Photo by Christina Schmidt
and Places in the Heart
“It is time itself I am trying to retrieve.”
Pat Conroy, My Losing Season
It is the end of January, and all the Christmas cards have finally arrived, the last one just a week ago. There would be no more. So early on a brilliant sunny afternoon I began going through them, looking and remembering. I expected to spend an hour being charmed one last time before consigning most of them to the wastebasket. But I had not counted on what listening to George Winston’s December would do to the deep wellsprings of memory as I held each card before my eyes one last time. By ten that night, hours after the brilliant sunshine had disappeared, I was not yet through—and far fewer cards than I had anticipated had gone into the wastebasket.
What was staying my hand? Why was I looking at each card so long? Why was I having so much trouble letting go? George Winston had woven his music through this stack of cards, and memory had taken over my afternoon and evening. My Christmas cards had taken me on a tour of my life, touching times and places long ago, reminding me of all the selves I have been, all the lives I have lived.
The oldest memory was awakened by a card from Chuck who lived next door to me from the time I was nine in 1949 till I was almost seventeen. He was the richest kid in our working-class neighborhood, the only boy whose family could afford braces on his teeth. In memory he is forever backlit by crisp autumn morning sunlight wearing his suede jacket, white buck shoes, and real Levis, not the Robert Hall discount jeans I wore.
He became my idol and best friend from the day I moved next door till I was thirteen and he was fifteen. Though he was two years older, for those four years we did everything together: monopoly, electronic football, softball on the street using cracks in the pavement and sewer covers for bases, and football in a large empty corner lot three doors away. Where the grass met the sidewalk and touchdowns were scored, he broke his collarbone. In the evenings we hung out, and I watched what it was like to be cool. In fifth grade I told him I was ready to marry Jackie Wrout, the prettiest girl in my class. “How will you earn a living?” he asked. “I’ll quit school and go to work,” I said. I was only ten, but I meant it.
When he was fifteen he discovered girls in a more real way, began driving, and found new friends in his expensive and distant high school. They were wealthy and cool—while I was still a boy on a bike who only a year earlier had learned how babies were made. So in the summer of ’53 Chuck began to disappear from my life. When he graduated high school, his parents bought him a brand new all-white ’57 Chevy convertible with a four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts, and I watched him coming and going, a virtual prince, and I a pauper. A few months later he left for college, my family moved half a mile away, and I never saw him again.
In 1984, more than a quarter century after I last saw him, I found his address and wrote him a Christmas card, suggesting we get together. He wrote back that he would try to do that. Each Christmas for thirty years his cards have arrived signed only “Chuck and Cathy,” without any other words. We never did get together, and each year his card reminds me that the heart does not forget its losses, no matter how long ago.
Six cards were from women who decades earlier had been girlfriends. Once upon a time I told some of them I loved them, and they told me the same. Now, except for one, they are strangers in strange lives. Their cards remind me that once we weren’t strangers; they also remind me that long ago we were different selves than the ones we are now.
Bonnie’s card takes me back to the Cuban missile crisis in October, 1962. Earlier that year I had finished active service in the Army and was now in the Illinois National Guard. The crisis meant I was in danger of being called back to active duty. But at the last minute, with the entire world watching TV’s greatest drama ever, Khrushchev turned his ships around. A few weeks later Bonnie’s blonde hair and backside appeared like a vision before my eyes at a dance. She was all curves in a form-fitting navy skirt and had the sexiest calves I had ever seen. She was nineteen and I twenty-two. A year and a half later, on the night I turned twenty-four, we quarreled over a gift she had given me—the wrong size walking shorts (blue/green plaid, size thirty-four, and I was a thirty-two then)—and a month later I met the woman I would marry.
That autumn, as a twenty-four-year-old, I left for my first semester on a real college campus, the very campus I had been dreaming of for six years while working in a printing plant and taking night courses at a community college. When I returned to Chicago at Christmas, I visited Bonnie to say a proper goodbye and to express my deep regret for having hurt her. At home afterwards I sobbed in the dark of my bedroom for the pain I had brought her. That was the last time I ever saw Bonnie.
