If you can, try to imagine it with snow
This morning, I dreamt I was home on Red Mill Road again, walking the woods behind my home.
It seems an especially barren Christmas for many this year, for many reasons. Sometimes nostalgia, while it fails as an antidote, is a warm balm on a sore soul, a soft orange candle within that provides the only available warmth. I light that candle now.
I remember magical Christmases in upstate New York, northern Westchester County, down Red Mill Road from Mohegan Lake. From when awareness first glittered like a reflecting snowflake to when I was eleven--from the late 1950s to 1965--the season was always magic, even the last one, when snow didn’t fall until January and I couldn’t ride my prized toboggan down our long, steep snow-covered field out back; or down Dr. Friedman’s even longer, slow-winding driveway next door. (He seemed an old man to me in his fine-looking heavy coat and homburg on the few occasions he smiled at me from his limousine; he was seldom home).
I recall that the Burchfields were on better behavior than they were the rest of the year. Sure, we all should know how spotty and slippery memory is, but for once, let’s take that as true; memory provides the only pictures many of us have, especially those who entered the world in Pre-digital Times.
Idealists ask why we can’t be more loving and tolerant all year round, why do we only try to pack away the steel, holster the pistols and open angry fists for a holiday? But what would be the meaning then? Constant ecstasy is no longer ecstasy. Love can become a gray bore, like sleeping in mercury, a dreary hum. Would that we were better, but not too much better.
Over every Christmas holiday, I counted the minutes, the seconds from when the first day after school let out to the last, New Year’s day. More than at any other time of year, even summer, I wondered at time passing, at how events started and ended, how I could never hold on to a second.
We put the tree up on Christmas Eve. (I recall being told it was a Scottish tradition). That night, my mother would make marshmallow fudge and chili, two traditions I try to keep alive in my sputtering way. Like Proustian bakery, the sugary smoke of marshmallow fudge opens up memories like sunlight awakens a lone, drooping flower.
Despite the outward traditional trappings, the Burchfields were piously cynical, religiously atheistic, and not once went to church on Christmas morning (or any morning), even when our Nana visited, futilely insisting that we should, as she fumbled on fine black gloves over her veined, bony, wrinkled hands. I know I didn’t go that morning. I remember how relieved I felt.
I likely would have found church a bore then—all those presents and candy, and bright white snow-draped hills and the acres of soft, silent woods behind our old home, all calling from outside while the adults droned on about concepts I was unable to grasp (and maybe the grownups themselves didn’t fully believe). The one time I did attend Sunday school in those days, it was boring; my memories of a high Episcopalian wedding consist mostly of jaw-snapping yawns; questions of faith and religion, I suspect, are lost on the young, as beauty is often lost on boys, at least in our jittery, impatient, secular times.
Even so, I can say from confidence that comes from experience that atheism provides no inoculation against ignorance, bigotry and violence. That I saw on day one. Thanks to God for the fields and woods out back to roam in.
We had exactly one Christmas record: a collection of carols sung by some radio choir with an appropriately snowy cover. The album details are lost to me now, but the memory of the plumy rolling bass rolling out the main verse of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” thunders in me as strongly as it did then and our collection of Christmas music grows nearly every year (as you will see here). I about wore that old album out, as I cranked up the record player again and again (Note to you young people: Everything ran on cranks in those days: the Christmas tree lights, the radio, even the toaster.)
Other memories: lying in the dark listening for footsteps on the deep-snow roof over head, trying to stay awake ( I resisted disbelief in Santa Claus to the last, to the genuine outrage of an older brother); the warm colors that seemed to melt together in the light of a snow-blue country morning as I rushed downstairs (of the presents, only one remains now—my copy of The World of Pooh; really, Christopher Robin and I lived in the same world); walking Red Mill Road (pictured below; almost unchanged) with my mother one Christmas night, gaping at the neighbors’ lights--the reds, greens and blues--after an argument with her sister. Again, though I sensed her deep unhappiness, I was too young--and sheltered--to grasp what had happened, even to realize how soon I would be gone from this heaven, both green and wintry.
To be sure, I didn’t like everything—the Wal-Mart across Route 6 from the last school I attended, for one.
The house and land go back to at least the Andrew Jackson presidency and was once--as subsequent owner Arne Paglia told me--featured in one of those House Beautiful magazines in the 1940s. It was always a challenge to keep up. It has been changed and has deteriorated in some ways, though not beyond saving—but I did not regret the visit, only envied the two boys who live there now, roaming the woods and fields as I did, and who looked at me in wonder when I told them I wished I could be them, there, in that place again.
The visit seemed to calm a restlessness in my soul, because the dreams of Red Mill Road stopped for a long time.
But on this still, cold morning, I dreamt I walked those woods again with the same wonder and joy I felt then. I'm grateful to whoever I can be grateful, that I have these dreams, that I knew that world as I did.
Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield
Photos by Author and Elizabeth
Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published March 15, 2011 by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.