Christmas at Home

Christmas at Home

A friend of mine was the son of a man who had survived the Bataan Death March. He had seen men stagger out of line knowing they would be machine-gunned. He kept his head down. He didn’t talk to others. He was slow to react to the commands of the enemy herding them on, pushing them beyond their limits. He would breathe slowly, and let the air out like a monk meditating in a temple. His stoicism may have saved his life. But he had given up a precious virtue — anticipation. He didn’t want to think about the next moment, and kept his mind as empty as his pockets. He trudged. He slowed when someone staggered ahead of him. He didn’t want to fall or make a single mistake. He knew a certain guard kept his eye on him; he didn’t think anyone could be that determined. He was sure he was getting food somewhere, even though he was just a skeleton in the rags of his infantry uniform.

“…kept his mind as empty as his pockets.”

To meet such a haunted man was a trying experience. He would be sitting in his worn- out easy chair studying his fingers, barely saying a word. He had survived, but he had sacrificed everything worthwhile to do so. He made himself into a lump of clay, a reduction of his spirit into the mud of the rain forest. He had no magic in him. No jokes, either.

When his wife put a present for him under the Christmas tree, he pretended not to notice. He chose instead to sharpen his penknife on a small stone in the kitchen drawer, and polish his shoes, very slowly, with a rag and dabs of Shinola. Breakfast on Christmas morning was mostly conducted in silence, with the forks scraping against the plates and the coffee sipped at while the kids scrambled around opening gifts. He was handed his gift; he put it carefully on his lap and continued to dawdle at his poached eggs. Then, when it was already too late to join in the holiday spirit, he would undo the tape and pry up the wrapping paper to reveal a miniature chess set or a book about falconry. He would allow himself to smile and look up with muddy eyes and thank his wife with a nod.


“Breakfast on Christmas morning was mostly conducted in silence, with the forks scraping against the plates and the coffee sipped at while the kids scrambled around opening gifts.”

The march occurred in January 1942 and lasted until April, with some 650 casualties on the American side. Many more Filipino soldiers died. Along the way of the 60-odd miles they marched, guards gave out ladles of water and stale bread. The men were bearded and hollow-cheeked; their boots were worn out, with their feet showing. Some discarded their boots for fear of tripping on the broken soles. If you were found with Japanese money in your pockets, you were executed for having stolen it from dead Japanese soldiers. Even officers were not spared from the death squads. The men had spent Christmas eating out of field rations and drinking cold tea from their canteens. But the New Year was perhaps the lowest point of the war, with Japanese victories in Manila and many of the islands. General MacArthur was having to order retreats and surrenders.

Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande

His son Jake started a rock band in central Texas and would play gigs around the city, at parties and weddings, an occasional street fair. He played rhythm guitar and his drummer had been his best friend since childhood. Jake sang with a good country twang, and smiled at the girls who crowded up to the stage to flirt with him. He was a gentle soul and clung to the music he made as the only escape from the gloom of his family life.

A Christmas tree stood in the corner by the stairs shedding needles. The wrapping papers were still scattered about the floor. His father had retreated to his little corner of the garage to read the instructions on his chess set. He would later put the box away and come into the house to sit before the TV. He was among the living dead of the war and nothing could console him. But he would take out the chess set and study the pieces, then move one or two of them on the wooden board. He would think about war and how to capture the queen, how to surprise the enemy, how to pull victory from the terrible grief he suffered. But he didn’t get far. He had to surrender his pieces one by one to an imaginary player whose moves he determined and made more lethal than any of his own. The great matted canopy of the jungle clothed his soul in rain, in the hum of mosquitoes, the suck of mud against his tramping feet.

Christmas came and went. In summer, he was given time to putter in a struggling garden at the back of the yard. The train went by and the soot from the rail bed would dust the leaves of his tomato plants. He kept himself aloof from neighbors and would chase the rabbit out of his carrot patch with a leaf rake. Summer erased the vision of endless mud and overturned Jeeps, the bombed-out remains of thatched huts and tin-roofed schools.

War had ravaged the innocence of Filipino life. The rice paddies were deserted and arid, with wiry shoots of rice grass here and there. But as the weather cooled, it would back the smell of lemons and fish soup, the odors drifting out of the windows of small hamlets along their way. It would ease the pangs of memory a little.