She wrote for the first time twenty years ago—thirty years after we’d last seen each other—when her mother read a small essay I had published. In this year’s card she wrote that her “mentally-challenged brother-in-law, Jack, who has lived with us for the past twenty years, has lost his eyesight. He had a cornea transplant and hopefully won’t reject it.” At nineteen she had a perfect size-five figure. But in that first card twenty years ago her face and figure had grown round. Such things, however, no longer mattered. She was still the good, sweet woman I remembered, and we were telling each other our lives fifty years after last seeing each other. The thin filament of our Christmas cards was still conducting electricity.
That single semester on the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois has also brought me decades of cards from Leonard and Dollie, from whom two friends and I rented a second-floor apartment in their house at 410 West Elm. For the first two months of that semester, I had roomed and boarded in a fraternity house that had not filled all its rooms with pledges and needed the income, and I needed a room. Had I been the normal age of a freshman, I would have pledged this house or another, but at twenty-four I was beyond that. So in mid-semester, when I ran into two friends from my neighborhood who were in grad school, I moved in with them. I had had my glimpse of the good times of a frat house and the immense amount of ego noise its members make in their relentless quest for status. Because there were only two bedrooms in the apartment, I slept on an air mattress stored during the day behind the sofa in the living room. The air in that apartment was so dry my skin itched the entire two months I lived there, but it made little difference—I was in heaven.
The last time I saw Leonard and Dollie I was twenty-four years old and they were about forty with two young girls living at home. This January it will be a half-century since we last saw each other. Their card begins, “We’re still kicking but not very high.” Each year their card speaks of surgeries and life approaching ninety with a transplanted kidney. Their cards also bring memories of a young man with only nickels and dimes in his pocket—but a heart full of hope.
They remind me, too, of the twenty minutes I spent arm-twisting a dean into letting me take six courses and twenty-one credit hours my first semester on campus. And of my first real writing course, with Don Stewart, whose passion was not just for writing but for the teaching of writing. All semester I watched in fear as he rocked back and forth on the rear metal legs of his chair balanced so precariously on a polished oak floor. I feared he would topple and crash, but he never did. And of the crisp cocksureness of Hershel Parker lecturing on Moby-Dick in the same gray herringbone sports coat each day. He later published the definitive edition of Melville’s works and a two-volume biography.
But the grandest memory that semester was simply being free for the first time in my life to pursue what I wanted rather than the printing plant my father wanted for me. The memory of that autumn semester will forever be saturated with the fragrance of burning leaves and boundless hope and gratitude. Though I could not have known it then, John Williams was just finishing writing his moving novel Stoner at the very time I was living a life similar to his protagonist, William Stoner. Reading it thirty-five years later, I saw again—as Leonard and Dollie’s Christmas card each year also makes me see—the innocent young man I once was.
I received cards from my four closest friends during Army days more than fifty years ago whose friendships I treasure though I may never see three of them again. All of them have done splendidly. Roger left the Army Reserves, joined the Navy, and became a fighter pilot with eighty-seven combat missions over Vietnam. After his flying days, he became an eye surgeon in the Navy and then in private practice. Donut (real name John) became head of layout for the Chicago Sun-Times. Joe became president of American Fletcher Bank in Indianapolis. Dennis retired as a vice-president of AT&T in the late nineties. Pretty grand careers for a collection of Army privates.
Though we have exchanged cards all these years, Dennis is the only one I see anymore. Twice a year we have long lunches that I much look forward to, for they are filled with mutual listening and admiration.
I save the cards of these men because I treasure our time together at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri and Ft. Carson, Colorado. Their cards always take me back to our last days together traversing the snows of the Rocky Mountains, determining coordinates for our artillery battery, our laughter ringing back and forth all day long. We were young, carefree, handsome, and very decent fellows. We still remain decent.
This year I sent ninety-eight cards and received sixty-one. Seven of those cards are from people we have summered with and who have become friends. Five are from grade-school classmates. Eight are from people I once taught with. One is from a friend of grad school days. One is from a friend I made in 1963 as a student at the community college where I later taught. Each year he sets the record for the longest letter; this year’s letter ran to thirteen redundant but kind pages. Four cards are from former students. Three are from my sons. Two are from friends of my sons. Now in their forties, they were, in my first memories of them, mere infants in cradles. One is from a second-cousin I hadn’t seen since we graduated from high school together in 1958. Somehow we reconnected, and I invited her over for dinner this past summer. Like anybody else I haven’t seen in fifty-five years, we would have passed each other on the street without a trace of recognition despite sharing the genes of our great-grandparents. The years have etched new faces.
