By Ken Trainor
Do you have a most memorable Christmas? Mine was 50 years ago. Three of my heroes died that year, two of them a month apart, one of them three days before Christmas. Hence memorable.
Here's the way I "remembered" it in a column I wrote way back in December of 1985 (Yes, I've really been writing newspaper columns that long), told with a healthy dose of magical realism:
My most "memorable" Christmas would have to be the year my grandfather died of cancer on Dec. 22. I never got the chance to say goodbye. They didn't allow 11-year-olds into cancer wards back then.
John F. Kennedy was shot exactly a month earlier, so we were all still traumatized, and Pope John XXIII died five months before that of stomach cancer. All three were my heroes. I haven't had many since. Overall, 1963 was a pretty rough year.
I remember my mother's face after she got the phone call that Sunday morning. The only other time I could recall her crying like that was when we caused it, so the moment made an impression. I knew someday one of my parents would die and I'd be facing an empty morning much like this one. Glancing out the kitchen window, I noticed a man in a top hat and purple cape on the sidewalk, hurrying past. I couldn't see his face because he hovered against the driving snow. In fact, I could barely make him out at all in the darkness, which was odd for 10 a.m., but that's how I remember it.
A funeral is a strange way to spend Christmas Eve. I remember snowdrifts and sunlight and biting cold. The casket was open during the ceremony. My grandfather's appearance shocked me again as it had during the wake the night before. There lay an emaciated version of the rotund, mercurial joker who used to make us laugh at the dinner table by flexing his flabby biceps, which wobbled and flopped up and down like kneaded bread dough. I had no trouble believing the inadequate shell before me no longer housed his expansive spirit.
The priest wore rainbow-colored robes and a yellow turban, which I thought odd, and a sparrow somehow got into the church and flew all about, creating marvelous shadows against the ceiling. The organ played continuously, barely audible, some haunting melody though when I turned to look, there didn't appear to be anyone up in the loft.
The cemetery was a beautiful place, but it gave me the creeps. The priest, now wearing a golden miter and looking a lot like St. Nicholas, spoke eloquently about my grandfather's virtues. True, he could be a difficult man who stormed out of restaurants when he didn't like the service and we couldn't mention FDR in his presence, but he was devoted to his grandchildren. The priest told everyone about the night he came into my bedroom while I was reading and listened eagerly as I summarized the book for him. Later he praised me in front of my parents. The priest said I would never forget such small kindnesses. I wondered how he knew about that.
The ceremony went smoothly except for one brief interruption when the man in the top hat and purple cape rode past on a large brown horse, a brightly-hued cockatoo perched on his shoulder, which cried out once. The echo, I thought, sounded infinitely sad.
At the reception later, one of my uncles tried to lighten the mood by doing a Red Skelton impersonation. It was funny, like my grandfather, and I enjoyed the food. We didn't go out to eat much, so this was special. I felt a little guilty, though, about enjoying myself at such a time, and the flaming cherries jubilee for dessert only increased the pang.
I couldn't sleep that night, so I climbed out onto the roof. The scene was better than Currier & Ives — smoke plumes rising from chimneys, the soft billows quickly turning ragged and disappearing in the cold air. Clumps of heavy, wet snow mantled the evergreens, bending them precariously. Fierce, jagged icicles reflected the moonlight. I spent a lot of time staring at the stars, trying to grasp the enormity of death. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a large meteor's brilliantly flash, but I wasn't accepting cheap omens in lieu of answers. For a moment, though, I felt close to every human being who ever celebrated this holiday's eve, and before that the winter solstice, for thousands of years.
Finally, I climbed back in and sat by the dying embers of the fire and read Robert Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," which happened to be there with the book open to that page. But I had promises to keep and minutes to go before I slept.
That's how I remember my most memorable Christmas. Memory is pretty unreliable, though, situated, as it is, so close to the imagination. Maybe it didn't happen exactly that way, but I assure you it's all true. You have my word on that.
And I hope you have a merry, memorable Christmas.