Twas the Day Before the Day Before Christmas

December 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

My brother, Jimmy, 1964

Last night I got some wonderful books as gifts from Lisa, including the poems of Tennessee Williams and an anthology of poems by Christian mystics. “Such love does/the sky now pour/ that whenever I stand in a field/I have to wring out the light/ when I get/ home.” St. Francis of Assisi.

There’s a lot of light outside, but I stay in here where it’s warm, and feel the light of my mood, which is: Cats asleep on my unmade bed/Scent the air/ Like James Joyce writing of his Nora/ I love their little farts.

That’s not intended as a poem. It’s just the way words bounce when you’ve been reading poetry, when love glitters through the mind, stopping here and there at this or that person and animal and memory and book, but mostly moving on its way like water.

I’m lucky. I had wonderful Christmases when I was young, and so whatever anxieties attend the holiday now, they’re never anything like what other people report—people whose parents got drunk and smashed their presents; people whose relatives fought bitterly at Christmas dinner. My father had plenty of rage in him, but on Christmas mornings he was too tired from putting toys together until 3 a.m. to be angry, and seemed, anyway, chastened by the joy around him. I remember him on those days as a little fragile, a little embarrassed to receive gifts, perhaps stunned by the unfamiliar company of all four of his children in the daytime. This was a man who spent his weekend days mostly in bed, reading and drinking beer.

Christmas and children were my mother’s bailiwick, and she did Christmas like an impresario. The house was decorated everywhere, the tree was enormous and covered in ornaments of all kinds—fragile glass icicles; metal birds with feathered tails, and spring-clamps to fasten them to the branches; stars and angels, the Styrofoam and sequin balls she taught us to make—and Santa’s gifts weren’t wrapped because why would Santa bother with wrapping paper? It just didn’t seem to her like a Santa kind of thing. She wanted us to see the trains and dolls, the blocks and stuffed animals all at once, in their full splendor. So she arranged them: four tableaux around the tree. Separating the quadrants were the wrapped presents from relatives, the books that were our parents’ ostensible gifts to us, and the badly wrapped items we gave each other. Sibling gifts did not receive a lot of thought, most of the time. A Bic pen was acceptable.

But the Christmas before he died, when he was not quite fourteen, my older brother Jimmy gave my sister and me each our own copy of the new Beatles ’65. The munificence of that amazed me. The cost, for one thing, but also the understanding that I wouldn’t want to have to ask to listen to her record; how much it mattered to me to have my own gleaming black vinyl disk with those adored voices on it, the Capitol records logo, the dust jacket…

And then he died two months later and I listened to “Baby’s in Black” all the time. How lucky we are to not know the future.

Christmas Ballad

Sing a song of Christmas!

Empty pockets here;

Windows broken, garments thin,

Stove all black and drear.

Noses blue and frosty,

Fingers pinched and red,

Little hungry children

Going supperless to bed.

Sing a song of Christmas—

Tears are falling fast;

Empty is the baby’s chair

Since t’was Christmas last.

Wrathfully the north wind

Wails across the snow;

Is there not a little grave

Frozen down below?

Sing a song of Christmas!

Thanks to God on high

For the tender hearts abounding

With His charity!

Gifts for all the needy,

For the sad hearts, love

And a little angel smiling

In sweet Heaven above.

–Unknown

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