I NEVER BELIEVED IN SANTA CLAUS. NOT EVEN AS A KID, FOR REASONS I’LL MAKE CLEAR.
BUT THE JURY IS STILL OUT ON ANGELS.
If you want an inspirational, heartwarming story about Christmas, look elsewhere.
I grew up the child of adamantly non-practicing Jews, in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, then predominantly Irish-, Polish-, and Italian-Catholic. My mother, Charlotte Zolotow, used to say, with great authority, “We’re cultural Jews, not religious.” I had no idea what she meant. But I repeated it, with equal authority, when other little girls in grade school, thrilled over communion dresses, would ask me “What are you?”
Back in the 50’s, the Zolotows were the only Jewish family, cultural or otherwise, in Hastings (I think now I must have been mistaken, but it was what I believed then). Being cultural, Zolotows did not do Hanukah (of which I knew nothing until age eight or nine, and even then not much). And of course, we did not do Christmas.
But unlike Hanukah, the showy trappings of Christmas were everywhere. Lit-up houses! Cookies! Trees, carried indoors and decorated with what looked like tiny strips of aluminum foil! Yet those trees still smelled of outdoors, a sharp poignant fragrance which reminded me of the farm in Vermont, where the Zolotows spent part of each summer.
All this Christmas kerfluffle seemed marvelous to me. As it would to any small child. As it is intended to.
Plus, all those vivid wrapped boxes underneath the trees, containing presents. Secrets about which one might speculate but not, as I understood it, answer by opening until Christmas morning.
Yes, I knew these gifts were not actually brought by Santa but by the parents of those children whose families celebrated Christmas. But still they were presents, and I liked presents.
Yes, I understood, though I was not clear why, that Christmas was somehow not for us, the Zolotows.
But, looking at all that color and brightness, how could I not yearn for it?
A SOUTHERN YANKEE, OR A YANKEE SOUTHERNER
But wait! This story was originally written for and performed at the Christmas edition of a radio show called Homegrown Tales / Ozark Storytime.
What was a New Yorker doing there?
Two months after I turned 18, I’d washed up in the tiny hip boho Victorian-era spa town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, tucked into the Ozark Mountains. Its motto, since the 1880’s, has been “Where the Misfit Fits.” How I got there is another story, but the short form is, it was 1972, I had left home young (at 16, when I sold my first two books) and I was one of many artistic counter-cultural types, sometimes called “hipbillies”, who also found their way to Eureka Springs. And who, like me, had also never quite felt at ease elsewhere.
Yet, for my first few years in Eureka Springs, I inadvertently replayed one element of Hastings, the town I had been so hungry to leave. I was, again, the only Jew in a Christian community.
Christian, though, not Catholic.
Sometime in my first few years there, a man named Robert Clark was running for city council. A big friendly guy, he had red hair and a receding hairline, worked at Bunch’s Quik-Chek. He approached me one evening, as Ned and I were eating dinner in a local restaurant.
He extended his hand and said to me, “I’m here to …” He paused. Gave me a friendly but conspiratorial, after-all-you’re-in-on-the-joke half-smile, and continued. “To solicit the Jewish vote.”
I found this 80% funny: I was the literal sole Jewish vote in Eureka Springs at the time.
But I also found it 20% creepy. Robert Clark acted in the Passion Play, late-life vanity project and attempted self-reclamation of one of America’s most infamous anti-Semites, Gerald LK Smith. That’s also another story.
Now I don’t know if y’all’ve seen the Passion Play, or are familiar with its general outlines.
But the Jews don’t come out looking good.
I stayed in Eureka for 35 years. I continued writing, which I had always known was my calling.
But I also became an innkeeper, which I had not foreseen.
For 18 years, with Ned, my beloved husband, I co-owned, ran, and cooked at Dairy Hollow House.
Being an innkeeper definitely burnt up all my childhood longing-for-Christmas karma. For years, I decorated 8 trees (one in each guest room, one at the front desk, one in the dining room).
I decked the walls of the three houses that made up the inn property, pricking my fingers with holly and staining my hands with the exuded sap of pine and cedar boughs. It got old.
But one thing I never tired of: wandering out into the quiet Ozark meadows and woods to gather sacks of dried weeds, seed pods and pine-cones. This got me outside in the December (cold enough to be tick-free but rarely too cold), and I was always I glad to be there. From these materials I put together various one-of-a-kind wreaths for every one of the seven exterior doors at the inn, plus small winter-time bouquets for the each of the restaurant’s tables. I also tucked the found plants in among the more traditional evergreens and holly.
