28 December 2013

"Light the lamp, not the rat!"

Ebenezer Scrooge Gravesite — Shrewsbury, Shropshire England
I will sail a friendly course,
file a friendly chart,
on a sea of love and thankful heart.

It's that time of year, when I find myself getting out all the various interpretations of "A Christmas Carol" and basking in the time-worn but essential lesson of kindness over and over again.

Thanks to the generosity of friends and family I have no fewer than seven versions of the wonderful tale on videotape or DVD, and all are favorites for different reasons. 

Who can argue that Patrick Stewart isn't a remarkable Scrooge?  With his voice like a rich pudding, grumbling one minute and bellowing the next. And his beautifully expressive face, scowling disapproval. And his energetic body, erect and unyielding in his stinginess or leaping like a child and giggling in the final scenes of redemption.

George C. Scott, on the other hand, is the most forbidding of the brood, and his version appeals to me on a personal level.  I have walked the very "shuts" (lanes) where it was filmed in the city of Shrewsbury (Shropshire), including wandering through St. Chad's graveyard one evening and gazing down (in disbelief!) at the long tablet stone with it's ominous and chillingly carved name.

Alistair Sim isn't brooding at all, despite being a mean-hearted fellow. And yet there is no one who captures Scrooge's sheer zany giddiness and genuine warmth on Christmas morning when he realizes he is still very much alive and able to renounce his miserly ways.  His interaction with his maid on the stairwell always makes me laugh out loud.

Music is such an integral part of Christmas, and I do enjoy the musical version of the story, featuring Albert Finney. The soaring chorus that accompanies the beautiful watercolor drawings in the opening credits perfectly sets the tone for the Victorian spirit of an English Christmas.  And Finney is brilliant as Scrooge from his opening scowl to his final geriatric romp on Christmas morning -- opening all the curtains and letting light into his darkened home and heart.

And then there is the version set in New England during the Depression, starring Henry Winkler as a miserly man, who spends his time reposessing the worldly goods of the town's poorest residents. At first it's a bit jarring to have a different landscape, a more recent time period, and the flat American accents. But the story transcends these variations and Winkler's response to the final apparition is heart-rending.

But my favorite version, hands down, has Michael Caine as Scrooge, supported by a cast of Muppets decked out in full Victorian splendor. Their word for word version of the tale is so endearing, so heart-warming, so hilarious, it is the first one I watch every year.  Narrated by Charles Dickens (aka Gonzo) and his faithful side kick (Rizzo the Rat), it's heart-lightening to see the story unfold to the point where I actually forget I'm watching humans and puppets interact and can simply let myself get carried away on the tender tutorial of opening one's heart to the spirit of Christmas. (Although I don't actually remember the scene in Dickens's original story where a lamplighter lights a rat's tail by mistake...) 

It's in the giving of a gift to another,
a pair of mittens that were made by your mother,
it's all the ways that we show love
that feel like Christmas.
A part of Childhood we'll always remember.
It's the summer of the soul in December.
Yes, when you do your best for love
it feels like Christmas.

Yes, indeed it does.

19 December 2013

Down the lane, tree tops glisten....

The snow here in southern New England hasn't been very memorable, but that's fine with me during these busy weeks before Christmas.  And it's early days, yet.  The real snow doesn't fall until the year turns and we're deep into the dim, cloud-heavy days of mid-winter.

We've had two small squalls so far, each of them dropping a pretty 'icing' on trees and gardens. The last one turned to rain overnight, leaving a thick carpet of sleet on the roads and pavement and making them something of a challenge to negotiate on foot. But it's all part of the season and I wouldn't change it for anything. 

Once Christmas Day has come and gone, and the New Year has been celebrated, I'll be hunkering down and readying myself for the window-rattling winds that whistle down the chimney.  Perhaps we'll have a blizzard... or two.  One never knows in this neck of the woods.  The salt air of the ocean sometimes interferes, shifting the snow line further north.

