Okay, Bart here, and I hear you guys want a Christmas story, I have a doozy for you that involves the actual Messiah and getting your prayers answered. As Daron would say: insert angelic chorus here. (He learned that from me, by the way. Daron picked up most of his catch phrases and vocal tics from me. No lie, bwana.)
You know I was kind of a musical prodigy, right? And a weirdo. A total weirdo. I mean, what kid decides he wants to play the bassoon because it’s the weirdest instrument? Me, that’s who. Looking back on it now, actually, I can see that picking bassoon was a bid for attention and approval from a youth orchestra director I had a crush on. Yes, she was in her thirties and I was in third grade but at the time that didn’t really matter to my little brain. And I did get all kinds of attention. I had special lessons with her, the whole nine yards.
The importance of her attention to me might have something to do with the fact I had no mom at that point, too. But by the time this Christmas story happens, I did have a mom, a stepmom named Dorothy who had married my father about two years earlier. I was in my last year of junior high.
I’ll set the scene. At Dot’s urging my dad had bought us a bigger, fancier house in a richer area of Connecticut, which meant that since the summer when we’d moved in, we’d actually eaten dinner in the formal dining room. Every night we had dinner in there on a big wooden table with candleholders on it like something out of Merrye Olde England, despite the fact there was a perfectly good Formica table in the kitchen. Come to think of it the whole place had a kind of English countryside manor look to it even though it had been built more recently. Dot had a lot of rules of etiquette and one of them was that the kitchen table was for breakfast and lunch and the dining room table was for dinner, and eating the wrong meal on the wrong table would have been a social faux pas on the same level with puking in front of the President. You would’ve thought their country club memberships would be revoked.
So there we were in a dining room that could easily seat twelve, the three of us, eating dinner.
“John,” she said to my father, who always sat at the head of the table, with her on one side and me on the other. “Do we have a handyman who can put up Christmas lights or should I ask the landscapers to do it?”
Dad hadn’t really been paying attention, staring into his rice pilaf or whatever, and I think he didn’t hear anything until the word “Landscapers…?”
“Well, with that tall roof there’s no way I want you getting up on a ladder to put them up.” She always sat with her spine ramrod straight, on the first few inches of her chair, as if she ever used the whole chair someone might accuse her of being lazy. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Do we really need to put lights up?” my father asked.
“Yes, we need to put up lights. Our house is right at the curve of the street. It’ll look strange if we don’t.”
“I thought we discussed this,” he said, clearing his throat somewhat obviously–meaning they’d discussed something without me and he didn’t want to discuss it in front of me right then.
“We discussed not putting up a tree, but you agreed it’s important to maintain appearances.”
He sighed. “I’m uncomfortable with it, Dot. That’s all.”
“Some pretty lights on the house? In the dark of winter? It’s not like I’m going to put a nativity scene in the circular driveway,” she said sharply.
He sighed again, in that way he did when he was giving in. “All right. Talk to the landscapers about it. I supposed they’ll be happy to have some work at this time of year.”
I had listened to all that with a very curious ear. I was like thirteen then and starting to clue in to a lot of adult stuff and it was obvious to me there was a ton they weren’t saying. But what? I kept my mouth shut hoping to hear more, but Dot turned to me then.
“Speaking of holiday things, since the house will be nicely lit up, I was talking with some of the other women in the neighborhood association and I’d like to make our house a stop for the carolers on Christmas Eve. Barty, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
I probably sounded just like my dad. “Carolers?”
“Being one of them. You know. Go from house to house and they give you cookies and chocolate.”
“Like on Halloween?” I had meant it as a joke but she took it seriously, as if I didn’t know what carolers were. Of course I knew what carolers were; I’d watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on TV every year like every other kid growing up.
“It’s traditional for groups of musicians go from house to house playing traditional Christmas songs. Everyone will be having Christmas Eve parties.” She sliced off a tiny bite of pork loin and waved it on the end of her fork as she talked, as if she were conducting an orchestra. “You’re by far the most talented of them all.”
“Wait, you’re saying I should get together with other kids from the neighborhood and, what, put a band together?”
“Wouldn’t if be lovely? Charlie next door plays the trumpet, Hilary across the street plays the clarinet, the Holden twins apparently just started playing the recorder…”
I appealed to my father with a troubled look on my face. “Dot, that’s not how music works. You can’t just throw kids with different instruments together–”
“Don’t you start with me, Bartholomew. I know perfectly well bands have multiple instruments!”