Observing, exploring, admiring, selecting from the abundant elegant wild foliage, dry and winter-browned, with the occasional inedible pink or red berries, that lay spread before in the landscape I loved, and then creating those wreaths and bouquets … this never ceased to leave me deeply soothed, amazed that I had landed in this place, lush even in winter.
Then I went back to the inn’s kitchen and went to work.
COOKIES AT CHECK-IN
Some of this work involved making pipparkakut. These are rolled-out Scandinavian ginger cookies, a little peppery. They are sturdy enough to be decorative, but also tasty, especially with hot coffee, or hot cider, or hot chocolate.
Those cookies. Over the years, I made hundreds of them. Pipparkakut. Batch after batch of pipparkakut.
And, interminably, I decorated them.
Squeezing out the names of innumerable incoming guests required white icing in a pastry tube, a lot of hand strength (with fingers still holly-poked and sap-stained), and more time than I care to remember. When I think of those cookies my palm still aches.
I did this year after year after year.
One year, affectionate goofball Ned (the most cheerful, congenial innkeeper you can imagine, a true never-met-a-stranger kind of person), nonetheless made his own rebellion against the enforced cheer of holiday cliché. Instead of a Santa, he placed, in red lights, a dragon on the inn’s roof.
I wish I had a picture of that dragon. I don’t.
Now, a u-turn.
One late fall day, Ned went out bicycling, the same 26-mile round-trip route he’d taken three times a week for years: out Pivot Rock Road to 62 West towards Beaver Lake, stopping and turning around at the Conoco where they rented canoes (so Ned called it, of course, Canoe-Co).
By then we had already closed the inn, and co-founded a non-profit, the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow.
November 30, 2000. An unseasonably warm, sunny day, exceptionally bright and pretty, in a time of year usually gray.
Seven days after Thanksgiving, five days after my forty-eighth birthday. One month plus five days past our 23rd anniversary.
Out past the Leatherwood turn-off, at dusk, Ned and a red Chevy collided. Instead of returning home, he bicycled off Earth and into eternity.
We both went through the windshield that night. He was evicted from life itself; I, from the life I had had.
TRY TO MOVE AWAY; YOU WON’T SUCCEED
The common knowledge is, “Don’t make big changes for two years after being widowed.”
So I stuck it out in Eureka for two brutal years. There was not a Eureka Springs bench, house, path, I did not associate with him. Then I moved away: to Vermont, where the air had that clean pine-scent I recalled from childhood, almost painfully pure to breathe.
Where I had a 20-mile view of the mountains, draped across the end of the meadow, stretching all the way into New Hampshire (the winterscape of that view is the background of the photograph accompanying this section).
But I did not move away from grief.
Because I could not.
If there exists a geography removed from grief, I do not know it.
I lived Vermont for a decade and a half, in the same house where the Zolotows had once summered.
During those years I avoided holidays, mostly.
For nine of those years I loved, but was not in love with, a documentary filmmaker named David Koff. For those years, I lived with, but did not marry, David.
I seemed to have outlived celebrations.
I outlived David, too.
Fifteen years later, I moved back to Arkansas, though not Eureka Springs.
This year, for the first time in 25 years, I again wandered in the winter Ozark woods, and gathered weeds and branches and seed-pods.
And, I made a wreath again.
REINCARNATING… AND, THE CABIN
I often say, “You don’t have to believe in reincarnation to believe in reincarnation. Just live long enough.”
So. This year, back in Arkansas, I celebrated another incarnation, still within this one little life.
But first, to tell you what this celebration is about, and why, and with whom, I must digress.
Most of my Thanksgivings, for the past 40-some years, including the days when Ned was alive and we still ran the inn, have been with friends, and always among them, two particular friends: Starr and George.
In fact I met Ned at a potluck dinner at Starr’s house before she knew George — that’s how far back this friendship goes.
Eight of these Thanksgivings were at the inn’s restaurant, when the two of them played their transporting, perfect fiddle and hammered dulcimer music, as Ned and I and our staff all worked serving a glorious dinner to about 70 happy guests (two seatings, one at 2:30 and one at 6:30) before sitting down together for our own staff dinner.
