I’ve read autobiographies in which the author describes great Christmas days when he was a child. Sometimes the tale is cute. Sometimes the tale is more than merely cute.
Sometimes the tale has something to do with that boy, the boy who was born on Christmas Day.
For me, I have a tale to remember. My tale has to do with my father and my uncle and my adult male cousins…and with my guns.
Here’s how it goes--
It is early afternoon on Christmas Day. My father, mother, sister and I have been at Grandmother’s house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the past few days. Dad had annual posts at various colleges—where he served as Poet in Residence—but, wherever we lived during any year, almost always in order to celebrate Christmas we came back to this house—to this house where my mother was born and raised.
That year, I was either seven or eight.
Christmas morning had gone very well. My most important present had come from my pacifist grandmother.
Earlier in December, my mother told me that Grandmother had asked her what I most wanted for Christmas. Easy answer. What I most wanted was the double holster belt with two shiny cap guns that I had seen in a store.
However, a few days later, Mom sat me down. “Dikkon, I spoke with Grandmother. You know there’s just been a very bad war, and that’s why your daddy was in the navy, and a lot of people were killed with guns.”
This was the kind of talk that grown-ups used sometimes. They referred to something I could not understand, but, because they were talking with serious faces, I knew I should try to understand.
“Well, your grandmother loves you very much, and she knows the guns you asked for are pretend, but she’s troubled about whether she should give them to you. She wants to know if there is something else instead that you really want.”
I loved my grandmother, and I wanted to help her out…BUT.
That holster belt and those guns!
The guns were shiny, and the holsters had silver stars on them, so I knew they must cost a fortune. Way more than my parents would spend on me…though they loved me, too, of course.
Grandmother was my only chance.
Then I had an inspiration. (Later in my life, I made my career as a salesman. You’re about to learn why that was my obvious career choice. At seven or eight, I knew intuitively how to engage with and how to counter the objection of my customer.)
Here is my first sales-closing statement. “Tell Grandmother it will be OK. Tell her I’ll only to shoot people who are already dead. I promise.”
That cracked my mother up, and she told me years later it made grandmother laugh, too, though ruefully: Grandmother really was a pacifist.
But I got my guns!
So, it is early afternoon, and relatives and friends begin to arrive for Christmas dinner. My mother’s brother Charlie is one of the first to arrive, along with my Aunt Aggie, and their daughters, Kate and Susan, who are my close pals—we three and my sister were accustomed to wrestle around with one another like puppies in a box.
I stand in the vestibule, wearing my guns.
One after another, these tall men come through the outer door, smelling of cold snow and winter wind, their faces red. They all wear overcoats, which they doff as they trade greetings with Dad, who acts as host since my grandfather died two years before. The overcoats smell of the outdoors and swirl a cold air as they are swung off shoulders and hung among others already there.
These men are well dressed, good-looking, competent. They chat with one another as though they are all members of that enviable club—the club of adult maleness.
They notice me; they greet me.
More than anything on earth, I long for membership in their club. I would give up my guns to be a man in an overcoat arriving out of the snow from a world in which I know how to make things happen.
If you are a woman, you will have had much to consider about men. We men, I can tell you, mull a lot over women. But first, when we are seven or eight—and at later times, too—we mull a lot over men.
As we boys come up, we encounter the lives of our fathers. For most of us, we encounter the well-lived lives of our fathers. Our fathers are decent men, who tried, and sometimes failed, and then tried again. On the whole, our fathers are men who succeeded, much of the time.
Along the way, our fathers made their mistakes of course. Eventually, all fathers display their weaknesses to their sons. However we sons already know what those weaknesses are.
When I was six or eight, I imagined I knew Dad’s weaknesses because of visceral sympathy between the generations. I experienced soulful accord with Dad. Here’s what I thought. I know Dad (comforting and cozy); he knows me (sometimes, not so comforting and cozy).
Anyway, Dad and me—we know one another’s weaknesses because we are father and son, and when our eyes met, we transcended the detail of the moment, and we were just…male.
But there is both a sager and a more godly explanation for this communion of maleness between the generations--sin.
At seven or eight, I probably knew the word sin, but it had no context for me. In our family, we were Episcopalians, after all, as high as could be. (This was long before my wife’s and my venture into Judaism.)
More to the point, my father was a poet, whose heart was tuned, really, to the muse. Sin had nothing to do with anything that had to do with us.
Yes, a shaft of jabbing badness cut at my guts, sometimes, and made me keep secrets. But—I crouched inside myself in confusion—perhaps boys keeping secrets is just the way things are.
Jabbing badness could not be in my adult cousins who wore their Christmas overcoats. Nor in Grandfather, who had been so kind to me before he died. Nor in Dad. How could there be jabbing badness in Dad—who was Dad! Nor in my favorite uncle, Charlie, who knew so well how to play.
I was the only one who kept secrets and who experienced that jabbing badness.
But perhaps soon I could stop keeping secrets. After all, now I had my guns. Maybe my guns could keep me safe from jabbing badness.
What is it about that boy who was born today? Did he have jabbing badness and keep secrets, too, like me?
There was something different about him, everyone said so. Even angels said so, from heaven itself! About him, there was something more powerful and more holy than my everyday jabbing badness.
Yes, I had my guns, and they would surely help, but maybe that boy would help, too.
Before we sat down for Christmas dinner at Grandmother’s long table we sang songs about that boy. That just shows how important he is.
What were those songs we had just sung, about how quiet was the night outside, and how holy it was…and about a Star?
Maybe…if I try really hard to know something about that boy….