I played piano for a holiday party in one of the historic mansions of Saratoga Springs last night. Can’t help but reflect on how things change. Not too long ago I myself was the hostess of a similar affair. Then too, I sat at the piano and played Christmas carols and led the guests in song. Only now, my back faced the singers as I sat at an old upright, out-of-tune piano in the foyer of someone else’s home. Back then, I looked out over my ancient baby grand at my friends as they sang, enjoying their faces, the look of pleasure and togetherness I recognized on them, savoring the moment and filing away the images in my mind to remember forever. Last night, although kindly treated and fully appreciated, I was an outsider. For a moment here and there, I missed the old days, and ever so briefly, my heart became sad. Even still, having been rather cloistered away in my tiny country cottage these past three years, I was happy at the opportunity to be playing again among people.
Elihu had spent the evening running up and down the four wooden staircases, dropping wine corks down the center to the hall below, just missing the heads of guests standing in line for the bathroom. He befriended a small boy – very much of the same spirit as he – and the two darted through the forest of grown ups, following on small adventures through the house’s many rooms. As I played just about the whole three hours I was there, he had lots of time to himself. The books and drawing materials I always bring along with us to keep him entertained sat untouched at my feet as he explored the huge house, befriending cats, a dog, discovering a large game fish mounted on the wall of the billiard room on the top floor. He announced when we got in the car – and reiterated several times later on – that it had been his very favorite party ever. And this kid’s been to his share. “Why?” I asked, sincerely curious. “Because I could be alone. No one was watching me, making sure I could see something, making sure I was ok… I was with everyone and I was still alone!” I assured him I understood completely. I did. I have lived most of my life as a lone person in a crowd. It can be a wonderful feeling. Sometimes it’s just the best of both worlds.
Today Elihu flew to Chicago to be with his father for Christmas. So far Elihu has not spent a Christmas here. Probably never will. How can I deprive him of being in a household of two small boys, a mommy and a daddy on Christmas morning? I can’t. Elihu knows that Santa is old-fashioned at heart; he honors all twelve days of Christmas and seems to prefer visiting the country homes after that first, too-busy night of the holiday. That means after Elihu comes back, on New Year’s day, he may indeed find presents under our humble tree well before the wise men reach Bethlehem. So I do have Christmas with him. Only it’s just not on the 25th. And he ends up getting ‘more Christmas’ than most kids do. All around, it’s ok.
It was twenty-five years ago tonight that Fareed and I went on our first date. “VIP” seats at the Nutcracker in Chicago. They turned out to be a couple of folding chairs behind the last row of seats, hastily set up for us as the lights dimmed. Fareed had forgotten where he parked the car, so after the show we waited in the cold of the underground parking lot until it thinned out a bit and the car, a retired suburban cop vehicle, could finally be spotted. Checking first to see if it was ok with him, I removed my stockings. As it was a first date, I’d been trying to impress. Clearly, after the folding chairs and lost car I didn’t have to suffer through pantyhose all night. Off they came, ending up in the bottom of my purse. Then we were off to a fine, downtown Indian restaurant. A world opened up for me in that dinner. Then we visited his Rogers Park apartment, which was not far from my own Rogers Park apartment, the one in which we would live together for the following twelve years. It was then and there that he played for me a recording of John Williams playing the Aranjuez concerto. What did I say when it was over? I asked him if he could please play it again. To him, this seemed to seal the deal. For me, I was just trying to understand this strange new music. I needed a second pass at it. As I drove down the dark highway tonight after dropping our son off at the airport, I remembered what day it was. And our story came back. Hadn’t thought of it in years. Can it really have been a quarter of a century ago? Truly, it was the night that changed my life. I wouldn’t have my son, my life, and all that I’ve learned from it, if it weren’t for that one night, so long ago.
The first year we lived here we went back to Dekalb to visit over the holiday. I cannot imagine how I did that; I slept in my own house – along with my husband, his young girlfriend and their baby, waking up in that same house on Christmas morning to share the day with them – as if we were all some sort of a natural family. (I guess ultimately we are some type of family. Strained, not quite at peace yet, but in some way all related, like it or not.) I had been trying to show my young son that everything was ok; that I was ok, that I approved of this new family. Elihu had my permission to love them. I did not want my son to feel guilty for loving his new baby brother, however stunned I still was at the new baby even being here. (Today I realize that the antidepressants I was on back then probably enabled me to make such a brave visit, because I cannot imagine making such a visit today, ‘clean’ and fully alert as I am now.) On Christmas Eve I’d taken a prescription sleeping pill, and as it began to kick in, mercifully numbing me to the current surreality of my life, my then five-year old son told me he wanted to leave something for Santa. I was too groggy to deal with logistics this last-minute; we were in bed, for crying out loud. “Santa always gets cookies.” Elihu said. “But he’s fat; he doesn’t need cookies. I want to give him something he needs.” I struggled to stay awake for him as he thought about it for a minute. “I’ll bet he needs a screwdriver. A phillips screwdriver. He could really use that.” I told him to run downstairs and ask Jill and Daddy. So he did. A few minutes later he crawled into bed with me, happy to know that his gift for Santa – a small, phillips head screwdriver – was under the tree waiting for him. That Christmas may have been strange and painful, but I will never forget Elihu’s true love and concern for Santa as expressed in that one, tiny and meaningful gift. It more than made up for it.
I stopped in to see my parents after I dropped Elihu off at the airport. We had a nice visit. They were watching different ballet companies’ versions of the Nutcracker, a marathon of performances after which the viewers could call in and vote for their favorite. I told my folks that just that afternoon Elihu had recounted the Nutcracker for me – only he didn’t want to tell me how it ended and ruin the story for me. ! He’s a thoughtful kid. And I appreciate that. Not sure if I’m as thoughtful a kid; I often worry about my parents growing old and having all that house and life to take care of, yet I don’t stop in too often, despite my living next door. Life just seems to take over, and guilt follows. So I’m glad that I at least stopped in. Made going home to my first decadent night of house-tidying and free-form internet surfing feel better earned. Plus I knew that they were ok. And that’s something I don’t take for granted these days.
No sooner had I returned home than the phone rang. Elihu just wanted me to know that he had arrived safe and sound. “Love you so much” he said before he hung up. And then I was alone. For the first time in a long while my house was truly empty. I thought about the week before me, an expanse of time that belonged only to me and my private to-do lists. This week, I would to put my house in order. I would file every last paper, toss every last unused article, and donate every last item that needs a new home. For me, this week is truly the best gift ever.
Santa, dear man, you can forget about me this year. I’ve got pretty much everything I need.