“That play in all different keys! Do you have sheet music for this?”
“Tsk! Everyone knows these songs!”
My father finally got up the gumption to cut her off at that point, though he didn’t try to explain how wrong she was. “Dorothy, enough. That’s a two thousand dollar bassoon. I’m not letting him carry it around on the street, possibly in the rain or snow, traipsing from house to house.”
She sniffed and looked away, as if she wouldn’t deign to look him in the eye. This tactic always worked on my dad.
“Seriously, Dot,” he said. Now he made the appeal to me with eyebrows, half-warning, half-imploring.
I took it as he was warning/imploring me to go along with her, for his sake. So I cut my dad a break, I thought, and said: “It’d be easier to just have everyone sing.”
Her head turned slightly more toward us but she still didn’t look our direction. She sniffed.
“I mean, if you have sheet music–someone must, right? Have them all come here and I’ll rehearse them with the piano.” Our new house had a dedicated music room with a grand piano, and the piano had even been tuned after we moved. I had been taking piano lessons on and off most of my life. Might as well finally use that for something.
A smile spread onto her face. “Barty, that’s a lovely idea!” She focused on me. “What do you think about this Friday, then?”
“It’ll have to be Thursday. Friday is the choir concert where we’re doing Handel’s Messiah.” My school’s orchestra wasn’t great but it wasn’t as terrible as the one at my old school. And honestly The Messiah was kind of a fun piece: none of the individual parts were actually hard but there was a lot going on to keep it interesting.
“You are such a jewel, Barty,” she said, beaming. “Such a prodigy. John, aren’t you proud of him?”
“Of course I’m proud of him,” Dad groused, a little resentful at being prodded into saying it or maybe just disgruntled I was getting all the approval instead of him.
I decided to push my luck. “What would really be great would be if had an instrument I could take around with the group, though, just to keep everyone in tune. You know.”
Dad was having none of it. “Like a bass guitar? No. We’ve been over this. You need to concentrate on the bassoon.”
Well, it had been worth a try. I’d been asking for a bass guitar for about four years at that point and the answer had always been no. “Yes, Dad.”
Later that night, I was at the desk in my room doing my homework when my dad knocked quietly on the doorframe and leaned in. “Bart.”
“Your mother’s asleep so I’ll keep this short and quiet–”
“She’s not my mother.”
He rolled his eyes like he wasn’t about to have that argument with me again, especially having just said he wanted to keep quiet. “I want you to know I’m still uncomfortable with this whole caroling thing.”
“You mean you’re uncomfortable with the whole Christmas thing.”
My father had a way of getting stiff and formal when he was unsure of himself. “Frankly, yes. It’s starting to feel like we’re going too far.”
Too far from what? Or toward what? I had no idea what he was talking about. I pointed toward downstairs, thinking there might be no way to keep this discussion short, and hoping, in fact, that maybe now I was going to figure out what they hell they’d been dancing around, not saying. “I want some hot cocoa. Come on.” We went down to the kitchen and I nuked two mugs of milk and mixed them up with cocoa mix and the two of us sat down at the table.
I learned really young that difficult family talks are always easier when there’s food and drink to be had.
“I’m starting to think there are some things about me and your mother, your real mother, I mean–”
“See?” I said. I couldn’t help myself. “This is why you shouldn’t call Dot my mother. Creates confusion.”
“All right, all right. Anyway. When your actual mother and I first met, the world was a lot different then. We were a lot different.” He put his hands around his mug but didn’t pick it up.
I blew on mine. It was still too hot to drink without burning my tongue. “Uh huh.”
“We had a lot of life-changing experiences before we finally got married and had you.”
“Uh huh.” I wondered when he was going to get to the point but I didn’t really want to rush him. He never, ever talked about my mother, and I never asked about her. Being hurt over her leaving was the one thing we had to bond over when I was little, but after he’d married Dot that had kind of frayed.
“And sometimes I look back and I can’t even imagine how I had ever been the person that I was,” he said, shaking his head. He looked into his cocoa. The mini-marshmallows had turned into a layer of white goop and his formal manner had melted down to just a resigned weariness.
In fact, he seemed to have run out of things to say, despite the fact he hadn’t really said much of anything yet. So I decided the direct approach might be best: “Are you finally going to explain why you hate Christmas?”
His head shot upward in surprise and he blinked at me.
“Like, was it something she was really into so after she left we stopped doing it?”
His mouth gaped a little. “That…would be a perfectly logical explanation. But no, that’s not why we, uh, only minimally celebrate Christmas.”
