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The Once and Future White Christmas

A few mornings ago I looked out the window to see my balcony of mostly tropical plants shivering under a blanket of . . . snow. While December snow wouldn’t be a surprise elsewhere, here in Houston it was unusual enough to make headlines and a big splash on Facebook.

One morning three quarters of a century ago, songwriter Irving Berlin looked out the window and was as surprised as to see snow. He was staying in a cabin in Banning, California, not too far from where the Southern California wildfires are raging now. Inspired by the unexpected dusting, he wrote the song “White Christmas” at the very beginning of the fateful year 1940. (Berlin commonly wrote a song a day. How’s that for being a productive writer?)

Christmas-themed songs and liturgical settings have been around since at least as far back as the 4th Century when Christmas Day was fixed as the 25th day of December. But our modern Christmas carols don’t have a 4th-Century air. In fact, they evoke the 1940s. Why is this?

The music record business had taken a severe drubbing during the Depression but was rapidly recovering on the eve of the United States’ entry into World War II. From 1938 to 1941, record sales more than tripled as more and more workers found lucrative defense-related jobs. At the same time, here as in most developed nations, the power brokers had initially supported Hitler and Mussolini. (Both dictators were adamantly opposed to both trade unions and communism, the twin bugaboos of generations of businessmen.) When this stance abruptly became passé it became necessary to unify the American people so as to enable the economy to negotiate this sudden reversal. An appeal to nostalgia and a harkening back to a mythical national Golden Age was called for. In 1940 the cultural and population center of gravity of the United States was still located near New England, and “White Christmas” brilliantly celebrates the New England winter as few other songs before or since have done.

This isn’t to say that all Christmas carols were deliberately integrated into the war effort; but the newly written carols, the ones we still hear today when we’re out shopping in the mall, suited the new public mood almost perfectly—and so even today they’re fondly, if perhaps unconsciously, reminiscent of a time of national unity.

The carol that captures the wartime experiences of Americans better than all the rest is “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” recorded late in 1943, near the nadir of the campaign in the European theater. The lyrics were  from the point of view of a homesick GI who promises his family he’ll be home for Christmas, “if only in my dreams.” This song was at the time considered to be such an effective morale booster that thousands of discs were distributed all over the world by the US military (though, curiously enough, not by the British military establishment, which feared the same song could actually depress morale.)

The abrupt philosophical U-turn to enter the war and to oppose Fascism, the meteoric rise in music record sales, the suddenly booming economy as the nation geared up for war, and the melancholy separations brought on by the war all combined to make the new Christmas carols of the 1940s resonate with the national consciousness, then and even now.

And in a real-life example of the Biblical exhortation to beat swords into plowshares, the technology developed to accurately record and play back the sounds of U-boats plying their deadly trade connected with a mass market soon after the war—in the form of “high-fidelity” amplifiers with which to listen to those Christmas carol records.

Under Construction

I am in the process of renovating – and combining – my Website and my blog, incrementally and with the much appreciated skill set of WordPress consultant Chris Merle.  Results will gradually become apparent!

"underconstruction" graphic
© Marinv | Dreamstime.com – Under Construction Blueprint, Technical Drawing Photo

Best Black Box Ever

This item doesn’t look like much but it is a miracle of technology that makes all the difference in a climate like Houston’s!

Returning from a month-long trip across the West, I got a very warm welcome when the A/C in my condo proved to be dead. That equipment was forty years old and bound to fail sooner or later. Of course it did so in an August heat wave (heat index as high as 110 degrees)!   Just in time for me to be back from a long trip with a pressing need to spend quality time in my home office!

The management company got it replaced in a few days – both the part up on the roof and the unit in my closet. In the meantime I sweltered for a night and day and then got by much better with a couple of portable A/C’s that the Condo Association has on hand for this kind of emergency.

Now my home – including my home office – is cool, dry, quiet, and imminently livable.

