Unlike Scrooge, my ghosts of Christmas past are not so much frightening as fulfilling. They visit every December, recalling those harsh but often heroic days of the Great Depression and World War II. For me they mostly happened in a weathertight red-brick bungalow tucked inside the westside of Chicago.
The neighbors — you knew them by their first name in backyard chats and during when-in-need visits — were pretty much an ethnic-religious cross section of a nation which had not yet learned we were what the campuses now teach as a “multi-cultural” society, each culture requiring its very own distinct status.
The mail carriers — rather than being let go, arrived twice a day — were part of that once-upon-a-time trilogy. The newspapers, the radio and letters. We got our news a little more slowly, but this way a little more digestibly. I jealously remember how Mom would put the morning edition away saying, “The news can wait, at least until after lunch.”
The community grandees — the local pastor, teacher, cop, alderman — had not yet become the distant animatronic figures we see debating on our aggro cable networks. They were taught they were part of the cultural glue of a neighborhood. Flawed or not, they visited us in our homes as they took their roles more flesh-to-flesh seriously.
The family — oh my, every Christmas was Mom’s chance to gather them together from far, wide and even quarrelsome — to an Italian-American dinner for 30. There had been loving days devoted to the planning, preparation and presentation of a menu that my aging tummy can now only fantasize about. And yet, it was never so much about the food — or even the glistening decorations and the gaggle of gifts — but about the insistent devotion to a dogged belief. Being together — as a family, as a community, as a nation — really really mattered.
My ghosts never tell me the past was better. They do telI me what has gone before is not gone. Rather it has made what-is more possible, and what-will-be more promising. I have a good friend, now a good many miles and years away, who once shared this same little neighborhood of long ago togetherness. He recently remembered those days with these words: “My face is fixed in a rictus of benevolence….”
Gene, as one of my living ghosts, I couldn’t have said it any better!
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