LET EVERY BELL RING
by Larkin Vonalt
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Last Christmas was the very worst one ever. I couldn’t quite figure it out. There had been Christmases past that were poorer, lonelier, more bizarre. There was the year I knocked over a 100-year-old Chinese man with my mother’s cast-off Chevy Citation. (He lived.) Or that first Christmas in Montana when I only knew six people and none of them invited me over. Though I had no decorations, I picked up a bedraggled fir tree from an abandoned lot on Christmas eve (the sign said free) and set it up in a bucket of water in my apartment, festooning it with snowflakes cut from typing paper. Or that Christmas six years ago, when my father slipped away from us, unmooring me in ways I could not even fathom.
But since then there have been holidays full of joy, surprise, and adventure. I’d reclaimed the holiday I love best. I only had to look back through the photographs of grinning children, exquisite lights, Christmas cupcakes to remember.
But not last year. I went through the motions. My mother came to visit. I made cookies for friends and neighbors. We had a lovely tree and nice presents and the whole time I just felt dead inside. I did not keep Christmas in my heart. Hell, I couldn’t find it with both hands. I was as cold inside as icy rain. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t snap out of it. No matter what I did to kindle it, there was simply no joy. When the season blessedly shuddered to a stop, it was with relief that I packed away each ornament, every strand of lights, the singing reindeer. I couldn’t wait to be done.
This autumn they seemed to be cranking up Christmas even sooner. I understand that with the economy teetering that merchants must wring every penny they can out of holiday shoppers. I understand that for many this is what keeps their doors open the rest of the year. But still, I resented Christmas rushing in before Halloween pumpkins had even been carved, let alone extinguished. The sight of people skipping autumn for glitter and tinsel foretold that grim drumbeat. I muttered and grumbled about the commercialization of the holiday until the middle of November, when I turned up the Christmas music on the radio and gave in.
I am determined to make this Christmas different. I can’t survive another one like last year.
I’ve started really looking at decorations, not just seeing them. Santa perched atop a Columbus, OH candy factory, a life-size nativity scene, or a crazy mess of mismatched twinkling lights and plastic reindeer that still manage to look beautiful glowing in the night. I’m humming along to every schmaltzy Christmas song on the radio. (Except for “Home for the Holidays,” I still can’t stand that one. I said to my son the other night that Frank Sinatra must have stopped mid-phrase during recording and said “What is this slop?”) If I’m alone in the car, I’ll actually sing. I took a donation to the soup kitchen around the corner, along with three bags of children’s books, because they said they needed them. Though I have a dozen rolls of wrapping paper left from previous years, I bought some new rolls, and threw the old wrinkled stuff away.
There’s been a particular kind of pleasure in finding gifts. Not extravagant gifts perhaps, or even particularly expensive ones, but the sort of thing that one might open on Christmas morning feeling surprise and delight. (And if one doesn’t, one should keep it to one’s self. And no, I’m not going to tell one where I got it so one can return it for cash.) When we were first married I was so taken with having a ready-made family of a husband and his two young daughters that I produced literally a small mountain of gifts for them. If they weren’t overwhelmed by the sheer number of presents, which took days to open, they were certainly stifled by my insistence that everyone take turns to open their gifts. That was a tradition in my childhood, but I think I must have terrified the girls, who had only previously known the rip-and-shred model.
They didn’t get what they wanted either. The daughter (with the word processor she’d asked for) eyed with naked envy her sister’s American Girl doll. The worst flop though was Jingle, the Welsh pony mare that I bought for my younger stepdaughter, who was horse-crazy. Except that somehow I’d failed to notice that the horses she was crazy for were the ones in her story books and lining her shelves. She didn’t really want a real pony– that was probably my leftover Christmas fantasy– and the cocktail of her dismay and my disappointment made for a grim time.
My husband is a wonderful man in many ways, but gift-giving is not one of them. The first year we were married he went to Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve and bought a huge stack of well, stuff. A copy of National Enquirer, a polyester nightgown four sizes too big, a colander, a VHS movie we’d already bought a few weeks before. Last year, when pressed, he came up with one thing, a grape-colored cotton turtleneck. I’ve tried a general list of things he might choose from. I’ve tried a specific list of the very thing I wanted and that didn’t work either. After nearly two decades, I’ve given up. He is a generous man at heart and I can help him choose. Surprise is highly overrated anyway.
I know some people get really hung up on what they get from their spouse, which may explain why Lexus has the audacity to suggest that you might not screw it up if you give your wife a $40,000 car. My old friend Kate spent every Christmas and birthday in tears because her husband Jeff had screwed it up again. Though I never said it, I often wished she’d just cut him a break. If the only way you can validate your marriage is by the measure of what swell gifts you’ve been given, that’s a little pathetic. I did once love a man who gave quite magical gifts. The only problem is that he was a total narcissistic ass. Once I told him that I thought it would be wonderful to have the last words of James Joyce’s Ulysses (“Yes, I said. Yes, I will. Yes.”) engraved on the inside of a wedding ring. That Christmas he gave me that very sentiment embroidered on a . . . wait for it . . . bath towel.