If we do find ourselves in the grip of a heavy snow, I hope it's the sort that keeps us all indoors and off the roads. The kind of storm that leads to ventures to the mailbox in your nightgown, lots of wood fires on the grate, endless pots of tea with cinnamon toast or scones, and comradely shoveling larks in late afternoon, once the flakes begin to wane, waving over the road to one another.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone
Snow was falling, snow on snow
In the bleak mid-winter, long ago
Christina Rosetti

A soft blanket of snow at a loved one's cabin on the coast of Maine. Our time will come...

16 December 2013

Daddy's Little Tomboy

Lest my father be overlooked in all my recent talk of domestic bliss and 'homely' skills, I must give him credit for many lessons learned while in his care. I was his only "son" for eleven years... until the appearance of my two brothers, after which my reign ended. But until then I was schooled in a variety of comradely pastimes, and witness to many of his quirky character traits, the benefit of which I recognize in my adult life nearly every day.

By the age of twelve I knew how to salt-water fish, casting my line from slippery rocks overlooking the bay. Stopping at the bait shop on our way, he taught me the economy of buying only enough clam worms to catch Choggies near the rocks. Once our pail was full of the "scavenger" fish, we'd use them to catch flounder further out. While I wasn't enamored of slicing and dicing the Choggies, they were certainly a less "creepy" alternative to the slippery millipedes we'd purchased.  Years later, my beat up tackle box became a recepticle for my paint brushes, sketching pencils and watercolors, and each time I open it I'm reminded of fishing with my dad on the bay.

Thanks to frequent trips with my father to various sporting events, or simply sitting next to him and watching them on television, I came to understand just about every sport imaginable. (And since my father was left-handed, I also learned not to sit to his right if I didn't want to get punched in the arm when our team scored.) While I never formally participated in any sports as a child, I loved taking my turn in the nightly whiffle ball games under the street lights each summer. And when I was much older, I enjoyed a brief stint as scorekeeper for his neighborhood softball team.  An early result of all this was that I found it easy to talk with boys in school, and as an adult am eager to talk sports with male friends and family members. And I'm sure it's why I tend to mark the seasons not only with the variance in my gardening chores but also with the coming and going of the different sporting events I follow: beginning with tennis and baseball in the Spring and moving on to football and hockey in the fall and winter.

After watching my father build or fix just about everything in (and out) of our house throughout my childhood, I came to appreciate the joy that comes from trying to do things myself before calling in the professionals. Hence, my frequent wing-walking escapades on ladders, my request for a proper tool kit one Christmas, and a dangerous penchant for clearing out my own gutters or switching out storm windows. (With a grateful nod to my dear neighbor who frequently 'spots' me on these aerial excursions.) And thanks to my weekly outings with my father to the local Ace Hardware or Hay & Grain store, I would much rather walk into a Home Depot than a chic boutique, preferring the scent of sawdust over the cloying whiff of flavored candles.

My father approached life like a twelve-year-old. His "goofball" quotient was quite high and we never knew what mischief he might get up to next.  He was a rule breaker and a clown and had the spontaneity of a 12 year old on a sugar high. Would he come home with a puppy?  A Volkswagen convertible?  A camper? (He did all three at one time or another, to my mother's chagrin.)  He woke me at dawn once to walk with him to the rail yard to watch the Circus Train pull into town. We stood and watched as they raised the enormous tents on the tent ground. He walked me to Kindergarten one day wearing his policeman's uniform even though it was his day off, simply because I'd asked him to.  Later in life, when he worked as a telephone linesman, he would stop his truck if he saw me walking home from school and let me ride in the back, which I'm sure was against several different regulations. He embodied the old joke that a good friend might bail you out of jail, but a great friend would be sitting next to you in the cell saying, "Wasn't that fun?" He was a great friend. As a result I have never been afraid of breaking a few rules or taking chances. His boyish approach to life paved the way for my own escapades and risk-taking: sleeping outside at Stonehenge; fare-hopping a train from Boulogne to Calais when I'd missed the last ferry; sneaking into a deserted mansion the night before it was demolished... just a few of my ill-considered shenanigans.

