Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Orion's Belt

Amelia Island's shore
by J J Cohen

We've spent the last week at the border of New Hampshire and Maine, and then of Florida and Georgia, geographies united by the cold Atlantic and sometimes, it seems, not much else. We went north for my dad's eightieth birthday, then south as a winter present to ourselves. The time spent with my family in New England was bittersweet. We were happy to see everyone, of course, but a gathering to celebrate so many decades of life is also limned by thoughts of mortality. I read Eileen's moving post about her aunt at the airport on Christmas day, as we were making our way from Manchester to Jacksonville. She writes:
But memory is tricky, too. As you get older, your parents and other relatives reveal things to you that you weren't supposed to know, and didn't, when you were younger--sometimes very painful things. My own personal childhood memories don't completely line up with the way my older relatives remember things from that time. And bad things do happen to all of us, but you tend to either forget them completely or never forget them in ways that are self-destructive (or something in between).
I'd been thinking something similar, recently, when writing of a childhood haunted by monsters. The house in which I dwelt was not nearly so peaceful as I thought. I grew up closely bonded to my brothers and sisters. If we drifted apart later in life, it was not because we loved each other less, but (I have come to realize) that being together, even happily, awakens too many memories of what it was like to be a child in our home. Not always bad, not even especially bad, but sometimes painful, sometimes not the stuff of nostalgia.

On the day after my father's birthday I was feeling especially melancholic. Wendy knows me well enough to suggest a visit to the ocean, to watch the waves crash against the black rocks of the Maine shore. Though the wind bit and the sand was white from snow and frozen spray, we combed the beach for an hour, then walked the sea edge near Perkins Cove. I don't know if it was the fullness of the moon or the passing of an offshore storm, but the swells were so large that they pounded against the stone with an unremitting roar. Alex and Katherine lost themselves in each others' company, filling their pockets with snail shells, sand dollars, and smooth dark pebbles. Knowing that the two of them will have days like that one to remember made the world seem right.

Later that evening -- Christmas eve -- we left my sister's house for a walk around her neighborhood in Dover. The sky was cloudless. The four of us named every star we could, which wasn't many. Most radiant of all was not Polaris, hidden behind the sweep of a tree, but the line of three that forms Orion's belt. We could even make out the smudgy nebula that is his sword. We looked at this short column of stars for a long time, even though the night was bitterly cold, and Katherine speculated on what this hunter might be seeking. Ursa major? A drink from the Big Dipper? Rest?

The following day we flew from New Hampshire to Florida. The elderly woman who sat next to us asked Katherine if Santa had come last night. She hesitated, then shook her head no. The woman was surprised. "Weren't you good?" Katherine nodded, then thought for a few minutes. "I'm Jewish," she whispered at last. "I'm so sorry," the woman said, and we told her there was nothing to be sorry about. It had been a morning of strangers wishing us a merry Christmas, and even though it is not our holiday -- even though it can (like our food choices) sometimes be a reminder of the ways in which we might suddenly feel out of place, even when at home -- all the same we admire festive lights and enjoy our friends' decorated trees and recognize in the celebration a changing of the seasons. I perhaps crossed a line in telling Katherine that the baby we were seeing in all those mangers had been placed there to acknowledge the birthday of her grandfather, but she knows me well enough at age six not to believe me for long.

We spent three days on Amelia Island, with a daytrip to St Augustine. The weather was unusually cold for seashore so far south. At the Castillo de San Marcos we witnessed a brief snow flurry. A park ranger announced it was the first snow she'd ever seen. At the gift store of the fort I bought a translation of the Three Voyages of René Laudonnière, a Protestant Frenchman who in the mid sixteenth century had navigated the Florida coast. His account is full of Timucuan Indians, Spaniards, Englishmen, and Catholic Frenchmen who constantly challenge his sense of belonging within the world he explores. In the end he gives up on the settlement he has built and sails back to France, his dream of a more lasting home repeatedly taken from him.

