Part One, 1956
I am 4 or 5. Small enough to sleep in two arm chairs pushed together, facing each other. One of the arm chairs has velvety grey upholstery in a swirly design. The other, my favorite, is red velvet. I sleep the strange sweet sleep of that place, of childhood. Outside the window is cold Montana, the clear dark pierced by stars and lit by a distant radio tower. Some nights there’s dance music coming from the Red Barn down the road. Among the songs is Gene Autry singing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Trains whistle through the night.
It’s still dark when I hear her, coming out of her room, humming softly, tying on her apron, buttoning her sweater. She walks to the kitchen and lights the stove. I smell the fire catch. She comes back singing.
It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old.
“Are you awake, Martha Ann?”
“You want to go with me to get the eggs?”
“Well, get up then. Put on your socks and your boots and your coat. Be quiet!”
Peeeeeaaace ON the Earth, goodwill to men
In the back room she reaches for her coat and a wool head scarf. She ties it over her ears.
“Put this on your head or you’ll catch your death.” She hands me a paisley scarf. Well, she has good reason to warn me. Already by then, I’d nearly caught my death in more than one Montana winter.
Of angels bending near the earth, to touch their haaaarrrrps of GOLD!
The snow crunches under our boots. She opens the hen-house door, “Shoo, shoo,” she says to the hens, “Shoo!” She reaches under the sitting birds, putting their eggs in our basket. “There now. We can make breakfast for Helen and them when they wake up.”
“Helen and them” is my mom, dad and brother — and anyone else who showed up for breakfast.
The snow crunches on our way back to the kitchen. The light comes through the small window of the back room, yellow and human. All around is cold grey/blue light of dim December Montana morning.
And through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their Heavenly music floats, o’er all the weary world.
I open the door. The kitchen now warmed by the stove is friendly in the light. “Set the table, baby. There are,” she stops to count on her fingers, “there are four of you, and Jo and them will be down, that’s four more, set it for nine.” I still have to climb on a chair to reach everything. The big table fills the kitchen with its chairs and benches from all epochs of Montana history. I love the chairs. Even then I know that they are chairs with stories.
Gramma’ lays the bacon slices carefully in the black iron skillet. The December sun struggles over the horizon, appearing as a golden gleam. Blue shadows stalk the trees. Morning.
And all the world send back the song, which now-ow the angels sing!
Part Two, 1979
I snarl at the lousy weather, the hanging gray cold, and all the people, I push through the crowd on Seventeenth Street. After two blocks, I catch up to a crippled blind guy banging his cane against the two-by-four supports of the narrow entrance to a construction sidewalk.
“What is it? What is it?” he screams frantically, “Would somebody please help me? Help me!”
“Damn it,” I think. But I squelch my inner asshole, not because I’m a good person but because clearly going WITH this obstacle is more productive than fighting it.
“It’s a new building,” I tell him, catching up. “They’ve built a covered sidewalk. It’s like a tunnel. Here, take my hand and we can go through it together.”
He tells me he is catching the Colfax bus which is now a block behind us, loading passengers. He is about five feet tall, if that, a little shorter than I. I look at him and see that every aspect of him is wrong. His watery pale sightless eyes, his pinkish hair flattened from sleep, his crooked, red, too-large nose, his feet twisting toward each other just enough to make his stride unsteady. Some of his teeth are gone and his fingers are gnarled. He seems to be my age, in his mid-twenties. His helplessness compels my trust.
“Can you run?” I ask. “Your bus is behind us at a red light. I’ll hold your hand. I think we can make it. There’s no ice on the sidewalk here.” We have a half a block to go and the traffic light behind us has just turned green.
“OK,” he says, and we run to the bus.
“This is fun!” he laughs a snorting little laugh.
The bus driver must know the blind guy because holds the bus at the corner. The man struggles up the steps and shows his pass to the driver. He turns around, facing me. “Merry Christmas!” he says, “Thank you! See you again!”
I raise my hand to wave goodbye, but at the last minute, I put it in my pocket. “Merry Christmas!” I say.
I reach the Presbyterian church on top of the hill just as the carillon begins;
“It Came upon a Midnight Clear, that glorious song of old, of angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold. Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, the Heavenly host proclaimed. The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.”
Suddenly my grandmother is alive, singing in her kitchen, and I am only four years old, stretching awake on the bed made for me of two easy chairs pushed together. A Christmas tree stands in the corner of the tiny living room. My mind’s eye sees her in the dark Montana morning wearing her egg-gathering jacket and hat, putting wood in the stove.
Part Three, 2004
I hurry down the steps to the baggage area of the Logan Airport in Billings, Montana. There, beside the baggage carousel stand three old people. One a tall man with a trucker hat and a khaki-colored, flannel lined jacket. He wears light blue jeans and suede shoes. His dark brown eyes look anxiously — then happily — out of a face I’ve known all my life. On one side is his wife, my Aunt Jo, wearing a London Fog coat with a fleece liner over her light blue jeans and what she calls “tenny-runners.” They are red. On the other side, my Aunt Martha, wearing a Kelly green wool swing coat, black wool slacks, black leather loafers. Back in the fifties, they would also be wearing Christmas corsages of fake pine, real pine cones and a ribbon, but in these modern times they each wear a Christmas pin. Aunt Martha Wears a Christmas tree; Aunt Jo a Christmas angel.
I’ve arrived from San Diego. It’s a LONG trip involving a two hour lay-over in Salt Lake.
“We thought we’d go feed the ducks then get some Colonel Sanders,” says Aunt Jo.
My aunt has a sack of old bread in the trunk. “It’s been so warm,” says my uncle. “Not like December.” The water on the duck pond is completely open. The ducks are happy to get the bread, and we don’t know it’s not the best food for ducks. They don’t get a lot, anyway.
On the way to Jo’s we stop at Colonel Chicken. Aunt Jo asks the boy behind the counter how many pieces are in a 12-piece bucket. He looks at the rest of us as if he’s asking if my aunt is all-right. She realizes what she said and laughs at herself. “I’m just so tickled you’re here, Martha Ann, that I’m not thinking straight.”
We take our chicken back to their house and have a nice meal. About 8, my Aunt Jo says, “Why don’t you take your Aunt Martha home.” They don’t like to drive at night, and I’m happy to have more time with this woman who means the world to me, this heroine, this ally, this beloved friend of my whole life.
She’s living in an assisted living apartment which she hates. She’d been moved back to Montana from Denver because she became ill and her sisters thought she should be near them. Fiercely independent, my Aunt Martha hated every minute of the move knowing she was relinquishing her freedom, the life she’d chosen for herself so long ago and worked hard to maintain, a life in which she’d thrived and one her family never fully understood. But I did. Do.
But now she’s fighting dementia, and she knows it. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, Martha Ann. I’m no use to anyone. Don’t tell Jo.”
I park and help her out of the car. We go inside, greet the girls at the desk, take the elevator to the second floor where her apartment is. Aunt Jo has hung a wreath on the door. Aunt Martha takes the key out of what she still calls her “hand bag,” and unlocks the door. I flip the light switch. In the living room, I see post it notes stuck to every surface. Dozens of them. They all say; “Martha Ann comes today.”
When I leave my aunt, and step into the star-lit Montana night, I hear my grandmother from the deepest part of my heart,
“Are you awake, Martha Ann?”
Merry Christmas from Bear, Teddy and me.
Parts one and two originally posted December 24 2016