Dec. 12, 1980
It might be the gray sky laden heavy with the promise of snow that puts old Ben in the Christmas mood.
He has no use, he says, for the silly stuff he sees sprawled across some of the houses along
His gaze studies the ducks on the nearby shore, whose swish their wet butts as they stagger from water to the muddy bank, as silly as circus clowns, he says, and they are silly – even if what they do is not.
They plop in and out of the water in pursuit of a fading livelihood we can’t see until they gobble one of the silver slivers.
Most of the trees are close to bar so the sky above seems cracked, shattered into a thousand crazy pieces like shards of ice.
Ben’s memory of Christmas is different from the one we celebrate, less full of “useless stuff” he sees while walking along the road, stuff sticking out the back of cars on their way home from the malls. His Christmas is full of little things. The river, he recalls, had many more trees along it, when as a boy, his father brought the family down to find a small pine tree they could bring home each year – not the oversized ones people kill in order to stick them up in their living room for a few weeks, but a seedling they could put in a corner so they could sit around it on Christmas Eve.
But Ben says he knew times were changing that one year when he went out and could not find one right away. Ben’s younger brother, Jim, was just old enough then to take the long walk around the river, but complained the whole time about the cold.
Ben’s dad, a wiry man, had grown ill over the previous year and Ben’s mother did not want him to make the trip. But the man insisted and went anyway.
Ben says he knew the older man would die soon. So did the man, and would not deviate from the ritual hew knew might well be his last.
Ben remember them leaving a train of footprints in the snow, and how smooth the frozen surface of the river looked, and how the sky looked then just as it looks today, and how hard he prayed for them to find a tree – and they did, the old man letting the boys cut it down and carry it home.
Ben remembers, too, the relieved look on his mother’s face when they three of them got home safe – and how she, Jim, Ben and little sister, Susan and the old man decorated the tree with a few strands of glittering tinsel and a few small white candles, and how for the last time, he shared Christmas with his father, who passed away the following spring.