December 12, 2009
The last thing I do every Christmas Eve is go out into the yard and throw horse manure onto the roof. It is a ritual.
— Ron Carlson, b. 1947
American fiction writer
from “The H Street Sledding Record”
When it comes to accomplishing Christmas in the DeAngelis household, I am the person who hangs the moon. This is a role I choose, and one which I relish, and you will never (well, almost never) hear me complain about all the things I have to do. Gifts in particular are my purview, the choosing, the begetting, the wrapping. (I actually don’t like the physical task of wrapping, that is, cutting a length of pretty paper and folding and taping it around a box. I think the advent of the gift bag is one of the great modern advances in civilization, right up there with the adhesive strips on women’s sanitary supplies.)
Through most of Lynn’s childhood we opened our gifts on Christmas Eve after the meatless Vigil meal, the highlight of which was squid in sauce, ceci soup with anchovies, and baccala. The feast was prepared and hosted by Ron’s parents and his mother’s brother and sister, and besides them and Ron and me and Lynn and Ron’s other three children and assorted boyfriends, girlfriends, houseguests, and other hangers on, there could be quite a crowd. But there was always room for one more, there were always gifts and goodies galore, and great rejoicing at our good fortune to be together again.
One year, early on, in wrapping and marking the gifts, I grew tired of a straightforward “To Lynn from Mommy and Daddy” or “To Uncle Flash from Ron and Margaret.” I picked up a music CD intended for Ron, which classical composition I cannot now remember, and wrote on the from-to (Ron’s term for the gift tag), “To Ron from Barry Tuckwell. Thanks for being a fan!”
Barry Tuckwell is an Australian french horn virtuoso with three Grammy nominations who is known for his “bel canto elegance” and the “incredible musicality of his phrasing.” Ron had recently added to our classical music library with Tuckwell’s recordings of the Mozart and the Strauss horn concertos, and his name had amused me. It was not a Tuckwell recording that bore his greeting on the from-to — I have no idea what piece of music it might have been — but the joke was appreciated, and started a tradition.
The next year Ron got a poster-size calendar showing the phases of the moon from Neil Armstrong. My GPS came from Toussaint Charbonneau. Over the years we — Ron and Lynn too — have tried to come up with more and more obscure names that could be associated with the gift, sending the recipient to Google to see if some clue to what it is can be deduced.
You know that a ritual or a tradition has attained mythic status when violating its sanctity or even changing it a little bit becomes an issue. In 2001 our sweet friend, Brandi Weyhenmeyer, the sister of Lynn’s best friend and a member of our congregation, died alone in her apartment late on December 23 of a previously-undiscovered heart problem. The event and its aftermath, recounted here, became the trigger and the inspiration for the novel I have been writing since January of 2002.
We learned of Brandi’s death on the morning of Christmas Eve. By then we were no longer having Christmas Eve at Aunt Nanny’s. She and Uncle Flash and Ron’s father were all gone, his mother was in a nursing home, and Ron’s other children had scattered. But I had come home from the Giant that morning with fresh squid and canned anchovies for the ceci soup.
It didn’t get made. I don’t remember now what we had for supper. Kim and Lynn were supposed to play a flute duet at the 7:30 Christmas Eve service, but that, of course, did not take place. Ron cut himself shaving and spent most of the service in the men’s room trying to get the bleeding to stop. At home we set to opening presents, but not before I removed and hid one intended for Kim and Lynn to share, a BFF communal journal, I think, that suddenly seemed too festive, and too juvenile.
I can’t remember what gifts we gave each other that year, nor the personalities I’d chosen to be the givers. I just remember sitting on the blue chair, with Ron and Lynn on the floor. Ron was distributing the packages and instead of doing the ritual of reading the from-to and discussing who this person was and what he or she might have gotten for us, he was just handing the boxes and bags over, as if they were letters at a group mail call.
I protested. This is important to me, I said. Ron said something, what I don’t remember, but it must have struck me as disparaging, and suddenly there was shouting, and crying (all of it from me, as I recall) and stomping off, and then the chilly silence of a house divided. Ron went to Midnight Mass at his church. I don’t know what Lynn did. I sat alone in front of the television, watching The Stepmother, with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon, only because that was what was on when I switched on the set.
I would come to understand, quickly, that the way we fell apart that night was just our way of expressing the terrible anguish we felt at the tragedy that had befallen our friends and the sadness we were feeling ourselves. It’s as if we had to break ourselves apart before we could gather ourselves together again. We were able to stand together at Brandi’s funeral a few days later, and before long there was laughter and joy at our table again.
The next year I was a little afraid to put the silly names on the from-tos, but I did it, and no one said anything stupid or disparaging, and gradually we forgot the dustup of 2001, although we have never forgotten Brandi.
In some ways, this is not the Christmas I wanted it to be. My outpatient procedure scheduled for December 22 is on my mind, I’m worried that my twisted ankle will compromise my plans for December 17 (a special visit to Washington, D.C.), and I’ve let other concerns and distractions deter me from some of the holiday-related activities and projects that have always brightened my days.
But there are presents under the tree. One, for Lynn, is from Andrew F. Smith. She’s gotten another from Charley Grapewin. And just today, on a shopping trip that I undertook with some trepidation, as a trial run for the shoes I will wear on Thursday and fearing that my ankle is beyond hope, I ran into Lenny Montana. He had the very thing to make our Christmas bright.
This is going to be a terrific Christmas, after all!
From the Archives
December 12, 2004 — Amahl and the Night Visitors: As a child I thought it was a story about a youngster who sets of on an adventure. Later I saw that it was his selfless act in giving the most of what little he had that opened new worlds to him. More recently I’ve seen it as the story of a mother who has raised a child so strong in spirit that he overcomes his physical weakness and is ready to leave her.
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