“You gave me a speech when I was about five about how you didn’t want to glorify the capitalistic excesses of your industry. To explain why we only exchanged one gift each.”
“I did? What was I thinking?” He put a hand on his forehead. “Bart, I’ve tried to be a good father. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded. I mean, I guess I really won’t know until we see how you turn out as an adult.”
Man, no pressure though, right? “Uh, if I turn out wrong I don’t think it’ll be because we didn’t have a Christmas tree,” I said, trying to keep us on topic.
He took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “Okay, at the risk of looking like a total fool, because you probably know this already, but perhaps it’s simply never been made clear to you, the question isn’t why we only minimally celebrate Christmas but why we celebrate it at all.”
I sipped from my cocoa to keep the conversational ball in his court and burned my tongue, dammit.
He cleared his throat one more time before saying: “You know we’re Jewish, right?”
Fortunately I’d put the mug down already. Him having set it up the way he did and then asking that the way he did, the only way I could really answer was to say, “Oh yeah, of course,” but actually I was thinking, wait, what? Really? I mean, I realized, wait, that suddenly made a lot of sense… but at the same time that suddenly made a lot of things make no sense at all. Like: “So we’re putting up lights and caroling why exactly?”
“Appearances,” he said and raised his mug. When it seemed obvious that one word wasn’t an adequate explanation, though, he went on a bit: “Your grandparents decided to assimilate and not be observant. That was their decision at a rough time in history and I can’t really speak for them. Your mother and I, your actual mother, I mean, didn’t originally plan to respect any religious traditions at all. But I’m perfectly fine with us celebrating Christmas as an American secular holiday based around family and traditions of gift-giving. And, you know, I never want you to suffer what the Silber boys did.”
The Silbers, as I recalled, were the two kids in my elementary school whose parents were so observant that the boys wore yarmulkes to school. They were also picked on incessantly and beat up from time to time, but as a kid my estimation was that they got picked on not because they wore yarmulkes but because they were both snot-nosed whiners. Not that I condone bullying, of course–as an orchestra nerd I got plenty of that myself–but as a child it seemed less like racism or religious persecution and more like their parents should’ve taught them to blow their noses instead of wiping their boogers on their desks. I mean, c’mon, boogers are a major thing in your world when you’re six or seven years old.
I wasn’t seven anymore, though. “There’s a Jewish girl in my homeroom,” I said. “Jessica Meyer. She’s nice.” I shut up abruptly, realizing my dad was the last person I should probably tell about my crush on Jessica Meyer.
Dad didn’t notice, though, because he was still stuck on his issues: “Caroling. I’m very conflicted about the whole caroling business.”
“Well, so am I, since Dot seems to think I should know all these Christmas songs, and I don’t.”
“For me it’s more the fact that the songs are about Jesus.” He sighed and shook his head.
I shrugged. “I did that school production of Orpheus which was all about Greek gods and you had no problems with that.”
“Hm, well, maybe it’s that I don’t have people proselytizing to me about Zeus all the time.” He sipped his cocoa and gave himself a marshmallow mustache.
Oh, is that what was bothering him? “Dad, it’s okay. I’m not going to suddenly turn Christian because I sing some songs about Jesus. I promise.”
“Excellent.” He smiled as he stood. “Bart, I’m so glad we had this little talk.”
“Me, too, Dad.” I was looking up at him like wait, that’s it? I made a little stab at pushing the envelope. “But you know what would help me a lot would be to know a little more about my mother. Not that I want to contact her or anything…” It was true. The last thing I needed at that point in life was another adult telling me what to do.
He was gruff. “Come with me.”
I left my mug on the table and followed him to his study. He dug into a closet and pulled out a box, and then from the box unearthed a big leatherbound photo album. He handed it to me without a word.
“Thanks,” I said. He gave me a patrician, dismissive sort of nod and I fled back to my room–pausing at the kitchen to retrieve the rest of the hot chocolate.
I recognized the photo on the first page of the album, the 8×10 glossy of my parents on their wedding day which used to hang in the entryway of our old house and which dad must’ve taken down when we moved and put into the album. “Rebecca and Jonathan” was embossed in flowing script along the bottom of the photo.
The next page, though, the photos jumped back in time a little. My jaw dropped. Finding out we were Jewish was nowhere near as shocking as finding out my parents had been hippies. I mean full-on bell-bottoms and batik-print wearing, peace-sign making, long-haired flower children. Even though the photos were in black and white it was obvious they were wearing loud prints. There were several group shots of them posing on what looked like a college campus with other students. And then there were clippings, one from a college newspaper that included a photo of them linked arm in arm with a few “Protestors for Peace” talking about them being arrested. It was dated 1964.
