The Paper Madeleine

    Sometimes simplicity is the best provocation.

    This season means card exchange. Or should mean it. Email and the erosion of cursive script are turning paper Christmas cards into museum pieces.

    Old-fashioned and time consuming as more and more of us regard them, Christmas cards are always welcome at this address. Their reception indicates a thought and care an e-card blast will never convey.

    A woman I’ve known since her teens sent me a deceptive greeting. Just glancing at the card, an appropriate response might’ve been, “Feh.” There’s nothing remarkable about the missive. To be honest, it’s drab enough to be the antithesis of the holiday season. However, the real surprise awaited inside.

    From somewhere she’d unearthed a working manual typewriter. She’d dashed off a quick message. Thing wasn’t the greeting itself, forgotten seconds after reading, but the typeface.

    None of those perfectly spaced letters leaving perfectly created words which lull readers, but actual characters that had imprinted themselves unevenly upon paper. Computer keyboards and printers remove much of writing’s soul. Her unfamiliarity with the manual’s keys left some strikes stronger than others. Her machine’s ribbon so fresh, the carriage return occasionally smudged still wet ink.

    Having manhandled a manual a long time ago doesn’t prompt any pleasure (as far as I’m concerned the word processor beats out sliced bread as the greatest invention ever) but recalling what those often sweaty efforts produced does. Late weeknights/early mornings at university mainly. Usually while banging out what passed for inspired genius then. Given the thing was so noisy, I often had to hole up outside my room lest I infringe upon my pot-smoking roommate’s slumber.

    It’s funny. The dorm’s international exchange contingent, Asians and Middle Easterners who took refuge in the science library until Godforsaken hours of the night, more than once discovered me doping out the inklings of what could’ve been contenders for the Great American [genre here]. My diligence, well, the late hours, equaled their own. In their estimation I was more than just another party-hearty Arizona undergrad. (Oh. So little did they suspect.)

    Reading the young woman’s card made me rue having shredded and tossed almost everything I’d committed to paper as a much younger unformed man. My correspondent was daughter of a female gym acquaintance. Five years my senior, one saw the mother defied the usual indignities our society drops on middle-aged women. Comfortable in her skin, charming and confident, the years had imbued her with a wryness that made me regret we hadn’t met much earlier. Of course then I wouldn’t have developed the later presence necessary to truly appreciate that sort of woman. But maybe an earlier crossing could’ve sped my maturity in that respect.

    While impossible to recite exactly, the daughter added plenty of her own to the mother’s template. Unlike piles of her contemporaries, the younger woman exhibited solid qualities. Bright rather than smart-aleck, curious, yes, though not insufferably precocious, the daughter was well on her way to becoming a grounded adult. With her one knew there’d be no commissions of silly attention-grabbing drama, no stupid choices, and later on no maundering about mistakes made and blown chances.

    Back then I nicknamed the daughter “the perfect teen.” Some may’ve thought I joked. But seeing how she carried herself, the admiration she earned, surely wrested envy from parents whose own issue tested filial bonds and my less together contemporaries who wished they bore her bearing.

    The mother was a local figure of a kind. Then, she managed the Quarropas cemetery. They lived onsite. Their backyard was the largest and quietest I’ve ever traversed.

    The elder woman took her job responsibilities quite seriously, though limned herself through generous doses of levity. Surprisingly, their home hosted a good many convivial occasions. Halloweens especially. I believe scavenger hunts highlighted the outdoor portions. On these nights she always hoped for ground fog to augment conditions. To heighten atmosphere as well as amplify pranks, doubtlessly of which there were a lot.

    Not being much of a dress-up kind of guy, I instead accepted invitations to their Christmas parties. I run across former attendees today who still talk about those nights, their wistfulness at long lost wonderful times still fresh.

    Those evenings became respites from what too much of our Yuletides have become. The utter lack of craven materialism would’ve caused the hardiest merchandizer to seize. No specifics to pinpoint, no memorably mortifying party behavior that will embarrass until the end of time. Guests and hosts simply enjoyed mixing in the others’ unforced company.

    Perhaps our hostess ladling wassail the only way our fun could’ve been improved.

    Although if wassail resembles glṻhwein then it’s a good thing the concoction remained unavailable. Frau North, my second German teacher, stewed a batch together for us students at a Christmas fest she hosted. Aromatic as we thought, she must’ve diluted it to accommodate our Yankee senses. Decades on in Vienna, I slugged the true elixir. The difference between explosive and atomic.

    Outside on a wintery Karlsplatz afternoon shaded gray, the alabaster and emerald baroque confection that is St. Charles’ Church dominating the square, away from the city’s numerous and virtuous Christmas markets, a glṻhwein stand sat. More like boiled. Pungent from tens of yards, dozens of bundled Viennese mobbed the spot.

