Tag: moonlight

A Christmas Story

Sometimes a Christmas story is about a reverence for snow, cold cheeks almost burning, wet socks, the smell of guava punch with apples and cinnamon, the heat of a wood stove with gingerbread baking in its oven, half burnt potholders with crows to protect the fingers, an Aunt that plays French songs on the phonograph and, half swooning, lays her hands splayed across her chest, just above her dove-like bosom that smells ever so slightly of mothballs and talcum powder.

She was a Catholic—me a diluted Protestant—and it was the Church, she said, that had kept her single because the men of Ireland had never learned to love women, only the Virgin, and tended to abuse them—not to mention themselves—because of the nuns’ warning not to touch. Not even with the heart.

I had no idea what she was talking about, except that I wondered now and then what it would be like to touch her, perhaps when she was asleep and not so sad. I was almost fifteen and curious about bodies, not the least about my own. In a moment of questionable trust, I told my father I found myself wondering about women’s bodies. He took his pipe out of his mouth and told me that was all right and natural enough, and then said with a humpf that I shouldn’t get anyone pregnant.

That remark caused me embarrassment, and I think I blushed—which made it harder for me to see myself as the man my father was. He had seen straight into my deepest secret, which, when I look back on it, overwhelmingly had to do with Nature’s plot to make babies.

My Aunt’s name was Georgina, and I suppose she wasn’t much older than twenty-five at the time. She already had a reputation in our family for not being responsible, for herself or anything else. She forgot to take things off the stove and didn’t tighten the tops of jars, so you had to be careful that the contents—oatmeal, for example, or popcorn—gripped  by their lids, didn’t slip away and crash on the straight-grained fir floor of our kitchen, creating two messes, not just one.

Georgina loved my mother’s guava punch—a fruit that was shipped from Florida each winter by her brother Antonio, and that arrived only half rotten. Georgina would carry her cup into the unheated front parlor and add sherry to it. She let me try it, and I thought it was awful, except that it made her a little less concerned about the young men in Ireland that still, at age forty, lived with their mothers and spent too much time in the pubs drinking Guinness and listening to fiddlers rattle their strings with angry jigs and reels, all the while complaining that Ireland should be fighting on the side of the Germans.

One evening near Christmas, my parents drove away in their 1943 Ford station wagon through falling snow to a cocktail party at the end of a dark New England road, to the house of two German bachelors, Herbie and Hans Wanders, who never spoke German, because of the war. That left me and Georgina alone in the house. A pot of guava punch sat thinking at the edge of the stove top. Georgina pushed it with one of the burnt crows to where it would heat up—with me watching her. Then she poured herself a cup and headed for the front parlor. I followed since, in many regards, she was my leader. She clicked on the phonograph, its orange eye lit up and, with another click, the plastic arm came alive and dropped the needle onto Edith Piaf’s “C’est lui que mon Coeur a choisi”—He’s the One My Heart Has Chosen.

I didn’t understand a word of it, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t either. We sat next to each other, with just the light of a distant street light, on the small settee upholstered in pale flowers, with our hips practically touching, and passed the cup—now fortified with my mother’s cheap sherry—back and forth, and I tried not to stare at my Aunt’s knees, which had somehow glided forward from the edge of her corduroy skirt and, at least to my memory, gleamed as if touched by moonlight.

The more I drank of the awful brew, the more I thought about things. How I too was still living with my mother—as well as my father—and how it was somehow wrong to be drawn to my aunt’s exposed knees. The punch made me warm all over, at the same time that I felt perched on the edge of nausea. The song was a walz and very emotional, and right then Georgina took hold of my jaw, brought my head up and around toward hers, and gave me what I think must have been a very un-Catholic kiss square on my lips.

I stared shocked into her eyes, at that moment lit up by the headlights of my parent’s Ford which, returning early, crunched to a halt the front of the house. The bridge over Prospect Creek, on the way to the Wanders, had collapsed, and my parents had seen the gaping black hole just in time and had stayed only long enough to drag brush across the road to warn motorists coming from the same direction. Back in the kitchen, while my mother studied us with a curious expression—possibly suspecting loose lids, my father marched to the phone on the wall, told all the listening busybodies to get off the goddam line and called the police about the fallen bridge.