There was also one of me as a baby, with the two of them standing on the porch of a house I didn’t even recognize. It was labeled “Bart comes home from the hospital,” so I guess it was 1966 and I was a few days old. My dad’s hair stuck out from his head by a good eight inches–I guess you call that an Afro even on a white guy? That was way more eye-opening than learning my dad had been arrested for protesting war.
There was a whole section of color ones, a different size and shape from the black and whites, mostly taken of the same group of people over and over, and I recognized some of the rooms again and again. I guess they lived in some kind of a hippie commune before I was born?
The one that really made my jaw drop, though, was the last one in the album, a 8×10 black and white publicity shot for a six-person band, which included several people I’d seen in the previous photos and provided their names in the caption at the bottom. The drummer was seated behind the drum kit, and the rest of them were all standing there alongside him with their instruments, the four men wearing matching leisure suits and the two women wearing dresses in a similar style.
My mother, named in the caption as “Becky Daylily,” was the one with the bass guitar.
My dad was not in the photo. Makes you think, right?
The next day in homeroom, which was a fifteen-minute long period in which the only thing we did was take attendance and hear morning announcements, I went up to Jessica Meyer and said, all casual-cool, “You’re a soprano, right?”
“I’m getting the kids in my neighborhood together to do caroling on Christmas Eve and we need a soprano.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m Jewish.”
“So am I,” I said coolly, and I saw her interest was piqued. Yes! I thought. “That means you won’t be busy on Christmas Eve. Plus you already learned to sing all these songs for the choral concert. Come over to my house on Thursday and we’ll rehearse. With the other kids.” I made sure to add that so it didn’t sound skeevy.
“Okay,” she said.
“Seats, seats, seats,” our homeroom teacher then announced, and we had to go to our desks to be counted like good little children. I zoned out, fantasizing about Jessica Meyer.
Thursday rolled around quickly and Dot presented me when I walked in from school with an itinerary, handwritten on a piece of colored notepaper with flowers and ducks printed in the margins. Eight houses. We were due at the first one at seven o’clock. I knew the Holden twins weren’t allowed to stay up past nine normally, so that’d mean fifteen minutes per stop, except we had to walk from house to house. I did the mental math allowing for five minutes of walking plus putting on coats, et cetera…
“Thanks, Dot. This looks great,” I said. We’d be starting at the house of the local alderman, I noticed. “Just leave it to me.”
Dot was very happy to leave it to me. She was never comfortable supervising children, me included, and now that I was old enough to babysit she had no intention of keeping an eye on us. The Holden twins weren’t that young, maybe ten? Old enough that they’d listen to me, anyway.
In the end we were a group of six, which was just enough, three girls and three boys, which was perfect, and as I told them once they were all gathered around the piano: “We only have to learn three songs. We’re need ten minutes of material for each house and we can repeat. This is totally doable. We’re supposed to start at seven and this would have us done by nine.”
One of the Holden twins–the girl–bounced excitedly. “Because we have to get to sleep otherwise Santa won’t come!”
“Uh, right. Exactly,” I said. The problem with the Holden twins is their parents had diabolically named them Kelly and Kerry, and one was a boy and one was a girl but I could never remember which one had which name.
“I brought this,” Charlie said, sullen in that twelve-year-old way. He handed me a music book without meeting my eyes.
It was a Christmas songbook for trumpet. “This’ll get us started anyway.” I sat down at the piano and flipped through it. “You guys have any favorites?”
“‘Here Comes Santa Claus!'” Kelly/Kerry squeaked.
“Let me see. Yeah, here it is.” I wondered if it was possible to do this entirely with songs that didn’t refer to Jesus and if that would cool Dad’s jets.
The lyrics weren’t in the book, just the melody, but that was okay. Like Dot had said, everyone knew these songs, including Jessica, who had been in choruses since elementary school and a Christmas choral concert is pretty much a requirement for every chorus. I caught up pretty fast having heard the song a lot of times but never having memorized the lyrics before.
When we had run through that one several times I said, “Okay, great, what’s next? ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?'”
“Or ‘Frosty the Snowman?'” Hilary suggested. She was skinny and much taller than Charlie even though they were the same age. In fact she was taller than any of us. (I was still waiting for my growth spurt which–as you know–never showed up.)
