Reflecting on Christmas stories we offer others

WILLIAMSBURG – “Do you think that the children of today look forward to Christmas as we used to do?”

Obviously, the questioner believes he knows the answer, and it is, “No, they don’t.”

The reasoning is simply that today’s kids have so many technological distractions combined with information systems that didn’t exist 50 years ago. Television is old hat to say the least, as was radio in our youth. We took it for granted, thoughtlessly reveling in its free music, dramas, ball games and news, just like TV today. Twenty-five years ago the Internet was a new and slow-moving innovation – until it wasn’t.

We noticed that cell phones were commonplace in Europe before they took over people’s lives here. Less so for elders, except when utilized as a senior citizen tracking device by distant children. In time children grow up; in time roles reverse as dependents find themselves in the new role of caregivers, like it or not.

At every stage of life most of us are trying to answer the age-old question, “Why am I here?” Writers, as a group, are probably more prone to ask that key question, then answer it in unique ways.

I just read “The True Gift,” by Williamsburg’s Patricia MacLachlan. Like the actual Christmas story, what on the surface appears a wondrous fable for children has a greater meaning that slowly reveals itself. Here are all the original elements of fields, animals, barns and parents, even grandparents who oversee the children but resist interfering. Her story has to resolve itself, which is does on a Christmas Eve. I won’t tell the ending except to note that like all true love stories the gift conquers individual desires with good.

My siblings and I were fortunate to enjoy a Northampton childhood that reflected the simple pleasures available in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Since 1939 our lower South Street location offered all-season joys of meadow, stream, swamp and Mill River. To sled and toboggan on Hospital Hill was a no-cost thrill a minute, and Christmas came every year, if a lot slower than nowadays. Birthdays held less interest and smaller presents, if any. Their main purpose was getting older, so we could spread our wings.

Early last year I started a new writing project. I had admired the technique of creating poems inspired by photographs of an earlier time. Inspired by the Florence Poets Society, I’d recently turned my hand to poetry as a change from newspaper columns and my memoir, “The Best Place of All,” published for Northampton’s 350th in 2004.

I gathered up 50 family photographs for a new memoir. I was encouraged by a grant from the Northampton Arts Council and went to work through 2009. The book was due this past June, but life intervened. One emergency colon operation in January became two, then off I went to I.C.U. in an induced coma. When I woke up, following some fantastic travels, my book was on the back burner.

It now has a title, “On History’s Front Steps,” including 56 new poems, 60 or more photographs and five favorite essays. It’s been a long time coming, but thanks to the cover collage by Amanda Merullo, a book design by Steve Strimer of Collective Copies and the support of family and friends, it’s a reality. For many years we lined up on Christmas morning for a photo.

We looked forward to our childhood Christmases, but not the annual arrival of the Northampton photographer, Earl Herrick, who interrupted our fun to record the day and our parents’ growing family. Brother Michael had not arrived for this one. Bigger families were in vogue, which took us kids a few years to appreciate. Today, our younger generations are hungry for family histories.

I feel lucky to be able to oblige them, and anyone else with a taste for yesterday.

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