A child stared at him as he passed by. He dared not look at it for fear they would both be shot. In a month or two, it would be Christmas. He could hear the old mission bell in a town marking the noon hour. A water buffalo walked along beside the men and then went back into the fields dragging a slender plow behind. Life went on. Marriages were celebrated; a pregnant woman stood holding the small of her back after chopping grass. The steady rumble of thunder could be heard across the river.

When the Christmas season began again, the old man would stroll with his wife and sons into the mall. He wouldn’t shop, but he liked to sit on a bench and observe the throngs passing by. Happy people. Innocent people. They were eager to get home to eat a feast, to sip wine, to turn on the TV to Christmas specials. Everyone had lights blazing on the shrubs and on the porch roofs. It was a time of resurrection, of rebirth, a promise made by whoever God was that life would persist, even triumph over the terrible failures of power. So, there he sat, listening to the throb of drums coming from the food court, and the sound of his son’s guitar playing a shrill solo while he pressed his mouth against the microphone and wailed out a love song. He felt the calming influence of that harsh sound; his son was not scarred with the memory of so much death. He was hailing the return of love into the world as the bells rang.

When the old man was led back to the car, his wife kissed him on his cheek and patted his hands. She was glad he had come out, she said. She was happy he could hear his son Jake playing music. It all seemed to add to the spirit of the moment. She didn’t know why, but she was very happy, as happy as she had ever been. She was like a voice in the midst of war, a calming, soothing voice from home.

Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande

He heard the words; he was moved to tears at their affection. He had survived. That’s what Jake said to him later when they were assembled in the living room with cups of eggnog. The old carols were playing on the radio. There was nothing silly about them, even though he had heard them so many times his brain was numb. But on this night, this cold, dry night of Christmas Eve, he was lifted from his chair and led to the porch where his neighbors were standing with a box. He was told to take it. He put it under the tree with the other gifts and opened it the next morning. It was a garden kit of hand spades, a weeding fork, packets of seeds, a nozzle for the hose. And a cartoon of his lanky body bent over a bushy eggplant vine. He was smiling and waving. He felt a dull thrill pass through him, the kind you might feel after a girl kissed you the first time in your life.

Memories of Christmas

Memories of Christmas

It’s that time of year again, light snow fall dusting the fields and turning a muddy lane pure white, wreaths on the doors, the pale twinkling glow of Christmas trees in the living room windows. Kids are going to school with a bottle of glue, some construction paper, some stardust to sprinkle on their angels. I remember it all well, with some pangs of regret mixed with my usual anticipation as I waited for the first light on Christmas day.

I would rush down the steps ahead of my two brothers and scan the loot under the tree and find that the microscope I had put my hopes on was not among the presents. The box was too big for most of the stuff my mother had laid out. My usual haul was a pack of winter socks, some shirts, a new pencil case, maybe a baseball cap with the Phillies logo sewn over the visor.

Looking back after many years, I pat my vanished childhood self on the back and praise him for not moping around the house all Christmas afternoon. My father would pretend to know what each box contained and would smile abstractly as the wrapping was torn open. He hadn’t shopped at all; but my mother always made it seem he was the generous source of each kindness. It was a game we all played, and even enjoyed. “Gee, thanks, Dad,” I would say, concealing what he had ‘given’ me. “I really needed this.” That made him crane his neck a little, until I revealed the woolen gloves to him. Then he would nod sagely and sit back.

I could smell cinnamon rolls baking in the oven and the slightly acrid smell of coffee percolating in the dented coffee pot on the stove. My father would light a small fire in the hearth and we would gather there to wolf down our glazed and sticky rolls, and slurp coffee, and watch as my mother delicately pulled loose the ribbon around her gift, and ease the tape from the box with her thumb nail. She would lift the lid and part the tissue paper and pull out a colorful scarf from my brother, or a thin, silk blouse from my father. I would give her a supply of Tootsie Rolls and a Pez dispenser as my contribution to the year’s climactic moment of mother love.

Then we would all sit among the piles of torn paper and scattered box lids and wonder what to do next. Snow was falling, kids were outside with new sleds and plastic saucers, raising shrill cries as they slid around in the street. I ventured out only to get pelted with a snowball from the neighbor’s kid, a lanky, overly tall pimple-faced rival for the girl I liked down the street. He always waited for me to brave the outside before landing an expertly delivered missile. He became a policeman when he grew up; I was glad for him.