After Ned died, Starr and George and I tried to find our way towards a new tradition.
We had two dinners together elsewhere in Eureka. We had one in Vermont. But it wasn’t quite right.
Then one day I, innocently and ignorantly, said, “What about the cabin?”
For though I had never been there, I know they co-owned, and loved, a small, off-the-grid ancient log cabin, hard into the woods, a hike-in-only site hidden away deep in the Ozark National Forest.
George and Starr took to the idea of celebrating Thanksgiving at the cabin like migrating mallards spotting a cool, clear lake. It became their new Thanksgiving thing. Several times I joined them, because, of course, I was also part of their Thanksgiving thing, and they mine.
The problem is, I had no idea what I was getting into when I first suggested the cabin to them.
Gradually the cabin Thanksgiving circle expanded, so that there are now half a dozen or so other friends of George and Starr (who are also, by extension, my friends now, too). For whom the cabin at Thanksgiving is also it.
But alas, though I have been four or five times, the cabin is not it for me.
Now it is true that the cabin is magical. One has only to look at it to see its allure. It is a timeless place, and the spell it casts is undeniable, especially when it’s night and it is illuminated, as it must be, only with the firelight in the stone fireplace and kerosene lanterns (okay, and flashlights and head-lamps, especially when you go outside to pee).
And to be out of cell-phone range, in this day and age, is a strange archaic luxury, amnesiac, extraordinary. Time shifts at the cabin. One can almost feel one’s heart-rate decelerate.
And without the great digression of the web in which we are all, continually, caught, conversation flares like the good dry kindling one needs to start those necessary fires — in the cabin’s cookstove as well as its fireplace.
However: being at the cabin is hard.
Cooking in a kitchen where feast-making starts with chopping firewood: hard. Back-packing in ingredients as well as drinking water: hard. Pumping water for dishwashing: hard.
These, however, can all be mitigated.
What one absolutely cannot mitigate is also the very hardest part of the cabin experience: getting to it.
The trail. The so-called trail.
As I have already said, I love being in the Ozark woods. And I am no wuss when it comes to walking and hiking and pushing myself physically. There are few days when I get in less than 10,000 steps, and often many more (my Fitbit will back me up on this). I have lifted weights three times a week during most phases of my life, since I was 30.
But that freaking trail to the cabin has about defeated me every time.
It’s not very long; a mere two miles. But it’s steeply downhill, unmarked, seldom-used, barely visible. And of course, the whole point being going there for Thanksgiving, one is A) weighted down by a back-pack stuffed with ingredients, B) trying to get there and down the trail to the cabin before dark. This is not so easy; the get-to-the-trail trail-head is several hours drive from George and Starr’s. And, it’s November, a time of year that is often gray, and when the days, always, are short.
I don’t think I have ever walked the trail, start to finish, in full daylight.
In no way is the trail what you could call “maintained.” Its material: wet leaves over loose gravel. It is slick, and, because the leaves hide the loose rock, dangerous. It requires major attention at all times not to slip. I always fall anyway, at least two or three times, going down, and so do most of the cabin Thanksgiving crew (the trip back up the trail is easy by comparison). Thank God no one has ever seriously injured themselves: I can’t imagine how someone with a break or sprain could be transported out. You’d be up Hurricane Creek without a paddle.
But in 2019, finally, my ambivalence and I had a good excuse not to go to the cabin. And to come up with something different.
RETHINKING A CELEBRATION
Mark – who’s fixing to get essential in this story, and who had braved the trail with me last year – had had knee surgery. Hiking was out.
Too, we — Mark and I — had recently bought a home together, in Fayetteville, Arkansas; we wanted to have a first holiday there, with friends (most of whom already had Thanksgiving plans). Starting with George and Starr, who were of course committed to being at the cabin with the other cabin-loving friends on the day-of.
Too, Mark and I had news. We wanted an occasion on which to share, with a few close friends, its significance.
So, since the actual Thanksgiving was already taken, the two of us came up with Before Thanksgiving.
I then called Starr, proposing this idea, and we went over calendars. And by God, we found something that worked: the weekend before Thanksgiving. Starr was so delighted right out of the gate that I sensed a new holiday in the making.
“Oh, CD!” she crowed happily. “I get to have you AND Mark AND Thanksgiving AND the cabin!”
Yet. Does anyone “have” anyone else?
No. We’re all on loan to each other.
