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Sunday, December 19, 2010

How I Met Santa Claus

I was born at the end of the baby bust, so when I was little, for a time, before the Dad’s coming home from the war boom began, I was aware of being "special." Kids were admired, and my cousin and I were no exceptions. We lived in a pleasant Ohio town which boasted a fine liberal arts college, but which had also been home to our families since long before the Depression. My cousin's parents had a nice cape cod house just 4 blocks from where Mom and Dad and I lived. We were down by the creek, on Cemetery Street. My cousin's parents had a Cadillac, even if it was a hand-me-down one from my Uncle’s Mom and Dad, who bought a new car every two years. I mention this because they had the wherewithal and liked to “do things up right.” At Christmas, this meant engaging a Santa Claus who would visit their son--and me.

I suspected he just might be the real deal. For one thing, I was quite small the first time I saw him, not yet five.

The night before Christmas I was getting the whole “you better watch out, you better not cry,” treatment from my parents. There were canned peas for dinner, and I remember forcing the rubbery pills down, focusing on the Christmas cards hung on butcher’s twine beneath the cabinets so I wouldn’t gag.

In those days, children went to bed before their parents—-long before. Right after dinner, there was a story, a wash-up, and straight to bed. Tonight, however, in the middle of the story, I heard sleigh bells outside. My parents wondered aloud who that could be. I wanted to see, but was told to sit still. Daddy would open the door.

When he did, in came the most perfect Miracle on 34th Street kind of Santa. He was chubby and had a real long white beard, a round face, a clean red suit and shiny black patent leather belt and boots. He was even carrying a sack. My father was grinning in a way that usually meant I was being snookered, so after I croaked out a hello, I asked after his reindeer.

“Oh, Santa said, “they’re up on the roof—and you don’t have a chimney, so I knocked on the door.” Well, this seemed plausible, and from somewhere outside, I could hear sleigh bells, just every once in a while, as if the deer were tossing their heads.

Suspicion somewhat allayed, I watched him take the seat my mother offered. Next Dad picked me up and put me down on Santa’s knee. Santa was authentically cold all over, his clothes, his face, his beard, and he had a good vibe, smelling pleasantly, as older men often did in those days--of whiskey. This was a polite, low-key Santa. His “ho-ho-ho” delivered as if he meant it.

He asked me what I wanted most for Christmas, so I told him, about the “drink-wet” baby doll and the teddy bear I coveted. Outside the door, sleigh bells rang softly. It was pretty amazing, there in the light of our Christmas tree, with bright packages piled up underneath.

Then he said “Merry Christmas, Judy Lee,” and said he’d be back later. As he left, there was a blast of cold and the sound of departing bells. Again I wanted to peep out the window, but my Dad had picked me up again.
“So, J.L. What did you think of that?”

“Was that really Santa?”

Over his shoulder, I could see him trying not to smile.

Still, I was left to wonder because “Seeing is believing.” My Santa had been nice, jolly and bearded--convincing in many ways--even if I hadn’t seen him fly away. Being the kind of person I am, I really wanted to see his reindeer very much. After a little more thought, a doubt entered. It had been pretty clear that I wasn’t supposed to see him go.

My cousin was even younger than I, so about the most I learned from him was that he too had had a visit from “Santa,” and he too had heard the bells. I decided this cheerful visitor might or might not be Santa, but it wouldn’t hurt to act as if he was.

http://www.Juliet Waldron.com

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Met at the Movies

Spent an afternoon at Met at the Movies, a bright new idea by the venerable Metropolitan Opera to cast their net over a wider audience by transmitting their Saturday afternoon matinees into movie theaters around the world. I’ve been going to these ever since I found out about them, three years ago. At our Regal Theater, we’re also able to see a repeat on the Wednesday night following the Saturday afternoon broadcast.

