: Love is what you make it and who you make it with.
The head of the music program was Mr. Bowen. Chorus and musicians had never rehearsed together, but Mr. Bowen was going to conduct from the podium and cue Miss Jains, the director of the chorus. She would simultaneously conduct the singers, including the vocal soloists.
Lights were lowered. Mr. Bowen walked to the podium amidst sincere applause and made a few perfunctory remarks. Then he turned to the orchestra, lifted his baton and, within an instant, lost all color. He dropped his baton and staggered off stage. Stunned stares quickly became murmurs. Miss Jains hastily followed Mr. Bowen off stage to see what had had happened. The rest of us had no idea what to do. We later learned that Mr. Bowen had suffered a mild heart attack.
As bewilderment spread, a 12th-grade tenor named Steve Wallenberg eased his way down from the back row of the choir and headed for the podium. This caught everyones attention, and the auditorium immediately hushed. Wallenberg was completely calm. He lifted the baton, and commanded absolute attention with his rigid posture. There was total silence for about five seconds.
When he pounced on the downbeat, we sounded like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Sir George Solti conducting. Miss Jains hurried back on stage, but the train had already left the station, so she graciously directed her choir minus one tenor as if nothing had happened. I have never heard a more moving and powerful rendition of the Messiah, and it was because of our own deliverer, a talented and fearless 12th-grader.
I enjoyed the visual drama; I hated the taste. Plum pudding or Christmas pudding, as they call it across the pond is a heavy, rich doorstop of a dessert. It has a Dickensian aura, a labor- and calorie-intensive vestige of an age when a protuberant belly was the embodiment of prosperity.
Our puddings were supplied by my grandmother as long as she was able; then by my parents, who produced the things in bulk, providing puddings for the Woods, the Lockets and the Alfonzos.
I was in my twenties when I first learned of our puddings provenance. My great-great grandmother, who lived in 19th-century New York, had a cook called Bridget. Bridget previously worked in the kitchens of the Lord Mayor of London, and the recipe came from there.
My father and all the cousins helped make the plum pudding at his grandmothers house when he was a boy. They chopped and candied the fruits by hand. The pudding steamed for hours a month in advance, so it could sit and soak up the brandy. On Christmas day, the pudding had to be re-steamed on the laundry stove, because the kitchen stove was full of other pots and pans.
I grew to like plum pudding over the years. Now I serve it for Christmas dinner. But my store-bought kind just isnt the same, lacking the musky flavor of the fruits and cake infused with brandy. Some year, Im resolved to make it myself.
It was getting close to Christmas, and I was in the shop teaching on a Wednesday night. The music store was narrow and long, with a display case running down one side of the room. The rest of the space was cluttered with guitars, drum sets and a few amps, all festooned with tinsel, ribbons and Christmas tree dingle balls. The back room was all cardboard boxes and old coffee cups.
Next to the bathroom on the floor, I noticed a big box full of booze. I could see that the bottles were all different flavors and types of alcohol, and when Simone gave me a big bottle of Southern Comfort, it caught me by surprise. I thanked him in a daze. Even though I was 21, it was the first bottle of hard liquor that was ever really mine. It made me feel so rich, and when I went home and poured myself a straight one, it made me feel nice and warm, too. Wicked good.
I have never forgotten that warm, rich feeling. For about the last 20 years I have tried to pass it on by purchasing different flavors of brandy and schnapps at this time of year for everyone at work, wherever I happened to be employed. As time goes by, I have been gradually been replacing the alcohol with chocolate, as my coworkers are drinking less. But they can still thank Simone, who was thoughtful enough to show a young part-timer that he cared.
My parents had always been pretty sneaky, with all sorts of ways to keep my faith alive. I mean, even Mom and Dad got gifts from Santa, and the cookies we left out always got eaten I saw the crumbs! and the carrots we left for the reindeer would get chomped. Further-more, the gifts from Santa, and sometimes even Mrs. Claus, came in completely different wrapping paper than the stuff our parents gave us.
I rationalized that maybe Santa brought just a few gifts to each family, and these were supplemented by parental presents. But I was still worried. What if I grew up and had kids of my own and, still believing in Santa, didnt buy them any presents and I turned out to be wrong? Finally, choking back sobs, I begged my mom for the truth. I really needed to know. How was I ever going to be a good parent if I didnt know for sure how Christmas gift delivery worked? My mom hugged me and we both cried, and she gave me the real story.
Since that day, Ive never doubted again. Santa rules, and I dont care what you say, because my mom told me the truth about Santa Claus.
For seven years, our family here in Vermont my husband, stepdaughter and myself had opened presents and then made the 90-minute drive to spend Christmas day in Montréal. Chinatown provided plenty of restaurant options, and the Botanical Gardens greenhouses were specially decorated for the season. Christmas in Montréal became our own tradition.
I didnt anticipate how much taking Mom along would deepen the meaning. She was descended from Quebecois farmers on her mothers side, something that wasnt talked about much when we were growing up. We didnt celebrate her ancestry or hear stories; no one spoke French. Her father and my father came from strong German stock, and made their own superiority pretty clear to anyone with questionable blood.
But when Mom went to Montréal with us, the stories poured out of her. How they called her grandmother Mémère, and how her mother and aunts would speak French when they wanted to hide conversations from everyone else. In a neighborhood grocery store she recognized the traditional Quebecois meat pie, and saw that it was called tourtiere. Wed always had that meat pie after midnight mass in Montana, but just called it the Christmas pie. Mom never told us its history, or that her mother had another name for it. I thought she called it toot-care, she said. My grandmother must have brought the recipe from Quebec.
We went to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve that year at the great cathedral, Mary Queen of the World. And my mother, named Mary, was transported. Blissfully theres no other word for it she listened to the familiar carols, incantations and blessings, but in the Quebecois French she had always secretly dreamed of. She already had bought her airline ticket for our fifth Christmas in Montréal when she passed away in 1994.
I was feeling trapped and feverish something akin to malaria. I wanted a way out, like everyone else in Southeast Asia. But I couldnt budge due to a state of unresponsiveness. Instead of being a passive resistor to the war, I was inactively surrendering to the world.
Mother went to the hospital, where father was a doctor, even though the place was exploding with the non-walking wounded from Vietnam. Dr. Father didnt have time to deal with us because of the gangrenous soldiers shipped and flown over after the Ia Trang Valley campaign a month earlier. Mother had recently passed a six-foot tapeworm and was in no mood for my fetal position or my fathers disposition. She whispered, the horror, many years before the shadowy Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. My father responded, Buck up. At least you have arms and legs.
Day turned into night without evidence. My womb didnt have a view, so it wouldnt have mattered if the sun had torpedoed into Subic Bay just like the bombs dropping on Laos. Few in the West had a birds-eye view of what was going on, either. It was just a matter of sunrise, son sent.
There were conflicting reports about how many Silent Nights passed before there was a new bundle of Joy to the World. My father says it was only one, December 26. My mother says it was two, December 27. The Filipino authorities must have thought it seemed like months, recording the date as January 27, 1966.
But they all agreed: Hallelujah, a child is born.
Nancy Stearns Bercaw