Harry Youtt is a frequently published poet and writer of short fiction, twice nominated for Pushcart prizes. He is the author of several poetry collections and chapbooks. He is also a long-time instructor in the UCLA Ext. Writers’ Program, where he teaches courses and workshops in fiction writing, poetry and memoir.
A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN MIDWEST OHIO
This is just the way it was, and in my deep heart, this is the way it always will be Christmas in that twinkling Harbor Town at the south edge of the icy Erie Lake, that by December was always just about to be freezing solid. And the Lake seemed already angry the winter hadn’t enough descended yet to cast aside any gestures at festivity, ice chunks hissing together and rolling in gray water surge. But the town would never freeze, even when the lake fought hard and the winds tried to blow all the candles out.
It would snow sometimes, oh yes, it would sometimes be snowing through December as colored lights were strung along perimeters of houses, and plywood silhouettes of sleighs were trundled out to front lawns and spotlighted for passers by to see.
The stores would start setting out their signs: “Open til 9 every nite before Xmas.” And Broadway would deck across itself with swaying Christmas bell-shaped lights, three red ones in a row, string after string as the avenue curved south, with each bell of a string lighting in sequence, first the left angled one, then the center, then the right, as if lights could reveal a semblance of tolling. Children, first ones to be delighted by the season, would snuggle into back seats of family cars and count the number of times they could see the bells of a string light up, all across, before they passed by beneath it.
To the sounds of crunching snow beneath trudging booted shopper-feet wending down a semi-shoveled Broadway after dark, add the jingling hand bells, wrung constant over tripod-ed pots with mesh covers and holes big enough for quarters and half dollars and bills folded lengthwise for the poor. And courtesy of some enterprising merchant or other, you could hear scratchy phonographed Christmas music piped outside and onto the street.
Sometimes you could even listen to a rag-tag Salvation Army band, gathered at the corner of 6th Street or mid-block in front of the Kresge Dime Store, coronet and baritone horn and maybe even a dented tuba, burnished silver, in the hands of its earnest overcoated owner, playing Gloria in Excelces Deo along with everybody else, and they somehow managed to end up at the final Deo together, with every once in a while the booming sound of a ‘Ho-ho-ho’ from a wandering Santa down the street, bending to bestow cellophane covered candy canes upon children -- who were dazzled by the honor of it all.
At the J.C. Penney Store, parents would make their purchases of “sensible” gifts that children would be least excited to open: balled socks and plaid shirts, belts and sometimes a billfold, mittens, knitted caps, and dungarees lined with flannel, while above the Penney fray, money, placed into brass canisters would zing and catapult on rope chords that were strung across the ceiling up to a single sensible cashier who’d make change and catapult it back down the line, while the sensible gifts were wrapped in tissue and boxed by sensible clerks – anxious for the season to be over.
Every family would choose a night in the time before The Big Day, for a slow drive, street-by-street around the neighborhoods, to gaze at the light displays: spotlighted sleighs on rooftops, with cut-out reindeer and Rudolfs blinking obligatory red noses. Sprays of lights that fastened to the sides of houses or highlighted their edges and made the night seem almost bright as day, multicolored of course but hundreds and hundreds of bulbs that splashed light upon snow and even up at the stars.
Only the moon could reign against such light on nights when the storms were down. And in the windows of a single house in which an aging lady lived alone – candles shone, real candles, one to a window upstairs and downstairs, flickering in that unmistakable way that only flamed-candles can flicker. A few people would stop to linger at the Candle House, and silence would hold them there and link them to other silent seekers.
On one snow crunching evening during those days that came before the Holy Moment, over at the high school, green-robed choristers with silver-satin sashes flapping, would step forward, one by one, singing 'Come all ye Faithful' down rickety aisles and up onto the auditorium stage. Each of them as they marched would be holding a single electrified white candlestick, turned on by twisting the flame-bulb just before the procession began. And festive friends and family would be scrunched into seats and smiling, so that ever after, everyone who sang those words, in their minds would see those wobble-marching candles and wonder at the brightness of winter memory.
Caroling then, on Christmas Eve, up and down the neighborhood streets. Clustered families, everybody woolen-coated and mufflered, snow suited and knit capped, and semi-circling houses of unsuspecting shut-ins to give them a choral show the likes of which they hadn’t seen since last year. Of course there would be cookies, from tins, and occasional egg-nog for grown-ups.
Later, lights of the midnight-services churches would warm the dark wooden panels of walls, making them different places than the morning churches everyone had gotten used to. Candles everywhere and doing real work the way candles once did long ago, and the rosy-gleaming faces of the hymn-singers, and smiles back and forth in the spirit of things,‘Hark the herald,’ ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Sing choirs of angels,’ the organ booming and the hung ropes of evergreen seeming to sway in the music of it all.
One of the elder men, wearing a plaid vest and a red bow tie would read from the scripture-pulpit, in a booming voice nobody ever knew that he had:“Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy.” In the balcony a trio of trumpeters – suddenly sounding forth and startling everybody into ecstasy. Afterwards, crunching through cold snow, people would be laughing and shouting Merry Christmas to each other, as if anyone ever needed to be reminded.
Christmas Day would dawn crisp, and with sunshine, sometimes, but probably only gray, except, this day it wouldn’t be bleak, and there’d be a clear snap to the cold, with snow that fell two days ago having stayed miraculously white. Green leaves of holly circled into a thick-prickly wreath that hung on the front door. And the sun coming out surprised itself – shining down on everything and glistening the clanging steeple bells in the churches all over the town.
Inevitably there would be sleds on Christmas morning, a new one for a younger sibling of course because the oldest kid would have been handed down the weathered one, wood-darkened by long years in garages and always just a little bit sturdier, taken down from its spike and hauled out whenever the snow fell. But the new one would be leaning against the Christmas tree wall and wrapped round with a wide red shiny ribbon and bow.
After the toys had been wrestled from wrappings, and the wrappings crumpled and wadded, then stuffed into paper bags, the dinner was put on to roast in slow ovens.
It was then that the streets would fill with steamy-breath kids in their brand new knitted sensible mittens, red, and green, the wool still stiff. The side streets were always plowed after snowfall, not salted, and the snow surface packed hard for running in rubber boots and belly-flopping down onto sled-runners sliding in rills the car tires made. And the old sleds and the new sibling-sleds with steel runners hissing would all of them be there, and ropes pulled by parents or by big kids would whisk the littlest children along as they held tight, reveling in the glory of being included at last.
In the later afternoon, back inside the steamy-windowed houses, everybody ruddy-faced and sitting at the table trimmed in red, with holly-circled candlesticks, and for everyone a square of green jello set upon a single leaf of iceberg lettuce. Sliced turkey breast, drumsticks and wings, oyster dressing and a China bowl heaped with mashed potatoes, everybody festive, and kids bouncing in their chairs and then scrambling off before pumpkin pie, to run electric trains in circles around the Christmas tree. Grandfathers would follow soon, and creaking their knees down to train level, they’d be giving engineer advice to get the tracks laid and the trains running.
As the sun disappeared from the low sky, and the windows darkened on the day, fires would crackle in marble-faced fireplaces, gently roasting teenagers who drowsed on carpets.
And at the very end of the day, sitting at the window end of beds, gazing out over snow lawns and up to the sky, finally remembering to search for that single star that started it all, wishing it might have returned to give everybody the new hope they might need to get them through another year. For a moment, someone would be certain that star had been found, bright and crystal clear. Yes! Right there!
Then beginning slowly to blur, as eyes would fall shut. And under heavy woolen blankets, Christmas memories would begin to dwindle down into dreams.
© Harry Youtt