All the more reason to make time for and go to some trouble to be with those we love.
THE NATURE OF BEFORES
So the nature of Befores was on my mind. In particular, Befores that precede thanks.
Because, don’t thanks almost always come with Befores, even if they’re not stated?
Aren’t Befores essential to being truly thankful? If you’re thankful for a newborn healthy baby, wasn’t there the Before of pregnancy, with all its unknowns and risks?
And, more simply: how much more thankful for water is a person in the Before state of thirst? How much better is a good meal, with the Before of hunger?
I’d been thirsty, hungry, awhile. The year I came up with this Before Thanksgiving idea was the 19th anniversary of Ned’s final bicycle ride.
The large Before that preceded this particular Before Thanksgiving celebration was loss. Of course.
Loss. Ned, out bicycling. David, suicide. Cats, of various causes. Both parents, my aunt, old age. An ever-growing accumulation of mentors, colleagues, friends, various causes.
Life’s non-negotiable terms — mortality. Those you love will either leave or be left by you.
Mark had his Befores, too.
But first, a closer look at one particular Before of mine.
Because, it concerns not just life’s reincarnations, but Christmas.
Possibly, it concerns an angel.
WHO ELSE WAS GOING TO DO IT?
Going back to 2000, the year Ned bicycled away forever, at the end of that November.
For two weeks after he died, solicitous friends surrounded me. Not much permeated the dazed disbelieving horror in which I dwelt. But I was aware of them.
Then, they began leaving for the holidays.
On December 23, the storm of 2000 hit.
Ice three inches thick. Uncharacteristic cold (for Arkansas) that cut to the marrow. Silence. No cars on the hilly roads of Eureka Springs, so not even traffic sounds.
No internet or phone.
And the longest silence: no Ned. The unspeakable knowledge: that silence, the absolute quiet of no more Ned, ever, was just beginning to sink in.
Me, the cat, HVAC clicking on and off. I slept little. One night, two a.m.-ish, I realized I hadn’t eaten in days, decided it’d be wise to do so. I opened the fridge. Filled with unfamiliar food brought by friends, its abnormality was so dismaying I closed the door, decided not to eat after all.
December 25, 2000. Christmas, isolated on a silent frozen strange planet.
Looking out the window, I saw that the bird-feeder was empty.
Ah, a mission! Refill feeder with nyger seed, beloved of finches. Something to do!
I went out into the frigid air, sky low and gray, earth covered with an impossible amount of ice. Clinging to the side of the house, which was on a slope, I inched towards where the feeder hung. I fell. Got back up, fell, got up. Lowered and unhooked the feeder, and managed to return to the kitchen. Knelt to my task.
I opened the bag of nyger to pour it into the opening of the feeder.
The bag broke. Gallons of tiny black seeds skittered down and out, scattering over the floor.
I stayed there, weeping, howling, for some time.
But eventually I rose, wiped the snot off. Found the broom; began sweeping.
If I didn’t, who, under the circumstances, would?
I refilled, then rehung, the feeder. Back inside, I watched sparrows come and go from it. Despair.
Snow began to fall, and fall harder. Hours passed.
Then, a knock on the door.
Charlisa. We were friends, always happy to see each other and catch up. But not close-close.
I opened the door to her. She’s petite, from Memphis.
I’d known Char from the early days in Eureka, known her when, maybe 24, she’d sing “Honky-Tonk Women” at a Eureka bar. I knew she’d been a dancer in her pre-Eureka life, until a broken ankle ended a prestigious ballet troupe scholarship in New York. She was also the survivor of a benign brain tumor.
And she had worked the front desk at Dairy Hollow House for awhile, too. Always welcoming, easygoing, with a genuine I’m-happy-to-see-you-smile that guests loved. I knew one of her secrets: every afternoon, at about 2:30, she would walk to the kitchen, count out six chocolate chips, and go through the rest of the day by eating them, slowly, one by one.
But did Char and I go out to dinner once a week? Had I ever been to her home? No. We were know-each-other-from-around-town friends, basically.
Yet that Christmas Day, just under a month after Ned’s death, when nothing and no one was moving, in heavy snow, she hiked a risky icy steep mile down the back road to reach me.
She handed me a canvas tote-bag, began peeling off wet layers, including a pair of gigantic wool socks which she had worn over her boots, for traction. We put them over the heat vent to dry, along with scarf, hat, mittens.
