Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Gnawed and Mumbled

There should be a rule about how they load a church van. There isn't, but there should be. In my time I crawled into and out of many a one and it never went well. Generally the people with the greatest flexibility and the smallest bladders tend to rush to the back and as the load increases, stack and fold themselves into the available space as best they can in order to accommodate the slower adults to follow. Heat and hilarity ensues, though genuine discomfort soon follows. Now, this seems only polite but it proves impractical as soon as it comes to unloading since upon arrival wherever, the oldest and slowest, being the last loaded in, are then called to be the first out, with usually only the driver to help see them safely to the ground. All that pent up energy buzzing and bawling behind, and nowhere to go until the substantial person of Mrs. Whomever can be un-wedged from a bucket seat and lowered less than gracefully down, while the bum knee of Mr. Bucket needs straightened gently before he can be dislodged from space between the driver's seat and gearbox. And all the while, like a loaded cannon, kids trying to rush the exit.

"Can't you wait a minute? Wait, I say, damn you. Oh, not you Mrs. Whatsit, my apologies."

This is a mere van, mind, nothing so grand as a bus. Mightn't be from an actual church, or it might be, but borrowed. Might be a delivery van of some sort or a panel truck, come to that, commandeered into temporary service for the occasion, but nothing so roomy or regulated as a bus. (I sat many times on an ice-cream freezer, or on the open bed of a pick-up truck in the winter wind, and more than once sat in the open stairwell of a moving vehicle.) Like the conveyance, the contents varied according to the occasion, but generally there were one or two functioning adults; organizers and acting chaperones, a driver not altogether happy and probably scared out of his or her wits, and then entirely too many cub scouts, or members young and old of the Grange, or 4H, or some other country fraternal organization, stacked less like cord wood than a load of noisy, wet gravel, every icy road and or sharp turn eliciting a loud and unhelpful, "Whoaaaa!" Unruly bunch, cheerful but not helpful, all smelling of damp wool and farm boots, rarely uncorked scent bottles and fresh baking, and not a drop of drink anywhere to take the edge off the enterprise.

I speak, just here, of country carolers, not the kind in a proper chorus, not so much as rehearsed, circa somewhere between say 1968 and 1976, my best remembered childhood. These would not be singers necessarily, mind, and not so much organized as randomly gathered. That would be the point.

I'm put in mind of this when I finally considered hauling out my Christmas music, and then didn't. Two big moving-boxes of the stuff just sitting in our garage, gathering dust the year 'round until normally some day soon after Thanksgiving when I drag the lot of it upstairs, spread jewel-boxes over the floor, and fire up our now much neglected stereo system.  But this year? I certainly had the time. Lord knows I love the stuff; the season, the bells, the carols, the songs, the choirs, the kitsch, the lot. But then I found even as late as this week, Christmas all but just around the corner, I could not quite rise to the occasion. Wasn't in me. Where the happy, off-key caroler of Western Pennsylvania childhood?

"The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas Carol: but at the first sound of

God bless you, merry gentlemen!

May nothing you dismay!

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost." 

Stave One, Marley's Ghost, roughly a dozen pages in, that. Oh dear, am I Scrooge now?

Short of the thirteen surviving minutes of Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost, the first extant film adaptation from 1913, every version stage and screen of the immortal Dickens' story that I've ever seen -- and I swear I've seen them all --has unsurprisingly featured carolers at whom the old wheezer might sneer. Yet another of the Dickensian reinventions of Christmas; that tight quartet in the full Victorian, harmonizing heartily on the cobbles. Easiest thing in the world to establish period, place, time, antagonists, and an appropriately festive atmosphere. Often as not, right under the credits or first across the stage: enter caroling.

I know it's not to everyone's taste. There are those who can't abide so much as the tinkling of jingle bells, fellow retail workers ruined in their seasonal joy by the too oft' repeated loop of saccharine inanities, persons of refined opinion who shiver not in anticipation but disdain at the first hint of Tchaikovsky's nutcracker. I sympathize with but have never shared their pain. It isn't all Luciano Pavarotti's Gesu Bambino and cathedral choir soloists calling oh, O for the Wings of a Dove. Hell, it's not necessarily even Miss Brenda Lee. 

