Saturday, May 24, 2008

One perfect Christmas...

Everybody has a "Perfect Christmas" somewhere in their memories. That would be the Christmas that they woke up and peeked in at the Christmas tree and were delighted and amazed at the abundance left by Santa and his elves or whomever. The Christmas tree lights would be sparkling and everything that they hoped for would have come true just like magic.

Or maybe it would be the Christmas that had all their favorite family and friends show up sometime during the day and the food and fun lasted for what seemed like forever and by the miracle of later memory was.

That's the Christmas that all other Christmas's would be measured by for the rest of their life. That is the image that's irrevocably burned into their mind as what Christmas should be. Unfortunately, Christmas isn't always the perfect Christmas. Time, money, travel, the deaths of loved ones and other reasons all conspire to make every Christmas thereafter slightly less than perfect.

Even the process of aging and the changing of positions between childhood and parenting or adulthood change the Christmas experience so that the "Perfect Christmas" only comes once in a lifetime. Still, that one experience is now our benchmark for the rest of our lives.

We all have lots of benchmarks in our lives that seem significant on the face of them. The perfect evening, the perfect date, the perfect meal and lots of other things. All of those things that only happened once. Some of the benchmarks are less significant but still important enough to be locked into memory.

An example of one of these memories might be the answer to a question I ask others from time to time, that question being: . "What does your mailbox look like?" It's not the mailbox you use today. It's not the mailbox on the front of your house. It's the mailbox that you remember above all others for some reason or another. It might be the one in front of your grandparents home or the one that brought you the job offer or college acceptance that you'd wanted so badly that you chewed your nails down to the quick and agonized over until it finally came.

In my case, that mailbox just happens to be the one that was placed at the corner of the "T" intersection and the end of our street when I was a child. It was a drop box like the ones in use now except that it didn't have the snoot to allow car drops. It was red, a faded dusty red color overall. Next to it stood a similar box except that it had no drop slot. Instead it had a locked door and it was painted Olive Drab. That was for the postal delivery. Mail to be delivered was placed there for the route postman to pick up and deliver to the individual houses.

These boxes stand forever, side by side, in my memory, in a dried, yellow patch of dead and dying weeds at that corner of two asphalt roads, forever baking in the heat of a Texas summer. I was maybe 6 years old then. Why I should remember that I have no idea. It's just another benchmark in my life.

Events form benchmarks for us all. Marriages, deaths, jobs, dates, and special holidays all make their mark on us.

I remember in vivid detail the day I met Emmett Kelley, Hobo Clown: Extraordinaire. I was maybe 8 years old and my parents scraped together the money to buy or were given some tickets to see the Cole-Barnes Circus under the big top. It was another hot , bright, dry and dusty summer day in Texas and my parents had dressed my older brother and I in matching suits and used a product on our hair that glued it into rock solid helmets. We had tickets that put us next to the ring and right on the rail.

On the way in, my parents had bought a bag of peanuts for us to share inside the tent after we were seated and during the show. Sharing was a difficult concept for my older brother. He was a selfish brat about carrying the bag and had no intention of sharing the peanuts with his younger brother. The elephants took care of the peanut problem for me. The first, best ally I was ever to have was to be an elephant. The big, gray kind with floppy ears. The way into the tent went right past the elephants because during that era the circus was to delight the crowds and the kids and their parents were allowed to pet the elephants and see the lions and tigers on the way into the tent as a tease to the main performance.

We'd stopped to see the elephants and give them a peanut or two, which was allowed and encouraged back then. Handlers were in attendance and the animals were well behaved so there was considered to be no danger.

I asked for a peanut to give to the elephant and my brother (after refusing my request and under command from the parental units) gave me 1 (one) peanut very grudgingly for met to present to the huge gray beast before me. I held out my solitary peanut and the elephant reached out a long, hairy, muscular nose and took it gently from my hand, leaving a coating of elephant snot in its place (which mom dutifully wiped up using her handkerchief). At the urging or perhaps command of my parents, my brother was encouraged to also feed the elephant and after due process involving denial and defiance he extracted 1 (one) peanut from the bag and (not to be outdone by his hated brother) held it defiantly towards the elephant.

