Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: My Highs And Lows

2011 was a real roller coaster of a year, for me personally.  Here is a (very) partial list of the high points and low points from this second year from the twenty-teens:

The Highs:
• My daughter graduated from high school
• My daughter left home in August for college at the University of Pittsburgh
• I began reviewing toys as a guest reviewer for the Action Figure Times website
• Dr. Jim Haines and I wrote a new hymn for the Unitarian-Universalist hymnbook
• I delivered what I still consider to be the finest Easter message an atheist can give to our congregation
• I celebrated 27 years of marriage to the same wonderful woman
• I attended my 40th high school reunion, and it was like we all never separated

The Lows:
• My daughter left home in August for college at the University of Pittsburgh (see Highs, above)
• My health began a more precipitous decline than in previous years
• I didn't get around to adapting my short story "Bill the Stubbornest Pelican" to a children's musical
• My godfather Ben Torre passed away
• At the reunion, the list of classmates who had died was shockingly long

As you can see, partial list or not, the highs outnumbered the lows for once, for which I am very grateful.  I hope your highs outnumbered your lows in 2011, and will continue to do so in 2012.

Happy New Year.

(And a note about the first paragraph:  Yes, 2011 is the second year of the 20-teens.  2010 was the first.  The first decade -- the first ten years of this century -- are properly 2000-2009, because 2000 is the first year of the new century and not the last year of the old.  Hey, I didn't make the rules.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sad News

Today I learned that my godfather has died.  In Italian, your godfather is called your "compara" -- the word from which the epithet "goombah" comes.  ("Godmother" is "comara.")  We haven't seen each other for years, but we have always been in touch.  Some years better than others, to be sure, but we never missed Christmas greetings, if nothing else.  Usually we managed to do better, remembering birthdays and anniversaries, and always including a letter updating the latest information.  The occasional phone call was also in the cards from time to time.  It was nice.

As a kid, I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church.  My church congregation was Italian; I was one of the few kids whose name did NOT end in a vowel.  I was given a pass into this community because my mom was Italian, and her family had been going to that church for two generations.  My mom's childhood best friend became my godmother.  Her husband, who became one of my father's best friends, was my godfather.  All of them had gone to high school together in New Jersey, and when my mother finally gave birth to her first child -- me -- after several miscarriages and a stillborn son, she asked her friend Paula if she would be my godmother.

I can't speak to the role of the godparent in general culture, I can only speak for mine.  It's a serious responsibility.  Godparents promise to see to the child's spiritual upbringing and, if necessary, their physical upbringing as well, in the event of the death of the parents.  Serious oaths are sworn and taken at the child's christening and baptism.  I know my mother took it very, very seriously; certainly more than just an honor or a show of appreciation to a friend.  She knew she could count on my godmother to raise me as she herself would have, if anything ever happened to her.  As a child I definitely considered my godparents to be my "other" mother and father.  Heck, my first dog was a puppy from a litter of my godmother's dog.

At my confirmation -- the Catholic version of a Bar Mitzvah, or coming of age -- my godparents were just as proud as my biological parents.  They helped throw a huge party for me, which turned into a major family reunion the likes of which we never had before or since.  My grandmother was one of 17 children and my grandfather one of 19 children; I met cousins, second cousins, and third cousins plus aunts and great-aunts and uncles and great uncles that I didn't even know existed.  They came from all over the country.  And all I can remember is how beautiful my two sets of parents looked and how proud they were.

Thank you, Compara Ben, for promising to raise me if I needed it.  It is a debt that I can never repay.  Comara Paula, I hope you will always consider me your other son.  I hope you are able to find some peace and joy this Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

All I Want For Christmas

I seem to be getting my Christmas early!  All I want is my daughter home safely (which, Universe willing, happens tonight) and to see my kid sister for the first time in entirely too long (which, Universe willing, happens tomorrow.)

Everything else is just icing on the cake.

We are traveling this Christmas, which is not my favorite thing to do.  I like Christmas best when it's just the three of us, at home, opening our presents and eating bagels in our pajamas until it's time for lunch.  I like when we are completely relaxed and not worrying about the comforts of guests, even when those guests are close family.  I like having Thanksgiving dinner all over again for Christmas, instead of a ham or a roast.  I just like the way the house feels and smells when it's warm inside and cold outside; how we all try not to draw the short straw which means getting dressed early and walking the dog; how my wife makes the coffee with cinnamon and cloves to go with our bagels and salmon and cream cheese.

No fussing, no trying too hard to show the company a good time, just coming downstairs on Christmas to a lit tree and full stockings.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Oh Holy What??

