(For those of you who have read my earlier memories of family, this post might be confusing. It contrasts sharply with my earlier pieces. But those were about my life after the age of 11 (when my oldest brother and sister left home). This is about before. It’s rather long—sorry. But I decided to just go with whatever came.)
I apologize—I have been remiss in both my own postings and in my comments on others’ postings. Part of it is that we’ve been so busy. We’ve just sold our house and are rather suddenly faced with finding both a new home and a new job. Also, a single violent cough from getting some fiberglass (from insulation) in my throat reawakened my rib injury, which I thought had healed completely. So I hurt.
But mostly, I think, it’s Christmas. I just can’t seem to feel the spirit this year. Partly, I’m sure, because most of the family and friends we used to spend Christmas with have passed away. And really, except for one of my brothers and a cousin, we wouldn’t even want to spend it with the extended family that is left. We live in fairly comfortable denial of our estrangement from extended family the rest of the year, but at Christmas, we are bombarded with images of happy families gathered ’round the Christmas tree, which makes it harder to escape certain painful realities. ‘Tis the season to be jolly and all that. I should say here, I am very close to my husband and children and I am thankful for that. And we are indeed jolly around our Christmas tree and have some wonderful traditions, but still…my children miss the grandparents they never really got the chance to know and they miss their Aunt Ellen and Aunt Esther and our dear friend Ernie and other loved ones who’ve passed in recent years. We have lost too many too soon and too often.
I do love Christmas music, and usually, I can get the spirit by doing what my Mama always did—listening to Christmas music while baking cookies. Especially the Messiah. Mama loved Handel’s Messiah. I do, too and have ever since the Christmas I was six years old, and Mama got her heart’s desire. And so did I…for a little while anyway.
The year I was six had been a difficult year in our family. My oldest brother and my sister had been in constant trouble for the better part of two years, and our house was a battleground. My brother had finally overtaxed the patience of the local law enforcement by stealing a car (previously, he had merely engaged in petty larceny and vandalism) and was facing reform school. My sister was always picking fights at school and would fly into sudden frightening rages at home. I remember one fight she and my brother had where she hit him on the head with a cast iron skillet. John let out a terrible moan and fell over, unconscious. I thought he was dead. She almost killed me twice by choking me. I went unconscious before Daddy pulled her off. So I tip-toed my six-year-old self around, learned to be invisible, and just tried to stay under the radar. I spent a lot of time outside talking to birds and squirrels and trees. My other brother Paul escaped into books.
We didn’t have a lot of money, and usually Mama would ask for something practical for Christmas, like a mixer or a robe and slippers. But that year was different. She asked for a record player and for one single set of phonograph records—the entire Handel’s Messiah. Daddy was hesitant—that was pretty expensive. Wouldn’t she like another robe?
But she was adamant. She told him that it could be a combination birthday and Christmas gift and she wouldn’t ask for another thing. Daddy liked the thought of killing two birds with one stone and soon warmed to the idea. He started making payments on a record player at Sears and Roebuck and finally secretly brought it home just after Thanksgiving and hid it in our attic. I was terrified that the mice were going to chew on it. We lived in an old house and had so many mice that our parents gave us a nickel for every mouse we caught. So I kept pushing Daddy to go ahead and give the stereo to Mama. He didn’t need much encouragement, as he could barely contain his excitement. And so it was that Mama got her Christmas present early.
In a rare moment of family togetherness, all six of us were there when Daddy set up the stereo. For once, my brother and sister weren’t fighting. Mama’s face was shining as she opened the box containing the three records that made up the Messiah set. I picked up the front cover of the box and ran my fingers over the pretty picture. There was a scene of the Holy Family on the front, taken from an old Italian painting. The Virgin Mary’s face was shining as she looked at her new son, a circle of light glowing about her head. The infant Jesus was glowing, too. Joseph looked bewildered, but happy, gazing upon his new radiant baby boy, the Christ Child. I looked around at my family. They were all smiling, watching my mother as she tenderly placed the needle of the phonograph on the record.
The music that swelled out from the stereo was the most beautiful I’d ever heard. I sat down on the floor to listen, transfixed. A man began to sing:
“Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God…”
My brothers and sister lost interest and drifted off. Daddy had to leave, but Mama and I stayed there, listening, rapt. When the record ended, Mama, without a word, got up and turned it over. A deep voice that I thought sounded like God sang:
“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light…”
Then a chorus, like a mighty heavenly host:
“For unto us a Child is born…and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
Mama and I listened to most of the three record set. I didn’t move the whole time; Mama got up to start supper. Our supper that night was more peaceful than usual, and I didn’t have a stomachache afterwards. Over the next two weeks, Mama listened to Messiah over and over again, and it was as though the Prince of Peace had come to our house.
“And suddenly there was with the angels a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, goodwill towards men.”
John and Mary fought less, and there were no calls from school or the sheriff. Mary was spending a lot of time in the kitchen. Though she was only thirteen, she had a knack for cooking, and a counselor had suggested my parents encourage this. So Mama had asked Mary to cook the turkey for Christmas dinner, as well as some of the other dishes. My uncles and aunts were coming for Christmas dinner, so Mary pored over cookbooks and tried out different recipes. I ate everything she cooked enthusiastically and praised it heartily. Mary actually smiled at me once or twice. Sometimes, during that period, I’d look around the table at mealtime, and my family seemed almost…normal.
Christmas Day came. Mama and Mary were up early, cooking, with the Messiah playing in the background. Mary’s turkey came out perfectly browned and exquisitely tender. All the aunts and uncles oooed and ahhed over the turkey and other dishes. After dinner, we all went into the living room, the lights from the Christmas tree making the room glow. Everyone was laughing and talking and praising Mary. Mary’s face was shining, and John, for once, was sitting quietly. Mama and Daddy were sitting together, beaming with pride at their son and daughter. I stood in the door, looking at the scene and sighed with happiness. It was almost as though the Christ Child was in our midst, filling our home with light.
Mama had kept the Messiah playing all day, and it was playing then. My Uncle John, (who had been completely deaf since contracting scarlet fever as a baby) was standing by the record player. He put his hands on the side of the stereo speaker and closed his eyes, an enraptured look on his face. I went over and put my hand on his. He opened his eyes and smiled at my quizzical look. He pointed at the speaker and then his ears, and I realized he was feeling the heartbeat of the music—hearing with his hands.
“Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped…and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.”
So, I wish I could say our home was transformed forever and that we lived on in peace and harmony. But we didn’t. Mary still flew into violent rages; John kept lying and stealing and finally was sent to reform school by the courts. Paul kept retreating into books and I kept talking to trees. But Mama kept playing the Messiah, finding solace in the memory of the peace it brought to our house and its promise of eternal peace. I’d listen to it like my Uncle John, with my hands on the speaker while the music flowed through my fingers, filling me with an electrifying joy.
I’m listening to the Messiah now. And in a minute, I’ll walk over and put my hands on the speakers of the boom box. I’ll close my eyes and think of my Uncle John and of my Mama and Daddy. I’ll thank God and George Frederick Handel for this musical gift of glory. Handel wrote Messiah in just 24 days, barely eating or sleeping during that time. He said that, as he wrote it, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the Great God himself.”
“And we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…and we shall receive wisdom and strength and honor and glory.”