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Posts Tagged ‘Southern California Christmas’

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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A CHRISTMAS TREE AND THE FOREST

For my mother and father, the tree had to fit these specifications: a six to seven foot Douglas Fir, fresh if possible, big blue-green needles, full branching.  And oh, yes. It must exude that wonderful resiny smell of the forest on a summer day, the trade mark so to speak of the doug fir.

The excitement of my family buying a tree around December 10 in one of the numerous lots that sprang up after Thanksgiving was usually the opening chapter of the holiday season.

First Christmas Tree 1930 © SR Euston

But for me as a boy, this was really not the essence of the thing. The tree selected (after much discussion and sometimes disagreement) was a kind of shadowy symbol of the great mysterious forest that I imagined covering the slopes of a semi-mythical Sierra Nevada—mist covered or snowy, cloud hidden or stormy, winds roaring. After my great imaginary storms passed over the peaks, a luminous sky broke into pure cobalt blue. Only the silence of the snow covering forests of pine and fir or Sequoia remained. Hidden in our small ornament-clad Christmas tree were such evanescent forest dreams.

The Tree Trimmer circa 1932 © SR Euston

Understand, this was Los Angeles. The Santa Ana winds could howl dry and dusty or even smoky over the San Gabriel Mountains even into December. The winter rains may have hardly begun. The Christmas tree lots may have had only a few green things, weeds, growing on the very ground where the quasi-green trees from Oregon rested in clumps, harvested in October for the LA market. Some years, the trees were dry enough that, by merely picking one out, the needles dropped like tinder ready to burn.

This fascination with the forest was hardly the Christmas of the Bible or the First Methodist Church my family attended. In a sense, I suppose, Christmas for me was a Christmas without Christ. I might have been called a boy pagan. I thought the tree in the church sanctuary as almost sacrilegious—not from the Christian standpoint, but from the tree’s.

Grandmother's Tree © SR Euston

I have some idea where such imaginings came from. My father and his natal family, mostly German in descent, treated the tree as a central part of Christmas. I can sense that looking at an old picture I have of my Grandmother, in old age but still winsome, standing beside her trimmed tree set on a round maple table, looking calm and happy.

And from a sepia photo of my parents’ first Christmas tree, in 1930.  I can almost smell the resinous tang and guess at the tree’s significance at the beginning of a marriage.

And from every tree I helped my father trim, and from every tree I later have trimmed myself, a tradition has carried on to an uncertain future.

Today, after all, we helped fabricate a fake tree made in China, for incongruous decoration in a nearby historic Victorian house. (Strangely, almost eerily, a few of the branchlets of the fake tree fell off, just like a real tree.)

I suppose in retrospect it’s not too far of a jump from the Christmas tree to the forest of dreams.

I doubt if plastic trees make for dreams.   SRE

The Forest, South Fork, Eel River, CA © SR Euston

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THE  CHRISTMAS  CABIN

Once upon a time there was a woodsy cabin, made of alder logs, set deep in the woods.

The Original Cabin, 1950. ©SR Euston

This cabin was very small. That, however, made little difference. This is the thing: Each Christmas season, around December 6, the cabin was reoccupied for a month. Sometimes it stood firm, heavy with snow. The chimney was smoke-blackened at the top, with a neat woodpile set outside.

Sometimes the cabin sat in the midst of a tantalizing green of sphagnum moss, the soft green of the rainforest. To the occupants, the velvety feel of this lowly plant was luscious, and the smell when wet with rain was December and Christmas.

The scene below the tree glimmered with shafts of muted morning light, or was lit by a glowing Christmas light at dusk. Here was the presence of the mountain fastness. Our imaginations were helped by the fact that this was Los Angeles, and the temperature outside might be 80 degrees.

The first cabin was constructed out of alder twigs in the 1920s. It was circled by a 4” tall split rail fence, also of alder. It was my Dad’s construction. The snow was real cotton, the kind you could buy years ago in the five and dime, and the moss was from the neighborhood florist.

The Cabin 2009 ©SR Euston

All this was about my father’s remembrance of an Oregon childhood.

Eventually, the original Christmas cabin was lost in the chaos of time. In the 1970s, to keep alive a yearly rendezvous with tradition, a simple new cabin was made, just roomy enough for the Christmas “occupancy of the imagination” by the second and third generations.

Over some 70 Christmases, a little homemade cabin, set in a scene of imagined woods and wilds, has kept alive remembrances and expectancies, all waiting in the forest deeps.       SRE

The Oregon Woods ©SR Euston


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