Christmastime has always been a bittersweet occasion for me. Although my childhood was blessed with holidays that involved a multitude of relatives that included grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, it was at times quite lonely for I had no siblings close to me in age. However, because my father and his brothers and sisters chose to buy homes near one another, there was always a fresh supply of cousins to go around, which came in handy especially when some of us were not quite getting along. Those times, however, did not last very long. And for the most part, as I look back, we as cousins had an unique and an ideal arrangement. Although the camaraderie that existed between my father, his brothers, and brothers-in-law was apparent throughout the year, holidays fortified it. I remember with great joy, one such Christmastime.
During the fifties, weekends were never for sitting in front of the television and watching a good football game or any other seemingly frivolous activity as they are today, but instead were for projects. Whether the tasks were cleaning the gutters, painting the house, pruning the trees, or going shopping, it was known that adults were busy and television was off limits until after suppertime for everyone. We children also had chores to do with the reward being that after a job well done, we were allowed to play. And if there is nothing else that I remember about my childhood, it is that we did indeed play. Playing was not only good for us but excellent therapy for the adults as well. In fact playing was mandatory. It was also very hard work because not only were we expected to play but we had to play nicely. This last part was probably the major reason why our battles didn’t last long. It was much easier to make up with one another than to have the “Didn’t we tell you to play nicely” stated with the resulting consequences that ran the gamut from having to shovel mounds of snow to “no movies tomorrow.” We learned from the start that parents did not side with children, especially when those in question were related to one another. The balance of power within the family structure had to remain stable, which meant that we had to solve most of our problems without parental intervention.
Wintery New England weekends brought with them cold, ice, and snow, which provided us with activities such as sledding down our road, skating in our backyards, or skiing through our woods from early morning until the siren at the Geneva fire station went off at seven o’clock. Although we did stop occasionally for a quick lunch and dry clothes, for the most part, we were outside.
This particular Saturday was no exception. We children were busy with sliding down the road that was cordoned off when somewhere through the hustle and bustle of our playing, I became aware of my father’s and my uncle’s comings and goings. I remember the two men chatting as they hauled cardboard tubes, heavy gauge wire, and wooden blocks back and forth from one house to the other. As they worked, they talked. It seemed as if they were always conversing and always had something of great importance to say to one another. Neither one of them or any of my father’s other siblings (nine in all) were boisterous but always spoke with one another in a quiet and matter- of- fact way (it was a comfortableness and a closeness that I have yet to observe in others).
With my frozen stocking cap shoved down across my young eyes, I watched as my father, with the ever-present Camel cigarette stuck in his mouth, made up large amounts of white creamy stuff. I saw red paint and large bulbs that looked like huge flames pass from one man to the other. I heard the sound of saws and the pounding of nails and smelled the dizzying odor of lacquer. The two brothers looked like Santa’s elves as they sawed, painted, wired and nailed. I remember the wonderment that crept upon me as I observed the bits and pieces come together and the white fluffy substance being placed upon the red tubes. Slowly, as we played out the day, the miracle of illusion came to life as the darkness of the cold December night began to wrap itself around us.
While we were busy being children, ivory plastic candles with bright orange bulbs found their way to the window sills of our homes. Large, multi-colored lights quietly appeared on the shrubbery, trees, and bushes. Red bows, large, green door wreaths and garland adorned the houses as if by magic. I remember feeling the delight of seeing the night transformed into an icy festival of brilliance.
As we dragged the sleds and ourselves up the hill towards our homes, the business of the day that my father and uncle were engaged in was apparent. Two extraordinary large red candles with gobs of white paraffin-like substance graced each side of the black wrought iron rails that led to my home. The large flame bulbs glowed with a halo of golden yellow that lit up the whole front yard. As I looked towards my cousins’ home, they too had red candles that were set in a series of large to small that also had bright flames aglow. Although the two sets of candles were quite different from one another, the cohesiveness of the men who built them was evident. Since that Christmastime, there has never been nor could there ever be candles that had wrapped up in them the security, warmth, or complexity of a time and of a family. For me, those wondrous, illusory lamps have since then and will forever represent the embodiment of a love that flowed from one generation to another. On that extraordinary night, two brothers were able to capture the current from the heavens for the lighting of a memory.