Our Christmas celebration was not the usual Jewish ritual of Chinese food and a movie, but pizza, wine and soda consumed upon a coffee table in our room, then a bonfire with smores and hot chocolate on the nearby beach. We were again freezing cold, as if we had never left Maine. We huddled together for warmth, and raised a toast to the familiar line of three stars we spotted in the sky. Our stars. They did not offer us a Christmas promise, nothing commemorated and no better life to come. Rendering unimportant the thousand miles between Maine and Florida, between the family into which I was born and the family that now surrounds me, Orion's belt glistened in quiet benediction. The ocean seemed shared only by the four of us. Our fire was made small by the windy beach. Waves pounded the shore, cold water, cold air, cold stars. Everything seemed fragile, nothing was going to last. Yet we were together, and for the moment, that was enough.


This old world is a new world said...

What a beautiful post. It actually captures the mixed pleasures of Christmas in Christian, agnostic and atheist communities. Our two families offer a mixture of all three, but we nevertheless gather to feast, to play cricket, to exchange small gifts (and increasingly, as the kids grow up, make donations elsewhere instead). I also love much of the Christmas music, and its green and red, gold and silver. My mother brought along a few sprigs of fresh green holly, and we put rich red cherries in amongst them for a table decoration. For the first time, my son decorated our tree himself. We struggle to keep one alive in a pot from year to year, and this one was a bit lopsided, so he filled in its bare spaces with sprigs of bamboo.

One of my favorite Christmas songs (not a carol, is Paul Kelly's "Making Gravy", sung by a man in prison to his brother ("tell them all I'm sorry: I really messed up this time"), about how he'll miss Christmas — "all the treasure and the trash" — and wondering who'll make the gravy this year. *Sobs*.

But there is also a luxury, I agree, about a small family holiday in the midst of all such madness. The extremes of a winter beach holiday are perfect for such.

But what is a smore? Can I get one in Australia? Would I want to?

This old world is a new world said...

Oh! I've just been listening to a man on the radio discussing what stars and planets (Jupiter, plus four moons) we can see tonight. He said you should look at the stars as if you are looking down, not up, since there really are no such orientations in space. So if you want to make yourself feel dizzy, and feel the movement of space and time, look "up" at the stars, but look "down" as you do so. Spacy!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for the comments, Stephanie. Your Christmas celebrations sound homey, and wonderful.

S'mores (that's how I should have written it, though I've no idea why) are a traditional camping dessert, especially when it is chilly. The recipe is simplicity itself. I think we should have them in Australia together!

Dr. Virago said...

This really was a lovely post, Jeffrey. But I have to ask, do you think that woman was saying "I'm so sorry" as in "I'm so sorry I made a Christian-centric assumption" (at least I *hope* that's what she meant) or (please don't let it be this) "I'm so sorry you're Jewish and don't have Santa Claus"?! Your following comments suggest the former, but my first reaction was to gasp.

And I love that Katherine can already see through your teasing. Clearly she's much wiser than I am, because I sometimes fall for it.

Oh, and "s'more(s)" is spelled that way because it's short for "some more" -- as in "Do you want s'more?" At least that's what they taught me at camp.

Karl Steel said...

look "up" at the stars, but look "down" as you do so
wonderful suggestion.

We here have (as of the last two years) an annual caroling party, assisted my lavish serving of egg nog and karaoke videos loaded up on the computer. I was raised fundamentalist Christian and lost my faith 24 years ago. I associate Christianity with the 'thing I left behind' to become the cosmopolitan me that I am now. Why sing Xmas carols? Because they're fun; they're jaunty; and singing them indifferent to the Christian content strikes me as the best way to secularize and desanctify the holiday. Well, that, plus the rowdyness of eating and drinking to the degree required by a holiday. That said, I still needed to break up the Xmas carols with 'The Last Unicorn' theme and Edith Piaf, so maybe the Jesus still has its hooks in me.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Dr V, I took her to mean "I'm sorry I presumed that you celebrate Christmas." Though I know the comment can be read both ways!