Opera lovers are an odd, and, for the most part, elderly subset of the population, but they are thick enough upon the ground to fill a theater here in Central Pennsylvania. Seats are first come, first serve, so you’ll see the old folks coming early, especially the wheel-chair bound and the oxygen toting group, also carrying in their sandwiches and bottles of water semi-surreptitiously in their totes. At $22 a ticket per Senior, the theater staff has (so far) graciously looked the other way at this otherwise frowned-upon practice. I brought water and a sliced apple to carry me through the recent performance of Don Carlo by Verdi, as it was to last 4 ½ hours.

Young people are arriving more frequently at these performances, brought in by local colleges as part of their musical or humanities education. I’ve been glad to see them attending, and hope that a few of these become converts to this most peculiar Western art form.

I’ve never seen "Don Carlo" before, although I’ve heard it on the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts. It’s dark, even for Verdi, with the usual repressed and emotionally abused heroine—in this case a princess, a pawn played both by father and husband. There is also an on-stage burning of heretics, (a gruesome depiction of fanatical cruelty), betrayals of friendship, and backstabbing, all culminating in the murder of a prince condoned by his kingly father. Lawlessness and violence committed by The Church and by Society are enduring themes in Verdi operas; his music carries the despairing message even more powerfully than his story lines. I usually leave such operas emotionally drained, and Don Carlo was no exception.

It’s interesting to attend these events, for besides the spectacle there are small conversations to be had while waiting for the show to begin. We opera goers have stories to share that can only be appreciated by others of our kind, for instance, reading the Milton Cross Complete Guide to the Stories of the Opera. We talk about listening to the Met Broadcasts on the radio as part of our childhood experience, and perhaps reminisce a little about the person who introduced us to the art. I can still see my mother, lounging on a pink tufted Chenille bed spread, her blonde cocker spaniel tucked beside her. With cigarettes, matches, ash tray, lying on her side with a mostly unread book, she’d have the radio on, listening to Grand Opera from New York City. Oddly, at our house, near Syracuse, we received our Metropolitan Saturday Afternoon performance from a station in Toronto. Through the ether, across Lake Ontario from Canada, Great Art arrived at our snow-bound house in the Finger Lakes. It’s always gray outside that remembered window, and always snowing. The music is the brightest color in the room, especially if I’m lying on the braided wool rug with my toys, being a "good girl" which meant not bothering her by talking, just quietly imagining.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Currier and Ives, A Story

Just got our 2011 (Ye Gods and Little Fishes!) calendar from our friendly insurance company, but am still admiring 2010's December's page. (As my mother used to say, “Another year, shot to hell.”) Anyhow, this particular calendar has been a household staple since the ‘60’s. It always features pictures by Currier & Ives. We have grown fond of these Victorian scenes, even the ones awkwardly rendered, in a style now officially dubbed “primitive.” This month’s scene isn't as carefree as usual. It's a humble creek- side home with a lean-to covered in straw before and a tacked-on shed behind. A woman and child stand out front, apparently watching a neighbor family coming to visit. Over a rickety bridge they march, a family of five, the mother carrying a baby in her arms. Everyone else is carrying wood. The oldest child has a bundle in his arms; the smallest, accompanied by a bouncing black dog, drags a fallen branch. The man is bent beneath a heavy load of neatly sized firewood.

There’s a Christmas theme here, but not one too many modern consumers with charge cards burning in their pockets would immediately recognize. We see no man at the house, and my husband and I, melancholy by nature, have decided that he has died. We imagine these visitors are bringing not only their company, but a plain necessity, wood to feed the little home’s winter hungry fire. Tellingly, there are no cows or pigs in the farmyard, only a few ducks floating in the still unfrozen creek. Perhaps this woman has had to sell her livestock. No one in the picture looks prosperous, but it seems those that have a little are sharing with a friend on the brink of losing everything. Things are tough at that creek side house, but at least there are neighbors who care and who are willing to help out.

Christmas is the time of year to celebrate, and in the last 100 years it's become about corporate balance sheets and "shop till you drop." To me, this scene is a reminder that it's also a time to remember the old folk song about “there but for fortune…” or, if you prefer, the more modern admonition to "Put a little love in your heart..."