“Let’s do them both,” I said, and sure enough they were both in the songbook, and while we worked on them I realized they were almost the same song. Well, next year we could work on making a medley: right now to keep things simple we did one and then the other.
Then we timed how long it took us to get through all three: not even five minutes. When there are no interludes, instrumental solos, or bridges, songs go by really fast. “I guess we need more than three songs, then.”
Jessica nudged me. “You know what would blow them away? Let’s do, like, an abridged version of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ for the finale.”
Okay, that was a crazy idea, but you know, when I have a crush on a girl I’m not good at saying no. Plus like I was saying before, Handel had it going on. Well, so much for my idea about not doing any songs about Jesus. “Okay, but how, though?”
“Here.” She dug in her book bag where she had the lyric sheets printed out as purple dittos. (If you don’t know what dittos are, uh, it’s kind of like she had clay tablets carved in cuneiform, okay?) There were ones for each part: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone. She had clearly prepared for this possibility.
I’d never seen the words printed out on a single sheet like that before–the orchestra sheet music had it all mixed with the staff so it was spread out. Wow, the word “hallelujah” appeared a lot of times.
“It’s four minutes total. The whole first minute is in unison,” she said, “and we can leave out all the background ‘and he shall reigns’ if it’s too complicated. Plus I can just do this part here as a soprano solo.”
Aha. I began to understand her motive. “Yes, you can,” I agreed immediately. “And you’re right, the parents will go nuts for this.”
She nodded knowingly. Ah, show biz.
It took about an hour for us to get some semblance of the parts together, but she took over telling each kid which part they were going to do and marking up their ditto sheet with relevant notes, and then it became her working with the two girls and the boy Holden, whose voice hadn’t changed yet, and me and Charlie figuring out the lower parts. With no sheet music to use on this one, we had to rely on our memories of how the parts went, and I had never sung it before, just played the bassoon part. But like I said before, the beauty of that piece is that none of the individual parts is that hard by itself.
We finally got it down to where we could get all the way through it without stopping and she was right, the whole thing came out to four minutes long.
“Um,” Charlie said, looking at his sneakers, “I have to be home for dinner by six.”
“Oh crap, is it six already?” I looked around for a clock but the only one in the music room was a grandfather clock that didn’t actually work.
Charlie coughed a little. “Um, but I kinda think we should practice a little more.” His cheeks were bright scarlet like there was something shameful about that suggestion.
“Great idea, Charlie,” Jessica said, calming him down immediately. “Sunday?”
“After church?” Charlie asked.
Jessica and I shared a quick glance. “Yeah, after church,” I said. “What time’s your church get out?”
“Uh, I’m back from Sunday school by noon and then my grandma and I have lunch.”
“Okay, two o’clock? Does two o’clock work for everybody?” I was going to have to tell Dot to tell all their parents and I hoped there wasn’t a problem with that: there wasn’t. In fact, Dot was really blown away by how responsible and adult-like I was being about the whole thing. I, of course, didn’t tell her, hey, any excuse to hang out more with Jessica Meyer.
The other kids all lived walking distance from my house so they dispersed immediately, and Jessica called her dad to come pick her up. So then we sat in the living room where we could look out the front picture window to see when he pulled up. Dot was making dinner. Dad had come in a while ago and then after changing out of his suit into a sweater had disappeared into his study with his briefcase.
“You’re cute,” Jessica said.
“Um, so are you,” I answered, figuring answering bluntness with bluntness was probably best. I guess I’ve always been pretty blunt anyway.
She smiled. Her hair was dark and long and pretty, cascading in curly waves around her face and down her sweater. “Do you want to kiss me?”
“Do you want to kiss me?” I answered.
“Maybe. You are cute.” She tapped her chin like she was thinking about it. “I kissed a boy in summer camp and it was a total disaster.”
“Like, an ended-up-in-the-emergency-room kind of disaster?” I asked.
She laughed, which had been the desired effect. “You’re funny, too. And no, more like he ended up, like, stalking me, and then prank calling my house for months when I wouldn’t talk to him anymore.”
“Um, not to pry, but…why didn’t you want to talk to him anymore?”
“Because he couldn’t kiss good enough for me to want him to do it again, duh, obviously,” she said with a laugh. Then her smile disappeared and her voice got serious. “You wanna try?”
“Sure.” When she sat perfectly still, I took it as my cue to make a move. I don’t actually remember if I put an arm around her or just leaned in or what but there it was: a kiss, lip on lip, a little trembling. I found the scent of her breath totally intoxicating.
