The Blog

Dakota Christmas

From the December 2002 issue of First Things: A holiday memoir.

11:00 PM, Dec 11, 2002 • By J. BOTTUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

WHAT FADES IN MEMORY is not the fact but the feeling. I can call up nearly every detail of those Christmases like frozen frames of recollection:

A sparrow, its feathers so fluffed for warmth it looked like a fat monk in a robe and tonsure, peering out from the ice-cased lilac hedge while I sat at the living-room window, waiting for my parents to wake.

The sideways tilt of my father's head as he looked down in concentration, cutting out the sections of a grapefruit for Christmas breakfast.

The reassuring heft of the new Swiss Army knife from Uncle Hugo, smuggled in the pocket of my dress pants to church.

The steam rising while we washed the endless piles of dishes after Christmas dinner, until the fog condensed in rivulets that raced each other down the kitchen window panes to pool on the painted sill.

The ink-and-paper, new-book smell of Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island," read with a flashlight under the blankets after my mother had come in to shut off the lights and whisper one last Merry Christmas.

I can call up nearly everything--except the emotion, the overwhelming waves that beat upon my sisters and me down the long stream of days in the Christmas season. To think again about those times is more to recall that we had a certain feeling than it is to recapture just how that feeling felt. The memories come faded, like last year's pine needles: the few that always seem to find their way in among the Christmas ornaments to sift out brittle and yellow when the box comes down from the back of the linen closet the next December.

Why should I remember the heavy-scented balsam tree we had when I was six? The long-needled ponderosa, drooping under the weight of its ornaments, when I was eight? The Douglas fir, the Black Hills pine, the juniper? The scallop-leaved holly sprigs set out on the sideboard and mantel with a stern warning every year not to eat the berries? The silly-looking plastic mistletoe my mother would hang, giggling with my father over a joke they wouldn't explain?

There in Pierre, there in South Dakota, my sisters and I were happy, I suppose, and we were sad, but "happy" and "sad" are always lies, of a sort: the words we use to smooth the edges off our memories and sand them down to generalities.

I know now, in retrospect, that the houses of my childhood--the duplex down by the Capitol in which we first lived, the place we moved to on Elizabeth Street, my grandmother's home on Grand, all the houses of my parents' friends--were simultaneously too hot and too cold. The clanking furnaces kept them overheated from September to April, a dry heat that dulled out within a year the gloss in the new paint on the window frames and cracked down the middle the door to the china cupboard. But these South Dakota houses were drafty as well: all winter the wind screamed down the frozen plains from Canada, clawing through the weather-stripping and the storm windows and the door seals and the crumbling mortar of the cinderblock foundations. And yet, I don't remember actually being any general thing like hot or cold. What I remember is the sharp specificity of lying on the living-room floor alongside the boiling radiator, propped up on my elbows and a cushion filched from the sofa, to read Gerald Durrell's "My Family and Other Animals" while the sweat dripped inside my shirt and the wind whistled up through the gap around the radiator pipe to chill my hands.

So, too, I don't remember being happy or sad. There were happy things and sad things, moments of unbearable fear and moments of lopsided comedy, tumbled together in such overwhelming immediacy I had neither space nor time to rise above them and call them by some generic name. These days I live far from Pierre; after sojourns here and there, I've settled in Washington, D.C., with my wife Lorena and my four-year-old daughter Faith, and time moves differently now. The other day Lorena reminded me we had only a month in which to clear away enough work to take a trip we had scheduled--and then she began to laugh, asking, "Do you remember when a month seemed a long time?"

It might stand as the surest marker of the difference between childhood and age: a month was once forever, and now it's just a month. Last Saturday, after talking all morning about the planned visit that afternoon of her friend Violet, the child of another South Dakotan settled in Washington, my daughter Faith finally sat down on the stairs at noon to sob in . . . what? frustration? exhaustion? yearning? To say she was over-excited--as parents do, as Lorena and I did--does no good. That is experience seen from the outside, emotion risen above and understood. We could hold her and comfort her and wait for it to pass. But the real inwardness of the thing Faith was feeling: all that is gone from us now.