My father and mother were both responsible for my love of books. Each pay day my father would bring me a Golden Book throughout my early childhood, and every night my mother would read to me. Not only fairy tales but poetry. Our favorite was The Golden Book of Poetry. The illustrations were magical and the poems were a wealth of descriptive language that fed my mind and developed my love for words and keen love of reading.

Zoon, zoon, cuddle and croon—
Over the crinkling sea,
The moon man flings him a sivered net
Fashioned of moonbeams three.

And some folk say when the net lies long
And the midnight hour is ripe;
The moon man fishes for some old song
That fell from a sailor's pipe. 

I also learned to appreciate the importance of humor from my father who was as irreverent as they come. There was never an event or situation that didn't benefit from his sarcasm or pithy remark to lighten the mood or allay our fears.  To this day, I'm sure my reliance on self-deprecating humor to meet and greet life's tragedies and setbacks is in no small part to his example.  Following his death, my mother's humor stepped into the light from behind the large shadow he cast, and over recent years I have come to appreciate her deadly, dry wit, most often displayed during our lowest moments of loss or pain together. Laughing in the face of sorrow, hurt and disappointment is surely one of the most important lessons she and my father shared with me.

Indeed, on the occasion of his death he had the biggest laugh of all, at our expense.  Having died in winter, there was no way to have a stone raised over his grave until the ground had thawed.  For weeks we visited his gravesite, following the directions of the cemetery groundsman to find the dull patch of earth where he'd been buried, crying silently and leaving flowers.  It was only when the stone was raised that we realized we'd been standing over the wrong grave. My father would have thought that was hilarious.

11 December 2013

All That Fall

A few weeks ago I had the extraordinary good fortune to watch two of my favorite actors perform in New York City.  Dame Eileen Atkins has won numerous awards in British theatre, television, and film. And she has appeared in, or been responsible for, so many of my favorite television programs—most of them broadcast on PBS—that it's difficult to narrow down my favorite. She was one of the chief creators of the original Upstairs, Downstairs series as well as House of Eliot.  Although if hard pressed, I would have to say her role of Miss Deborah, the elder strait-laced sister in Cranford, based on a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, was easily one of my favorites.

Sir Michael Gambon has been in countless films and television series over the years—including the disturbing Peter Greenaway flick The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover—although his depiction of Inspector Maigret is perhaps the character I've enjoyed most.  (More recently, he crossed over into pop culture in his recurring role as Dumbledore, filling the wizardly shoes of another fine actor, the late Richard Harris.) His theatre awards are many, and he is considered a "bright light" in British theatre, appearing frequently with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the Royal National Theatre.  He, too, had a role in Cranford as the elderly Mr. Holbrook, whose courtship with the endearing Miss Matty, years earlier, was thwarted by her spinster sister, Miss Deborah.

Samuel Becket's All That Fall was written as a radio play, but director Trevor Nunn guided the actors to a happy medium: dressed for their roles, they held scripts and limited their movements to suit the various sound effects that peppered the production—blaring car horns, clopping horses, braying farm animals, arriving trains, and the dull scrape of Mrs. Rooney's feeble steps as she walks to the station to meet her blind husband.

That is the sum of the action: a walk to the rail station, meeting her husband, and their walk home. But it is fraught with pathos, humor, defeat, tragedy, and what Stefan Brook-Grant calls "the deeper melody of the pain of existence."

We also had a chance to be a bit star struck, finding Mr. Gambon and several members of his cast drinking coffee before the production in the same small cafe where we'd taken shelter from the cold. We were polite and kept to ourselves, but I was grinning from ear to ear at the sight of Miss Deborah and Mr. Holbrook.