The card that traveled farthest came from an English couple Kathy and I met on the Eiffel Tower on an early October afternoon in 2004. The next night we made our way through rain to have dinner with them on the left bank. Though that was the last time we saw each other, or likely ever will, we still continue exchanging Christmas cards, pictures, and notes. Perhaps we’re just trying to hang on to the sweet light of Paris that autumn. That trip would be the last time Kathy and I would see Paris together; her ten years of dementia—diagnosed only a month after the trip—have made a return together impossible. Each day, though, I am reminded of that trip by a picture sitting on a shelf in our living room. Kathy and I are perched on the lip of the three-tiered fountain in the Place Saint-Sulpice. A passer-by held the camera as we looked with radiant smiles into the light. It is my fondest memory of that autumn in Paris, when Kathy was still Kathy.
This year, for the first time in several years, I received a card from a woman I met on the best trip of my life, one I would take again in a heartbeat were it still possible. I haven’t seen her or her husband for a long time, but for many years after that trip I was sure to see Mary Louise and Joe at their annual St. Patrick’s Day party. Now past eighty, she writes of her fifty-year-old son’s second wedding and that she is still teaching therapeutic yoga. From the enclosed photo I see that she still retains the piercing, authoritative blue eyes I saw for the first time on that trip: thirty-five members of Common Ground, an inter-faith spiritual study center, all of us from the Chicago area, meandering in our own private bus for three weeks through Greece in 1982.
I was younger than two of my sons are now when I walked in awe through the Parthenon, the ancient Minoan palace at Knossos, the streets of Corinth, and the cave of St. John Chrysostom with these fellow pilgrims looking for wisdom and grace. In my mind’s eye our trip will forever remain a journey soaked in sunshine, archeology, history, and budding friendship. In the years after the trip, I became dear friends with one of the three leaders of that trip, a former Jesuit priest named Ron Miller. We had been writing a book together, tentatively titled God: An Inquiry, when he died suddenly and unexpectedly in May, 2011. Mary Louise’s card awakens that astonishing and generous time in my life and the sorrow of knowing that most of the people who made that journey have now journeyed beyond all ken.
Two fellow essayists sent me cards this year. Sam Pickering, whose essays are always filled with sunshine and humor, wrote: “Merry Christmas. Snow is falling here. Snowy owls are about. The moon is full—yellow and glorious. Yesterday a cardiologist told me, ‘Nothing that we do will make you live longer.’ Well—afterward I ran 6 miles— hurrying toward the end. Affectionately, Sam.”
Though it has been ten years since I last taught, eight former colleagues wished me a merry Christmas. One of the most elegant cards came from the lone instructor of French at our college. Under Mary’s instruction during my last two years of teaching, I pursued a lifelong dream of learning to speak French fluently. Mary’s card reminds me of those nights sitting in her class, sometimes beside my own students. I threw myself into it and got straight A’s, but by the time Kathy and I arrived in Paris a few months after I retired, the French I had learned turned out to be too little too late.
Mary’s card is bursting with joy at the realization of her own dream: the weddings of her two daughters, her only children, both of them past thirty, one to an art gallery owner in New York and the other to a Tunisian working in Paris. Mary and Joe (with whom I also taught) spared no expense in raising their daughters and longed for them to be married. Now she was announcing that both had gotten married within two weeks of each other this past June. The Tunisian man looks like George Clooney, with a smile so alive it could charm pandas out of China. Mary and Joe’s wish for grandchildren is now possible. They have a future on this earth after they are gone.
My teaching days also brought four cards from former students. Each year one of those former students has sent a tiny newsletter smaller than the palm of my hand printed in four-point type titled “Urine Review.” Cara had been earning her living as a journalist before she came to my class, her trademark voice a dark cynicism, hence the title of her newsletter. This year, for the first time, she did not title her letter that way. It was largely about her flourishing career as a yoga teacher, which she began studying while she was taking my course eighteen years ago. She concluded with a wish that I “find the time to pursue your dreams . . . om shanti.” It was the softest card she has ever sent. Christmas has come to a hurting soul.
