Lights on a Ground of Darkness. It was first published in 2005; my copy is the paperback edition published in 2009. It’s a memoir of a moment in his childhood when he was 10, and not a momentous or historical moment but an everyday moment – he and his sister swinging in a tree limb from a picnic table, and they’re waiting for his mother’s relatives to come over for the regular Sunday afternoon game of pinochle.I’ve been reading a short prose work by former poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Ted Kooser, entitled
And he uses that moment to evoke stories about his mother’s family. It’s beautifully written.
What it put me in mind of was my own family. I grew up in New Orleans, where my mother was born and raised and where virtually her entire family lived. We were kind of the oddballs in the family. We lived in a suburb, not the city itself; my father was from Shreveport, not New Orleans, and so he had a slight Southern accent instead of the New Orleans (think Brooklyn) accent. In my immediate family, my older brother and younger brother both had, to greater or lesser degrees, the New Orleans accent. I had – something else. Everyone I knew thought I was from the Midwest; most people guessed Ohio.
We lived in a suburb, but we had one thing no one else in my mother’s family had – a large family room. My parent had turned what had been the breezeway and carport of our house into an enclosed porch. From there, the porch was further enclosed to become the family room. It could fit two long tables, which was exactly what was needed for large family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I don’t remember how many years my parents played holiday hosts, but it was quite a few. Starting about noon, my various aunts would descend upon us with my uncles and cousins, someone remembering to bring along my grandmother, and the house would be filled with people, noise and laughter. Kisses would rain down on top the children. Someone would bring a bottle or two of something, and one uncle always managed to find my father’s stash of alcohol, requiring naps both before and after dinner. Much to-do would be made over the turkey (for both holiday meals) and my father’s oyster dressing. Much to-do would also be made over the fact that there was one family member who steadfastly refused to eat my father’s dressing. Me.
My cousins and I would disappear outside, usually to play and, as we got older, to explore the woods across the street from my house.
At Christmas, our tree would be set up in the living room. We were very much a family of the 1950s and 1960s. To complement the Danish Modern furniture was a silver aluminum tree, shining in all its artificial glory, spotlighted by a rotating colored acetate film that alternated red, blue, green and yellow. Yes, it was quite, uh, artificial. We had real trees when I was younger, but artificial trees had become the standard of a modern Christmas.
There had been a mutual agreement among my mother and her sisters to limit the presents. Instead, there was food. Everyone brought something – desserts, candy, appetizers, bottles of stuff the kids weren’t allowed to sample (one of my uncles again). My mother left most of the dinner to my father; she would make pies, usually three pecan pies and one mince meat pie. Only one person ate the mince meat pie. Me.
Dinner was served between three and four. Plates of everything were passed up and down the tables. The adult’s table (yes, there was also a children’s table) had one thing ours didn’t – bottles of Mogen David concord wine. It was always Mogen David. No one thought it awry to serve a wine with a Star of David on it at Christmas.
I don’t remember family dramas or issues or arguments during these family gatherings. But what I do remember is all of the family, my mother’s family, in one place.
Most of the adults are now gone; my mother and two of her sisters still remember those holiday meals. All of the uncles are long passed away; my father, maker of the great oyster dressing never since equaled (I wouldn’t know but others tell me it’s true), has been gone 23 years. Most of the children are now grandparents.
But I can still hear the laughter and the veritable cacophony of New Orleans accents; I can still hear my aunt catching my uncle with a bottle of something before dinner; I can’t walk into my old room at home without remembering finding several relatives sleeping off dinner with a nap on my bed. The artificial aluminum tree with its changing colors is long gone.
Is it possible to miss an aluminum tree?
Over at Faith Barista, Bonnie Gray is hosting a blog carnival on faith. This week, the subject is the simplicity of Christmas, ways to celebrate simply or inspiring moments associated with the season, For more posts, please visit her site.
Photograph: Illuminated Christmas Tree by Pete Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.