far too much writing, far too many photos

Here’s what I remember of my Christmases.

I remember waking up in the wee hours in our small house out in the Long Island ‘burbs, unable to sleep from excitement. I’d creep downstairs as silently as I could, step out into the living room, turn on a light and stare at the tree (thickly layered with decorations and tinsel, the closest we ever came to what might be called glitz in our household). My eyes would then take in the mound of gifts beneath the tree, always an amazing show of abundance in a household that normally had little money to spare. I’d slip the plug for the lights into the wall, watch the room burst into quiet extravagance. Then I’d snoop around the gifts until I’d found as many addressed to me as could be located without disturbing the mound. (The pile — put together with care by my parents sometime post-midnight on Christmas Eve — could not be disturbed. Gifts could not be opened before the family opening ritual several hours. These rules were not to be fucked with as the consequences could be painful.) Then I sat in a chair and stared and thought and looked out the window, waiting for daylight, listening for the first sounds of others getting out of bed.

I remember my father putting up the outdoor lights in early to mid-December. Always a man inclined to making detailed plans, neatly drawing out diagrams and measurements, carrying out projects with methodical, painstaking care. (Not always a man given to patience with those who didn’t do things with that methodical, painstaking care.) Some years the tree would be going up in the house at the same time, meaning the living room would be piled with boxes of decorations, the small cresh would appear by the small bookcase by the staircase, wrapped in ancient comics pages that I would read, year after year. Combined with the strong scent of pine tree, with all the visual cues and memories of other holiday seasons, the old comics (far, far too old — Dick Tracy! Gasoline Alley!) felt deeply, satisfyingly evocative of something I don’t think I could have put my finger on if I’d stopped to think about it.

Until the tree was securely vertical, the multiple strings of lights securely in place, I wasn’t allowed near it, which left me drifting around in a strange state of boredom/contentment/excitement. I’d pull on a coat, wander outside to watch my father hang the giant wreath over the living room window or string big old-style lights along the eaves, around the front door.

Walking indoors from the cold, everything smelled fresh, everything looked new and loaded with potential in a way the house never did during the rest of the year.

I remember my grandmother — my father’s mother, the only grandparent who hung about until I was born — making the trip out from Brooklyn for dinner. My parents had me late in their lives, so they were already on in years. My grandmother was REALLY, GENUINELY, SERIOUSLY on in years. Old, wearing bottle-lensed, black-framed eyeglasses, thick unsupple stockings, big slab-heeled black shoes. Sometimes she’d arrive from the train station in a taxi, other times someone would go pick her up. I only remember getting a first glimpse of her as she emerged carefully from whatever vehicle delivered her, wearing a dark, stodgily elegant winter coat, carrying a bakery box tied with string (always, as far as I know, containing a chocolate cake, densely delicious in an old-world way).

I didn’t know her well, she never seemed terribly interested in me. My job was to entertain myself when she was in the house, to stay out of the way, an assignment I had no problem with (after all, there were new toys to abuse and weary of). When the hour for Christmas dinner arrived — all of us squeezed into the house’s small dining room around a table covered with food (my mother, generally not an inspired cook, made up for the rest of the year on Thanksgiving and Christmas, always producing a sensational spread, a genuine knockout) — I’d tuck my butt into a chair, my attention split from that moment on between eating (and eating) and an ongoing study of the old person who, I was told, was a relative. I got to know her speech patterns, some of her smells, her laugh, her thick fingers, the excess meat on her arms, the abundant wrinkles on her face, her waved gray/white hair. Never really learned much more about her until stories were passed on in later years, well after her long, slow fade, by my mother and older brother. A stubborn, often impassively stoic, deeply Catholic child of Irish immigrants who I’m told was a spirited young woman.

Maisie — my grandmother.

[to be continued during a future Christmas season]


Last week in cold, damp christmastime London, near Covent Garden:

This afternoon at la Plaza de EspaƱa in Madrid, temperature in the 50s, an unknown teenager copping some pre-Christmas-Eve z’s:

Madrid, te quiero.

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