Christmas was a sandbar in the midst of a desolate sea of winter-time school. We had a half-week of pure lassitude and could indulge ourselves in sentimental feelings and fleeting visions of what it would be like to get a new bike, or a model plane with a tiny, gas-powered engine to propel it. Only rich kids got such treasures.

My old Schwinn bike was in the basement with a flat tire, and a seat that could no longer be tightened down. I would haul it up anyway and go sliding around the icy streets. I had on my new socks, and a warm shirt, a scarf sent by my grandmother, who knitted it herself. I was happy. I would slow down when I came to Valerie’s house; she would be there at the window with her cup of tea. She would wave to me, and pull on her coat, and come out to talk briefly.

The smoke from her breath always excited me. I knew it smelled like lilacs and that her whole body was a creation of spring and flowering fields, gardens just waking up to the sunshine.


The turkey was roasted all day long and was put up on the drain board to cool before we were summoned to the table. My mother’s stuffing was a magical confection of gizzards, kidneys, mushrooms, breading flavored with garlic and basil, and black olives. My tongue would savor it all and I would think of her mother growing up in sunny Sicily and working in the kitchen with all the other women of the household. They would be making pigs’ ears, and rolling out pie dough in clouds of flour. They would be stirring huge pots of tomato sauce and slicing onions, peeling fillets of anchovy from a jar dripping with olive oil, sorting through the herb bottles for sprigs of oregano and bay leaves.

She brought all that lore with her to America and taught her daughters how to cook these ancestral dishes. I was glad. Christmas was my mother’s time to show off her skills, and to lavish her table with so much food, no one could possibly do justice to it. But we ate until we sighed contentedly and took naps in the easy chairs. Maybe all this labor in the kitchen was the real gift of Christmas. The presents were store-bought and had a kind of impersonal sameness about them. But the food was blessed with the preserved sunlight of a faraway island. I remember that best of all.

My brothers would almost always forget to give me a gift. But one Christmas morning I was handed a small box wrapped in a paper towel and tied with twine. I opened it and removed a handsome penknife. I knew it came from the hardware store in town. It was not cheap. It had a very sharp main blade and I slit a page of newspaper to prove it. I was stunned. My own gift of four all-day suckers and a bazooka from the toy store seemed a paltry tidbit next to this.

I vowed to save more for next Christmas. I kept squeezing the knife in my pocket and thinking how many ways I might use it in my adventures in the woods.


“Christmas was my mother’s time to show off her skills…”


My other brother, the middle one, was a bit on the tight side, but he managed to come up with a comic book and a whistle, which warbled when you blew it. A wooden ball rattled inside when you gave a toot. It was kind of him to think of me, and I told him so. But he was shy and didn’t like to be hugged. So I smiled and shook his hand instead. My gift to him was a pack of baseball cards, but he wasn’t much of a sports fan and merely smiled at me.

Almost at once my father was gathering up the torn paper and smoothing it out, stacking it carefully next to the fireplace. It would start the next fire, some cold January evening. By noon, the living room was returned to its slightly drab normal look, with the tree leaning a bit by the window. The cat was sprawled under the tinsel strands, gazing up at the glittering balls hanging above his head. He had been given some turkey skin and dressing for his Christmas dinner. We were tired and happy, and I was even pleasant to the two Mormon boys who showed up with their bible to evangelize us in the afternoon. I bit my lip and listened politely to their well-rehearsed gab and bid them a merry Christmas. 

When I opened the door to let them out, I found a card addressed to me on the mat. It was from Valerie, and bid me season’s greetings. Her school picture was enclosed, and on the back it said, “Don’t be such a stranger.” I was elated. I felt a bolt of electricity race up to my heart. I felt the first awakening of some mysterious feeling I had not known before. I was at some threshold, a doorway which would lead me to a place only imagination could picture. I would flirt with her, I would hold her hand; I was ready to explore feelings that had been buried deep inside me until now.

Christmas faded away into New Year’s, and school began again. My old rival was always waiting for Valerie at the entrance to school. He was eager to talk to her, to carry her books; he had on his new fleece-lined jacket and wore very smart gloves. His dad was an accountant and gave him lots of expensive gifts each Christmas.

But he was plain and awkward, and she would look at me as if to say, Where are you? I was moving through the murky start of a new life and would one day ask if I could kiss her. Who knows what she might say? But Christmas had closed my childhood behind me, and I was pressing my foot down into the snow where no one had walked before.