It was 1943 when my dad went to North Africa and my mother moved from Canaan, to Newbury. She was young and a looker, strong willed and optimistic.
In a little house a mile south of the cemetery where she now lies she taught us to sing Christmas carols. Fifty years have passed and I can still hear her words: “Now we’ll sing Bootsie’s favorite.” Bootsie was my nickname in those days. “Silent Night. Holy Night. All is calm. All is bright.”
My father did not return from the war. Divorce.
Once later in life I asked him the question that haunted me. “What happened, Dad, between you and mom?” There was a long pause and he said. “Oh I don’t know. The war I guess.” It was, I suspect, a lie. My father knew how much I loved my mother.
It was tough then, a divorced woman in a small town with three little kids. She tried to be a father too and mostly failed. We never owned a car. Too many New Year’s Eve’s alone. Too many things that broke that she didn’t know how to fix. Now and then there was a man in her life. But none of them took.
As a young man my recurring memory is of her sitting at the kitchen table at night under the light of a single lamp, listening to the radio, playing solitaire and smoking cigarettes.
I don’t know exactly when the booze took over. But by high school I was on the watch for hidden bottles at Christmas. Then came the day I drove her to Waterbury to be dried out by the state. Mom hit bottom in Washington, DC in 1983, where she had been living with my sister for several years. They found her drunk and half dead on the street.
So she came back to Newbury and lived out the rest of her life. Mostly alone, mostly sober. As her mind slipped away my brother and I tried desperately to keep her in the old house she loved so much. But you know the story. I could feed her. I could not change her diapers.
Then came her last Christmas. I had picked her up from the nursing home. She had long since forgotten my name. There would be no reasoned conversation. Only mutterings and random sentences wrapped in confusion and fear. What was the point?
We were sitting in the car waiting for my daughter’s return to her house in Shelburne. A light snow fell. The engine murmured and the heater sent tears down the windshield in the darkening afternoon. A local station was playing Christmas music. It had been a long haul since the good days.
Then from the radio someone sang. “Silent night. Holy Night.” and in strong, clear tones and in perfect tune my mother began to sing too: “All is calm. All is bright.” She needed no prompting so clear her memory. Then she turned, looked me straight in the eye and said, “You sing too Bootsie. This is your favorite.”
And I did. “Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”
Thinking back I suppose it came from some random mix of brain waves – a quirk of biology whereby the avenues of memory in her tired old mind were triggered to respond to ancient cells not yet quite dead. Physiological the scientists would surely say. Nothing more.
But perhaps it was something else. Perhaps what happened is explained by the existence of a distant paradise, uniquely fashioned for each of us. And there in the sweet melancholy of an August afternoon in a little Vermont village someone young and beautiful sits reading on her porch. There is no torment in her heart. Her spirit is free of demons. From the backyard is heard the laughter of children at play.
A breeze touches her cheek. She looks up and then down the road. First as but a longing and then as joyous certitude an incandescent truth emerges. Toward her, through the dance of shadows cast by elm and maple – there comes a soldier.
Merry Christmas Mom.
–Frank Bryan is a writer and teaches Political Science at the University of Vermont.