By Nick Schweitzer
I. Throughout that precious time when we were young,
throughout those magic years of growing up,
those years we never thought could have an end,
we counted months and weeks and days and hours
by how much time would have to pass in school
before we could escape that durance vile,
before the long and short vacations came,
for school was nothing but a plastered cage
to children fain to run in streets and fields,
our loss of freedom heavily endured
as stoically as tigers in a zoo.
The first was signaled by the recess bell
at end of final class on final day,
when summer’s glorious freedom finally came,
releasing both our bodies and our souls,
At summer’s end the second count began,
when optimistic teachers rang the bell
to celebrate another school year’s start,
and pessimistic scholars daily urged
the calendar and clock to skip ahead,
morosely waiting for the Christmas break.
Beyond transparent taunting window panes
the fragrant rich-hued fall passed day by day
as reading, writing, spelling, history,
arithmetic and health held sway within,
and only lunch and recess gave relief
before the liberating holiday.
But come it finally did, and just in time.
II. Of all the multicolored memories
of Christmas eve and day when I was young,
the one that most seems worth remembering
was how it brought together family —
much more important than the pagan rites
of holly, mistletoe, and hopeful lights
that celebrate the rebirth of the sun
when winter threatens death to every life —
and more important than the overlay
of angels, wise men, virgin birth and star
that gave the sun’s rebirth a human face
through celebration of the Son of God.
The way it brought together family
was even more important (whisper this)
than all the gifts and toys and super sales
of jingle merchants selling packaged joy,
although for far too many childish years,
the wish that filled us sole to crown with glee
was not to see Aunt Pat or Uncle Doug;
it was to see beneath the Christmas tree
a glorious giddy gaudy pile of gifts.
III. The tree: each year we bought an evergreen —
oh ever green until cut down for us —
and decorated it from toe to top
with colored lights, bright balls and popcorn chains,
an angel at the peak, and ornaments.
Each year we added ornaments as gifts
until we found there wasn’t room for all,
and many of them never left their box,
consigned to twelve more quiet months of rest.
Installed and gaily lit and fully decked
the tree became our shrine of Christmas hopes.
When I, the oldest child, was very young,
the floor beneath the sacred tree was bare
until the gifts appeared on Christmas morn,
left overnight by soot-proof Santa Claus,
but later, jolly old Saint Nicholas,
who spent his days in large department stores,
gave up his mythic status next to God,
and long before his reindeer flew that night,
we saw the presents grow in mushroomed piles,
that multiplied like rabbits ‘neath the tree.
On Christmas morn we rose before the dawn,
we roused our sleeping parents from their bed,
and scrambled to the tree to grab the loot:
the dolls, first Ragg’dy Ann and Andy dolls,
and later Barbie, G.I. Joe and friends,
Erector sets and tools and fire trucks,
toy cars and HO trains and Lincoln Logs.
We also found some clothes, and tried to be
appreciative just long enough for show.
The most exciting gifts we ever got
were brawling puppies, one for each of us.
One year a hook and ladder truck appeared,
whose tallest ladder touched the lowest limb.
My younger brother, fire marshal Chris,
maintained a watchful eye throughout the day
to guard against disastrous smoke or fire.
He contemplated helping it along,
but in the end no flames emblazed our day,
and he retired a disappointed lad.
IV. To be together at the Christmas feast
meant someone always was a traveler.
When I was young the nearest Grandma’s house
was over the river and through the city streets,
an hour’s familiar drive by family car.
We often drove on roads just cleared of snow,
and Christmases were almost always white,
with powdered sugar frosting on each home.
As years and decades passed, the family spread;
we drifted far, like seeds, from home, until
some members of our widely scattered clan
took trains or planes to get to Grandma’s house,
and when we drove, it took us half a day,
past empty fields and solitary hawks,
through scores of towns in which we never stopped.
Then what a feast we’d have on Christmas day!
The centerpiece was always, never fail,
a turkey, large and stuffed and oven-baked.
Although the women did the heavy work
of preparation, cooking everything,
our Grandpa always got the seat of honor,
sharpening the carving knife until,
with skill just short of neurosurgery,
he amputated two colossal drumsticks,
carved great slices from the turkey’s side,
and heaped the china serving platter high.
At all the other times we visited
we never saw him touch another plate
or carving knife or kitchen implement.
And meanwhile, bowls and plates of other food
appeared from Grandma’s warm and steaming kitchen:
stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams and gravy,
carrots, cel’ry, relishes and rolls.
Then someone said a blessing and we ate.
The food was passed around for seconds, thirds,
and so of course we always ate too much.
Then while still full we passed around the pies:
pecan and pumpkin, apple served with cheese,
and so of course we always ate too much.
Some hours later two of us were picked
to wish upon the wishbone, oven-dried,
and tug-of-war the ends until it snapped.
What did I wish for? Nothing I recall,
although in retrospect my dearest wish
would now have been for then to never end.
The memories of gifts and trees and feasts
will stay with me until my dying day,
but what stands out is how the holiday
assembled all the jigsaw family.
We talked and asked about each others’ lives.
We joked and laughed and teased the younger ones.
We felt at home, as if we’d never left,
and reveled in the joy and comfort there.
We sang some Christmas carols gathered round,
the melodies and words all known by heart:
The First Noel and Good King Wenceslas,
and We Three Kings and always Jingle Bells.
The one we saved for last was Silent Night.
And once or twice we saw the northern lights,
a sign that heaven touched us here on earth.
Nick Schweitzer spent his growing-up summers with his grandparents in Muscoda enjoying the Wisconsin River, and he was delighted to return a few years ago to the riverbank in Orion. He retired recently as an administrative law judge and law school professor in Madison. Not primarily a poet, he is a playwright whose works have been performed by community theater groups in half a dozen locations in southern Wisconsin.
Michael J. Smith captured “20 seconds on High Street” in Mineral Point in November. See more of his photography at www.magiclightphotography.com.