The way it should be. I actually lived the idyllic Christmas seasons of greeting cards, the Never Never Land of nostalgia of Hollywood stories. I could show you the preserved celluloid eight-millimeter procession of eight children and one waggy Labrador staggering down the steps to a tree lording over a room strewn with gaudy gifts, rubbing our eyes at our father's blinding moose rack of pre-video-ear floodlights, our cheeks round and red as sentiment itself.
The house was heavy with the drug of real pine sprays we plucked, and mulled wine, hot spiced cider, as logs snapped in the fireplace and carols crackled from the hi-fi. Gingerbread scenes depicting the entire family, from my half-brothers and their families right down to the pets and our bric-a-brac Not-eve-a-Mouse, decked the dining room sideboard. Our mother, a creative genius, made it so—when I was little—even reading Dickens's Christmas Carol for a month and finishing on Christmas Eve, which she'd polish off with the nativity from the Gospel. Sometimes there were great parties, themselves Dickensian in scale and flavor—eggnog-loaded neighbors full of foolish good will as we kids looked on from the stairway or under the chairs, as neighborhood stories and memories, legends, were stretched and born; other times we'd sit in the dark and admire the enormous tree, laden under all the glitter eight children could heap in tinsel, lights, and colored glass.
Life can be rich and good, and those things are real. But equally really, people live and breathe and breed and die, each in their season.
The way it is. Children grow into these cares. Santa Claus becomes the vestigial comfort of a friendly old story, the tree a rite to remembered and ordered joy, Christ a point of contention, as family—as life—flowers into complexity, opens and confronts you with a challenge that is not yet beautiful, for its newness. I mean awareness of growth and change around you—that siblings leave, that parents bicker, that money and success count more than good will in most people's daily lives. There are real problems and darknesses. Promises are broken. Nothing makes you safe.
And so you react. There's preservation and denial, going over the top insistence on the holidays and recapturing feelings forever changed, diving into the colored plastic balls of commerce wed to sentiment, then doing it all over again for the young ones. Or you might rebel, mock the treachery, the phoniness. I always inclined toward the latter. Thus began our bold, tragic forays out of protective childhood and into flirtations with a riskier kind of knowledge, say, someone's parents' liquor, or into the buttons and clasps of like-minded girls, and worse. What season more than the Christmas holidays brings out nostalgia for innocence, rhetoric of peace and religion, and the lure of excessive behavior?
At nineteen, I wasn't a bad person but I was a naughty kid, willing to break rules and dubious about the received world, dying to free myself from disintegrated family, dangerous friends, hopeless love for an older, married woman—my ex-teacher. A high school dropout with a job or direction or a clue as to how things worked, I joined the Navy to the shock and horror of everyone but my parents. Christmas of `76 came two weeks before my assignment to boot camp.
That Christmas Eve was a night of goodbyes, so we partied. With a vengeance. As a parting gift, all the girls smooched me (I had yet to split up with my love in Boston, this self-imposed exile the nearest alternative to death I could think of. Her gift would be a copy of John Donne's "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" handwritten in calligraphy.) All the guys hugged me. Some suggested it was what they secretly always wanted to do. Others, my close friends, shook their sloppy heads and repeated "Why?" We drank and sang and everything went hysterically hazy.
Few times in life do we have the chance to know so well the lines delineating its changes. That night, which would end as an unexpected but nevertheless cleansing nightmare, began as a wild hallucination (that this could be happening!) and I embraced it with passion, for I saw that everything I knew was passing away—I'd sold my soul and would soon wake up in another world, dark and foreign. I'd leapt and was now reaching back as I fell.
Goodbye Ira and Ando and Sally and Susie and Mom and Dad. Goodbye. Goodbye Westchester and New York and USA. Goodbye solid earth. Goodbye love and comfort and friendly old haunts. Don't believe I'll be back. Goodbye world that never really was what it used to be. Goodnight moon.