I pulled back and she opened her eyes, her face settling into an excited kind of cool, a smile on her lips and her eyes bright.
“I take it that was good enough to want another one,” I said.
She nodded, then startled and gasped as a car honked from the driveway. “Oh shit, I hope he didn’t see that!” she said as she shot to her feet. “Bye, Bart!” She grabbed her bag and ran out the door, and I hoped the run down to the circular driveway would be enough of an explanation why her face was so flushed.
Meanwhile I sat there in a total haze of crushed-out bliss. I mean, holy crap, right? I’d invited the girl I had a crush on over to my house and she had kissed me. That was pretty much the jackpot right there, right?
Sadly, there was no chance for another kiss after rehearsal on Sunday, since her mom brought her over and Dot and she sat around drinking coffee while we were rehearsing. But we started passing each other notes in homeroom. I was kind of sorry the chorus concert was over since that meant we didn’t have rehearsals for that anymore.
Christmas Eve came up pretty quick after that, though. Everyone dressed up to go caroling, with the boys in their “Sunday best” suits, the girls in dresses, and I wore the tuxedo I’d gotten for All-State orchestra the year before. The jacket was a little small but that was okay.
Hilary had made little song books for each of us that had the words to the four songs we were doing in them. She had typed out the lyrics on her mom’s typewriter, photocopied them at the library, and then pasted them into folded construction paper tied together with the kind of ribbon you put on gifts. The boys had green construction paper and the girls had red. She had correctly predicted that at each house they were going to photograph us, and you know, carolers are supposed to be holding song books.
“Okay, Barty,” Dot said to me after taking a photo of us all arranged around the piano before we went out. “Take your mittens. Take your scarf. You’re going to be walking you know. Are you sure you don’t want your warmer coat?”
“You mean my ski jacket? The wool one’s better with the tuxedo,” I said and pulled it on.
“We’ll be getting things ready here. See you when you get back.” She brushed nonexistent lint off my coat’s shoulders and gave me a proud-parent kind of tilt-headed smile. She might have been my stepmom and sometimes I did call her the Wicked Witch of the West (because her name was Dorothy, get it?) but I think she really did think I was a cute kid.
Hilary’s dad drove us to the alderman’s house in the family minivan to start us off. As he drove we could see fat white snowflakes starting to fall in the headlights of the car.
“It’s a White Christmas!” the twins shrieked. This was apparently a very big deal to them.
Hilary’s dad drove away while we were standing on the alderman’s porch. His wife answered a minute later, inviting us in. They had the whole Christmas cliche thing going on, with the roaring fire in the fireplace, the stockings, the dog wearing fuzzy antlers and a jingle bell collar, and the alderman dressed as Santa. I kid you not.
They plied us with juice and gingerbread cookies until I finally reminded Santa that we had to get on to our next stop, though I admit I looked kind of longingly at the chocolate cake on the table that hadn’t been cut into yet. They arranged us in the picture window. The Hallelujah Chorus was a big hit, we took our bows, and then we got out of there.
It was about a quarter of a mile to the next house on our itinerary, and I have to admit it was kind of nice walking through the snowfall, especially since Jessica insisted we had to hold hands “for safety”–i.e. the twins held each other’s hand, Hilary and Charlie, and her and me, of course. Everything was quiet as the snow was starting to stick and with all the colored lights on the houses it was, well, kind of magical looking. Pretty. Like something out of a Christmas TV special. Maybe there was something to this whole White Christmas concept, I thought.
At the next stop I began to realize how wrong I was about how long it was going to take us to do each visit. It quickly became clear that we were going to be plied with cookies and hot chocolate or other goodies at each stop and it seemed impolite to refuse. I guess I really had imagined it would be more like trick or treating and hadn’t factored in the time necessary to consume and imbibe. The upshot is it took us a while to get out of there, too.
At the third house we had our first major glitch in the performance, which was the people sang along with us. Which was perfectly fine in the first three songs but turned the Hallelujah chorus into a total disaster where Charlie lost his place and burst into tears in mortification. Hilary hugged him when it was over and told everyone else very loudly, “It’s okay, it’s just that he loves Jesus so much, right Charlie?”
Charlie pretended it was so, and dried his face and we left as quickly as possible.
While walking to the next house I strategized out loud. “You think we should tell the next people don’t sing?”
“Maybe just on that one song,” Jessica said. “Let me handle it.”
