A Christmas Like Helen’s

It’s a new year, and I am about to embark on an entirely new existence in (gulp) three days, but because Christmas technically lasts until the 6th, I am going to give myself a few more days to write about the books we read this time of year.

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Recently, my family (the family I made) moved to a small farming town in Western Massachusetts.  Although we have integrated ourselves completely into the broader community surrounding this little town, we are far, far away (hundreds of years away) from being accepted to town-folk as “local”.  This idea of being forever an outsider in our adopted town may seem frustrating to some, but not to me.  As someone who grew up in a small town in northern Vermont, founded by one of my ancestors, where my grandmother and father graduated from the same high-school as I did, I get it.  My family (the family who made me), what’s left of them, still live in Vermont, and when I go there, no matter how long I’ve been away, I’ll always be considered a “local”.  More local, in fact, than people who have spent the last twenty years of their lives there (something I certainly have not done).

Being as it is–the place that has been claimed for me by my ancestors is a small town in northern Vermont, whether I like it or not–Mary Azarian’s art has always been, and will always be, a mainstay in my life.  Her hand-painted, wood-cut prints have graced the walls of my childhood and travelled with me here, to my new home, so that no matter where I am, I will always remember where I have come from.  Her art is stunning to any eye, but having an intimate relationship with the land and culture from whence it came makes it all the more powerful.  It makes it feel like home.

It is not surprising then, that I consistently choose her books to share with my children.  Also not surprising is the fact that the book is written by another multi-generational Vermonter, Natalie Kinsey-Warnock (whose familial history in Vermont makes Mary Azarian look like a fresh-off-the-train city-slicker).  In A Christmas Like Helen’s, Kinsey-Warnock tells the story of a Vermont Christmas in the time of her grandmother, Helen–a time when community, giving, and simple living were not just hallmarks of Christmas, but present in all aspects of life throughout the year.

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To have a Christmas like Helen’s

you’ll need to be born on a Vermont hill farm,

before cars, or telephones, or electricity,

and be the youngest of seven children.

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You’ll have to have four clever brothers

who make snow rollers and bobsleds,

who sometimes hitch themselves to a sled

and let you drive them like horses.

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You’ll have to like animals:…

…especially a big black-and-white tom

that lets you dress him up

and push him around in a doll carriage.

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You’ll hold your sister’s hand

going to the one-room schoolhouse

that’s a mile from home,

and you’ll walk there even on days

when it’s forty degrees below zero.

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You’ll have to not mind

living in a place

where winter lasts nearly eight months.

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You won’t be thinking of Christmas

when spring finally rolls around

and the sap rises in the trees,

but the syrup you’ll have

on your Christmas breakfast

must be made now.

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To have a Christmas like Helen’s,

your family will keep the spirit of Christmas all year long.

Your father and brothers will hay fields and cut wood

for an injured neighbor,

and when another neighbor’s barn burns,

you’ll help him build a new barn.

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When winter blankets the hills in white,

you’ll harvest ice from the pond in the woods

and snowshoe up and over every hill

to find the perfect balsam fir

and help drag it home.

After supper,

someone will suggest skating in the moonlight,

and even though it’s late,

and cold,

and you’re the youngest,

your mother lets you go,

because it’s Christmas.

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To have a Christmas like Helen’s,

you’ll go to church on Christmas Eve in a hay-filled pung,

under buffalo robes and wool blankets.

The church will glow

with a candle in every window.

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…someone will start singing

“O Holy Night,”

while overhead

the cold stars will be thick enough

to scoop up with a spoon.

At the end of the book, Kinsey-Warnock admits, “our Christmases aren’t exactly like Helen’s.”  Our aren’t either, but there are so many things in this book that cause memories to stir–sugaring, haying, the candle-lit Christmas Eve service at church, pond-skating, my ten-year-old brother and his friends pulling me to first grade in a sled up a steep hill at least a mile long, my grandmother being one of seven children (although not the youngest) with four clever brothers, a certain moonlit toboggan ride…

I’m not sure what stirs inside my children when we read this book–whether it’s the recognition of the change of light in Azarian’s pictures, the author’s inviting second-person prose, or Helen’s father looking remarkably akin to their pediatrician.  I’d like to think they are sensing the history that is a part of them, even though they can’t conceptualize it yet.

Tomorrow,

there will be peppermint sticks and popcorn balls,

toy trucks and sleds for your brothers, and dolls for your sisters,

and the last box under the tree

will be a pair of skates just for you. 

But tonight,

before the stockings and gifts under the tree,

when you’re still in that barn,

tucked in the crook of your father’s arm,

you know that everything you ever wanted,

or ever will want,

is right there on that farm.

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