Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A special holiday guest blog

An elfish Santa Claus straddles a life-sized trout. In the old man’s hands is a fishing pole in full bend, and at the end of the line a hook firmly set in the trout’s upper lip. On St. Nick’s back is a wicker basket filled with fishing floats, and around his waist on a rope are wooden lures half the length of his body. His heels are dug into the trout’s flanks for the ride of his life.

While it’s certainly not the most beautiful addition, an odd trinket hangs about a foot below the lighted angel this year, a prominent position. Two wooden beads—the lower one a round ball, the upper a four-sided, carved diamond shape—are skewered on a brown pipe cleaner which then wraps itself around the beads and completes an oval.

Three youngsters—not quite children, not quite adults—are in front of a Christmas tree holding a trio of pets: a wire-haired guinea pig named Murphy, a white kitten named Penny Lane, and a wide-eyed fat cat known as Fettucini Alfredo E. Neuman, who answers to Alf. The kids are smiling real smiles, not some put-on pose-for-the-camera grin; they are truly happy.

These are a few of my favorite things.

I’ve never really been consumed with things. In fact, very few of the objects I’ve collected over a half century of living have any value other than sentimental. Maybe I think and feel in metaphor and symbol: these favorite things are only favorites because of what they represent, not what they actually are.

The hand-painted, resin figurine of Santa Claus riding a rainbow trout was a Christmas gift years ago. I saw it at a holiday open house at O’Bryan’s Flowers & Gifts and wanted it. It showed up at the house a few days later, early enough to be enjoyed that season.

After carefully packing it back in its styrofoam and box every January, and storing it in the hall closet, I decided that Santa and his trout should be on permanent display. The old man is forever trying to land that big fish on a shelf in my office at home.

That odd ornament of wooden beads and pipe cleaner has been on our tree for thirty-one Christmases. Lynda made it in 1978—our first Christmas as a married couple. We wed in August of that year, were both full-time college students living just off campus in Clarksville in the coldest apartment ever constructed. The walls were concrete blocks, bricked on the outside, with apparently no insulation in between. The single-pane windows that frigid winter froze into a solid sheet of ice on the inside. It made you want to sleep in your coat.

We cut a redcedar from the side of the roadway and stood it in a corner of the apartment in a large can filled with gravel. We didn’t have many ornaments, most of them homemade, with a construction paper star at the top. The pipe cleaner ornament—some might even call it ugly, and at the very least, nondescript—was on that first tree.

The photograph of Dylan, Hadley, and Joey, and the ever-present pets, is just one of hundreds of Christmas photos taken over the years. I can’t really explain why this particular snapshot is so special, but I think it’s because of their faces: relaxed and at ease, worry-free, caught in the moment. They are young enough to be unconcerned about challenges life will eventually throw at them, old enough to know and appreciate that family is as essential as air.

All three objects, for me, represent so much more than what they are.
I hoped one Christmas for a frivolous gift, an unusual figurine that likely has no appeal for anyone else, but has brought me years of pleasure. I look at it almost every day.

Those first years of marriage, we subsisted on Campbell’s tomato soup, crackers, canned tuna, and whatever we could take back with us after weekend visits home. We lived on love and feasted on hope that sacrifices made on the front end of wedlock and education would pay off in the long run.

For those three young people in the photo, I have long hoped and continue to pray for only one thing: happiness. They seem to have always been so, and like your children—I hope—are your heroes too.

This Christmas, with loved ones away at war, and friends looking for jobs, and bleak economic forecasts, a healthy helping of hope is exactly what we all need, along with a few favorite things to remind us every day that hope is at our fingertips.

Dr. Randy Mackin is editor of the Buffalo River Review, and Assistant Professorof English at Middle Tennessee State University, where he teaches researchand argumentative writing, introduction to literature, contemporary Southern literature, and directs the Tennessee Literary Project.He currently serves on the board of directors for the Tennessee Writers Alliance,and is editor of the TWA’s online journal, Maypop, available at a journalist his editorials have won fi ve UT Press Institute/Meeman FoundationAwards and a National Newspaper Association award, and he is a two-time winner of the Tennessee School Board Association award for education writing.


Anonymous said...

Great post. A real holiday treat.

John Jeter said...

The gentleness is wonderful. Like a cup of Campbell's tomato soup ... thanks ...