    Rather than display their usual grimness, the locals were deep into gemutlich. Jollity might descend if engaged with a few Austrians after a while, but a whole mob of them? While my appearance prompted curiosity, no need to shoulder through to the counter. Happy, glowing imbibers parted with the damp, cinnamon-heavy wafts.

    No service with a snarl there. Instead, the ruddy-faced (a common affliction because everyone pouring behind these pit stop counters was bright-eyed and apple-cheeked) permittee greeted me with Austro bonhomie. Well, what must’ve passed for Austro bonhomie. Inside most of the eateries and taverns I dropped coin in Vienna, prickly obers and frauleins only started defrosting after I exhibited restaurant/bar lingo proficiency. 

    Glṻhwein people didn’t bother waiting to take me at my phrasing. Deliverance was speedy and friendly. Unlike Frau North’s, the contents of Austrian cauldrons were savory. Far more potent, too. Beyond pie-eyed. Think eyelashes adhering to eyebrows stiff.

    Recent weeks give me pause to reflect on meaningful Christmases. Not the meaning, meaningful. I leave the former to Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang.

    Seasonal cynicism aside, haven’t spiritual misers dampened joyous aspects, thereby straining recall of pleasanter moments? Or maybe my present gig has placed me in contact with increasingly unpleasant conductors.

    Okay. Both.

    Examples abound but I’ll just present a couple that go against the season’s advertised benevolence. Each involves lounging around, shooting the breeze with supervisory personnel. Or at worst, jumped-up clerks

    Inside many offices along with decorations, ornaments and cards are gift baskets, bottles of cheer or baked goods. The fourth and sixth are usually offered to anyone visiting. The fifth are gazed upon as trophies, and just as prized. That’s understandable etiquette.

    But etiquette is vanishing.

    Who doesn’t know that gratuities are gifts, not requirements? Every delivery or maintenance person is aware of this and really should never expect any year-end show of extra thanks. That said, those gestures are greatly appreciated. Far more than the people withholding them realize.

    Aside from alligator arms, another failing I’ve seen manifest itself is hoarding. One might think that instead of having been raised amid American excess, cubicle slaves and others believing themselves chained to office desks liken their situation to galley rowers. That any favors bestowed from elsewhere or above must be clutched to the bosom unto death.

    The bounty of sweets is my favorite part of the Christmas season. Cookies. Brownies. Other pastries. Candies. Gratifying snack food as opposed to the bland comfort variety. Just plates larded with the stuff. I’ve always seen these offerings as freely available. Otherwise why leave them within easy reach? Food should never be used as an unintentional tease.

    And while I’ve watched and forgotten countless instances of treats being devoured, what’s stamped into memory are those rare occasions where some suite martinet has begrudged a visitor his or her meager plate swipe. The transgressor castigated always squats lower on the pecking order. A custodian, a housekeeper or deliveryman unattached to any major parcel service.

    It must inflate small egos to have people beneath them to look down upon.

    These instances remind me of my cohort’s career tracks after graduation.  Ratty apartments and peon jobs the colors dominating conditions then. Someday won’t we look upon that drabness fondly? But when?

    After another lost week of being an indentured wage earner, one of us would invariably brighten the interregnum between graduation and promotion into prestige by hosting a party. These events started out low key, though around 2 or 3 a.m. (okay, 1 or 2) would’ve fully fueled unruly complaints.

    How many times did these nights reconnect me with Quarropas High School classmates who’d forsworn college for the military commitment/responding officer track?

    At several, party-goers could count on the appearance of the grizzled sage. Never a woman, always a man. One perpetually sporting gray stubble, his skeptical mien one new-fangled gizmo (a Walkman?) from edging into loud contrariness. Fortunately, women young enough to have been his daughters (or granddaughters) kept him gladly distracted. Along with being instantly plied by refills.

    My goal when attaining senior citizenship? Attending parties chockablock with sweet young things who never let me see the bottom of my cup or glass empty.

    The sage wouldn’t circulate. Somehow our parties swirled and eddied around him. Shouldn’t we have nicknamed such fellows Scylla or Charybdis?

    Being a sage, or being hammered enough to have assigned him sagacity, he would bestow wisdom. Believe me, receiving drunken wisdom early in the morning isn’t all that hard to accept.

    How many of those pearls were garbled? Misunderstood? Forgotten? Ignored? What number represents infinity? Therein lay the answer.

    However, there is at least a single case where cognizance intersected with retention. Mine. I hope it was a Yuletide but that would be too good to be true, wouldn’t it?

    Scylla, or maybe Charybdis, assessed some money situation for us. Today’s claims to have been free of money concerns then are exaggerated. Who among us didn’t want the comforts of home, an IROC, and the bossest rack stereo system to further lure babes?

    Our that night’s sage threw the profound question into his clarifying crucible. He decanted this: “Thems with the most usually gives the least.”

    Skip holding true until today. Doesn’t our current condition magnify that?

    Merry Christmas!


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