A few nights before Christmas this year, Joe suggested we ride around town and look at the lights. This was not something we had ever done. Usually, with family home, cookies to bake, presents to wrap, and parties to host or attend, looking at lights was not on the to-do list. But 2020 was not a usual Christmas and the offer of a joy ride sounded like a good diversion from our Christmas solitude.
We had fun commenting on the displays and judging them to be successful or epic fails. Mockery can be good for the soul. (Some of those inflatables are truly awful, aren’t they?) So, when we pulled back into our driveway and I observed our meager porch and window display, from somewhere deep in my neocortex a Christmas memory emerged. I will try to flesh it out here.
In the small North Carolina town where I grew up, spectacular yard displays were not common. There was one house in our neighborhood, however, that did go all out and, at the age of 7 or 8, I thought it was fantastic.
“Why don’t we do that?” I asked my parents.
“A waste of electricity,” was my fathers reply. ( ‘a waste of money’ was generally the explanation for all my perceived childhood depravations.)
The only indication that we, indeed, celebrated Christmas was a small white plastic candelabra with red bulbs that sat in our living room window. I had seen an article about Hanukkah in one of my mother’s magazines, and, wanting to show off my new worldly knowledge, commented that people seeing only a candelabra in our window would think we were Jewish.
“What? Of course not,” she exclaimed. “It’s not the same shape,” she said, uncertainly. “And it’s red,” she added.
I moved on. “I like theirs better.” I said, pointing to the house catty-cornered from ours. The Wilson’s had, in their large picture window, three tall red candles of irregular height with white bulbs and plastic halos. “It’s more elegant,” I pronounced. (At age 8, already a critic.)
A day or two later, the stubby candelabra had been removed and a single tall white candle with a white bulb appeared in every window across the front of our house – two in the dining room, two in the living room and one in my parents’ bedroom. In order to accomplish this, my mother had rounded up every extension cord she could find, as electrical outlets in homes built in the late 40’s were not plentiful. The cords stretched under the buffet, behind the sofa, and, in my parents’ bedroom, they draped over the built-in vanity and across the floor in front of my father’s closet. (I distinctly remember this because it was my job to plug them in every early evening and unplug them before I was sent to bed.) My father’s only comment on what I thought was a great improvement to our outward showing Christmas presentation was ‘too many cords.’
One sleepy night when it was time for me to unplug them, I suggested we leave them on all night. The newspaper my father was reading snapped closed and I knew immediately what he was going to say – ‘a waste of electricity.’ He did not disappoint.
A few nights later something close to a miracle occurred in North Carolina. It snowed on Christmas Eve. All the neighborhood kids were out that night, giddy, and doing what kids do in the snow and I was among them. This was the memory that came to me as I sat in our driveway last week: I was playing in the snow in the front yard and had turned my attention to the front of the house. The snow was falling, the yard and bushes were covered in snow and above them shone a single candle in each window. I was briefly transfixed by what I can now only describe as a moment of transcendent beauty. I ran inside and urged my family to come out and look. My father and older sister ignored the request, but my mother put on her galoshes and came outside. Together we stood looking at our house and at the snowflakes swirling in front of the streetlight. After a few moments she asked,
“Is it as nice as the Wilson’s?”
“Better,” I proclaimed.
They say that as we age, our long-term memories become clearer and more accessible. I say, bring them on.