Some cards, without intending to, did bring hurt. One was from a couple whose summer home is near ours. One day on a patch of sidewalk in front of our condo John made a deliberate point of saying hello. From the first moment we hit it off splendidly. For the next seven years he was my best living friend. We shared some of the deepest and most heartfelt conversations of my life, conversations that reminded me of something Bertrand Russell wrote about his first meeting with Joseph Conrad: “At our first meeting, we talked with continually increasing intimacy. We seemed to sink through layer after layer of what was superficial, till gradually we both reached the central fire. It was an experience unlike any other that I have known. We looked into each other’s eyes half appalled and half intoxicated to find ourselves together in such a region.” My friend and I didn’t get that far, but we came close.
Then two and a half years ago we had a falling out. Now we are merely cordial with each other. We smile, say hello, exchange a few words, and then go our separate ways. His card is a modest but beautiful family photograph. I am looking at lovely people with honest smiles, but my friend writes no personal words at the bottom of his newsletter, as he used to, and I know he never again will. His card reminds me of wonderful times and a friendship I will never have again. The card is a reminder that we never lose a friend without losing a part of ourselves.
One of the cards I’m saving—as I have saved all her cards—was from my dear friend Rosie. The card itself is elegant, but what she wrote I treasure even more: “Dear Mel, I have in a folder your Christmas letters and pictures through the years. The first time I ever talked to you in your office I was struck by your pictures of you and your sons. Your love for them shone out from simple institutional walls. And now looking at the beautiful picture of you and Kathy, I see your love again—it is everywhere in that shot. And I read your ‘Poem in Winter,’ and I weep for you and for myself and others, knowing the beauty in the losses of life, the sweet-sorrow that is all of understanding and that helps me understand this season—love & loss & adoration. Thank you. Rosie.” She then copied out a poem by Madeleine L’Engle, titled “After Annunciation”:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for a child.
The poem strikes to the core of faith. Only now, at seventy-three, am I beginning to feel my way into a faith that is beyond reason. I am not there, but I can at last see the border one must cross over.
Rosie’s card also strikes to the core of Christmas. Most of the cards I received said something about the day’s celebration, but none deeply captured the holy day that is embodied in this holiday. Rosie’s card does. I will save this card because she sent it, because of what she wrote, because of this poem, and because it speaks so eloquently to the heart of this holy day.
It turns out I will be saving more of these cards than I had planned to when I started looking at them, not because of what the senders wrote but because of who they are and the times they remind me of. The deep truth is that very few of us sending Christmas cards reach into our hearts and memories when we write. Many of us just sign our names. Some add “with love.” But few of us speak from the heart in a way that quickens the heart of the person we are writing to. A shame, because it’s one of the few chances we are given each year to do so without being awkward.
I am also going to save those cards with lovely images of homes and towns in winter. Only two cards displayed such pictures this year, fewer than in past years. Am I giving in to sentimentality? Perhaps, but at its bottom is a deep longing we all have in our breasts for home and hometowns.
I am reminded of something one of America’s greatest short story writers, John Cheever, once said to his young son Fred. One evening after a long summer’s day, Cheever was standing under a big elm tree outside the family home when Fred came back from playing with friends. He was worn out, and when he saw his father standing there, he ran across the grass and threw his little body into his father’s arms. “I want to go home, Daddy,” he told him, “I want to go home.” Of course he was home, but that didn’t make any difference. “We all want to go home,” Cheever would say whenever he told this story, “we all want to go home.”
So I am going to save the card from a grade school classmate depicting children in the foreground decorating a tree outdoors, skaters on a river with a bridge arching over it in the half distance, and a church and houses joyously lit up in the background. I am also saving a card from someone I barely know with skaters on a pond in the foreground and houses with glittering snow on their roofs in the background. Kitsch, my grad school education tells me; let these cards go. Christmas and home, I whisper back, I’m keeping them.
Only now, looking at these cards, do I remember that all last year I kept on display in my dining room a foldout card depicting a small town on a gray winter day at twilight. Cars from a century ago ply the main street. An American flag waves from a building, a Christmas tree towers from the town’s center, and dark skeleton trees range across the entire background of the card. The trees and sky are loaded with sparkle. The card celebrates home. I will keep it up for another year.
It is this longing for home, I now realize, that has stayed my hand for nine hours of looking at these cards. Whether it is the home of God’s care that this holy day celebrates, or the homes we once made with friends and family in the past, or the homes of idealized pictures with lighted windows, it is home we are looking for when we open our Christmas cards. It is a place in the heart we are seeking.