 

 

After a Time

Three years ago today my Mom died after the nursing home stay that occasioned some of my posts in the category “Final Glide.”  At the end, she went downhill fast. All in all it was a good death.  But anything like that changes life profoundly.  It can cause old psychological and family issues to well up.  And it caused me to leave off blogging for a long time.

The day of Mom’s death was the hardest and the holiest day of my life.  It ended my last long walk with her through her final days; it began a frightening but finally freeing collision with my early psychological issues. I ended up with a lot of people to thank from the bottom of my heart for their help:  the good people who worked at the nursing home, my friends Eileen and Lila who were there for me, my Rector, Lisa Hunt, and the Hospice nurse.

When someone has died under the care of Hospice, bereaved ones receive occasional letters of condolence and comfort for a full year.  One of these letters from Houston Hospice included this poem, attributed to Paul Irion, First Baptist Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico:

 

SOMETIMES

Sometimes, memories are like rain showers

Sprinkling down upon us

Catching us unaware,

And then they are gone,

Leaving us warm and refreshed.

 

Sometimes, memories are like thunderstorms

Beating down upon us

Relentless in their downpour.

And then they will cease,

Leaving us tired and bruised.

 

Sometimes, memories are like shadows

Sneaking up behind us,

Following us around.

Then they disappear,

Leaving us sad and confused.

 

Sometimes, memories are like comforters

Surrounding us with warmth,

Luxuriously abundant.

And sometimes they stay,

Wrapping us in contentment.

A Blessing

Nursing homes can be expectedly awful.  Nursing homes can be unexpectedly wonderful – like how the Nurses’ Aides dress Mom so that her clothes match and carefully comb her hair.  She looks better coordinated and more kempt than when she was in Assisted Living and dressing herself with Alzheimer’s eroding her ability to do so.

There is a certain little old pillow that stayed in her closet in Assisted Living, and which I put in her closet in the nursing home.  It’s nearly as old as Mom herself – ninety years old – because it was hand made for her by my grandmother when she was a little child.  I thought a time would come when that little old pillow should go onto the bed although I think she has forgotten the significance of it (and almost everything else.)  But she has been sleeping more and more as she loses the ability to talk or even smile.  Two afternoons ago when I visited her, she was in bed, comfortably asleep, with the head of the bed raised somewhat and extra pillows to help prop her up – with the little old pillow tucked over her shoulder for her head to rest on. God bless those Nurses’ Aides.

Singalong

Music is something people remember and respond to when almost all else is lost.

Yesterday there was a singalong at my mom’s nursing home.  It is at least a weekly event, when a lady brings sheet music and song word books and plays the piano in the downstairs event room for those residents who get there on their own or who are brought by the staff.  The songs are golden oldies like “Red Red Robin,”  “Grand Old Flag,” “Sidewalks of New York” and others familiar to these folks from their youth or adulthood.  Wheelchair-bound and more or less feeble, a couple of the residents knew just about every word of every song by heart and could sing along.  Other residents wordlessly enjoyed the songs.  My mother seemed pretty far out of it, half asleep and nearly motionless.  But I noticed one of her hands gesturing in time to some of the songs.  And she took her foot out of the wheelchair’s footrest and put it on the floor and tapped her toes for “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

The End of the Day

My mother has been failing slowly all year.  Then she had a health crisis in the summer. After two ambulance trips to the emergency room and a five-day hospital stay, crisis turned into catastrophe and landed her in long term care in a nursing home in Georgia.  Since she is ninety years old and has had Alzheimers for years this was not exactly a surprise.  It grieved me, though, and I think it grieved her while she still had hold of that part of her memory,  that she couldn’t return to the wonderful assisted living facility where she was safe and happy for four and a half years. But there was an up side:  no more reason not to bring her to Houston. I was able to get her to Houston and into a reputable facility called the Treemont.

As soon as the first mildly cool front of the year blew in, I took my mother on what may have been our last walk together. She was in the wheelchair she can never again not use.  I pushed her on the sidewalks around the grounds of the Treemont. We looked at the flowers and acorns, leaves and oak trees.  I plucked a morning glory flower from a bed of ground cover.  She held onto that little purple flower all the way back into the building and upstairs to her floor.

