Christmas Day, 1970-something, probably 1979, which meant Jimmy Carter, gasoline rationing, and stagflation. The nation was gripped with malaise. But children who have not been taught any better think only of themselves.
The malaise on 56th Street was pretty thick, and the rationing was at times severe. There was a great deal of uncertainty in my life. I had started kindergarten, my parents were in the process of getting divorced, and my mother had begun a relationship with troubled Vietnam veteran with a terrible drinking problem. He had moved in with us. That had been over the summer, I think.
He was meticulous. After he mowed the grass, he would disassemble the lawnmower, wiping down the parts and carefully cleaning the filter, a little brick of beige sponge he soaked in warm water and degreasing soap. He shined his shoes devotionally. When he drank, he carefully stacked those spent Coors Light silver bullets in a pyramid, a pharaoh in his own gassy little kingdom.
At some point, my mother got sick — she had a weak immune system, and a scratch from her poodle became infected, almost costing her her right arm, requiring skin grafts and an extended hospitalization, leaving her partly paralyzed and disfigured. During her hospitalization, my brother and I were sent to live with neighbors, one elderly couple during the day and a different family at night, because it was not safe to leave us in the house with the man who was living there with us. You would think that that fact would have set off some kind of bright cautionary yellow incandescent light bulb in some maternal cortex, but then, children who have not been taught any better think only of themselves, even when they are on the wrong side of 40.
We perceive time differently when we are children, and I do not know precisely how long that situation lasted. It began sometime after the first day of school and ended not long before Christmas. “I’ll be home for Christmas,” the song goes. Perversely, home was only about 60 feet away, just across the alley dividing 56th Street from 57th Street. It was like a mirage: You can see it from where you are, but you can’t get there from here.
There were no liquor stores in my hometown at the time and no package sales at the grocery stores. You had to drive to buy beer or liquor. That was inconvenient for the meticulous alcoholic. Eventually, the Coors Light was depleted and construction on the Great Pyramid of Stone-Cold Drunk came to a halt. Whatever was left of the Mogen David wine that my mother used to make fruitcakes with would already have been depleted by that point, I am sure. I do not know why Methodists from the Texas Panhandle insisted on using kosher wine for making fruitcakes, but that was how my mother’s family did it. When the beer and any other incidental liquor was gone, he switched to Mexican vanilla, which is about 80 proof.
(After that, it would be mouthwash.)
Christmas morning was grim, and everybody was on edge. In a twist that William Gaddis might have dreamt up, my mother worked for a bill-collecting agency for a while and spent a considerable amount of her free time dodging bill-collectors from the firm that employed her. Bill-collecting was a lot more face-to-face back when, which meant closing the curtains and pretending that no one was home when the doorbell rang. Credit was, of course, out of reach. There were Christmas presents, pro forma, nothing anybody wanted, wrapped up for the sake of appearances. My mother at that time still felt the lack of respectability more sharply than the lack of money, though that would change later in her life. We learn to make peace with things and to accept things, including those we should not accept. When a family fails, it isn’t usually one horrible dramatic thing that undoes it. It is a process of erosion, not a landslide.
Children who have not been taught any better think only of themselves, but, of course, no one had got my mother anything at all for Christmas. Broke, with little hope of financial advancement, left by her husband, cut up — she had grown up in a respectable family and played flute in the high-school marching band, had married a football player, had entertained her sorority sisters from the Jane Phillips Society, and had begun raising children in a house in what was at that time still the good part of town. All wreckage. Her new live-in boyfriend had what was, in our social context, a pretty good job as a driver for a regional courier and delivery service, essentially a truck driver who could come home at night. (Not that he always did, and my mother would pack us into her Volkswagen Beetle and troll through the parking lots of the Stumble Inn, the He Ain’t Here Saloon, the Branch Office — the Seventies were a golden age for evocative bar names — looking for his car.) I went with him on his work route a couple of times, delivering parcels as far away as eastern New Mexico and ducking into bars on the way. Good job, holidays off. But, of course, he hadn’t bothered to get her anything for Christmas, so he asked her to marry him out of shame and embarrassment. And, of course, she accepted out of shame and embarrassment, and loneliness and grief, and the belief that this was the best offer she was going to get. Christmas does funny things to people, especially when it comes to love and family. There wasn’t any ring. I may be backfilling in my memory here, but even as a child it seemed to me that her Christmastime hope and gratitude were obviously and disastrously delusional.
They were married at some point in the following months. I was not present for that.
Christmases did not improve. The marriage did not last long, descending into violence and, in one memorable episode, fire. Other husbands came and went, but the disappointment, bitterness, recriminations, and violence (of which my mother was both a victim and perpetrator) remained. That was life, until it wasn’t. She’s dead, the meticulous alcoholic is dead, and all the husbands who came after him are dead, too. So are some of their children and grandchildren: cancer, heart trouble, traffic accidents.
Things turned out differently for me. Every day is Christmas, and I have all the toys. Guilty? F — k you.
Children who have not been taught any better think only of themselves. But we can be taught. As it turns out, we can learn to think, and learn to be human. As it turns out, you can get there from here, here being Bethlehem, its filth and its indifference.
He shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Happiness, like much else, is learned. For a long time, I thought that this time of year would always be for me a time of bitterness and regret, mourning for things that were not lost because they were never in my possession to begin with. But there is not any reason for that. No good one, anyway. I have a different kind of family now and blessings beyond counting. I know that my Redeemer liveth. The effort necessary to be happy does not always produce exactly the desired results, and so I spend the last part of the year vacillating between my Clark Griswold mode and my bargain-basement Henry Miller imitation: “We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things.” Treacly, sentimental Christmas stuff sometimes makes me angry, and it is hard to explain to people who care about me why that is. Children who have not been taught any better think only of themselves. But we do not have to remain in that state. We can, eventually, put away childish things. It is never too late for that. It certainly is not too early here in the waning days of Anno Domini 2019.
A people prepared — for what? Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for a dead man. Nails, in time. The cross. Thomas Harris, the culinary-minded horror novelist, once described the Uffizi museum in Florence as a “great meathouse of hanging Christs.” We derive “incarnation” from the Latin caro, meaning “flesh,” as in the English “carnal” and the Latin carnifex, which means both “butcher” and “executioner.”
(“You Christians must find your faith so comforting!” Oh, Sunshine, have you read the Bible?)
Man is meat. About that there is no question. The question is whether he is to be only that. We Christians should not be too otherworldly, because the facts as we understand them are bloody before they are glorious and glorious only because they are bloody. The truth of the Incarnation — God as meat — is not that the facts and events and suffering of this world do not matter in light of the glorious kingdom to come but that they do matter. Meat matters. Blood, too. Metaphor won’t do. The Incarnation is our only link to that other kingdom. It is our only bridge and our only connection. Without that, you can’t get there from here.
In 1979, I wished that someone had done something for my mother for Christmas, and for a long time I thought that things might have turned out differently if someone had. Alleluia, Emmanuel, someone did. I hope she knew. I hope she knows.
National Review Institute (NRI) is the nonprofit 501(c)(3) journalistic think tank that supports the NR mission and 14 NRI fellows (including this author!), allowing them to do what they do best: Advance principled and practical conservative journalism. NRI is currently in the midst of its End-of-Year Fund Appeal and seeks to raise over $200,000 to support the work of the NRI fellows. Please consider giving a generous end-of-year tax-deductible contribution to NRI. Your gift, along with all those from the NR Nation, will provide the essential fuel for our mission to defend those consequential principles for which National Review has fought since 1955, and for which, with your support, it will carry the fight far into the future. Thank you for your consideration.