So at the next house, after egg nog and red and green cupcakes, when it came time for our finale, Jessica announced to all the guests that we needed calm and quiet so that the twins wouldn’t lose their places. They both looked a little miffed at that since it wasn’t in fact them who lost their place but when you’re the youngest I guess you put up with taking the blame. It went fine.
The snow was coming down a bit heavier as we came around the corner to our next house, which was on a block where all the houses had lined their driveways with paper bags with a lit candle inside each one. I had never seen that before.
“It’s a Mexican tradition,” Hilary explained. “We learned about it in school. To light the way for the wise men to find the baby Jesus.”
“Looks like a landing strip for Santa to me,” one of the twins said wisely.
It was beautiful, even if one of the bags at the edge of the first driveway had caught fire and was burning down to a pile of black ash, rapidly being covered by snow.
That was the house where they clamored for an encore. Another thing we hadn’t planned for.
Jessica and Hilary put their heads together quickly. “First Noel? Silent Night? Oh Come All Ye Faithful?”
It was quickly agreed we could do “Silent Night.” I didn’t know the words really but I could fake my way along easily enough–the song is slow, I knew the tune, and it rhymes. Our encore was a big hit and off we went.
The snow was getting very, very heavy by the time we reached my street and the last three houses on our list. The Holdens lived across the street from Charlie and me. By the time we made it up to the Holdens’ door, the two little ones were really shivering, partly because they had refused to put their hoods up and they had been running around playing in the snow between houses. Result: they were soaked. Their mom was freaked out they might have frostbite and made them strip out of their wet clothes and into flannel pajamas before we could perform. (“I guess we’ll be a quartet at my house,” Charlie said glumly. To which Jessica answered, “And we’ll be great.“)
So we left off the twins there, made it across the street to Charlie’s house where Hilary’s family was also partying. The gig went fine there, encore and all, and Charlie’s dad slipped us each a little hot spiced wine “to keep you warm.” I assumed it was mostly fruit juice but he was right, boy, did I feel warm after drinking it.
That just left my own house to do. The four of us got back into our coats, which were all a little wet by that point. Jessica and I were ready first so we started out first, figuring Hilary and Charlie would be right behind us.
You couldn’t see my house from Charlie’s house because there was a strip of woods between. Every house around there had them like a natural privacy screen, but we played in the trees as kids all the time and there was a path. It was also way shorter to cut through the woods than to go all the way down the winding driveway to the road, down the road, and then up my parents driveway again. And I could almost hear Dot’s voice in my head warning us not to get hit by snow plows.
Why I didn’t hear her voice warning me not to go through the woods in the snow, I don’t know. Anyway, we started into the trees where I thought the path was.
It was not where the path was. I had also been thinking that in the trees the snow wouldn’t be as heavy because it would stay in the branches. But that was only true right around the evergreen trees. Most of the trees were bare deciduous trees and if anything the wind had built up some snow drifts that were getting impassably deep for two thirteen-year-olds in formal wear.
Jessica screamed in terror when the thundersnow struck and tried to run, and then fell, and cried. I knelt down next to her trying to get her to calm down, but she was too terrified to get up. “That was lightning and there are trees all around us!”
“Okay, look, you’re right, but then no tree is better than any other.”
“And I lost a shoe!”
“That’s a bigger problem.” There was no way we were finding it in the snow drift she’d floundered through. “Come here. Come on.”
I made her move until we were in the almost tent-like space I knew was under a big pine tree, and I unzipped my coat and put it around both of us and made her put her bare foot into my lap and under my shirt so she could warm them up on my belly. I was actually warm from exertion but it was obvious she was freezing.
“We’re going to be one of those headlines in the newspaper,” she wailed. “Teens Die in Freak Snowstorm: Bodies Discovered Mere Yards from Rescue.”
“Like those people on Mount Everest they find right outside their tents!”
“It’s like we’re in a Jack London story!”
“Okay first of all, we’re not going to die,” I said. “We’re not in Alaska. You’re right. We’re really close to my house. I’m betting the snow is so heavy right now because it’s exactly like when there’s lightning and it rains. It’s a downpour, and then it’ll lighten up.”
“But my feet will freeze off,” she insisted.
“No, they won’t. We’ll get good and warm in here and then we’ll make a break for it and we won’t be out there that long.” I rubbed her feet with my hands, which were also warm. “And we’re going to put my mittens on your feet.”
My mittens were knitted and thick and basically fit onto her feet like big socks. I put my scarf around her, too. Then I checked how the snow was doing out there.
