The Other Side of Christmas ’06

image copyright Fred First

Too fast. They’ve come and gone, and 95% of the things I thought we’d do and talk about didn’t happen. But 5% did, and I’m thankful to have had the time together, gathered as we were from too-far-flung homes. Maybe it’s going to be that way for the long haul. Maybe some day they’ll live closer. It was a merry Christmas, and I’m just now rounding up my little pile of booty from our Tuesday night unwrapping. Let’s see…

IN the way of reading matter, what does this say about moi:

First, sitting on my desk is America (the Book) / Teachers Edition: a Citizens Guide to Democracy Inaction–by Jon Stuart (with foreword by Thomas Jefferson.) Lacking TV, the Daily Show is our source of news via the web, in three minute snippets, usually a week old. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot. Ooow! I just discovered it has a centerfold!

And 2) Uncle John’s Tremendous Bathroom Reader–the latest in a long line of annual Procelain Library editions from the wife-side kin, and to date, read cover to cover in just about exactly a year–in said library. The first year they gifted me in this way, Ann recoiled as I unwrapped it, shocked that her sister would give a gift of 350 pages of bathroom humor. Which these books are not. But I’m a little concerned if this weighty tome is predictive of my plumbing needs for the year ahead: this volume is 750 pages long! (Eat more prunes.)

And in wearing attire, of course I got my traditional underwear: a pack of wife-beaters. From the wife. And from the daughter, who apparently reads Fragments from time to time, a t-shirt with an inscription she gleaned from the blog. I promise a picture soon with me wearing it, and also holding the wooden placard (along the same subject line) that I will put above my desk.

Deeper into the little stash, another tradition: my bottle of Gentleman Jack (Daniels) that will predictably last me until next Thanksgiving, mostly due to the fact that we can never remember to buy COKE (which I otherwise don’t drink) and my failing to develope a taste for Dr. Pepper as a mixer.

Oh, you’ll be happy to know (those of you who knew and loved (or loathed) it when I posted a blog post about it the week after Christmas that each segment of the family–including us–received a framed 5 x 7 copy of my photograph of the Peach Butt–a fun family memory. Now what other family can claim to have given images of fruit cleavage for Christmas, huh?

The Ghost of Parties Past

Yes, the Goose Creek Christmas Gathering was going to be a big deal. But how big, and how to deal with the enormity of the event looked very different through eyes from Venus versus those from Mars. If men ruled the world of social events (and they don’t) these occasions would be much more come-as-we-are affairs. Preparation would start, oh, a day or two beforehand, not a month. It would be a disaster.

And yet, every year, the disparate approaches to such self-inflicted and pleasant tasks as planning a big gathering at the house brings out those differences between host and hostess. I started thinking about just what those different world views looked like, but didn’t make it very far. Even so (to be amended over time and as a basis for negotiating future Grand Gatherings) here’s the list so far. Maybe you have a similar dichotomy at your house and have lived through to The Other Side–which, I am both happy and a bit sad to report, is where we are this morning. The morning after.

And looking back, heck, I hate to admit, she was probably right all along.

Social Planning from Venus:

  • Everything is urgent
  • Everything that can be done should be done (this one, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers)
  • If 5 is enough, we can’t do less than 8 (relative units of effort or substance applicable just about anything imaginable)
  • Our purpose is to offer all these people a good time; we, as host and hostess, were not meant to share in it
  • Assume responsibility for everything
  • Any omissions or shortcomings represent self-esteem demerits; demerits are conferred only by the female members of couples visiting.
  • Corollary to above: All other women in attendance have much higher standards than we do, and would be appalled to learn we sometimes live with ladybugs, dog hair, cob webs or dust bunnies.
  • Corollary to above: of all husbands, darn the luck, yours is the slobbiest
  • Everybody coming to our house will be dangerously malnourished and there probably won’t be enough food, no matter how many casseroles, stuffed pizzas or deserts are provided by the hostess

Social Planning from Mars:

  • Everything on the to-do list for a time may be important; very little will ever be urgent
  • Things omitted will probably only be noticed by us
  • Nobody is keeping score
  • Things omitted or errors made make the wife no less a good hostess than if every last detail was remembered. And they were probably due to forgetfulness or indifference on the part of the husband, after all.
  • Delegate to others; they are happy to help
  • We are host and hostess, not staff. These are our friends, not our employers. Enjoy!
  • Corollary to the above: the party succeeds to the degree to which we take an opportunity to listen to each of our guests and make them feel welcome, not fill their plates and cups
  • I doubt anybody is going to open up the closets in our bedroom. Rearranging one’s clothes by color to pass inspection is overkill.

The dog is slurping around behind me now, patrolling the carpets for invisble spots of crab dip (that will become visible after the sun comes up.)

We discovered just a few minutes ago that nobody found the cooler with the beer. (Oh well. I’ll have to deal with that one one elbow-flexion at a time over the next month. Help me, anyone?)

I’m learning people were here that I never even saw.

Ann is looking for a place to store the new punch bowl she purchased for the occasion; it’s big enough for a family of cats. What was she thinking!

Upstairs in the Red Room, the kids last night tied the helium balloons onto the Fisher Price Farm family, and thus tethered, they sway in the dark in the rising heat of the woodstove.

