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Christmases Past, recorded in the Palest Ink

Bill Meredith

"The palest ink is better than the best memory."
ÖChinese proverb for the Year of the Snake

(January, 2013) The world did not end on December 21, so by the time you read this we will be starting another new year. My granddaughter, who is studying in China, tells me 2013 will be the Year of the Snake, and it wonít start until February 10 because they have a lunar calendar; the proverb of the snake is "The palest ink is better than the best memory." I didnít know snakes had proverbs, or even thought about such things. I suppose it means you should write things down because when you get old you wonít remember what it really was like, and I guess maybe that would be a good idea... but Iím not sure I want to remember what things were really like. Iíll be doing it for the 80th time, and more often than not there were wars going on, or famines or epidemics or riots back then, or political and economic messes like we have now. Iíd be satisfied to forget most of that; if I had to record it, Iíd write with the palest ink I could find. Iíd rather remember watching the ball come down from the tower in Times Square through more or less glazed eyes, while Guy Lombardoís Royal Canadians played "Auld Lang Syne" and Dick Clark exchanged inane remarks with clueless celebrities, and then going out and burying a penny in the flower bed for luck, like the Polish custom my wife taught me when we were dating. When you get old and try to remember history, it becomes whatever you want it to be.

My son, Mike, is getting like that already. Early in December he asked if I planned to put the model train under the Christmas tree. I guess I still have it somewhere, but I havenít seen it for years and didnít even remember what it looked like. The ink in my brain had faded beyond recognition, but the image of the train came back because Mike described it in detail (evidently his ink hasnít faded yet). It was a mixture of two train sets, mine and my wifeís when we were children. The engine was mine; I got it in 1937, when I was four. We were in the Depression then, so Santa brought the cheapest model Lionel made. Some of the cars were from my wifeís set, which must have been made during the war because they were painted in a khaki camouflage pattern and one of them had a search light mounted on it in case of an air raid. Mike said we could not have Christmas without a train, so a few days later he arrived with an N-gauge set. We spent a Sunday afternoon building a diorama scene to mount it on, and I spent the next two weeks fussing with it. I guess it will serve the purpose; my friend, Shane, who is two and must be learning a dozen new words each day, watched the engine go into the tunnel and come out the other side, and said, "Thatís a wonderful train." His mother had never heard him use that word before, and it made the whole holiday memorableÖ written in indelible ink.

The only thing that really ended on December 21 was autumn; it was blown away right on schedule by winds that gusted over 40 mph, but the ceremony lacked the traditional amount of snow. In the winters I remember, it was always cold enough for butchering by Thanksgiving, and as a pre-schooler I assumed God made it cold so we could hang the meat up in the shed, confident that it would stay frozen until the lard was rendered, the sausage was ground and the hams were cured. I knew there would be snow on Christmas because Grandma said so, and she was right every year except 1939, when I was six. That year it rained and most of the snow melted. I was excited rather than disappointed, because I reasoned that Santaís sleigh might get stuck in the mud in our yard, or at least we might see muddy tracks on the roof, which would prove that those rumors that there was no Santa Claus were false. I was in first grade then, and I remember having angry arguments with a fourth-grader who started the rumor. I knew Santa was real because he brought exactly what I wanted: a green toolbox with real tools in it. The next year it snowed again; the hot item it the catalogs then was a printing press with a roller and rubber letters you could put backwards in little grooves and print your own newspaper, and Santa came through on schedule. But things changed, and I donít remember much about individual Christmases after that. My memory does unfog a bit for the Charley Brown tree on the first Christmas after we were married, and those when our kids and grandchildren were little, but everything in between is a pretty homogeneous blur.

Christmas is different now. More often than not, there isnít snow, and one day last week it was warm enough to play golf. I havenít decided whether itís because of global warming, or because God decided we donít need cold weather any more since we have deep freezers (I suspect itís the former). On the day of the annual Christmas bird count, with the help of a young naturalist who can see and hear better than I could 50 years ago, I recorded 42 species of birds. Several were late migrants, like robins, who simply havenít got around to leaving yet, but we did see some of the white-winged crossbills that had been reported around Gettysburg. They flew over us and landed in some thick pine trees, and I could hear them up there grumbling about flying all the way down here from Canada and not finding any snow.

Publishing schedules being what they are, it is necessary for me to write this a couple of days before Christmas in order to get it printed by the end of the month, so I canít tell you what kind of Christmas we had this year. Since the world didnít end, Iím assuming Christmas will arrive on schedule. Some of the kids and grandchildren will be here, and for the first time in history, my wife will not do all of the cookingÖ the kids will bring some of the food, a practical solution to the problem of aging, but one she does not accept willingly. The tree is up, the train is still wonderful, and if I can find the old green toolbox among all the clutter in the basement, maybe Iíll put it under the tree. New Yearís Day will arrive, also on schedule, and before we know it we will be into the Year of the Snake.

Spring will get here on schedule too, and if I am lucky the black snake that has visited our garden for the past several years will drop by again. If he does, Iíll ask him how his year is coming along, and whether I interpreted his saying correctly. Iím looking forward to that; I think you should have goals at every stage of life, and Iíve always wanted to have such a conversation. In the meanwhile, Iím not expecting much from Santa Claus; when I wrote to him, I told him I donít really need anything, unless he has some wisdom to spare, and maybe some patience. I could use some of each.

Merry Christmas, and God bless us every one. And Happy New Year, snakes and all.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith