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Island Christmas

Carolers and the tree

When the boys were younger, the stars were brighter, the air colder, and the hot chocolate more delicious.  Christmas dawned with delicious sense of responsibility.  The days were wrapped in foil and cushioned in crepe paper.  We opened each day with the hungry precision of the Advent calendar.  Today was the seventh of December; the door opened on a Lego horse and rider that would be assembled, placed with the collection, and loved until the door opened on the eighth. 

On the night before Stroll, and on several afternoons afterwards, we visited the Christmas trees downtown.  One boy’s class had done a tree full of self-portraits down by the Lion’s Paw.  The other boy had decorated stars for a tree up at the Kitchen Store.  Then there was a tree of race cars in front of the Sports locker that had to be checked and rechecked.  In the bruise-colored dark, we would stand before the colored lights and count the cars and trucks on the boughs and branches. 

Around us, the light faded and the lights burned.  Day light drained up Main Street, past the bank and into the arms of the elms.  Store lights and tree lights glowed in the cobblestoned black.  In the quiet of December, Volvos and Ford 350’s left the street to the light and the damp.  We stood in front of the Pacific Club, before two lines of trees set up just for us. 

On the way back to the car, we passed the Killen Boat, but was unable, once again, to get the boys to stand still for a picture.  Instead, they fussed and wobbled until we once again were seat belted into the warm car. 

It may have been this night or it may have been another when we braved the puddle to drive up Equator Drive for the lights of Christmas.  We had a winter where one boy was fascinated with the train that spun in circles in the front yard.  We had another winter when the other boy was scared of the Santa on the roof.  Nonetheless, we drove that road before bed, with boys in pajamas and polar fleece and then a turn back home and a slow climb up the stairs. 

We read many books to the boys in those years.  “Goodnight Moon” remained a favorite for years, as did “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”  But at Christmas, “The Polar Express” got its binding worked over, its pages ripped, and the little bell rung over and over.  Once the movie came out, the “Hot Chocolate” song accompanied the ride to school.  One boy, in the back seat, jumped and hopped through the whole song until he came to the school and waved to Cousin Henry at the crosswalk.  

This was the time of Thomas the Tank Engine.  We would go to stores just to play on the train tables. It was the time of interlocking tracks and switching yards and water towers and cranes and bridges and strange trains that had claws on their roofs.   Thomas and Henry and Percy were soon joined by Donald, Annie, Clarabel, and a hundred other little wheeled wonders.  The train tracks spread out over the boys’ room  and buckled over the carpet.  One Christmas, in this time, The Polar Express came with a light, a whistle, an engine, and a car that played the Hot Chocolate song.  Several nights included a boy sound asleep on the floor, facing the train tracks, while the engine continued to spin its way around the tracks. 

We overindulged at Christmas.  We sated ourselves on TV shows.  The boys watched the original “Charlie Brown Christmas” longer than was healthy for their self-esteem or for the Christmas Tree.  We added “Rudolf”, the “Little Drummer Boy,” and one long forgotten title that took place on a farm in Vermont where the tractors sprayed mud although the Christmas Tree came home on a horse drawn sleigh. 

We made cookies and snacks for the teachers and the co-workers.  We wrapped scallops in bacon and mixed sour cream into the coffee cake mixture.  We made cookies shaped like reindeer and snow men, then we decorated them with frosting and sprinkles before we put them in little boxes. 

We put a small tree at various places in the downstairs, because there was no obvious place to put it.  Before we went to Moor’s End Farm to tie the tree to the top of the Toyota, we shopped at Bartlett’s.  However, we never quite got there early enough in the season before we were looking at some expensive Blue Spruces that would, inevitably, get wrapped up with a sigh.  I liked having the tree by the sliding doors, then it was visible in the winter dark of the moors.  At other times, we placed the tree in the corner next to the sofa or in front of the fireplace.  The lights were always in a horrid tangle, framed in a question; “Why not buy new?” The question answered itself in an hour of untangling.

In the mess, another set of lights waited for their placing.  At the time, everyone with a glue gun was making scallop shell Christmas tree lights.  We would see stores selling these lights for a hundred dollars or more at Stroll, and then head out to the scallop shell pile at Jetties beach and collect fifty or so shells.  Then, after several days of bleach and a good rinse, the shells were glue-gunned on to string of white lights from Marine Home Center and another Nantucket decoration, as original as the Lightship basket, graced the windows. 

