Monday, December 24, 2012
Christmas Memories by Su Zi
In some ancient memory, I must have been an alligator because what I love is warm, shallow water; a rococo of foliage; flowers. Thus, the dark and cold of the winter solstice has the tones of mourning. In October, when the light takes a decided slant, shifting from summer’s white to winter’s gold, there’s always a sense of sadness. Oh, there’s the memory of snow, and none of it is romantic: the sound of my booted child-feet crunching through the ice frosted chevrons and swastikas left by tires on the road, some part of my skin burning with the cold, walking past other people’s houses with their lights; or later, ever struggling for purchase each step at a time in inadequate shoes, until the one time my shoes failed and the snow came up against my socks for a mile, frost bite, my feet rarely ever warm ever since, ever since; so many times waiting for public transportation as a huddle against the salt and slush for the years of college and grad school; the three days I spent in bed, never warm enough, because the after-night-class-train was late and I got too cold, then those three days waiting for someone, somewhere to bring me an aspirin to break the hypothermic shivering fever—no, I hate the cold. Christmas means winter, and winter is cold.
Christmas is also a symbol of family reunion, of traditions and folklore specific to genetically connected people. For me, kinfolk are a fiber-optical auditory presence followed by a long-distance bill, and there are only one or two voices infrequently heard. Despite the war-cry of family connectedness that resonated in relatives who had seen the mid century ravages of war in Europe first hand, had lost siblings, my own eyes have not beheld anyone related to me in actual physical proximity for more than a decade. When my few friends discuss their own kinfolk, I feel an existential distance, a disconcerting alienation. In secret, I am proud of my parents—now both dead—for their education, their sense of global culture, that they made sure we knew, as children, what a symphony sounds like, what fine dining was; my regret is that I did not hover at my father’s knee when he tuned up brakes on my mother’s Valiant, or reconfigured a radio, or meditated on nuclear reactor physics, the blue smoke of his cigar a personal icon of profound thought. By the time he died, at the cusp of my womanhood, my mother had found a job that while it did not use her degree in chemistry, still used her mind; yet, he left three women in mourning, and my memory of those years is one of darkness and absence. Christmas put the bright lights and party voices into a higher contrast to the shadow of our lives then; my mother never recovered from her grief, though she lived for nearly forty years, every day waiting to join her great love, my father. She taught me both passion and patience; she taught me her rage at gender inequities and stupidity. Now they are both dead, and I search for connection, for shared sensibility, too often finding superfice, artifice and fear.
Thus, without kin or lore, I have created my own traditions. Even when my personal poverty was numbingly extreme, I upcycled, repurposed, painted and gave as gifts. One year, with my only tools being a few scavenged sheets of art paper and childhood-coveted box of 64 crayons, I taped the sheets together, spent a week drawing haptics and zen-tangles, cut the sheets into squares and mailed these as cards; I have glued construction-paper cut-outs to squares and mailed them; in recent years, I have made block prints, this year hand coloring each print one by one. Interestingly, even this most modest of gifts is received with the same echo I hear all year, that of separation. One art store clerk once pointed out that I was sending frameable art, especially since I number the prints (although they are all different as siblings from each other). Each year, I send dozens of cards; I peer into my rural mailbox even more eagerly; yet, each year there are fewer and fewer responses, fewer and fewer reciprocations. I began to fear that the cards were too ugly,--for isn’t it true that my childhood school experience was one of being bullied, of hearing harsh hate daily—so I began sending pictures of the prints as they dried via email, via social media; no, people seemed to like them; why the silence, the frost, the shadow?
In the years I spent in beloved New Orleans, Christmas was the preamble to Mardi Gras, delightful Mardi Gras, egalitarian Mardi Gras, where even the most arrogantly ancient families breathed the same street air during parades; where decorations converted the red berry, green holly of the solstice to rich colors that sometimes coincided with the first flowers of spring. In Mardi Gras, every one is happy, strangers can borrow your plumbing and taste your beans, no curses in a traffic jam and total strangers have told me I am beautiful; shop owners gladly understood and sold my cards, figurines, art; audiences drunk or sober heard my words through my voice or through the page and reciprocated with a happy roar. For me, Mardi Gras is the happiest of holidays; for me, Christmas can be the most fraught, for so few are truly kindly—it is a holiday of hypocrisy, methinks, and sadly so.