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My childhood Christmas memories are defined by four things: food, carols, presents and Fritz.

Christmas 1954

Christmas 1954
(That’s me in the cowgirl hat)

Food: I see the canisters of christmas cookies. Turtles, those brown sugar based balls spread thick with dark chocolate frosting; Ladyfingers, powdered sugar, butter and pecan filled; and Spritz cookies, butter cookies shot from a cookie press by my sister in various Christmas shapes, bells, stars and angels and sprinkled with red and green colored sugar. And the Christmas duck, stuffed with prunes and apples. A general family lament was that there were never leftovers for sandwiches. We always ate the whole bird.

Carols: After clearing the Thanksgiving table my father always repaired to the living room to place a Christmas carol record on the player and the season officially was underway. Throughout the weeks of Advent, Perry Como and I spent many an hour belting out O Little Town of Bethlehem and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Jo Stafford taught me Walking in a Winter Wonderland and Merry Christmas to You. Between Perry, Jo and weekly church sings multiple verses of virtually all Christmas songs remain imprinted on my brain.

Christmas 1955

Christmas 1955

Presents: I remember my dolls—Tiny Tears with her multiple outfits lovingly created by my Aunt Ethel (all Tiny’s exit pores had arrived plugged and after being “surgically” opened, the poor thing drained for weeks on a towel after being force-fed enough water to make her slosh);  my full sized baby doll (Amy) who also came with a wardrobe and a crib; and my Ginette doll. (My sister is holding hers in the picture above.) I also remember my life-sized “sculptural” copy of Durer’s Praying Hands, a ten-year-old’s irrational obsession developed after a visit to Caldor (the 1950s in Connecticut version of Target) and a wish which my mother lovingly fulfilled as well as the slot car set I coveted which my brother and I delighted in racing at full speed to watch the cars fly off the track.

Fritz: Fritz was our dachshund and he cut his own swath around Christmas time. One year, we returned from the 11:00 pm Christmas Eve service to find the family room strewn with little pleated papers. Fritz had eaten his way through an entire pound of Barricini’s chocolates and lived to tell the tale (from his exile in the front yard). Another year, my sister and I came home to discover he’d knocked over the Christmas tree. And once, while chasing his new squeaky Snowman around the dining room table, he dislocated his shoulder, requiring a Christmas day emergency vet visit.

And a recent Christmas memory: After my father died I discovered among his effects these Christmas cards from Tokyo, dated 1945. I knew my father had been on a Navy ship steaming toward the invasion of Japan just before they surrendered, but I didn’t know he actually landed.

christmas tokyo 1945 2

Christmas Tokyo 1945

Singing Silent Night in a candle-lit sanctuary still gives me chills and makes me hope-filled for at least a moment. For me it’s the heart of Christmas. May our world find peace in the new year.

Tokyo Christmas 1945

Tokyo Christmas 1945

Toyko Christmas 1945

Toyko Christmas 1945
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Things of Memory

Think for a moment about a treasured photo of you as a child. Of the surroundings, of your smile or the frown. Maybe your childhood home is in the background of the frame, maybe you are playing on a swing at the park with friends. You get the idea.

Hide and Seek © SR Euston

In viewing even the most forlorn snapshot, tantalizing memories and strong emotions can be illuminated instantaneously. The dark cover of unconsciousness momentarily lifts. Certain parts of the brain become stimulated in strange and largely unknown ways. The result can be conscious memories that startle with their impact.

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That two dimensional memory-evoking photo you imagined above captured maybe 1/100 of a second of your life. In middle retirement age, this equals about two trillionths (1012) of one’s life so far lived. Seemingly even more impossible, those memories dancing on such ephemeral waves continually widen, like ripples from a stone tossed into deep azure waters. The waves move rapidly in mysterious ways.

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Sometimes the flashing memories break on one another, so to speak. A peaceful but undramatic black and white picture of sycamores somewhere in Southern California miraculously leads me to the Sunday drive along Los Feliz Boulevard near the Hollywood Hills to meet my Aunt, Uncle and cousins at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. I’m imagining we are going to have a picnic of potato salad and sandwiches. Are my grandparents going to be there? I’ll be playing softball catch with Uncle Vern.

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What about the photo of my brother playing “hide and seek” behind the tree? Was it only a pose? Or was my brother captured peering from behind the sycamore, my father yelling, “freeze — I got your picture, son” ? (Was there a call of “ollie ollie oxen free free free?”) I’m sure it’s summer. I can smell the lawn, the leaves, the air. And I wasn’t even there.

I know the other picture of Dick in the park was carefully composed — my father’s romantic 1930s photographic eye is in full play here.

Brother Dick, 1936 © SR Euston

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More than simple memory suffuses such mental wanderings. I can only explain it to myself–very poorly– as a complex of full body sensations, a sort of rapid fire full mind and body transformation of the past. How otherwise can these park photos next lead me to a change of seasons, scenes of October brown sycamore leaves. I see them under the mottled whitish bark of spreading sycamore limbs; I hear the sound of my crumbling the big tinder-dry palm-like leaves between my hands;  I smell the slightly acrid but wonderfully evocative autumnal scent; I see muted, subtle autumnal tints of a southern California October. The mental waves are dancing now. The time is late afternoon, and we are driving home from the park. It’s near Christmas. The San Gabriels are bathed in a mauve purple light. Our 7′ Douglas fir ornament-filled Christmas tree will be glistening in the low winter’s light that glances through the window.

What’s next in this cascading alter-world? I will watch the lights on Christmas tree lane out my bedroom window tonight. I love to look at them through a blurry rain-distorted window pain. Not tonight though, but sometimes it does rain around Christmas, even in Glendale.

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In writing the above few paragraphs, about 1900 seconds elapsed. This means my memory wanderings in a lost world of Los Angeles have lingered about 180,000 times longer than the time it took my father’s Kodak, with its folding bellows and strangely dimensioned

2 1/2″x 4 3/4″ negatives, to capture several 1930s pictures, the visual cue that seemingly started the above cascade of thoughts and reveries and sensations.

First Christmas Tree 1930 © SR Euston

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Photography is remarkable. The memory is more than remarkable. I’m glad it’s unexplained.   SRE

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