As someone who has amassed a considerable collection of Christmas recordings, I feel fully qualified to say that not all all of it is anywhere near good, and that some of it is frankly dreadful. Further, I will admit to taking a perverse pleasure in not a few records the value of which is largely in their un-self-conscious awfulness. (Not the dreaded novelty numbers I mean so much as the full-throated sopranos mit orchestra yet, assailing a simple tune as if it were an aria from Norma, and or the various attempts by well meaning or greedy producers to bring a bit of contemporary pizzazz to old chestnuts with misjudged arrangements borrowed from 80s exercise videos to gangsta rap. Shivers. Good shivers, you understand, but in a bad way.)

But I think what I most want just now and cannot have, is something like the sound of the caroling I remember being carried from nursing home to shut-ins and on to isolated farms in those steaming vans of my youth. 

Don't misunderstand me when I tell you it was not good. We sang as I remember from mimeographed pages, often impossible to read in dim porch-light, or limply wet and runny in a snow storm. We sang, if you can call it that, crowded in the front of community rooms and fidgeting in drafty halls, to audiences often smaller than the crowd from the van. Our put-upon listeners were expected, not unreasonably I think, to appreciate our enthusiasm and the effort made, rather than the resulting noise.

There were always good natural singers among us, adults and children, but even their best could not always rise above. I remember there were always ladies -- seldom but occasionally gentlemen -- who would try, bless their memories, to get or keep us on pitch and in tune, and some brave soul would even try to keep time for us, when there wasn't an upright piano to follow. It all in the end usually came to almost nothing very nice, but at least we were cute, as I remember us then, and it was over soon enough.

I do remember one such performance in particular, not because of anything we did, but for a moment after. Might have been at The Odd Fellows Home, or somewhere like. Sad, sometimes frightening places for the smallest children, nursing homes. Not then so sad as they seem now, for reasons we were then blessed to never have anticipated, but sad nonetheless. Unhappy, mostly as I remember them, with crepe paper bells and sad strings of saggy tinsel, the inmates often decked in small tokens of better memories: Christmas broaches and garlands draped like scarves, perhaps a Santa hat on some stray staffer.

The moment I mean to recall came after we had finished our "program" and had gone at our minders' insistence out among the occupants to offer season's greetings individually before we fell to on the cookie tables and watery punch. It wasn't me who heard her first, nor do I know who or what may have prompted her. But somewhere in that painfully bright recreation and assembly room, one ancient lady decided to sing. Seemingly unbidden by anyone or anything but memory, without accompaniment or the slightest encouragement, perhaps not even altogether aware of what she was doing, a very old lady -- sang.

I wish I could tell you that her voice was still thrilling and strong. It wasn't. I wish I could remember what language she sang in, or that someone present could later identify the song. It wasn't English I know, might have been German, Italian, Polish. Somebody would have said that much at least, but I do not remember. All I remember is the quiet. I remember there the sudden hush and that all of us, even the evil-minded teenagers stopped what we were doing, stood still and listened. The carol she sang, if carol it was, couldn't have lasted more than a very few minutes but it had the shape of something beautiful still, something familiar even in its foreign language, something sacred. It rose and fell to nearly a whisper, it broke going up and shook when it had ascended and it was everything but pretty or professionally done. And while it lasted, the little time it did, it was beautiful. It was Christmas, hers as she remembered it if she remembered nothing else, and wherever it came from, however she came to be there, in a small country place, among people who barely spoke the little English we used, it was a gift.

And when she'd done, when what she'd done trailed away to nothing, we did not applaud or shout or make much of her really. As I remember it, some adults made a point of going to wish her well. I saw her then, as some attendant wheeled her back no doubt to her bed. She was no more awake or aware of us than a sleepy baby. I cannot say I remember her face, let alone her name if I ever heard it.

When she'd gone, we went back to our happy buzz, now somewhat subdued and soon after it was back to the van. I believe we were done for the night. Going home people said nice things about what they'd heard. Somebody probably picked a fight when somebody else shifted and crushed a toe or kicked an elbow away. Come the first hard turn, we all shouted, "Whoaaaa!" and were told yet again to shut the hell up, it was hard enough trying to see in such weather, hard enough not to kill us all such roads.

Right this minute, that's the carol I want to hear. I wish I knew what it was. That's the music for this moment and all I can do is tell you to listen to it however it comes to now, in the quiet hereafter, come the stille nacht, heilege nacht, and wish us all happy holidays, better days hereafter, and a very good night.

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