Listening to one of my favorite Christmas songs from "Alabama Christmas," I was flooded with memories of my own childhood. I still have the stockings that Mike and I hung every year until we were adults. They have been chewed by mice in some storage place, but the tattered remains came into my possession.....I don't remember how. I also don't remember who embroidered our names on them, but it seems to me that my mother made them and decorated them. If not, it was my grandmother. There is a picture somewhere of us as little children sitting on the floor in front of them hanging on a chair behind us by common pins. That Christmas is too early to be in my conscious memory, but it is a replacement for memory, as many snapshots are. Other Christmases are recorded the same way and exist only for the brief moment when the camera clicked. There's me at age 6 holding my new baby doll, Carol. There I am standing with my brother and two cousins in front of the Formica kitchen table, all of us dressed in safari outfits we received as gifts. There we are years later, before yet another tree, looking at a book
that is presumably a present. I wear glasses and my hair is in a pony tail. Mike looks to be about ten, and the little boys probably four or five. Not recorded are the Christmases of my teen years, though they do exist in my mind in a way the photographed ones do not.
I can't say that I remember those years fondly exactly, but they are clear in my mind as bits and pieces of many Christmases. Christmas Eve with Dr. Berg in attendance......Our pet monkey, Chico, dancing on the top of Dr. Berg's white head. Chico plucking at the man's eyes, sticking his fingers up his nose and into his mouth as the seventy-something year old expounded in his thick Russian accent on some philosophical point or other, unaware or uncaring. My mother was already in bed with a stomach ache, Mike was gone by then, and the three of us stayed up all night drinking wine and talking about large issues, thinking great thoughts.....My father and I making a recording of ourselves as Walter Cronkite and the virgin Mary at Christ's birth, talking about the event as it happened, live and on camera. He was at his hilarious best, my father, imitating people both famous and ordinary. I played straight man for the most part, though I admired my own performance as much as his.
In those days our Christmas presents were labeled with the name of world figures my father pretended had sent the gifts.......Nikita Kruchev, Adlai Stevenson, Leonard Bernstein, Elvis Presley, etc. We played the game, discussing how thoughtful these people had been and wondering how they knew just what the right gift would be.......My father infuriating me by writing "Like Cool Yule" in popsicle sticks over the archway to the dining room. The square turkey......the shrimp and cabbage cole slaw.........my mother squinting over the cigarette dangling from her lips as she cooked the Christmas dinner.......
After Carrie was born we became somewhat more conventional. Mike came from Florida, and we had wonderful family Christmases that smacked of carols and eggnog, big trees and Santa decorations. When my father died it mostly stopped, and after the Christmas fire it did stop completely. That last time was a memorable one ......a candle set fire to curtains upstairs in Amber's room, Mike noticing the smoke when he went into the hall and unexcitedly told us to call the fire department, joking as he threw pails of water at the flames that it was a good thing he had smoked all these years to accustom his lungs to smoke.... the fire department coming, Jesse out in front of the house in freezing weather in his underwear holding the five dogs....broken windows and a tarp covering the first floor....water everywhere........us finally crawling into stinking, smokey sleeping bags amidst the smoldering rubble only to be forced to get up when the kitchen caught fire again. My mother, bewildered by early Alzheimer's, refusing to get into the warm police car in order to look for the cat. What a good time we had in the following days, reliving the event over and over, laughing at the irony of it, joking about our filthy clothes, our smoke smelling hair. We laughed at ourselves, sitting down after the fireman left and finishing the dessert we were eating when the fire broke out, rescuing our plates from the sink where the firemen had thrown them in order to move the table. The moment when Jesse sauntered upstairs after Mike and I had settled ourselves and the dogs on the floor of the charred second floor to announce calmly, "Mama, the kitchen's on fire." Amber joking, "I didn't like my Christmas presents so I set the house on fire." All of this was an endless source of conversation and utter amusement.
I loved my family, myself included, for how wonderful we all were in the face of that disaster, how despite everything we were so good humored, organized, and resourceful. I still smile when I think about it...........my favorite memory.