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Christmas Memories

I have had many happy Christmases. The happiest were those in which my parents acted like gracious and civilized people. But some of my Christmases were more interesting than happy. I will tell you about one of these.

First of all, some background is necessary. My mother and father were both drinkers. My father was a heavy drinker and had lost a couple of jobs because of it. My mother became a heavy drinker when we moved to a very nice house in University Park, a posh neighborhood in Prince George County, Maryland. Before the move, we had been living in a poor, working class neighborhood in East Pines, a town about twenty miles from University Park. The reason my mother wanted to move to University Park, I am sure, was out of love for my brother and myself. She wanted us to go to better schools, wanted us to associate with smarter and more worldly wise people, wanted us to grow up with ambitions higher than those typical of the kids in East Pines. But the move to University Park caused my mother to become a heavy drinker. She had taken on the responsibility for the payments for the house because my father opposed the move. Although he had been a successful stage actor and later a very successful radio actor, he was in his heart a member of the working class and was very comfortable in East Pines. (My father's success as an actor had by this time evaporated due to his drinking.) The responsibility which my mother had taken upon herself caused her a lot of worry and led to her becoming an even heavier drinker than my father. The fact that by then she had become a real estate agent was another factor in her drinking: at that time, most of the real estate crowd in Prince George County were heavy drinkers.

The result of my parents' drinking was that Christmas in University Park often ended with a quarrel between them. When I was eleven, the Christmas quarrel became violent. My parents had been shouting at each other on and off that evening for a couple of hours when suddenly the quarrel broke out into a very loud shouting match in the kitchen. My mother got really pissed at my father and picked up a can of cranberry sauce and threw it at him. She should have grabbed one that hadn't been opened. Unfortunately for her, she picked up a mostly opened can by the lid and the result was a nasty, profusely bleeding cut across the base of her right thumb. My father immediately moved to help her, but she was so mad at him that she refused his help, and in order to make clear her refusal, she picked up a carving knife and stuck it into the turkey. Luckily, we had a guest that evening. She was one of my mother's real estate colleagues by the name of Elizabeth Eisly. Elizabeth quickly took charge of the situation, and in about five minutes Elizabeth, my mother, and my brother and I were in Elizabeth's car headed to the nearest hospital.

I remember, as we sat in the car outside the house after returning from the hospital, my mother continuing to curse my father. Then Elizabeth dropped a bomb. "Listen, hon', you keep up with that kind of talk, and these kids will one day hate you for it."

My brother and I quickly came to my mother's defense, moaning, "No, we'd never do that." Both of us hated my father's manners towards my mother when he got drunk, ignoring of course my mother's equally blamable manners towards my father. Little kids are, I guess, usually like that. But, sure enough, later in life I did come to harbor a deep resentment towards my mother for her treatment of my father. It took me a long time and a lot of growth before I got over it.

But those quarrel-filled Christmases ended when I was fourteen. My parents had enrolled me in a very good Catholic high school, and from day one I took hold. By Christmas time, I was a new person. From one of the wildest children of my Catholic grade school, I had become a hardworking and devoutly religious student and in effect the moral leader of my family. The Christmas of my fourteenth year was a peaceful one and relatively sober.

When I was fifteen, I joined a Catholic religious order and Christmas time was radically different. I spent it with my community, and those Christmases were wonderful, especially those of my high school years.

After seven years I left the religious order. By then my father had died, and Christmas at my mother's house took on a different character. Often we would go to North Carolina to the home of a family with whom we became neighbors when I was five. Those Christmases were parties which started a day or two before Christmas Eve and ended the day after New Year's and included scores of relatives and friends and lots of cooking and eating and drinking and gift-giving and reminiscing over kitchen tables and around fireplaces. When we had Christmases in Maryland, they were nice too.

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