We decorated the tree with ornaments from her past.  We strung long strings of cranberry and beads: we hung red balls and Santas with long beards and a small, yellow duck.  We hung wooden Henry’s cars and fragile glass grapes.  In those days, at the beginning of the boys’ years in school, the first of the handmade ornaments arrived.  We hung little pictures in popsicle frames and wooden cut outs of balls with glitter on them and popsicle Christmas trees.  At the top, her mother’s homemade angel, complete with straws and gold spray paint graced the tree.  Then we spent each succeeding day protecting the tree from airplanes, trains, and other things running boys would think about from the edge of their vision.

In the dark when the boys slept, we shopped Amazon for their presents.  And the ease of clicking meant that soon there were too many gifts for sanity or reason.  Legos multiplied into more Legos.  They flew around in helicopters and rode around on firetrucks.  Matchboxes begat matchboxes which moved into plastic matchbox towns complete with police stations and bakeries.  The UPS man stopped at our house every day for a solid week with more presents. 

Then Santa did his work.  Invariably, he knew the special surprise that each boy wanted deep in his heart.  Years ago, when I was a boy, Santa brought me a two foot high penguin which waddled, smiled, and squaked if you petted his head.  My sister and I competed for the Penguin’s love.  After a few hours, our love silenced the penguin when we learned that he ate magic, not saltines driven down his throat.  Penny the Penguin spent the next ten years silent, but in the pantheon of my sister’s room.

One winter, Santa gave the boys a matchbox race down Volcano Mountain.  Two cars would start at the top of the three foot plastic mountain and race down a shaking and rattling track (Santa brought batteries) while a flume of wet lava coursed down the chutes and threatened the race cars.  And it played a racing song.  The mountain spread lava love over the floor and shook, in song, through the entire morning until the lava ran out.  It spent the next four years at the end of Kidville, the Matchbox town. 

For most of the island Christmases with the boys, the Winter Wonderland never quite appeared; the bluebird stuck around.  Without school, the boys would go on tours of the swingsets and playgrounds on island.  While we went to the elementary school and Children’s Beach, we found ourselves driving out to Tom Nevers.  At the time, the slide was preposterously long and the swings were empty. 

A blizzard came one Christmas Eve during these years.  Like most Nantucket storms, the wind came whipping rain at the outset, before the cold dropped in and the snow flew like angry bees.  It blasted a white crust onto the side of the house inches thick, built drifts head high,and left the rest of the yard bare.  Wrapped up in warm coats and snow pants, the boys dived into the drifts and rolled over each other in the white.  They were goaded into making snowmen before we packed them into the car and drove them to the Quaker Cemetery for sledding.  The best runs dropped from one crest to the next, then ran into the steep drifts at the bottom of the hill.  When the faces were red, noses were runny, and the sky dipped into purple, we packed them back into the wet and cold car and brought them to the Brotherhood for hot chocolate. 

On Christmas Eve, I lost the red ticket drawing over and over.  Still, the three of us would stand in the blueblack cold with the rest of a small island crowd waiting for the correct numbers and nodding to the friends we knew as we stamped ourselves warm.  If  winter smiled on us, a brief ocean effect snow came blowing over the water before bouncing off the Pacific Bank and falling to the cobblestones.  In that time, we walked back to the car, warmed up inside, and took one more swing up Equator Drive before heading back. 

Sleep came quickly, but did not last for long.  Presents were wrapped, toys were assembled, and the Rescue Rangers assumed their positions under the tree.  Stockings were arranged on the boy’s doors.  Then, before Santa arrived, we opened the floor, arranged the milk, cookies, and carrots, then hid from the magic. 

By dawn, the cookies had been eaten, the milk drunk and several ashy bootmarks had appeared on the carpet, in addition to Rescue Rangers Base, A Tonka Excavator, parking garages, airports, and the Race Car Tent.  The boys would flutter and dart between one toy to the next and then back again. 

Then there would be dinner and grandparents and more toys and Leith coming for a visit and more toys and clothes and fun.

And it is still there, still crisp, and still golden, hanging just to the edge of my vision.  I have but to turn around and see them lying on the floor, pushing a special Egyptian Thomas through a pyramid.  In the edge of scent, I catch a hint of tree and coffee cake and there is, beneath my feet the shake of boys on the run.  It will never leave me, never fade, and never submerge under a drift of minutes and calendars.  Those days glow fresh and warm, just beyond the clutter of now and later.  With a gesture, they rise again.

Bob Barsanti's first novel, Milestone Road, appeared in summer, 2012.  Sand in My Shoes, his book of essays, was published in 2008.

Photo credit:  Nantucket Tie Chic


Rachel Dowling's picture

Lovely Barr.