Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette December 20, 2022
Movie directors have one big advantage over writers, flashbacks! In seconds their audience can be shifted to childhood events, later revealed to have had a surprising influence. Scene: President Coolidge’s home town.
I arrived on earth during 1933’s 12-day Christmas season. Around two thousand years after that first Christmas when Christ was born. Twenty years later my Irish dad was elected mayor. His business card proudly read:
“The Paradise of America”
Dad’s Northampton welcomed him, supported his aspirations, and made him feel equal in a new country. Prejudice was harder to find here.
In five years I was off to first grade at St. Michael’s. A plump smiling Sister of St. Joseph reassured me until second grade across the hall. There a tiny nun moved the girls up front. Struggling boys needed a ruler to slowly print FIRST NAMES in two-inch letters.
Meanwhile, the girls may have been on to essays.
Writer and radio raconteur Jean Shepherd’s monologues hilariously came together in 1983’s, A Christmas Story. The movie became an instant classic because it was set in childhood, a place where all of us once lived. Jean’s storytelling style was picked up by Garrison Keillor on his National Public Radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. Keillor’s loving description of his imaginary world was dubbed the Lake Wobegon Effect: “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” The effect was to inflate our own capabilities compared to others. Like, when I dabble in experiential poetry:
This quite young normal boy
Took what he and bros called
A short cut, a circuitous route
From now closed St. Michael’s
School uphill to Smith College.
In the movie Ralphie is a dreamer. Me, head in the clouds, more Ralphie than I care to admit. My 10-year-old-self took a shortcut home from school. The walk became extraordinary because of a vision. It was wartime, 1943. I believe what I saw, but never revealed it until this Christmas column came due. How did statues get there? Were they always here? Oblivious, I walked on.
Going home to lower South Street via West Street was to follow the Mill River in its new rip-rapped course. In 1939, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers blasted its new path to the city’s meadows. There it joined “The Great River” as named by Native Americans. It was God’s gift over eons as it carved, shaped, and refreshed our Happy Valley.
He was young, as I had said.
Currently, he’s truly ancient.
Details regularly escape him
But, no matter, unimportant.
He walked past Saint Mary’s.
His path took him past the lower church. On Sundays, St. Michael’s students were required to sit with their class and its Sister of St. Joseph teacher. Twelve years ahead he would be married upstairs in front of the altar carved from Carrara marble, balanced by statues of Jesus and Mary. His gift of faith lived on in traditional sacraments: baptism, communion, confirmation, reconciliation, marriage and, in crisis, anointing of the sick. Given a long life he touched every base on his journey.
Did he make a Sign of Cross?
He does these days, in olden
Times, when what’s to come
Matters. Innocence long lost
in far ahead worse headlines.
In the 1940s, youth had a certainty that’s been hammered out of faith taken for granted. Dad worked, our mom kept house, cooked, and raised chickens in a backyard henhouse. God was real and lived in heaven. The rest of us were sinners trying to stay on the right side of parents, teachers, school bullies and city cops who, mom said, “knew who you were.” There was a correct form for passing a Catholic church. A light burned near the altar to remind us who lived there.
Bowing to the name of Jesus
Surely inscribed on his heart
He knew what he knew; any
And all questions were held.
Another day, a darker spring.
His sign of the cross was automatic. These days, Red Sox players do it arriving safely at first base, second too, third and you’re 90 feet from home and its Fenway Park prize, a run. The crowd roared; they were with Xander all the way. Fickle at times, but loving a winner!
The traffic on Elm Street is brutal, unforgiving when seeking the other side.
Carefully, no Elm crosswalk
Past College Hall where the
In locus administrators bless
Charges via acceptance into
Their unique society of girls.
Women and girls and the Blessed Virgin Mary were all of kind. Mysterious. A boy thinks of things he wants, like a bicycle. At school, girls form a group society with topics unknown to the duller version of God’s creation. Everyone is left to wonder at the mystery of the Son of God being born in a manger while angels sang on high.
It was long ago. Paradise Pond
spilled new life into the stream.
He crosses a Chinese confection
Wending to a West Street grotto:
Beholds: A creche de noel: Joseph, Mary, child Jesus.
The boy walked that way many times yet never before or since saw that first Christmas on an island as the Mill River rippled by. Miraculous events are hard to believe, difficult to decipher. The writer’s only obligation is to tell the truth.
A Christmas prayer for peace: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph pray for us.”
Columnist Jim Cahillane lives in Williamsburg. In the 1940s, he, his brothers and others comprised the South Street Commandos. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2023.