Sunday, November 30, 2014

Auntie Hannah Laced Her Tea with Rum, Because It Was Only Once a Year: A Christmas Blog

(Editor's Note: This blog, a revisiting of last week's blog with a new title, is filled with allusions to the tale about which Miss O' is writing. No disrespect to Mr. Dylan Thomas is intended. -ed.)

Wool-White, Bell-Tongued Balls of Holidays

Years and years and years ago, when I was a girl, when there was a Woolco in Woodbridge, and seagulls the color of white-grey winter skies sailed into the Featherstone Plaza parking lot to dive for discarded crusts from Family Pizzeria; when we sang and bellowed Christmas carols because Miss O’ had a thing for caroling and dragged all the kids for whom she babysat out into the chill, still evening to pass from house to house the whole length of Alabama Avenue, we hoped for snow, and it never snowed. But there was “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas, recorded on an oft-turned vinyl album put out by Caedmon Records, a company started by two women who just wanted to get Dylan Thomas recorded reading his lovely memory of ice-bound Christmases in his hometown, Swansea in Wales.  And each Christmas Eve, Miss O’s beaming mom, Lynne, would gather her four children and her husband to the stereo turntable she purchased around 1958 or so and force, er, invite, the assembled to listen to the 20-minutes’ worth of ramblings of that sonorous Welsh voice, as each child—after begging to be released into the frosted world of the backyard and being denied that pleasure, praying for the sweet numbing peace of death, and short of that, a slab of pie or surely a handful of Brach’s confections as a reward for endurance—fidgeted, flopped, foamed, and flailed until, mercifully, finally, Mr. Thomas intoned, “…and then I slept.”

The first time I saw the book in print, my mom was working as an assistant manager at Crown Books (there in Featherstone Plaza), and the New York publishing company New Directions had just issued a little blue booklet of the story, with woodcuts by Ellen Raskin. My mom, Lynne, bought a copy, pictured, and you can see how much I hated it. I hated it so much I wore the jacket off of it, stained the pages, and memorized the entire thing. (This is true: I can recite the story from start to finish, and still each year I do this for myself, now (in my head) on the train down to Virginia from Penn Station.) 

I chose it as a competition piece for Girls Prose Reading in high school Forensics (which is the name for public speaking--when I was in high school, the television show Quincy, ME made forensic science popular for the first time, so when people asked me, "What do you do, exactly?" I'd tell them, "We each get a dead body, and whoever finds the cause of death first wins." "Really?"), getting only as far as regionals, where a judge told me that while I had an arresting voice, “You need to get rid of that piece!” This judge was a college guy, very effeminate, and he gagged himself after his remark, for emphasis. Even in my middle years, I can peer into the crystal ball of memory and float back into that beige-tiled grim classroom at Longwood College to fixate again on his lank, brown bangs, the poorly styled hair (“bed-head,” we say now), the glare of fluorescents on the lenses of his large, square, wire-rimmed glasses, which slid repeatedly down his wide-nostriled nose, the slight gap between his smallish teeth, the extravagance of his arm gestures embellished by his yellow suit and bluish bow tie, his Southern accent and harsh laugh echoing in my ears even as I sleep.

That I can recall (and describe accurately if not artfully) such a memory has everything to do with Dylan Thomas. I knew even then that my eye, my ear, my voice had been trained and honed over the years of listening to that piece of prose on the oft-dreaded record. Never, ever, I knew, would I “get rid of that piece,” nor would I regret my choice to read it, however dearly it cost me in competition. As I practiced the section I read, “Mrs. Prothero and the Firemen,” let’s call it, each day after school with the ever-patient and encouraging Mrs. Combs, another teacher would walk past, often: Mr. Abler. He would pause, cross his arms, and smile. He stayed for the whole thing, always. He even took to asking me if I would be practicing again that day, for instance, if I saw him in the English pod. It turns out that “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” was the favorite work of both himself and his wife, Bridget, who also taught in the high school, and who had been my English teacher freshman year. Years and years later, when I became a teacher in, however accidentally, that very same high school, Mr. Abler, “Mike,” now, asked me if I still remembered the story, and I could report that I knew it all. He looked so pleased. Lately, when he joined Facebook, it was the first thing he asked me about. How sweet is that?

