Sometimes when the grandboy sleeps over he wakes with a start from a bad dream or scary thought, and he comes in by me and asks if he can sleep in our bed. I find it amusing, because while he is busy mastering his inner tough guy, he falls victim to the same 3am troubles and realities we all know. Sometimes before he goes back to sleep, he talks about what woke him. Other times the conversation carries on into the next morning. Even at not yet quite ten years old, I see his belief system starting to churn and crumble as he faces the undeniable realities that are confronting and confound him. He asks me tough questions and I fumble for answers.
The big news today is Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is Manhattan, and I realize it’s here again, my uneasy time. An uneasiness I never want to share with the boy. In every one of my books, there always seems to be a bit about this holiday. I wish I knew why. Perhaps because it simply confounds me.
My belief system came apart about the same time I realized the chimney in our little house by the swamp, connected to the vent on our oil burner and that fat man in the red suit wouldn’t survive that trip down our tiny chimney. Once these tales became lies, it opened a floodgate. The hardest lesson of the season was the caste system of Christmas, where the poor kids got socks, and the rich kids got new bikes, but we were subtly, or not so subtly, introduced to our place in the grand scheme. And the further down you went in the food chain, the faster the specter of war and a hard life of manual labor chased you. The shine and luster of childhood was quickly lost to us. But I’d been groomed for that. I’m a victim of the Superman TV era, I was weaned and raised on truth and justice and the American way, and Superman, fists on hips with the big gray S on his chest (we didn’t have color TV) screamed something to me I could never fully connect to, but I knew mom and apple pie and Chevrolet was something to die for.
I know I’m all over the place in this post, I apologize, but it all somehow fits together in my head. It’s all part of my confusion. I’m stuck by the absurdity of this season and all the stories me and the grandboy struggle with while at the same time wanting desperately to believe. I want to believe that we in the USA are always the good guys. We wear the white hats and come riding in to save the day. I try to not choke on the ugly truth that I’m part of the greatest and largest imperialist war machine the world has ever known. I want to believe in the hope and joy of the season, while little kids, younger than the boy, go to bed hungry and cold. Kids who’d be happy for that pair of socks.
My struggle and constant battle is with how much of my truth do I share with the boy? I don’t want him to see the facade I know all too well crumble to words and songs and dust. Do I let him watch with glistening eyes at the beauty and wonder of the glitzy plastic tchotchke and lights of this season, or do I tell him the economy that holds this whole story together counts on retail sales for twenty-five percent of its GDP, and then I’d have to explain GDP…
Frank Borman died this week. He was the commander of the Apollo 8 mission to the moon at Christmas 1968. I remember that moment, still on the black-and-white TV, of the grainy pictures of scruffy astronauts showing us “the good earth” and the confusion of pride at what man could accomplish while still knowing all too well, some kids I knew, just a few years my senior were being shot at in some sweaty, terrifying jungle in Vietnam killing each other, and the reason they were there and Colonial Borman was orbiting the moon was part and pieces of the same system.
After World War Two, and Bing Crosby and all the I’ll be home dreaming of a white Christmas or some such nonsense, we all drank the Kool Aide, and many of us still suffer its effects today. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t truly envious of them.
Sometimes I think we are all drowning and desperately trying to grab at the boatman’s oars before we finally go under…