Scranton, Pa., 1962
Memory collapses upon itself, one moment merging into the next. It’s Saturday, the best and only day of my week. As always, in our commitment to hard-won routine, Gladys, my monogamous and solo friend, meets me downtown. Lunch at the Charlemont, with the blue-haired ladies around us and the sticky seats beneath us fills me up with its usual bulk of satisfaction. My monogamous lunch (there’s that word again—attempts at consistency played a huge role in my young world), roast beef on a sesame bun, mashed potatoes and a dollop of gravy lay in my belly. Lunch was always followed by a movie, of course, always a movie. And what movie filled that afternoon? Was it “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”? Terrifying, electric, and riveting, it beckons me into presence as only movies can do.
The movie over, we slowly wander toward the bus stop, the day winding down, rubber boots squashing in the snowy sidewalk slush.
Once there, I wave goodbye to Gladys as she heads toward her bus. I wait alone for the #7, the “Nay Aug”, to come and chug me home. The afternoon light is fading. There is light snow falling. Shoppers bundled in winter coats, colorful scarves tightly wound around their necks, hug the sidewalk, arms filled with bundles. The sound of “Little Drummer Boy”, endlessly piped out into the street from a department store, infiltrates my personal space. I stomp my feet, cold seeping in. I huddle within my gold parka with the fake-Eskimo binding—all I ever wanted was this coat, begging my mom to get it for me, knowing with the heaviness of guilt that it was too expensive. Too expensive, it was too expensive—the silent mantra haunts me, robs me of the warmth and pleasure of the jacket.
Finally my bus creeps around the corner, noisily grinding to a stop in front of the line of waiting passengers. I eventually clamor my way on board. The inside of the bus feels cold and damp. I find a seat alone by the window, relieved, and collapse into the seat. I watch as the downtown blocks slowly pass by. My breath on the window clouds up the view. I smear it clear with my damp mitten, watching the shoppers, the snow, the fading light, all passing me by, all held in the soundtrack of that never-ending damn “Little Drummer Boy”, now successfully living inside my head.
We pass the Globe Store, our biggest department store. The windows are alive with the colors of Christmas. In that moment I know Jesus is alive in that store, ready to bless everyone with shopping opportunities and pleasure-beyond-pleasure. I know every Christian person will shop and shop, spend gentile money and receive wonder and blessings throughout the holiday celebrations. The lights of the store windows twinkle in the darkening sky. The lights become blurry. I slowly realize that I see them now through the veil of my tears.
Not for me, not for me. None of it was for me. Everybody gets something—but not anything for me. I get Chanukah, and my shame and guilt about wanting more. I get my fake Eskimo parka. I get worry about trying to say the next word without stuttering and blowing my cover. I get to hide with all my life-force my passion for Audrey Hepburn. My differences like a heavy weight lower me in my seat. I slide down, squeeze my eyes shut, diving into the Little Drummer, mercilessly alive my head.
I played my drum for Him pa-rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him pa -rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum
Then He smiled at me pa-rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum
It would be decades before I could allow myself to be smiled upon by life. It would be decades before I could allow myself to relax into all that weaves my heart and my life into the hearts and the lives of others. But for now, sitting on that cold damp bus in 1962, wrapped in my gold parka, I sit alone.
From the vantage point of this adult moment, if I could turn to that young girl, if I could offer her this blessing, oh, I would say:
Dear Nan—your days will be hard. And then it will get harder yet. But who you are is perfect. And blessing upon unbelievable blessing will come your way. You are not alone.
I see that young girl. I see her soften, close her eyes, and continue her journey home. I see her heading home.
Dear Readers, from the vantage point of your adult moment, what prayer or blessing might you offer your younger self? Do you have any holiday memory to share? Keep me posted.