Again, the elephant extended its trunk but instead of taking the peanut it made a slight redirect and like a huge hairy snake snatched the entire bag out from under his arm with one quick motion! Accompanied by howls of fright and indignation from my brother, the elephant stuffed the entire bag in its mouth! My brother was terrified and I was amused. This effectively solved the problem of the peanuts. I've liked elephants ever since that day.

Proceeding into the tent sans peanuts, we found our seats and waited for the show to start. I really don't remember much about the first part of the show but I do remember the intermission extremely well. There were times in the old circus that the lights went entirely down to black while the scenery was changed and during one of those intervals the lights went to black and the darkness was interrupted by a single voice yelling "Hey!" from somewhere out in the darkness near the center ring.

A single spotlight came on and highlighted a raggedy looking character near the center ring. Some conversation ensued between the "Voice of God", as the announcer on the public address system is often referred to in theater, and the raggedy person wherein the raggedy looking person agreed to start sweeping up the arena along with the shadowy figures busily moving props and cleaning up after the elephants and liberty horses. From time to time he'd move to ringside and talk to the people and be admonished by the "Voice of God" to keep working.

He worked his way slowly around the ring until the next acts were ready to start at which point he swept up the single spot of light from the spotlight into a smaller and smaller circle and taking a dustpan from his voluminous pocket he diligently swept the last little circle of light into the dustman and dumped the remaining glow in his coat pocket. With this action the lights went to black and after a second or two came back up full to reveal all the glitter, noise and spangles of the Circus!

I watched the raggedy man as he circulated around the ring during the performances and wondered who he was really. He didn't look like a clown. He looked like a tramp that just wandered in or at least he looked like the archetypal tramp that my young, inexperienced mind conjured up. At long last he wandered around to our seats on the front row and stopped and turned to look at us.

Producing an enormous comb from his inside coat pocket he proceeded to try to comb my rock hard hair. After a second or two he commented "Hmmmm... I guess that your hair isn't going to comb is it?" To which, in fascination, I replied "um... no." Then he tried to comb my brother's hair! My brother screamed, cried and tried to crawl under the seats! The raggedy man was sooooooo apologetic. He explained to my parents that he'd never meant to scare the child and was very upset that his little prank had gone so horribly wrong. My parents assured him that it was okay and after one more sorry and a small wave, which I returned, the marvelous Emmett Kelly, "King of the hobo clowns", wandered off to resume his act with the circus.

It was many years before I realized who he was and I cherish the memory of the day I met him. I also take evil delight that, to this day, my brother hates circuses and thinks clowns are scary! Emmett is long gone now and when I went to the circus recently it wasn't the perfect event I remembered but it was fun because I wanted it to be even though there was no Emmett Kelly to comb my hair.

It's odd and sometimes funny how we make our benchmarks in life. Some will always live within us and be as vivid as they were when they were made and other memories that we thought we'd always have are gone, but we all have benchmarks.

What does your mailbox look like?


sacha said...

Lovely Circus story, lord I live the circus. I have a book about the circus I've saved since I was five, thinking I'd give it to my child someday. That day came, and that poor book is in pieces, the binding has disintegrated. But I love it and share it with her all the same. I always wanted to be an equestrian in the circus and ride around the ring like a madwoman, climbing under the belly of a powerful horse as its hooves came within inches of my eyes, touched my hair.

Interestingly, my mailbox is the one I have now. I've been thinking a lot about it since I found a dead bird in it a few days ago. No idea how long the bird had been there...

As I read your post and thought about the Mailbox of Christmas Past, the only one that really sticks out in my mind was the one on Norway, its top having been punched in. It was fall and all sorts of acorns and leaves were on the ground. It was just a beige mailbox, an inanimate object accepting the brunt of some teenage boy's frustration.

So now I have my mailbox, it's the kind that hangs right on the house, it's white like the house, and every day for the last twelve years a very kind postman has walked all the way up to my door to deliver mail to my house. I like it, even if I did just find a dead bird in it.

Anonymous said...

Please tell me a few story's about growing up with this brother you don't seem to care for. I too have an older brother. I just wish I could understand your stories a little better.

TomCat said...

I don't add stories about my brother and family because those are peripheral to my intent for this site and I don't feel that those stories would add value to the material here.

Our upbringing and lives were and have been very different since childhood. We've never been close, even as children.