The golden voiced Cantori New York gave a choral concert on Sunday. Sitting there listening to their beautiful renditions of favorite old carols, I found myself tearing up more than once. Christmas – holiday time – has a way of evoking intense nostalgia, a weepy longing for times, people and places that have been softened over a lifetime of memory.
My childhood Christmases were snowy and rural, alternating between wild anticipation, slow marking of days off advent calendars, reading favorite stories, going to church, making clumsy but colorful ornaments for the tree, setting up the creche (into which my brothers always snuck a stray animal or two from another play set), and the music, the almost non-stop playing of my father’s favorite seasonal records on his big old stereo. He leaned towards the rat pack singers, with a smattering of Ella and Judy and Tony Bennet; Andy Williams was also a regular. My mother occasionally put on the “children’s golden classics” so I also heard bits of the Nutcracker and Messiah; and of course at mass we always sang traditional hymns of the season. The music of Christmas has been with me since the crib, and I love singing them still. As technology changed I sought out all the family favorites on DVDs and MP3 files, and was grateful when enterprising nerds made available obscurities like Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, still beloved by a few of us.
The rosy hue associated with these childhood Christmas memories causes conflict in my heart, for my relationship with that same father was troubled. A powerful, macho bully with a violent temper, strict, rigid and absolute, he could also be generous and fun and sometimes warm. He loved little children, of the age when there would be no questioning of his authority or will. And he loved Christmas, really loved it. He was as excited as any of us at the first snowflake, and watched carefully as the ice formed on the lake, counting the days until we could skate. He loved all the rituals of the holiday, the decorations, the tree, the food, the presents, although decades of complaints from my mother made it clear that he wanted no part in the preparation and work, but only the enjoyment of these holiday traditions. When I think of my father at Christmas, I am grateful for those fond memories, and sad at the way things changed. I grew into a woman in whom he was disappointed, with whom he disagreed about almost everything, of whom he disapproved. Gone now for almost nine years, the ambiguity of the relationship hovers in the background at Christmastime, a spectre at the feast.
A wise woman, a musician, said to me yesterday, “it is all part of the fabric of who we are.” As someone who adores the fiber arts and deeply appreciates the painstaking skill and craftsmanship that anonymous women, over centuries, put into lace and quilts and the garments of everyday life, this statement resonated with me. The most stunning works of art are not universally sunny; they contain colors and textures that evoke the full spectrum of life, its light and its shadows. The central theme in the fabric of my life is the stability of a long and happy relationship, accompanied by the glorious colors of music, friendship, creativity and travel. But there is always the contrast, the “blue notes” that make the composition work. They provide context, and an appreciation for the harmony and courage of the composition. After all, the wise woman said, “he was human.”
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2016. Reuse with permission.