Lost Laughter

This is the season when silence is most pronounced. From Thanksgivings until New Year’s Days now almost a decade has passed since familiar cacophony last accompanied holiday life.

More so than summer, those months, its weather presumed better suited for traveling and visiting. Perhaps the volume and volubility induced by June, July, and August are simply compressed into late November through January’s first day.

Clearly the celebrants animated these festivities. Leaden as Americans have made Thanksgiving, while allowing rampant consumerism to squeeze aside Christmas’ meaning or taking the other extreme that manifests the sort of pageantry which smothers the holiday’s basic simplicity, no wonder a good many of us look in relief when New Year’s permits us bid good riddance to the past 52 weeks.

Ambivalent as we may’ve felt about some years, those weeks concluding them often tilted the whole into less disfavor. Of course, 2020 is an exception. What part of 2020 got exempted from being trying? What days actually shined brightly and with hope instead of dismay; what nights didn’t yield to the next sunrise’s possible dread?

Ours is a modern contrast. We’ve managed to drain the gratitude out of Thanksgiving and dim the joy from Christmas. There must be a cartoon somewhere in The New Yorker archive showing a version of a typical 1950s lux couple – he’s wearing a tux, she’s attired in a luxurious gown inclusive of stole settled around her bare shoulders, sparkling gemstones on her fingers and circling her throat — aghast at their children’s disdain of the manger creche in favor of that year’s sporty coupe.

Even the irreligious know that’s where we are today. No way any of us could’ve seen or believed these developments while growing up in Quarropas, once a New York City bedroom community. A place where multi-generational families settled and expanded; where broad familiarities issued through long-standing associations.

Nor were neighbors strangers.

My old hometown of Quarropas no longer exists. It’s firmly in Gotham’s sway now.

Oh, would modesty alone forbid me from stating Quarropas died when I left for Las Vegas! But it went toes up long before my departure. Slapping transparencies over the new revolting aspects which robbed the city of its peculiarities, its distinctions, yes, charms, kept the place livable.

That got harder and harder to do when residents who bestowed the environment atmosphere through their characters surrendered time on earth to successors and inheritors. Plaques and memorials are affixed and erected to remind. But where memories are our finest monuments, they are fragile. Most Americans are too rushed and careless about our past to pay decent homage to how we’ve sprung and from where.

American history has become as ephemeral as marvelous aromas from grandmothers’, mothers’, or aunts’ kitchens. The smells incite tastebuds and make mouths water. The meal itself lovingly devoured. Yet what had been magnificent the previous evening becomes detritus the next. Gluttons at heart, we’ve forgotten the feast. We’re ready to be dazzled by what’s crowds the next plate.

In my old Quarropas, Thanksgiving times and Yuletides served for more than unbridled eating and mindless gift giving. Learning one’s past was the true rewards of these occasions. Not from where the individual arrived, but from whence the group belonged-to emerged.

How unlike now where the presently young and defiantly unformed uninformed eagerly hope to hasten those of us who know how stuff works out the door. It is not exaggeration to suspect they believe nothing in life mattered until their fortuitous nascence brought them among us.

Prevalent as that attitude is throughout them now, when my cohort youthful enough to have shared the age and frustrations of today’s usurpers we were often reminded how being sublime escaped us. Perhaps if this current youthquake ever thought about analogies, they’d prefer that of Icarus. Mythical doomed figures. Never fail romantic. Great for vicariously living out one’s own self-absorptions.

More down to earth, I’d assign them feet of clay.

We didn’t get parables growing up. Instead, we got to sit around and listen to our cumulative past through conversation. Word of mouth. Or oral history. Somehow don’t spoken words reach deeper than written verse? Yes, they do. Read a piece of Shakespeare. Afterwards speak it aloud. And soon you too shall grasp the winter of our discontent.

No Shakespeare ever crossed the lips of older relatives who formed me.

During the autumn into winter festive seasons, our surging families either visited relations across Quarropas or hosted them. The year’s late months transformed them. Circumspect natures elders commonly displayed all year were suddenly banished replaced by grins and merriment. Liquor, an elixir dispensed on weekends that soothed workweeks, elicited cheer rather than just mollified.

No matter whose home, the stereo continually played. The albums faithfully chosen provided ambient music never loud enough to muddy talk. So insistent, the melodies and lyrics triggered our surest reflexive holiday moods.

Most memorable was the amount of holiday food on hand. In ordinary times larders were full. Come Thanksgiving into January, bounty became cornucopia. Always tasty, there was just more of it. Few refused a second or third plate, another dessert.

None ate to gorge. Instead, the ready quantities served as markers of far hosts and guests had traveled from meager portions of their youths’ inferior quality food. Meals in Faulkner’s writings always struck me with their abject descriptions. Leavings and tailings. Offal. Yet listening to those who’d grown up in the 1920s and 30s rural American South, the Mississippi writer wasn’t just taking fictive license.

“Eating everything but the oink” wasn’t a country-fed tall tale.

Holidays also changed the quality of laughter. Besides making it louder and making it more prone for listeners to join in, the new seasonal notes left behind the usual rueful and knowing, and frequently harsh into incredulous barks. Those were the sole non-destructive recourses available to repressed people. Most of their adult lives had been proscribed, all the more so during work. They could only push so far and this as gently as possible.

Persuasion and accommodation, the two stratagems their successor generation regarded as at best passive or ineffective as well as weak, only obtained the barest of incremental results. Considering the efforts devoted shouldn’t more been derived? That was the question we eventually pressed. Those experiencing the frustration and anger couldn’t ask the question whose answer they already knew. They needed some outlet. Hence, stinging liquor and sharp, honest, revealing appraisals among others boiling in the same pot.

Thanksgiving through New Year’s delivered respites. The loud laughter, the easy chatter of those periods didn’t erase bitterness but did shove acrimony onto the periphery for a while. Especially on New Year’s Day when these men and women thankfully refrained, “I’m glad to see another year.”

On Christmas, if it can be imagined, parents, aunts, and uncles, reverted somewhat to their own childhoods through their children’s. Recollecting the privation endured, they did the best possible to deluge us in gifts.

Practical durable goods for the most part, yes. But for every bale of underwear, corduroys, and flannel shirts, a train set or bicycle somehow managed to get slipped under real tree branches. Transference, really. Through us they received the presents their circumstances at our ages made impossible. Pleased – and eventually grateful – as we were in unwrapping and taking possession, without a doubt plenty of gift-givers took deeper pleasure in bestowing than many recipients did in accepting.

That was their right.

Happy New Year!