I remember this, too: Mr. Abler had written me a note of response, in answer to a question I’d had back then, as to whether “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” was poetry or prose. His response has stayed with me, however paraphrased: “While it’s probably the most poetic thing I’ve ever read, I know it was intended as prose.” That comment informed my writing, too: Prose could also achieve poetry, and a prose writer need not be a poet. This new understanding, I think, informed my reading: I cannot write poetry, and neither could the most consistently poetic writer I’ve read, Virginia Woolf. She is my favorite writer. While Dylan Thomas was both a poet and prose writer, as well as a writer of radio plays, such as “Under Milkwood,” he was essentially a poet, a wordsmith, a weaver, I think, of stories and moments, and a maker-upper of words. His poet's boldness with prose made me bolder, too: He describes, for example, how a postman “tingled down the tea tray slithered run of the chilly, glinting hill.” He created a verb, “tingled,” to substitute for the more mundane “slid,” creating this light, twinkling image of how the postman moved out of sight, as well as augmenting the alliterative “t” of the “tea tray”. The rest of the image eluded me until I learned, somehow, that children who didn’t have sleds used to take their mothers’ tea trays for sledding. Now the image is clear, the “slithered” making a snake image, and all those short “i” sounds—slithered, chilly, glinting, and hill—linked in their assonance. One sees, now, the hill, the sliding down it, the entire scene. For the lover of pure sound if not of words, Dylan Thomas is your writer.

My Heart Keeps Sinking in New Directions: A Pause for Editorial Comment

New Directions discontinued the little blue edition with the Ellen Raskin woodcuts maybe five years after issuing it. About five or so years after that, they issued a new edition, without illustrations, and in the shape of a regular paperback. I bought four copies from my mom to give as gifts, but in the parking lot, flipping through one, I saw that an editor at New Directions that interpolated two sections of the piece, interposing the “postman” section in between the two “Christmas presents” sections, and it made utterly no narrative sense. I returned the books to the store and wrote a letter to New Directions—the old-fashioned but then-current way, via post—expecting no answer. Less than two weeks later, this note arrived:

Along with the note, guilt booty:

I was so touched by their contrition that I didn’t realize that they wouldn’t, in fact, recall the books.  My mom told me that her store, for example, had never received a request, so a few dozen or hundred readers of that story will only find themselves lost in what is already a demanding read.

This year, New Directions, astonishingly, wonderfully, released a reprint of the old blue Raskin-illustrated book! I found it on Amazon, and immediately ordered four copies. The edition has a rubberized sort of cover, much sturdier, and other changes include a slightly smaller square format, larger font, and numbered pages. The arrangement of the woodcuts is, I think, less elegant, and the typeset not as elegant, either, but there was one glaring error, which was the repeating of a line of text at the bottom of one page and the top of another.  Of course I will be writing to point it out to them, with photos. “Why bother?” you ask. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “A poet can suffer anything except a misprint.” I’m an editor now, but a teacher first. What difference does a typo make? Why not ask, what difference does one nail make in the shoeing of a horse? Or being off by a gram in a prescription drug medication? Or better, just watch this video metaphor (trust me, it’s worth your time): Awesome Woman on Britain's Got Talent knock-off show:

Somebody’s got to have the standards. Dammit. It's a habit of mind, that sort of grumbling, that could, in fact, mean the difference between meaning and nonsense, or even life and death. First, let's compare and contrast the editions. 

So far, so good. The new edition is slightly smaller.

The first pages, old (top) and new (bottom), show prettier color, a nice addition of that fancy capital gray  O, but overall worse bookmaking: the text of the new one lists toward the book's gutter.

The typeset of the new one is larger, causing this particular woodcut to get pushed from the captivating center of the old page to the nondescript bottom of the new edition.

Look at the layout of the old v. new in the photos below.

Above, you see how lots of empty space has been left, interrupting the flow of the narrative.

Here I saw my first actual glaring error in the new edition:

You see the repetition of the last line on page 27 on the top of page 28. Speaking as an editor, this is egregious. And yes, I will be sending these photos to New Directions, whose website indicates that they are wildly short-handed. Because god forbid ANY American company have enough staff to keep going in anything like a pleasantly productive way. Back to the workhouses for us!

And Then the Presents

I learned of the mistake in the copy as I read the book aloud to my nephew Cullen and my “niece” Camille, the daughter of dear friends Cheryl and Bob, during this past Thanksgiving week. Each Thanksgiving, Miss O’ heads to the Midwest to her brother Pat’s; she always has little gifts in tow for the children. This year I gave the kids two books, one I considered my safety, and I was right: “Oh!” cried Camille, “I love The Dot! It’s my favorite! My art teacher reads it to us every year!” Cullen, too, knew The Dot, and likes it. But, the day after tossing their copies onto the floor, both had the good grace to pretend to be enchanted by the promise of the little blue book, and asked Aunt Lisa to read it to them. We cozied up on the bed in the guestroom where I sleep, one child on either side, and I began to read, my rich, warm  (read: slightly drunken) voice intoning,

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea town corner now, and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

(And yes, that was typed from memory.) Did you fade out? That happens sometimes. It’s not as if Miss Aunt Lisa O’ didn’t warn the the kids—the language is rich, dense, dream-like: They were instantly bored. I believe they said, almost in unison, "Aunt Lisa, this is boring." Until, that is, I allowed them to follow along as I recited it from memory. That, at least, got them to the end of “Mrs. Prothero and the firemen” section. That, and allowing them to bounce on the bed. I reassured them that this is what had happened to Uncle Patrick/Your Dad and Aunt Lisa every year when now-Grandma O’Hara took out the vinyl record, and it played and it played. (Camille even ran in to tell her mom, "Mom! Aunt Lisa read to us from Christmas in…uh…" "Wales"… "Wales! And we got bored, and she said it was okay because her and Uncle Patrick always got bored too!" Ah, tradition.

