Christmas is getting harder to dodge as a topic, and I may have outwritten that one. I think I have columns running right past that date. Either way, allow me to indulge in a favorite Christmas memory involving my brother Paul, who died in 2003.
In the late 1950s and early ’60s our largish family of ten lived in River Forest, Illinois, at the time the fifth wealthiest suburb of Chicago. My father was doing well in the advertising business, which explained a large Catholic Italian family living among so many “Lace Curtain Irish” as they called themselves. Around the age of eight or nine, Paul, being three years younger, we would collect one of our Uncle George’s many Seagram’s Crown Royal bags made of purple velvet with gold script lettering and tied at the neck with gold-colored twine. Paul and I figured this was a suitable container for our savings account that we converted to silver doubloons. The doubloons were silver dollars from the bank, and we once collected as many as 24 of them, remnants of a year’s allowance not spent on toy flintlock pistols, paperback books, and the like.
The week before Christmas we would embark on a train adventure from River Forest to the Loop in Chicago. Before that first stop in Chicago, we would get off at an elevated platform in Oak Park. I cannot recall our particular fascination with that suburb (surely I was too young to associate Ernest Hemingway with the place), but I suspect it was because we knew of a certain discount jewelry house along a main drag, probably Lake Street, where we could buy, cheaply, many of the baubles and gewgaws we were convinced women loved. Earrings, rings, necklaces with (impossibly) the giant fruit (pearls!) of Jules Verne’s monstrous sea clams, brooches and pendants bearing pictures of an obscure Regency aristocrat, current popes, Eleanor Roosevelt. I remember these. My mother loved Eleanor Roosevelt, and if she kept them she would have amassed at least a dozen of that first lady’s visage stamped onto tissue-like tin and surrounded with rhinestones.
The next stop was Marshall Field’s at some Loop disembarkation point — I’ve forgotten which. Marshall’s was on Lake Street, I believe, possibly State. I remember going up several levels to the book department and ogling the displays of titles, some of which certainly would be mine someday. Adjacent were the best sellers, Throne of Saturn, by Alan Drury; or Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson; On the Beach, Nevil Shute; Seven Days in May, by Knebel, I believe, and Bailey. Possibly The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. One day I knew I would be among them.
Adjacent were the LP and 45 rpm records. Paul’s favorite was by Harry Belafonte, which included on the album the song “Please Take My Mother Home.” It was about the Crucifixion, narrated in Belafonte’s powerful voice as both bystander and Jesus. It had been a gift to him from my mother the previous Christmas.
Earlier that year, around Easter, my mother had given the record away because of Paul’s tearful reaction to the song: I think I heard him cryin’ as they were nailin’ in the nails. I think I heard him cryin’ please take my mother home. She never told Paul she had done this, but my brother knew the record was missing and whatever had happened to it my mother would miss it or know of its disappearance. Surely she would not have given it to anyone else as it was her special gift to him. She might even think, in fact it was likely she would assume, Paul had done something irresponsible with it and lost it. I really don’t know what he thought. That day with me at Marshal Field’s, Paul bought a replacement record. I told him nothing about her giving the album away for his sake. His concern was that she would surely miss it no matter what had happened to it. My guess is he was worried that she had been blaming him for months in silent passive aggression; it would not have been unlike her.
Later that week, it was wonderful, awkward, and tearful that the Belafonte appeared beneath the tree with the Marshall Field’s wrap and tag. “To Mom, from Paul.” Nothing was said about its weird provenance.
Twenty-plus years later it was an unexpected ecstasy that I can hardly describe when I saw my first published novel in a stack of a dozen, sitting just where, I believe, Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent had sat, cresting the mountain of novels at that altar of successful stories. had sat, cresting the mountain of novels at that altar of successful stories.
I remember little else about that Christmas of Belafonte and junk jewelry except that I seemed to have the flu, and a thoughtful parent, in spite of the other’s objections, had supplied me with a dozen Classic Comics Illustrated, including Bring ’em Back Alive by Frank Buck; The Count of Monte Cristo and The Prisoner of Zenda as well. There was also a complete set of Civil War soldiers, and I had the Union defeat the Confederacy in every unlikely way.