It had lightened up. “We better make a break for it now while it’s not that thick,” I said. I pointed. “Look. See those red and white lights? Those are the Christmas lights my mother paid the landscaper to put on the roof!” Way to go, Dot! I was thinking.
“It looks far…” Jessica said.
“I promise we’ll make it.” I held her hand and we each kept our other hand in our coat pockets and I led her out of the woods onto our lawn, where she floundered again because even with the mittens her legs were so damn cold under that flimsy fancy dress.
So I picked her up and carried her. I wasn’t a very big kid really, but neither was she, and I guess all those stories about damsels in distress you swallow as a child prepare you for a moment like that, they fill you up with this belief it’s your destiny to do it. “Okay, Cinderella,” I said. “Hang on.”
And I carried her up to the front door and rang the bell.
Oh you should’ve seen the hooplah that ensued when Dot answered the door. Everyone in the house had been freaking out because when the thundersnow had hit, Hilary and Charlie had run back into Charlie’s house, and they’d called over here to say they weren’t coming. The parents expected us to walk in the door any second then, but then when we hadn’t shown up yet, they had called back to Charlie’s… but we weren’t there either, and on and on, and in fact I heard my father on the phone say, “Never mind, Officer, they just turned up. Yes, I expect you’re right, they just got turned around when the visibility was bad.”
Anyway, there was what I can un-ironically call rejoicing going on around us making it there safe, and Jessica managed to not have actual frostbite once she’d thawed out in front of the fire, and Dot lent her a pair of my sweatpants and we sat there at the hearth drinking all the hot cocoa we could stand while my father’s country club cronies and Dot’s neighborhood association friends stood around talking about times they’d been snowed in while skiing or almost been within ten miles of an avalanche and that kind of thing.
Jessica’s dad called to say he’d come pick her up as soon as the plows went by and he could get out of his garage, so probably about an hour. When everyone finally lost interest in us, Jessica took me by the hand and said “show me your room.”
Up in my room she showed her appreciation for my rescuing prowess by insisting I kiss her boobs. And her mouth. We made out for a half hour at least. Fortunately I already had an excuse for having chapped lips the next morning.
Jessica Meyer then gave me my first hand job. First time I came in the presence of another human being, in fact, first time I felt that rush of lust being fulfilled and it felt like a miracle. Hallelujah.
That could be the end of the story right there, except there’s one more thing that happened the next day. The sun was out that morning and all the new-fallen snow looked brilliant outside. It was beautiful now that I didn’t have to trudge through it. Dot made a late breakfast of Eggo waffles and bacon once we were all up, and Dad and I sat there at the kitchen table doing the Times crossword puzzles that had piled up during the week.
Dot called from the living room. “Barty. Looks like Santa left you something by the fireplace.”
“What?” I looked at Dad, who looked clueless, possibly slightly concerned. We went into the living room.
There was a large, very flat box, almost the same width as the fireplace sitting there. It was wrapped in green and red paper and had a large red bow tied around it.
“When did ahem ‘Santa’ decide to stop at our house?” Dad asked Dot, sounding slightly annoyed.
“When Barty got himself on the ‘nice’ list by doing such a great job rehearsing the carolers. Trudy Meyer said her daughter never stopped talking about how wonderful he was.” Dot shooed me toward the box. “Go on. Open it.”
Should I make you guess what was in it? It should be obvious. I think. Okay, maybe not, but if you thought when I said my prayers were answered I was only talking about Jessica, you’re wrong.
In the box was a bass guitar. A cheap one, and no amp or anything, because remember Dot still really knew pretty much nothing about music, but it was perfect. Dad really couldn’t say anything once the genie was out of the bottle, you know? He had no ability to say no to her ever. I hugged her. “Thanks, mom.”
She held my father’s hand and squeezed it as she said, “I know how important it is to get something you’ve wanted for a long time. Isn’t that right, John?”
“Yes, dear, it certainly is.”
(Oh yeah, it’s my story, I guess I get to pick some videos. First, this one from Tim Minchin pretty much sums up a lot about how I feel about Christmas, and then here’s two versions of the Hallelujah Chorus I like. Oh, and here’s an article I just found in Boston magazine that made me laugh: “I’m Proudly Jewish and I Love Christmas—Is That So Wrong?” Thanks for listening, and Merry Christmas everyone from me and Daron and ctan and the whole crew, OK? Have a great holiday whether it’s with your biological family or your chosen family. Love, Bart)