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Traversed Afar 

A thrill of hope, the worried kid rejoices

Christmas seemed out of joint when I was eight years old. The weather was unusually warm throughout December, making the decorations and carols seem out of place, and creating the illusion that the holiday was taking forever to come. But what I remember as even more disorienting than Salvation Army bells ringing in 70-degree weather was my mother's change of attitude that fall and winter.Things hadn't worked out, and in our home, tension had become the very air we breathed. For Mom, 10 years of cultural dislocation, setbacks, accusations and fights with my father had eroded her almost naive cheerfulness, the young woman's hope she'd brought with her to South Carolina as a Belgian war bride. Or maybe it was simply the wearing quality of misspent time that replaced her moist, open gaze with a new, piercing look.

In any case, it was in that fall of 1957 when I realized that Mom's ever-present smile had retreated somewhere, to be replaced by a sardonic, sideways grin. In a way this was a victory for her; rather than turn into an embittered grouch, Mom simply changed her type of humor. The guileless jokes and silliness she cultivated during much of my childhood had gradually been swapped for a drier, darker humor, and now she walked around with a kind of odd, amused acceptance of the fact that her American husband was a stingy simpleton who would never better himself and never understand her. So the gaiety and youthful expectations sank out of sight, and in their place surfaced a new view of her own life, seen from a distance of 3,000 miles and overlaid with a film of irony.

The battles between my parents had ceased to be individual arguments; living with them now was like being in one long, ongoing fight, interrupted here and there by The Lone Ranger, comic books, or sleep. For a kid, though, the approach of Christmas promised something better. My mother, who felt guilty about the brawls as well as my growing nervousness, assured me several times that this would be "a good Christmas." To me, of course, that meant a lot of toys. So one weekend, I sat at the kitchen table with the Sears Roebuck catalog and marked everything I wanted, including the half-lifesize imitation cannon I was going to use to annihilate the pretend army I fought in the backyard. I wrote out my list, including prices, on both sides of a sheet of lined school paper, then totaled it up. Two hundred and sixty 1957 dollars. I showed it to Mom. She smiled that new smile of hers, looked over at Dad and said, "Here. Here's Johnny's Christmas list -- you see any reason why we can't get all this?"

The Christmas season also triggered a ratcheting up of the nuns' teachings during our little Catholic church's weekly religious instructions. I may have been a smart-alecky kid later in life, but at the ages of six through nine, I took to the Catholic version of mystical union with Baby Jesus like our terrier took to a soup bone. I was enthralled by all of it -- the beautiful story, the lush imagery, the whole Catholic iconography of the holy baby, the Madonna, the kings, the manger, the animals, even the cosmically cuckolded St. Joseph, whose aspirin was the official Catholic remedy -- I was sure of it -- my mother gave me when I had a headache.Sometimes I'd lie on the floor in front of the manger scene near the Christmas tree and just look at it. I imagined conversations going on between the ceramic statuettes, and saw myself in that time and place, with angels hovering around, all of us singing, all of us thrilled and everything OK because Jesus had come. But Baby Jesus (or le p'tit Jesus, as my mother called him) wasn't just who I loved and worshipped, the one who had somehow changed the world for the better (I didn't understand the details, but at that point I still trusted that adults knew what they were talking about). At times, wrapped in childhood's artless brand of sentimentality, I wanted to be Baby Jesus. He looked peaceful in that manger, bathed in warm light and surrounded by loving adults -- plus pets! -- and at least he didn't have to listen to people yelling about money all the time.

As a Catholic kid, I grew up optimistic about the possibility of miracles, but in a small house bursting at the seams with two cultures, it could get confusing, particularly during the holidays. Santa Claus brought toys in America on Christmas Eve night, but in Belgium, it was St. Nicholas -- and he came on his own feast day, December 6. This I could grasp, but complications arose when you threw in the Church's belief in praying to saints for their particular specialty -- St. Blaise for a sore throat, St. Zita for finding lost keys, etc.

It hit me one day when I was six that hey -- it's Saint Nicholas -- I could pray to him for stuff! Maybe it'd work. I started including a little addendum to St. Nicholas in my usual bedtime prayers. My Belgian grandfather had told me that when he was a kid, he'd sometimes wake in the morning during Christmas season and find chocolate in the slippers he'd left by his bed -- even, at times, chocolate in the shape of St. Nicholas. So I tried it. I woke up many a morning filled with expectation, only to find my slippers lined with the same old worn felt, my toes' slide to the front of the moccasins unobstructed by miraculous sweets. Later, I figured that since I was in America and not Belgium, St. Nicholas either couldn't or wouldn't answer my prayers, so I tried praying to Santa Claus. That didn't work either, and when I told my mother about it, all she said was "Santa Claus isn't a saint like St. Nicholas, honey -- he lost that when he came over here. I think he's a Baptist now."

On Christmas Eve, we would leave goodies for Santa to eat. No milk and cookies, here, though; we usually put out a couple of slices of fruitcake and a Pepsi; it never occurred to me that these were two of my Dad's favorite snacks. On Christmas Eve 1957, I was feeling the bliss of the Nativity tales more than ever and I asked Mom if we could "leave something for Baby Jesus to eat, too.""Umm, unhh, we'll see."

Undaunted, I waited for Dad to come home from work that afternoon. As he straggled through the door, I ran to him, screaming, "Daddy, we leave fruitcake for Santa, so can we leave something for Baby Jesus, too?" The old man, who hadn't had a holly jolly day working at the mill on Christmas Eve, barked, "What for? He's been dead almost 2,000 years!"

I was too stunned to say anything, or even move. Mom reached down, put her hand on my shoulder and explained, "So le p'tit Jesus won't be hungry tonight, sweetie."

Three weeks later, my mother would feverishly pack our clothes while Dad was at work, and would take me back with her to the land of le p'tit Jesus, away from my father and cotton mills and ends that didn't meet and Baptist Santas.

For years, I had the idea that something that happened the week after Christmas had been the last straw for my mother. Of course, as I got older I realized her escape back to Belgium had to have been planned for months, but the incident nonetheless stuck in my memory while a thousand others faded.

I don't know what triggered it, but it had to have had something to do with money spent at Christmas. Dad was in what now seemed a permanently dark, rancorous mood, and my parents' arguments were, to me, a continuous, all-encompassing ache. Facial tics I had first developed in second grade now returned. Before Christmas, Mom had wanted to buy more tree ornaments to replace a few that had broken over the years; Dad had refused, saying it was a silly waste of money and that was that.

During the day of New Year's Eve, I was in the kitchen reading comic books when the ongoing bickering in the living room turned into a maniacal yelling match. I walked carefully down the hall to see what was going on and got there in time to see my father pick up our entire Christmas tree -- lights, ornaments, tinsel and all -- open the front door, and sling the whole thing into the front yard in a clamor of broken glass. Horrified, I started bawling; Mom put her arm around me and squeezed my shoulder. I looked up just as she gazed down at me with that new kind of smile and said, "Don't cry, it's going to be all right. Now it looks like we'll have those new Christmas balls next year."

A version of this story was published in Tis The Season, a book from Novello Festival Press.

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