Georgina, as it turned out, left for New York on the morning train and returned by ship to Ireland, which zigzagged all the way, she wrote, to avoid the torpedoes of German U-Boats. And I went on to lead a life only occasionally drawn to sherry, and more often to guava in any form—for its intoxicating smell. I no longer live with my mother, and I often thought of Georgina and her knees, until I met my first love—and then, like the men of Ireland, I forgot her.

The Raccoon

In 1946, on December 24th, it snowed all day and then all night. I was nine years old. My brother was ten and a half. My father liked to say we were almost twenty, put together. In the morning, we opened presents. First me, then my brother, then my father. I don’t remember what I got. Nor what my brother got. But I gave my father a small bottle with a raccoon embryo in it, floating in alcohol, about the size of a mouse. I had used my jackknife to cut it out of the mother that lay beside the road. She was too fresh to be bloated, and so I thought she had to be pregnant. There were four babies, but I only took one. The embryo was easy to see in alcohol. It’s eyes were closed. There was no fur, but the outline of colors, the black mask, brow and snout in white, the black tip of the nose, the dark grey body, and the ringed tail were all there, in perfect detail.

We sat by the fire to keep warm. It snowed so hard that it was dark outside, in broad daylight. My father held the jar up to the firelight and said the baby raccoon was a fine sight with the flames shining through around it. Then he made pancakes and sausage and we pulled the table over to the fireplace and ate there. He made us cocoa. He asked us if we liked our presents. He held up the raccoon every so often and said it was really something to look at.

My brother pouted. Now and then he glared at me. I think he resented the raccoon. Maybe because it was dead. Maybe because it was more meaningful to my father than the present he had given him. From time to time, the house shook when the big snowplow rumbled past. It came by often. As if it was afraid it wouldn’t be able to keep the road open. Finally, toward afternoon, it didn’t come by any more. And then there were no more cars. A little later, we got a call from my Uncle Lawrence, the town sheriff. He said the roads were closed, and he asked if we had enough wood and coal to keep us warm.

It snowed all that Christmas day.

And then it stopped. A full moon came out, and our father said we should go for a walk. My brother opened the front door and said the snow was too deep. My father said, we’d take the horse. And took us through the snow to the barn, holding us around waist, horizontal, like two little pigs, he said, and so we grunted and squealed accordingly, I think just to make him happy.

Our horse Freddy was surprised to see us. He whinnied. I thought in kind of a question. I took my knapsack along. I put the raccoon jar in it. My father pulled a stool up to Freddy, who stood patiently, curious to see what was going to happen. One by one, we got on. My father put me in front, then my brother, then he swung up behind.

We rode without a saddle. My father said that would be warmer. Freddy started forward and waded without effort through the deep moon-glinting snow. We went down the road through the center of town, under the dark maples and elms, past the candles in the windows. Past the dark shutters on the white houses. Past the dark wreaths. We looked down through windows and saw Christmas trees with electric candles on them. Doctor Crum, the German, had real candles on his tree, and his wife was right there beside him, with her arms around his waist.

Then we rode out into the center of the town square, equal distance from all the houses. We sat there, under the full moon, Freddy shifting first this way, then that way. My brother said he could see his breath. My father said he could see his, too. I took the jar out of my knapsack and held it up against the moon. That made the dark shape of the raccoon look cold and alone. My brother held me around the waist from behind. But he reached up and slowly pulled the bottle down from the moon. I obeyed his motion and put the jar away. Then my father reached one arm out past my brother and held me across the stomach with his big hand. Then came the other arm, and the other hand. And we sat that way, warm on Freddy’s back – for a long time. Long enough for my brother to begin to twitch and rest his head heavy against the back of my neck.

That night, we slept in my father’s bed with him. Long after he went to sleep, I heard my brother crying, softly enough not to wake my father. And I thought about the dead raccoon and the bottle, alone on the night table next to my head. And, with my eyes open and looking, I considered the dark corners of the room, where the moonlight didn’t quite reach – and never would. And then I think I fell asleep.