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MEANDERINGS: SERENITY OVERTAKES JOYS, PAIN OF PAST CHRISTMASES

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On the way home from Pleasant Grove tonight, we stopped at Mary Pulley's for a minute to look at the Nativity and listen to the music in the quiet of the falling snow.

I remember taking the same pilgrimage as a kid. It was always exciting, since it signaled for us the formal beginning of the Christmas season. Piled in the cab of our '38 Chev truck, which was the family car, behind a whole line of cars and smelling the exhaust of idling engines, we moved ahead in fits and starts, waiting for the moment when we would pull up to Santa Claus, who was standing by the side of the road next to a woman I later learned was Mary Pulley.The window on the passenger side was broken out and had been replaced with plywood. Mom rolled down the plywood, and Santa stuck his head in - his beard filled the opening. His heavy "Ho, ho, ho" echoed solidly in the small interior. My little sister Rayola would get scared and start to cry, and then Mary Pulley would pull candy canes out of a big sack and hand them to Santa Claus, who in turn handed them to us with a warning to be good so he wouldn't have to leave a lump of coal in our socks. But he always did anyway, bruising the orange, which was also standard.

Years later, when Veloy and I first started going together, when I was 18 and thought I was grown up, on Sunday nights we used to "park" for a few minutes in front of Mary Pulley's and look at the same Nativity scene with the cutout Wise Men and the electric light star and the Joseph and Mary with snow on their heads. From Mary Pulley's porch Bing Crosby would Sing "O Little Town of Bethlehem," prompting us to talk about how someday we would bring our own children to view the beginning of Christmas here on Mary Pulley's lawn.

It's hard to imagine that so much time has passed since then.

Three of the children we talked about having have already left home, and the other three are much too big to sit on your lap. But all of them have memories of Mary Pulley's manger. The fact that her place is on the way to Grandma's house has helped. On Sunday evening visits, it has always been familiar to hear someone say, "Can we go past Mary Pulley's?"

Like tonight, when with the last two of the brood we sat for a minute and listened to the music flow from Mary Pulley's porch behind the Santa sleigh that waves a wooden arm up and down. The Wise Men still stand patiently, with the same enamel-painted frankincense and myrrh they held when I was there in our '38 Chev with the plywood window.

In the meantime, however, much has intervened.

It was Christmastime in 1983 when my brother Delane died. I remember being at choir practice on a Sunday morning when a heavy feeling of sorrow hit me from nowhere, so sudden that I had to leave. Out in the foyer, I looked up toward the mountains my little brother had loved so much and I felt so desolate. Very upset, I went home, and as I walked in the door Veloy said they had just called from the hospital and wanted us to come up and consider giving permission to turn off the machines that had been holding him in abeyance.

Every Christmas, the memory of that Christmas now resurfaces, triggering a melancholy atmosphere.

I also think of Veloy's dad sitting in front of the tree handing out presents to the grandkids. His image is so clear, despite the later memories of when Parkinson's disease had taken its toll, and I miss him - especially at Christmas - and I wish he were here so I could tell him I love him and how much I appreciate his accepting me into his family.

Only time brings on such images.

Things that seemed simple when I was young became so complicated as the world widened. I have learned how fragile my tenure is, and I wonder about things less casually than I did before.

It is surprising, though, that the acceptance of questions unanswered has not brought anxiety, as I have been told by some that it would. Instead, it has brought mellowness, serenity and a deep sense of the moment.

Especially at Christmas.

It has helped me understand why for some people Christmas is a very difficult time.

For me, though, the lights on the houses, hanging along the eaves under wisps of snow have more color than ever before. The smell of candy, oranges and peanuts can sometimes almost make tears come to my eyes - which is something I never expected. For these simple feelings, I am grateful.

Across the sky, Santa Claus rides in his magical sleigh, the sound of his voice echoing mythically through winter flurries. I have seen Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer evolve into a reality far from the original Gene Autry record that played over and over on our purple plastic Zenith phonograph, holding my little brother mesmerized in front of it in those long gone Christmases of innocence.

And there is a profound gentleness in the sound of falling snow.