|Oct/Nov 2010 Nonfiction|
Memory mutes some of the clamor but not Cousin Clara's crying. Nostalgia withers a few facts but not the flavor. Christmas Eve l941, Roosevelt on the radio, egg nog on the rug at 59 Winter Street, Exeter, New Hampshire.
That was where my great-grandmother lived and where Clara got tipsy and knocked over the Christmas tree in an explosion of burning bulbs, candy canes, and slithering tinsel.
That was where we gathered, a great gust of people, related through blood or
marriage, in a house my great-grandfather built with tainted money but didn't live to enjoy--victim of a coronary while still robust and relatively young.
We invaded three downstairs rooms: kitchen, dining room, parlor. Clara floated through all the rooms like a great white wave, her hankie sopping as she greeted late
arrivals with mammoth embraces that always lasted a little too long.
My mother's cousin Harold and his wife Eva arrived, a childless couple who belonged to clubs and lodges and traveled throughout the country to conventions. Eva, who wore her blush of pink-blond hair in severe fashion, raised her wrist to reveal a dainty watch Harold had given her, midnight marked by a diamond. Clara shed tears over its beauty.
My paternal grandparents arrived. My grandfather was impolite to Clara. She wept for him, his lack of manners, his thoughtless cruelty, and moments later she wept for me because of my father's dramatic announcement that he was enlisting in the Navy and heading for war. The tears were needless. The Navy, which had accepted him when he was too young, sixteen, and let him serve four peacetime years aboard the USS Overton, would not take him now that he was too old, thirty-nine, with a spot on his lung.
My father chatted with Uncle Ralph, who was born to wear a uniform, to hold a stick in his hand and point it at people, to enter rooms without knocking, to make others snap to, and to believe in victory at all costs. He would join the Army, rise in rank, and receive a medal for valor in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war he would join the VFW, fail in the furniture business, and later find morsels of happiness as a hater of hippies and the like. He would lead a charge against a peace march and end up in district court, proud to have blood on his hands again.
Uncle James arrived. Already he'd had one too many and was too jolly, too loud. With him was a quietly attractive woman who for perfectly valid reasons would never marry him. Sensing tragedy, Clara clung to them both and drenched them with overflowing emotions. Uncle James squeezed Clara's hand and then escaped to get a drink. In 1952 he would stroll the forlorn street of some town in Ohio, walking as if rolling on logs, one too many drinks, a comical sight until he fell and hit his head on the curb. A concussion. But the policemen who picked him up wouldn't know this, and in the morning they would find him dead in his cell.
My mother's elder sister arrived with her daughter Dorothy. Dorothy of the impeccable body, seventeen years old, fine honey-colored hair draped to her spine. Clara cried because Dorothy was exquisite. Dorothy drifted among us, aloof, otherworldly, dreaming of modeling dresses and gowns. Instead she would marry an Exeter boy, and my last memory of her would be a hugely pregnant woman with swollen ankles and nothing nice to say about anybody.
My maternal grandmother and her twin sister, deadly rivals since school days, commenced quarreling over whether my great-grandfather, a superintendent at the shoe factory, had forced Polish immigrants to slip him their first week's pay in return for their jobs (which they'd lose six weeks later). One of those immigrants, with many mouths to feed, assaulted my great-grandfather with a wooden shoe last. The incident went unreported, and a month later my great-grandfather died of the coronary.
Soon food was served, buffet, and my mother urged everyone to hurry because there wouldn't be any left, though there was plenty, too much in fact. Clara, nipping brandy, swayed near the Christmas tree, and someone whispered, "Get her away from it."
"I heard that," Clara said, but with a laugh, not a sob. The sob came when she patted my step-brother Richard on the head and told him he had strange and mysterious eyes. Maybe she could see some eleven years into the future when Richard would click his rifle to automatic and empty the magazine into an unarmed Korean, shearing him in half, and come home to brag about it.
Eva was hysterical. She couldn't find the watch Harold had given her. She had slipped it off her wrist to show somebody, and now it was missing. Harold called her an ugly name for her carelessness. People dropped to all fours to look for it. Everybody
except James. It was in his hand, He'd had it in his pocket. His joke. Harold wanted to punch him. They raised their fists, James in jest, Harold in dead earnestness. My father lunged between them before one could bruise the other.
In time, the hour late, people began to leave. Fat handshakes were exchanged at the door, along with passionate embraces and some kisses among those who feared they might never see each other again. Long roads to travel. A war in its infancy. The older men, the ancients, could hear distant drums, marching feet, horses' hooves on a wooden bridge. Then we all heard the crash.
Clara and the Christmas tree had joined forces on the floor.
My grandfather wanted to leave her there, but at the same time he feared she'd electrocute herself in the blinking lights or cut herself on the shattered bulbs. My father freed her, and my mother picked tinsel from her hair. Uncle James went outdoors in the cold in search of the woman he had come with, but she had left long ago, a quiet departure only I had noticed.
Within a half-hour the house was empty except for my mother and father, Richard and me, and my great-grandmother and Clara, who had fallen asleep on the couch, a silly-sad smile on her face, as if in sleep she knew that this had been the last gathering at 59 Winter Street.