December 25th, Christmas Day, and it’s 8:18 am EST in my western Pennsylvania town roughly two hours east of Pittsburgh on a “good” driving day. My neighborhood is quiet. Most, if not all, of the kiddos have moved away to start their lives in more robust, better opportunistic areas. We’re not nestled in the worst part of our great country where folks are really struggling. My neighbors, as well, are not driving Porches and spending any dot-com fortunes on 60-foot yachts and Beverly Hills vacations. “Middle-class America” is our best sweatshirt embroidered logo … and the best way to describe our work ethic. Today as I type, under most modestly decorated trees of tinsel and faux-gold in homes no more than a few paces from my keyboard, I suspect few families have Christmas going on. The trees are decoration. That’s all.
Am I writing this from the scientific method? No…. merely a guess. Boy, Id’ love to be wrong. During the last twenty-four minutes of typing, the idea of having neighborhood children interrupt adults with snowball fights, hot-chocolate requests, present getting pleas, sing-a-longs, and hugs would be magic. There has been silence, however. This is o.k. It means those once children are now adults making their own memories in neighborhoods of their own choosing.
It is December 25th. Christmas Day, if it’s your day.
I did not have children. I am not writing this as a parent. I am writing, today, from a house in a neighborhood three avenues deep, one street wide, with only one road to the main boulevard. That one access – in and out – is the yellow brick road to our Oz. We can walk and dance our way back knowing the isolation and joy of having limited, and destination only, traffic. One block in, you’ve already passed a wonderful auto mechanic, Frank, a tobacco store and church. Stop briefly at the intersection (this time of year) to see “house beautiful” so wonderfully decorated in white lights with a darling fountain of ceramic dogs, ornately adorned, draped elegantly in front of the porch. Neighbors, including us, spend very little in outside decorations because of “house beautiful”. A simple, “D-I-T-T-O” light-arrow display well positioned … pointed strategically toward said house … usually sends the proper message. We love them, though.
I can’t say “all” of us. That’s not fair. Most neighbors do decorate. That was an attempt to hide the fact I don’t decorate – ever. So much easier to share a blame than accept all of it. My neighbor directly across has a front lawn electrified with a snowman, castle, red mailbox for Santa, and reindeer, a sleigh, and something I can’t really make out. To my immediate left is a lawn with a bunch of white “sticky” things – and by “sticky” I don’t mean adhesive. I am trying to say “Edward-Scissorhandy fingery looking thingys” sticking out from the ground. It’s daylight, and with daylight comes ambiguity. With night comes clarity. Those sticky concepts become beautiful reindeer, snowmen, sleighs, and trees.
Still, with all the decorations, so quiet. No kids. No footprints in the frost on the ground. Exactly an hour since I started writing and no interruptions for candy, patter of feet on the hardwood floor running toward the window to see if Grandma and Pap-Pap are coming, or wrapping paper wadded in a ball prepared for a swish into the trash bag ten feet away. It is such a quiet neighborhood today…and this is ok.
Later there will be a gathering of friends. Not in my neighborhood, however. I need to shift. Adult-kids are meeting in an adult place to be together. It is a new normal for me. Middle-class America is represented well among my friends, save a few where life’s pile of good fortune has dumped heaps upon them. What an amazing cross-section of companions I have – to support, encourage, foster, and keep up with the ever changing emotional and societal demands I pile upon them…..as they do me. I don’t know, where, what, or how the path of fate visited me…, or, at what time it was when eccentric little anti-imps decided to bless me .. but they did. It is in a neighborhood of sorts I will gladly attend in a few hours only five minutes drive away. Another quiet town. Just today.
Five minutes drive in the opposite direction, north, is the bustling small concrete emptiness of our local mall. Another gathering of folks among the un-rented, overpriced, greed-ridden vacuous corporate, outdated expanse. For the most part, strangers on any given day -except Christmas – find their way around Applebee’s, a candle store, phone kiosk, and smattering of other hang-on stores. The anchors are gasping for a last retail breath this holiday season and I suspect there isn’t much left in the tank. Crowds, as they are, seem almost museum quality … eyes glazing at the stores seen as relics of misunderstood art seen for a few weeks’ time, subsequently moving on to one more throng … in another quiet town in a different, but oh so similar, cold concrete mall.
Certainly, that is fifty weeks out of a normal year. The other two weeks remain in the hands of unfavorable fortune due to the drive of commercialism this time of year.
It was in our mall, during the 14-day window of this credit card netherworld, I caught sight of the tree above. It wasn’t 8:18 am on a cold Wednesday morning as today when I started writing. I don’t believe it was a Wednesday at all. Quiet wasn’t in the forecast, either. Kiddos were hustling about as the inexpensive train ride around the tree was running full-steam ahead. Parents, if not smiling ear-to-ear with their little ones while sandwiched in the little train cars, were uncomfortably bent over the restraining fence to get that perfect picture around the last right turn of the track. Santa sat proudly listening intently to the hopes and dreams whispered from each child’s wishful lips. Casual walkers had to slow down, anyway, to catch a small hopeful glimpse of a child’s happy face. Had to. In the face of that single child was an innocence of the season. A “happy holiday” that is always lost somewhere between losing a first tooth and cashing a first paycheck.
There were times stopping at this tree was mandatory. The crowds were so oppressive pre-internet, one had no choice but to suffer through the shopping body odor bondage of “I need to get over there but how” problem. This day, however, unremarkably absent was the crowd. Silent. I stood at the tree, anyway. Resolved to be vertical in homage to the tree before me. Silent as it was, but in precise opposition to what it stood as … not for.
It stands FOR a holiday – a Christmas holiday symbol for the tradition of presents, hot chocolate, sing-a-longs and snowball fights. This tree, AS it is, is artificial. This tree is not alive. Inside a cold, public, artificial meeting place, it stands. Yet, the warmth of simple children under all, is the real present for all of us to open.
Today, it stands quietly. Strangely so, my neighborhood does as well .. still. Four hours later. I’ve been to Denny’s and back for a half-hour breakfast with my dad. He paid because that’s what dads do for their lonely on Christmas day sons. Families were nestled in booths and nudged around tables … eating large breakfasts and sipping warm, steamy tea. Some quietly, some not. Waitresses and waiters served limited menu items and had unforced portrayals of joy on their faces for having to work on this day. Kudos to them. The parking lot of the mall, as I spied from my rather worn, red vinyl seat, was empty as it should be on December 25th, Christmas day.
I returned home coming back through the very same neighborhood I’ve traveled through thousands of times before. One street and three avenues deep, I still love it here. Didn’t pass one kiddo playing outside or one neighbor walking. Once again passing by house-beautiful, sticky white things and electrified red mailboxes. Soon to be handsome-fied with a quick shower and fluff-up, I’ll head into town to meet my friends. They’re really nice … not artificial.
Remembering the children under the tree today …
They’ll soon be grown. The real trees and all the kiddos. Quiet, still, as I end. It’s ok. It really is.
Happy Christmas to you and YOUR neighborhood !!