Which reminds me of the Christmas that my mother really wanted a guitar and my father gave her a recorder. My father got better at Christmas, even though for most of my life “Christmas with my father” was represented by an enormous cardboard carton of gifts that arrived one day in December. My parents divorced when I was 10 and my mother and I moved to England. That Christmas the carton contained the boxed set of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” and all manner of other stuff one might send across the Atlantic ocean to your only child. Over the years the box contained a transistor radio, ice skates, horse books, cashmere sweaters, a Sony Walkman, a check for a Thoroughbred mare. One year it held the wedding ring my mother had given him in 1960. I wore it on the middle finger of my left hand for fifteen years– until the day I married my husband and now he wears it.
In November of every year, my father would ask me for a list of what I wanted for Christmas. Over the years, with the addition of husband and stepchildren and our son, the lists became more elaborate, and I looked forward to making them. It wasn’t a matter of asking for something I wanted– though that was part of it. It was more like drafting a road map to Larkinland, full of clues and ciphers. It didn’t always work, because we are human, but it had its magic. My mother would interject here, a little archly, that it did not make for much magic for the rest of my actual real-life family who sat around for hours watching me unwrap the things my father sent.
Then one Christmas Dad died. I don’t know if he hung on until the 26th on purpose or if it just worked out that way. It didn’t matter. We had been with him through the 17th, and went home to Montana because Julian was supposed to be in a school play and we expected Dad to live through January. The Doctors said he would. Was there a Christmas that year? I don’t remember. I’m sure we did something for Julian and his sisters. I remember that I absolutely could not stomach the idea of killing a living tree for something as superficial as Christmas, so we put up a little tree made of tinsel. When the call came on St. Stephen’s Day that he wasn’t going to make it, I couldn’t get to Missouri in time. The one flight was leaving in 40 minutes from an airport 120 miles away, and as it happened, even if I’d been on the plane I wouldn’t have made it in time.
I didn’t get over it. Yes, there had been holidays “full of joy, surprise, and adventure.” I’d struggled for those, reaching up through a deep sea of melancholy. But my grief stained so many things I’d loved about Christmas. And there was never another cardboard carton full of oddly shaped gifts wrapped with too much tape and witty clues written in Dad’s angular hand about the mysteries within.
The thing is that his death was really the last straw. My stepfather, HCB– the man who taught me to drive, gave me my first pony, my first pair of earrings, my first Martini– had died unexpectedly far, far away seven years before. When people die halfway round the world, it never feels like they’re really dead. They just feel gone. Though he’d never given me a cardboard carton full of stuff I thought I wanted, he’d given me self-confidence, determination, the art of debate, a well-honed sense of social justice and a trial run in grief. Christmas with HCB meant a houseful of people, a joint of beef, the town brass-band playing “My Old Kentucky Home” in the kitchen, and the kind of gift you never knew you wanted because you did not know that it existed. And the very last time I saw him was at Christmastime, just before he went back to England, three years before he died. He and my mother came out to Montana to see us, and our brand new baby boy. He slipped me a hundred-dollar bill over dinner on Christmas eve. I had no pockets, so he suggested that I fold it up and put in my shoe. He had long discussions with three-month-old Julian. He exclaimed over the square spot on the back of our hound dog. He sang bawdy English songs and Christmas carols and got on an airplane and went away forever.
Over Thanksgiving this year, a friend wrote that she’d enjoyed the best holiday she’d had in years, going out to NASA with a friend. She said that she’d felt down on every holiday since 1995 when her father died. 16 years. A pet psychic once told me that my father (in heaven,presumably) was so distressed by my sadness– and that my dog was consumed by my grief, which the dog couldn’t comprehend or understand. How large did I need this to be written? It is, was, is time to get on with things.
So we go pick out a Christmas tree, one that touches the ceiling. I’m not sure I’d ever bring myself to cut down another tree, but when they’re standing outside the grocery store, they’re somewhat past saving. I’ve commandeered the guest room (which smells oddly like fruitcake– could that be a ghost?) for wrapping presents. I’m filling up a cardboard carton full of stuff for (as HCB would say) my “chosen” daughter and her children– that’s what he called me. Not his stepdaughter, but his chosen daughter, like he’d plucked me off a tree, or out of a lineup.
There are menus to be planned, Christmas cards to be written, school programs, carillon concerts, a trip to see the University of Dayton’s huge collection of crèches, even though I’ve seen them all twice before. There are photographs to take, of family and Christmas lights and friends, and scores of dogs with Santa Claus, a fundraiser for dog rescue. I think this is the year that we will turn our collection of plastic milk jugs into luminaria ringing the edges of the property.
I have learned something from my sorrow. Last Christmas was my fork in the road. I am not going to mourn for years to come. I choose life! I choose happiness. I am going to dance and sing (sometimes out loud even) and remember all the joy and sorrow in the past and look forward to both sweetness and tears in the days ahead. Let all the bells ring! I am going to celebrate Christmas, falling open armed into the light.