The personal meaning of Christmas brings a memory about a cold winter night in Ohio. Along with a chill comes a visual of my two sisters, and I huddled under a blanket, standing on the street curb in front of our house. Our parents sheltered us. Drowsy eyes were spellbound and fixed on an incredible exhibit of pyrotechnics of our burning house.
So clear in this Christmas season memory, I can almost hear the noise of crispy frost as we escaped to the devil strip where we stood under the street lamp waiting and waiting. The night sparkled from a barely detectable layer of frigid snow. This was the kind of Ohio winter that brought concerns about a white Christmas. The grass was turbid green, yet frozen beneath our bare feet as we waited for the fire trucks.
The memory of the fire isn’t what gave me my personal meaning of Christmas, though. Nor was it the puppy that I got to call mine that year. Nor is it the fact that I’ve had the good fortune to cherish Christmas throughout all of the years since escaping from our burning house that year.
Driving home after a holiday visit with my folks, a mere photograph sends all of the above imagery streaming forth again. After the family photo album session, my husband, Peter, nudged me for details about the pictures with scorched walls and disfigured woodwork. It must have haunted him. As he asked for the details, and my streaming recall made its link, all but for one part. That’s the part, I imagine, that will probably stay hidden forever.
So, as were driving south on I77, I began relating the story about the puppy who symbolizes the personal meaning of Christmas for me. As we traveled the two-hour drive homeward. Pete tolerated my digressions fairly well. I found myself in an perceptual imagery brought on while in the process of recounting this story from long ago.
The puppy had followed me home from school one day. We walked happily together just as if we had been a pair forever.
Muted periods of departure from the conversation happened while I paused to quietly delve through all sorts of the other memories, one leading to another. After some time, Pete must have noticed a silence that went on too long for comfort.
“Did you fall asleep, or what?”
More silence except the rhythmic sloshing of the windshield wipers. I was using my fogged up window as a backdrop somewhat like a movie screen. I tried to grasp something that I must have blocked out eons ago, and then finally replied,
“What do you mean – or what?” His voice sounded little agitated.
Prompted to delay my preoccupation, I had to answer him. Actually I welcomed the interruption.
“I don’t remember what happened to the puppy after that, but I do remember that it was his barking that woke me up” I explained with a little teardrop escaping down the side of my nose. We continued southward, and soon the snow disappeared leaving only the whirring sound of tires on wet pavement.
” I can remember sleeping, and gradually hearing the puppy barking hysterically, which eventually integrated into dreaming. The barking went on until I finally woke up full of concern about my puppy. I bolted to the stairway and leaped the first four steps to the landing, as was my habit to do.
Only this time, I didn’t go farther. Thick, billowing smoke highlighted by filtered light from street lamps blended into blackened swells. It was a horrifying monster, and I began shrieking. The suffocating stench of something charred quickly eclipsed the monster imagery as I ran screaming into my parent’s bedroom. To my relief, mom’s voice came out of the darkness telling me to get older sister, Patty, who had her own room in the attic. I screamed up the attic stairwell, and Dad led us to our rescue.
Wiping the tear, I continued.” I only remembered that we had to stay at my grandmother’s house a few blocks away, but not for very long. I can also visualize the photo of the lovely Christmas tree we still got to put up in front of black tar paper walls.”
I can feel the visual relief of the pretty ornaments of red, bubbling candle sticks, and see-through carousels with shiny little fans whirling inside, distracting from the view of the ugly walls. Yet, I can’t remember anything more about the puppy. If he hadn’t found me on the way home from school, would I still be here?
I’m left alone to ponder the miracle of the little dog who saved our family after following me home just a few weeks before Christmas. Then came the greater question of how do things like this happen in such incredible synchronicity? More than this, to be grateful for all the holidays I still got to see with the same inconceivable wonderment this many years later. The personal meaning of Christmas for me is the gift of life, and the perception of its fragility, and the magical essence of existence.