She’s in worsening shape.  Last night, it was all she could manage for me to push her to the end of the hall to look out the window at the clear cool sunset sky. She told me she wants to go home.  I have no idea if she meant Assisted Living, or the modest little house on Mayfield Drive where she lived for f thirty years, or the farm where her family lived when she was a child.  She is hardly articulate.  I told her that she is very sick and has to be where nurses can take care of her day and night.  And then I prayed with her, because now her once and future home is the nearer presence of God.  May she get there in God’s good time soon.

Decadence Is –

Drinking Godiva hot chocolate while perusing Southern Living Magazine’s Ultimate Southern Thanksgiving Cookbook in the November issue. The Apple-Bourbon Turkey and Gravy I am not going to attempt. I’ll pass on the Collard Green Pistou. But I have got to give that Chocolate-Pecan Chess Pie a go.

World Not Ending After All

Yesterday morning I was packed and ready for my trip to Columbus, Georgia in good time and not wrapped around the axle about it, and much to my surprise, the world did not end.

I’ve had a travel phobia since I was three years old and (a) Mom divorced my father, (b) she brought me from the only home I knew in Pocatello, Idaho, down to her family in Alabama, where (c) we landed in a family ruckus about my grandfather being not only a terrible-tempered old man, which was no secret, but unfaithful, as in, down the road in town there was a nearly grown, hitherto unsuspected half sister to Mom and her siblings, and (d) that secret clawing its way out of the family closet was emotionally damaging to Mom, coming on top of her divorce, and pushed her into depression that lasted for years; (e) she considered her marriage dead and buried, and her ex-husband pretty much the same, and made it clear without so many words that I had best feel that way too so (f) I never saw my father again.  There was some vague plan for me to go see him after I graduated from high school, but he had a fatal heart attack when I was 14.  Mom didn’t send me back for his funeral.  I didn’t see  Pocatello again until as an adult I resolved to go up there and find my father’s second wife.  She was the most gracious and wonderful woman imaginable, and she did the next best thing to giving me my father back.  She gave me photos, heirlooms, her recollections and those of something like twenty people she took me around to talk to about my father.  Thank you, Kate; live forever in the nearer of presence of God.

So I had plenty of good psychological reason for a bad travel phobia.  The prospect of going away to college in Texas nearly flattened me with dread and anxiety – but it turned out in a wonderful way when I loved Rice University and Houston.  For years, though, I stayed afraid of trips in general and especially trips in a southeasterly direction.  I hated pine trees, which reminded me of the South.  But I traveled anyway to various locations in the US from Northern California and Washington State to Washington DC and across the southern latitudes from Miami to Los Angeles.  I’ve traveled cross-country with pilot friends in small airplanes.  My pilot friend Kristin is well acquainted with my travel phobia and maintains that it makes me the most meticulous travel planner she’s ever known.  The phobia loosens its grip as soon as any trip actually starts, so I enjoy travel and I’m a good travel companion.  And every time I get home it’s like a reprieve from death and doom. I’m so happy that my home unexpectedly still exists:  it hasn’t been destroyed by fire or another ill fate after all!!! – that I’m on a post-travel high for the better part of a week.  Above all else life has shown me that a phobia (or depression or general anxiety or chronic fear) is not a thing that tells the truth.  It tells lies.  If you shake off or plow through or pray through the terrible feeling, the actual outcome may be glorious.

Not having the phobia kick in at all is a novel experience of the sort where deep down you think, This is too good not to be corrected by something really unpleasant like the world ending. But at last report, the world did not in point of fact end. Yesterday’s flight from Houston was fine. I’m in Columbus staying with cousins whom I really like, and I’m on my way over to the assisted living facility where Mom lives now.   Things change . . . and not always for the worse. It can just take time and experience and grace to iron out the early imprint of a traumatic change.