There Are Always Uncles at Christmas. The Same Uncles.

Always on Thanksgiving night there is football. Uncle Patrick finds a Hallmark movie on cable, Aunt Cheryl looks for Black Friday deals on her phone, and Uncle Bob reads from his Kindle Fire. The children eat slabs of delicious pie, and Mom/Aunt Traci makes giant vodka spritzers for one and all, while Auntie Lisa finishes her fourth bottle of red wine (drunk over four nights, in both senses). After the warmth of the food and joy over the loss by the Cowboys, the children ask Aunt Lisa to finish the Wales story, would she? She would. You can see the wild enthusiasm with which the reading was met.

Dylan Thomas, in the thirty-nine years he lived and remembered and wrote, knew what it was like to listen to the elders at the holidays. He had the self-awareness to interrupt his own reverie of snowy Christmases with, “But here a small boys says, ‘It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.’ ‘That was not the same snow,’ I say….” And yet it is always the same story: The elders know that something is very beautiful, and very important, and while the children on some level believe you, they can’t quite go with you on that journey. Not today. Not when there are games to play and videos to watch and pet hedgehogs to roll around on the floor with (carefully) and more pie. For they have only begun making memories. Still, we must prepare them now, little by little, for the burst of love we know will reward those years of patience, indulgence, and inadvertent attention—that moment of awakening when a small voice, “a small dry eggshell voice from the other side of door, a small dry voice through the keyhole,” surprises them into awareness, joins their singing, and they will have been made ready through poetry. And memories of adult inebriation after pie.

Should you wish to listen to that rich Dylan Thomas voice reading on the Caedmon recording (and Miss O' really hopes you kinda do), it is available on CD, along with the poet's reading of several of his poems aloud (as opposed, I guess, to silently, which would have been very John Cage of him). My mom was and is not a fan of his poetry reading. It is, we agree, singsong and if not unfelt at least a little mannered, the language more or less fastened hard to the page, unlike the lively, witty reading that allows his prose to “tingle” and dance. (Though I know plenty of people who prefer the poems, so what do we know?) (The recording my mom owned—an original vinyl 33 RPM imprint—was destroyed by her bookstore boss, who had borrowed it and let his toddler chomp on it; he gave it back to my mom in that condition. He also did not bother to replace it. “He laughed,” my mom said, “as if that mewling infant’s every destructive impulse is nothing short of adorable. What adult allows that to happen? To other people’s treasures?” My first boyfriend and lifelong friend, Jay, surprised my mom one Christmas with a new vinyl copy he found at Tower Records in D.C.  You never saw a happier Lynne. “What a guy!” she said, and, “Why don’t you still date him?”

For Christmas years ago, Mom O’ got each of her kids a fresh copy of the little blue book, which came in an envelope, as well as the CD of his reading. My brother Mike and I really enjoy it, while Jeff and Pat are ambivalent, though charmed by how much ol’ Mom O’ loves it. (Despite themselves, they have to admit the allusive importance of it in our lives. Just as the eccentric aunt asked, absurdly, of the firemen in the story, “Would you like anything to read?” my mom Lynne (on a particularly “noisy Christmas Eve” outside our home when the police and firemen showed up after someone ran into our friend Rob’s parked station wagon), asked, coming down the stairs from bed, “Would they like anything to read?” and we all laughed. Our friend Rob, obviously, had no idea why that was funny. Plus his car got totaled. What larks, eh?)

By the way, a few years ago I happened to learn how this famous recording came to be, and you can listen to that wonderful story by streaming a little NPR:

Moment of inspiration: The Story of Caedmon Records

Not to beat a dead poet, but really, can you tell how much your Miss O' loves, loves, loves, this story? Sure, you kids tire of the old tales, but I mean, there are worse Christmas traditions. Elf on the Shelf, anyone?

GNOME ON THE THRONE: A new holiday tradition!
Photo by Ryan Duncan

Peace, love, and understanding, and wonderful stories as the reason for the goddamned season, with barely a drop of cynicism or political outrage, for the holidays, anyway, 

Miss O’

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