If you take the sum total of good times, new friendships, pleasant conversations and feelings of conviviality on one side of the scales, and the total effort, angst and preparation (and inter-planetary wrangling about the details) on the other, I don’t think there’s any question which way the balance would tip. Even so, I think maybe, if we do this again next year, she and I might want to do less and mingle more. But then, I’m only an elf.

Buffalo in the Back Yard

image copyright Fred First

Another image picked up on the way home from the winery last weekend–and the first using the combination of (new) tripod, 80-200 telephoto lens (and new tripod mounting collar for same) and the 2x teleconverter.

The silhouetted shape behind the house takes the reposing form of a buffalo, hence its name, Buffalo Mountain.

Were there buffalo in these parts in the days before the western migration of the white man? Does anybody have any info or stories about that? I’d like to know.

A Separate Reality: High School Reunions

It was too long a trip from Floyd to Mobile to be comfortable with her going alone, though for me, everyone there would be a stranger. Maybe I shouldn’t go at all. It was her home town where we were headed for Thanksgiving weekend, her friends gathered there, their memories to be celebrated. I was just along to see that she got back safely to a time and place beyond the realm of our long relationship. And home again.

I knew it would not rest easy with me to stand outside the windows of her life, looking in on an era I did not share with her, a time when she was becoming who she would be when we met at Auburn our sophomore year and fell into something like love at twenty.

She spoke fondly and often over this past summer and fall of people who had been her friends, found all across the country, now friends again, brought together by email and conference calls. Their histories had become forever intertwined by the accidental thread of shared classrooms and stadium bleachers so long ago, and she would soon see them again after all these years.

It meant nothing to me except that it meant so much to her, and I would go and support her as best I could. Besides, I had to admit–I was curious to see what it would be like to be with a hundred or more people who were my age, who had lived through my times. There would at least be that sixties connection between us, and maybe something from that to say to them.

It didn’t make matters any easier that Ann was one a few who had initiated, organized and would be in charge of events over Friday and Saturday. For months, she had referred to the desktop computer’s email as her email and I was banished to the laptop in the next room. For months, I went to sleep at the usual time while she stayed up clicking the keys furiously, helping coordinate the music that the DJ would play, the name badges with pictures, the tour of the high school on Saturday afternoon.

For six months before the reunion, her present was immersed in the past, submerged in tiny black and white yearbook images of hairstyles from the a lost time, symbols that spoke through rose-colored memory of simpler, more hopeful, mostly-happy days of youth growing up in the Deep South.

Friday’s Meet and Greet under the vaulted atrium of the hotel lobby was an informal gathering. I consented to go down briefly to be introduced to a few of her most cherished friends. It wasn’t long before I found myself standing among the Ficus trees along the margins. I swirled the ice in my cup, conspicuously disengaged as gray-haired folk passed by for a quick look at my nametag. Was I another of their classmates grown unrecognizable over the decades?

Cameras flashed. Hands were shaken and held. Hugs lingered, but the crowd milled about as if they had all just woken from a long, long sleep, only to find themselves surrounded by half-familiar faces.

When we’ve known someone for decades, somehow we never let go seeing them the way they were back then. And for her eyes, this crowd of late fifty-somethings were still the people of their pictures in the yearbook. Their high school faces and youthful, pre-adult personalities were that night who they had been to her then.

But I could not see through to the young people at their core. For me the encounter was unsetting–to be standing in the midst of so many iterations of just how old my body really is, even while the boy in me lived on, looking out through my eyes at these old strangers.

Soon, I slipped away to our room upstairs; she didn’t even notice. I stood there in the dark quiet and watched the crowd -and my wife of thirty-six years, one of a hundred strangers mingling in the lobby four floors below. Hugs, back slaps, handshakes-like so many ants touching antennae and moving on. We’ve come so far together to be so far apart for these two days, I thought. But such is the stuff of high school reunions, of separate realities that have made us who we are, for better or for worse.

And through all this, we’ve gone back in our conversations to the pre-history of our relationship, and have had our own private reunion over Thanksgiving. We’ve found a common ground of understanding. In spite of the fact that we lived separate stories the first two decades of our lives and yes, that has made us see the world forever through different eyes, she and I can keep growing together, keep falling into something like love until we get it right.

We’ve hung wall paper together and we are still married. Now, we’ve survived her high school reunion. I think maybe we’re going to make it, after all.

Who Will Watch The Home Place

image copyright Fred First

I used this image on our Christmas Gathering invitations this year (and last, and the one before that, I think) because first of all, it is a winter scene. But then in any season, it speaks to me of refuge, of serenity, of the blessed silence and solitude of our homeplace we enjoy sharing with friends this time of year.

I pulled the image up on the screen yesterday morning and looked at it for a long while, a December meditation. Just then, from the kitchen radio, the words from Who Will Watch the Homeplace seemed aimed for the gut, and hit their mark.

Now I wander around touching each blessed thing
The chimney the tables the trees
And my memories swirl ’round me like birds on the wing
When I leave here oh who will I be

Who will watch the home place
Who will tend my hearts dear space
Who will fill my empty place
When I am gone from here