Off North Road
It's December 27th. Wish I could get myself into another place. Christmas was joyful - family and music, children and laughter, food and presents. I can't figure out the funk I'm in. When I was a youngster, Christmas was the best holiday in all the world. We anticipated its coming for weeks and weeks. I saved my quarters all that time and for ten shopping days before the 25th I haunted Purchase Street in New Bedford with my pockets bulging and my generosity a bubble over my heart. I spent most of my time in Woolworth's and W.T. Grant's. Grant's had a little more class than the five and ten and the goods there had a better department store look to my twelve-year-old eyes. Cherry's and the Star Store were big in New Bedford then, but they weren't places I went by myself, only with my mother when we went to buy school clothes: overshoes (which I hated, always brown with funny clasps that hooked in across the instep and bent over to fasten. I once tried to hide them in the basement at Harrington School in first grade before the older kids could see them and taunt me; I was too late) or rubbers; or, when I first started Sunday School at the Methodist Church, a blue suit with knickers, gray knee socks, and Tom McAnn's.
Grant's was the place. I remember buying face powder for the great aunts. You got a whole box for a quarter. My widowed grandfather and his six children lived in a big house on Oakland Avenue in Providence with his three sisters. Maude was a maiden lady and matriarch of the household. Her fiancé left for California a year or so after Gramp and family moved back in with her and she never married. She made dresses for rich ladies on the East Side. Stella was an early widow. We'd call her a single mother these days, although that was uninvented back then. She had a daughter, Hope. The third was Lilly. Lil was a little odd, they said, but she could sure cook, especially raised-dough biscuits by the dozens, which cooled on the window sill. Brother Donny and I would steal them before they cooled and she'd yell bloody hell at us. Don't you boys know they have to go two days for all them people in the house? Now put 'em back!
But the face powder I'd get had a different shape and color and design on each box so they, the aunts, would think they were getting something quite special. Of course I smelled each one and turned up my nose but this was for older ladies and it was appropriate. My mother told me so when I returned to show her my loot. And I'd get some Edgeworth Crimp Cut for Grampa and some Revlon nail polish for Hope. Perhaps I was trying to spruce her up so Ray would ask her to marry him. Poor Ray had been coming to the house to pick her up for a date for as long as we could remember. Probably all of a year and a half, but in our young minds it had seemed forever. And I'd buy presents for my parents and my brother and sister, although they were younger and got toys or handkerchiefs. By the time Christmas arrived I'd have a dozen or more presents and some quarters left over. I still think in those terms when I Christmas-shop today. No wonder I think prices have skyrocketed!
We've just returned from Portland where my son lives with his wife, Marty, and three kids, Hannah, Alex, and Trevor. Alex is named after me with his middle name. Not quite the same as if he were Russell III but nevertheless a distinct plus for me. And he is very special. Hannah's ten going on seventeen, and Trevor's the baby at three, doesn't like clothes at all except for pajamas made by his Aunt Betsy. Those kids had more things under the tree than is decent. I found myself thinking of Bosnia and Burundi and for some reason Bangladesh. What a clown I am to spoil a perfectly good Christmas for myself by thinking of those forsaken places!
Am I in the throes of a holiday depression I hear my friends at the hospital talking about all the time? I never took much stock in talk like that until I was 60 and began to attend a twelve-step group. My eyes saw and my ears heard a lot of depression during the holidays: well meant reunions scalding the attendees, disappointments from exaggerated expectations spilling out all over the meeting room, a small hard core staying home and attending a special meeting on the 25th when the rest of us were occupied with family.
I'm back in the world of Burundi and Bosnia, budgets and Medicine. Alex and Hannah and Trevor have horizons that don't yet go too far beyond Portland, Maine. It's like the old days around my own family dinner table when I didn't want to finish all my peas and liver. "What do you suppose the starving Armenians would say if they could see that untouched plate," my dad would say.
I'd like to think there's a connection among that little twelve-year-old kid on Purchase Street buying powder for the great aunts, the grandchildren in Portland entranced with their own Christmas tree and the deprived humanity of the current television screen. The trick must be to find that heart bubble without bursting it.