I live in Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania is ostensibly a Blue State, but this is a trick.  PA goes Blue largely because of the large, liberal, Democratic populations of the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.  But in between, where I live, the people vote Red, Red, Red.  Central Pennsylvania is, in many ways, an extension of the Bible Belt.  People are conservative, Republican and Christian.  Churches are mostly Protestant, and old school, including large Mennonite and Amish communities.  Needless to say, Christmas is huge and very in-your-face.  Every neighborhood has at least one church with a creche or Nativity Scene, many of them populated at times not by statuary or painted figures, but by human beings posing in costume.

Home decorating is de rigeur.

We have families here who begin decorating right after Labor Day.  There is a family in my neighborhood that has lights of some sort on every square foot of their home and yard, including giant electric wreaths and bows on their roofs.  I presume this is to let passing aircraft -- or UFOs -- know that they are celebrating the spirit of the season.

But one thing my wife and I agree on is that it isn't really Christmas for us until we see a house that has a light-up Nativity scene in their front yard which has the Three Kings beaming (literally!) down at the baby Jesus along with Frosty the Snowman who is apparently serving as their squire or guide.  Santa is there as well, keeping watch over the flocks by night along with the shepherds and camels.  It's a hoot.

Don't get me wrong.  Yes, I am an atheist, but I am not disparaging Christmas.  I believe that human beings have a need hard-wired into our DNA to celebrate this time of year, when the day has reached its shortest in terms of daylight and begins to grow longer again.  Whether it's Saturnalia, or Christmas, or Solstice, or Yule, I believe that we have to acknowledge the turning of the year and recognize that we all have hope for the return of sun and warmth.  If we can do so and also celebrate the birth of a hero in the bargain, so much the better.  So I have wreaths on the windows and a tree in the living room.  There are stockings hung over the fireplace, and I will even sing in my Unitarian Church on Christmas Eve.

No matter what you may believe, I hope you find something to enjoy this winter holiday season.  Enjoy the lights -- they're pretty!  And if something as silly as Frosty the Snowman keeping watch with Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar makes you smile, go with it.  Let your heart melt a little and remind yourself that when all is said and done, this time of year isn't about arguing over whether or not to say, "Happy Holidays" instead of the less-PC "Merry Christmas."  It's about reconnecting with family and with the values that makes us human.  It's about remembering that we are supposed to treat others the way we ourselves want to be treated, not just now, but always.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Christmas Witch

My mother was Italian, and I was raised in what was for all intents and purposes an Italian home.  One of the oldest ornaments on our Christmas tree was a figure of a little old witch lady riding on a broom, an ornament which my great-grandmother brought to this country.  I remember asking my mother why we were hanging a Halloween decoration on our Christmas tree.  My mother told me that in Italy there was no male figure who delivered Christmas gifts to good girls and boys.  There was no Santa Claus or Father Christmas or Grandfather Winter.  Italian children get their presents from an old woman, a grandmother witch, a strega.  Her name is La Befana.  The story goes that the three Kings stopped at La Befana’s house on their way to Bethlehem. After dining with her, they invited her to come with them in their search for the Christ child. She said no, since she needed to wash and clean her home.  After a while she changed her mind, and gathered up some items from her home to give to the Baby Jesus. Sadly she was never able to find the three Kings, or the baby Christ child. She’s been searching ever since, flying on her broom. So every Epiphany, the Twelfth Night of Christmas, children all over Italy find their stockings filled with sweet curly candy if they've been very good, or a dark piece of charcoal if they have been bad.  I thought of this, and the poem that follows, as I spent this afternoon setting up our own Christmas tree.  Somewhere on it will be a little Befana.

THE BALLAD OF BEFANA by Phyllis McGinley

Befana the Housewife, scrubbing her pane,
Saw three old sages ride down the lane,
Saw three gray travelers pass her door --
Gaspar, Balthazar, Melchior.
"Where journey you, sirs?" she asked of them.
Balthazar answered, "To Bethlehem,
For we have news of a marvelous thing.
Born in a stable is Christ the King."

"Give him my welcome!"
Then Gaspar smiled, 
"Come with us, mistress, to greet the Child."
"Oh, happily, happily would I fare,
Were my dusting through and I'd polished the stair."

Old Melchior leaned on his saddle horn,
"Then send but a gift to the small newborn."
"Oh, gladly, gladly I'd send him one,
Were the hearthstone swept and my weaving done.
As soon as ever I've baked my bread,
I'll fetch Him a pillow for His head,
And a coverlet, too," Befana said.
"When the rooms are aired and the linen dry,
I'll look at the Babe."

But the Three rode by.

She worked for a day and a night and a day,
Then, gifts in her hands, took up her way.
But she never could find where the Christ Child lay.
And still she wanders at Christmastide,
Houseless, whose house was all her pride.
Whose heart was tardy, whose gifts were late;
Wanders and knocks at every gate,
Crying, "Good people, the bells begin!
Put off your toiling and let love in!"