Here’s what she’d brought in the tote: wholewheat bread, and two jars, one peanut butter, the other apple butter.
We made toast, smeared it with the accoutrements. I had not eaten in awhile; it was difficult to swallow for months after Ned’s death. But I managed a few bites before my throat closed over again.
We sat, ate, talked, I don’t remember about what. What I do remember is this, surpassingly strange: suddenly, sitting with her, I was overcome with intense sleepiness.
“Char,” I asked her, “could I go upstairs and nap for a few minutes while you’re here?” She said, “Of course.”
I climbed the loft, lay down, instantly fell into 20 minutes of a sleep more narcotic than any the medications had given me.
Had it felt too unsafe to sleep, in that unsafe world, not only Ned-less but white, frozen, icy, silent, until someone I trusted was present, standing guard like a temple dog, fending off demons?
I don’t know.
I do know that, when I was widowed a second time more than a decade later, and found myself again in the presence of another dear friend, I was once more suddenly stricken by that deep, irresistible need to sleep, while someone else stayed awake, watchful.
That friend, following this second death, was Mark.
The same Mark with whom, some six years after he stood watch over me as I slept grief-sleep a second time, I celebrated Before Thanksgiving.
Mark, with whom I slowly fell in love, and he with me.
Mark, with whom I bought a house in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Mark, who announced to our friends on that first Before Thanksgiving — 19 years after Ned’s death, six after David’s — that he and I had decided to marry.
Here then is life, two-handed. In one hand, those unaccountable twice-experienced sudden sleeps when, after loss, I was at last with someone trustworthy. In the other, gratitude deep and hot as the earth’s molten core, far below its sometimes frozen, bare surface.
The knowledge of devastating subtraction when you love or are loved, the equal surety that, whatever its eventual cost, loving is worth it — that is “Before.”
A Before which made potent the After of Mark’s and my connection. For which, even in the hard times which are an inevitable part of living, we’ve rarely stopped giving thanks.
Which made our decision to marry seem, at least to the two of us, both irresistible and courageous.
SPEAKING, AT LAST, OF ANGELS, AND STRANGERS
Not long after I woke that frozen Christmas and came back downstairs, Charlisa said, gently, “I have to get back before it gets much darker.”
She rebundled. I turned on the lights, watched her cross the porch, go down the steps, begin the long trudge in the swirling snow, which soon obscured her.
Hard to speak of those days. The most difficult of my life. Even harder, then, to describe the excruciating, undeserved kindness I received from Char that day, and, later, after another death, from Mark.
Who, it turns out now, I have married! Yes, I am astonished at this development.
Though I have gotten considerable more comfortable with the question “What are you?” I still don’t know the answer. And even if I do know at any particular time, given the number of incarnations in this small life, that knowledge would be inaccurate, because it is unavoidably incomplete.
But strangely, given that I am neither a Christian or religious Jew, I love this line from Hebrews: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. ”
Grief makes us strangers to ourselves. Love brings us back.
Angel Charlisa, knocking that impossible day, gave me just enough to continue into an unknown future.
Which contained, improbably, angel Mark, dear, so smart, trustworthy from the first — who, as I said, carries his own fearful Befores.
Yet he said to me, at age 68, “I want to spend the rest of my life, however long that is, with you.”
All who live long enough will eventually be strangers, bereft, bewildered.
But we’ll also, each of us, have chances to act as angels.
I wish us courage, bigger than circumstance, to do so. To knock on the door, or to open it, when it is our turn.
As, sooner or later, it will be.
This post is part of Crescent’s Nothing Is Wasted on the Writer series, in which she explores writing, and, sometimes (as in this post) simply lives that idea — that every experience, no matter what, can be used as material and made to yield meaning for both the writer and her readers.
In addition to writing children’s books, cookbooks, memoir, magazine articles, blog posts, and plays, Crescent teaches writing. To get updates on when and where, subscribe here. Some upcoming courses include Tuesdays with Crescent, a 10-week course next beginning 1-28-20. It can be attended online, or in the flesh in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It takes place every Tuesday night from 6:30 to 8:30.
Crescent also serves as literary executor to her late mother, the children’s book writer/editor Charlotte Zolotow.
Note: a version of this story was written for and performed live at the radio show “HOMEGROWN TALES, OZARK STORYTIME,” on Wednesday, December 4, 2019.