Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Richard Straw: BUSY BEING BORN

It's early December, and thick snowflakes are falling, brightening what's left of an afternoon. My sister and I clomp home in our unsnapped black galoshes the half-block from the elementary school. We try not to drop our latest artwork on the wet slate sidewalk. The yellow-curtained outside basement door is unlocked. So, we droop our wet caps and scarves and coats on the rickety clotheshorse at the bottom of the steps. Ice melts from our boots and socks, which we leave on yesterday's newspaper spread over a rug on the landing. Our cats sniff at the ice puddles as we climb the stairs.

In the overheated kitchen, mom's baking sugar cookies shaped like pine trees and sprinkling them with sweet green crystals. Shiny metal cookie cutters for a bell, a star, and a snowman wait on floured wax paper spread across the black countertop. When dad gets home from the factory, mom tells us, we'll all go out after supper to find a live Christmas tree. And by bedtime, just as she promised, a tall evergreen has been wedged into a red metal tripod base filled with tap water. The tree's too wide for the sun-room where mom's caged canaries sing, so it fills a space to the right of the red brick fireplace. Mom spreads old sheets below it to catch any falling needles. Next to the bare tree, our tee-shirted dad sits in a black armchair, his feet in gray socks crossed on a footstool. Mom tells him that pine smells better than his Pall Malls and Maxwell House coffee. He laughs a "good night," then reopens the newspaper with his big hands as we hurry with mom up the stairs.

The next morning, a Saturday, dad brings down boxes of Christmas decorations from the attic and helps mom string the tree with blinking white lights and the more fragile ornaments. They top it with an electric, golden-winged angel, but let us toss the tinsel and hang the ornaments we made at school and in church. As a last item, I hook a thin, long-faced wooden Santa in a threadbare suit next to my sister's pink plastic ballerina in a white tutu. Mom hangs from golden hooks on the wooden mantel red stockings trimmed in white and stuffed with candy, bubble gum, and other treats for each of us, even the cats.

On Sunday, there's something new on the blond TV cabinet. The old clock that usually sits on faded white lace, the one with the pretty girl on a swing, is gone. In its place a new crèche rests between two toy spruces on green felt, all sprinkled with white glitter to look like snow. A hole for the Star of Bethlehem has been cut into the stable's front panel, and an electric socket for a night light is in the back. Angels of the Lord, the Wise Men, sheep and shepherds (one with a lamb on his shoulders), and a camel form a half-circle before the wood-paneled stable. A cow reclines nearby under a poinsettia. Jesus is in his manger, and Mary and Joseph kneel beside him.

Two weeks before Christmas on a late gray Sunday afternoon, dad and mom bundle us into the back seat of their red-and-white Ford Fairlane. We drive downtown, turn right at the courthouse, then head north on Main. Turning left at the radio station near the pet clinic, we begin to see white cornfields partially crossed by thin-slatted snow fences. The wind tries to push the high drifts closer to the lonely farmhouses and silent silos and barns. We glide over the hump of a railroad track and slowly ease across a one-lane bridge. Brown seedpods of cattails and tall shrubs tell where the riverbanks end.

Across from a Methodist church in mom's old home village, we pile out under a streetlight. Entering a small house by its back door, we leave our boots in a mudroom attached to a cluttered garage. Opening the door to the flower-wallpapered kitchen releases a wave of warmth and smells of ham, meatloaf, green beans, mashed and scalloped potatoes, and coffee. The room's abuzz with aunts in aprons who say "hello, how are you," and reprimand uncles for dipping their fingers in the pots. My sister and I quickly find the little room behind the stairs where we play Old Maid and Chutes 'n' Ladders with our cousins.

After supper, an uncle snores in an armchair, a baby on his lap, while the others talk with grandpa and grandma in the kitchen about the new President's first year in office. The men have more cherry pie and sip creamy, sugared coffee. The women finish up the dishes. On the carpet in the glow of the TV, my favorite cousin and I giggle as we watch Tiger Lily lean and sing and prance and dance with her band of Indian friends: "Ugga wugga wigwam!...Ugga wugga meatball!!"

spiraling snow
shadows of footprints
on a front yard

Notes: The title is from " It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," a 1965 Bob Dylan song: "...he not busy being born / Is busy dying." Tiger Lily's dance from the December 8, 1960, NBC broadcast of Mary Martin as "Peter Pan" can be viewed on YouTube.

by Richard Straw

Cary, North Carolina

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