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One Christmas Dinner

City Street at Christmas

As I get ready for Christmas I think of my mother, who taught me how to give a party. She had many rules for making things run smoothly but her cardinal rule, that is, one that must never be broken, is that nobody should be alone at Christmas and there is always room for another place at the table.

She gathered her friends who had no family in town for Christmas dinner, and always made sure there were young children because sometimes Santa would show up. All year she hunted for just the right gift for each person, like a china cow pitcher for our friend Jim Jackson, a dairy farmer.

I remember one year in particular, 1970. My brother, Alan, re-injured his old football knee while skiing. He didn’t fall; his knee just “went out.” I was with him--I looked back up the hill for him which was odd, because he was a much better and faster skier and was always ahead of me. I saw him wince as he tried to put weight on his bad leg. I’m ashamed to say I sent him home with the ski patrol and went back for a few more runs. The skiing was really good that day but I’d like to think if I had it to do over I’d take him home.

Alan spent the week before Christmas in the hospital in Burlington, having cartilage and bone chips removed from his knee. While there he met Chris Carvahlo, a teen-ager we vaguely knew from Stowe, who had lost his entire leg to cancer. He could get around on crutches so he would hang out in Alan’s room. His prospects were not cheerful and his parents never visited him.

We knew the Carvahlos because they owned our house before we did. In our first year in that house Chris’s father, Buck, would show up every Saturday for a visit. He’d sit at our kitchen table for what seemed like hours talking about not much besides how terrible life was. My parents didn’t have it in them to tell him not to visit, so they devised a plan. When we saw his car coming up the drive we were all to grab our jackets and rush out the door saying, “Oh, sorry, Buck, we were just going out and we’re late!” Then we’d drive up the road a ways and come home when the coast was clear.

Alan, knowing he was going home Christmas Eve, and knowing Mom’s rule of hospitality, invited Chris to dinner. Mom’s friend, Betty, a nurse at the hospital who was already invited, agreed to bring him.

Mom was planning and preparing dinner for twenty people while making the hour’s drive to Burlington to visit Alan every day but she wasn’t stressed; she carried on as usual. Nothing prevents Christmas from coming or Mom from being ready.

As the guests arrived the power went out--not the whole house, just the circuit that fed the electric stove so the turkey was only half cooked. Mom called Arlen Smith, the town’s electrician, who came at once, partly because he was a kind and generous man but also because of Mom’s habit of paying all her bills the day they came in. This is another one of her lessons--be true to your word, honor your commitments and pay the bills on time.

With the oven working again and the turkey cooked, Mom deglazed the pan for the gravy. She set the bowl of drippings outside the kitchen door on a snowbank to cool because there was no room in the fridge. Abigail, the English sheepdog who lived up the hill, discovered that bowl and licked it clean. Mom had to resort to canned gravy which she luckily had kept in the pantry. Another of her rules; always have a back-up plan.

Later she told our neighbor and friend, Blanche, Abigail’s owner, about Abigail’s larcenous gluttony, not in anger but as a funny story. That was a good thing because Blanche said, “Now I can tell you about the time Clete, (our yellow Lab) tried to steal the steak I had set out on the stone wall by the grill. I chased him down the hill and grabbed the steak. We had a tug-of-war, but I won.”

“And you ate it, dog teeth marks and all?” asked Mom.

“Of course.”

This is a lesson from the Bible-- when you think you’ve been sinned against be careful about casting blame. Jesus said, in both Matthew and Luke, “Don’t criticize the dust mote in your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the log in your own eye.”

And keep your sense of humor.

Then Chris’s mother, Jean, who hadn’t visited him in the hospital, showed up much the worse for drink and tried to crash the party. Ours was a typical Vermont house--it had an elegant front door no one ever used--you entered our kitchen. Jean sashayed in, saying, “Can’t I come into my own house?” and opened her shabby mink to reveal that she had nothing under it but her slip. “Where’s my son?” she demanded.

Chris wasn’t Mom’s cub but for that evening he was under her protection. She asked him if he wanted to see his mother and he said, “Please don’t let her in--I don’t want to see her.” Mom barred the door--literally--she held on to both sides of the door frame as Jean tried to push past her. They almost came to blows. Jean finally realized she had met her match and left in a huff. Mom was too relieved to worry that she was in no condition to drive. Luckily Jean didn’t have an accident.

Then we all sat down to dinner and everyone raved about how delicious it was, including the gravy. No one seemed to care about the long wait, or even to be aware of the drama unfolding in the kitchen.

Santa made his appearance and handed out gifts. Alan had asked Chris what he would like Santa to bring him and he asked for George Harrison’s new solo album, “All Things Must Pass.” I remember “My Sweet Lord” which always makes me think of that lonely boy. Another song was “Art of Dying.” I looked up the lyrics:

“There'll come a time when all of us must leave here

There'll come a time when all your hopes are fading”

Did Chris know those lines when he asked for the album?

As one of Mom’s guests left the party that Christmas night he said, “Ginny, I don’t know how you do it--everything goes so smoothly for you.”

I don’t know if Mom ever heard “Keep calm and carry on” but that’s how she lived. She also could have said, “Never complain, never explain and when someone gives you a compliment just smile and say ‘Thank you.’”

Recently I asked Alan what he remembered about that time, and about Chris.

“He spent a lot of time in my room--he could get around on his crutches and I wasn’t supposed to get up. I turned over once and it really hurt--I winced, and he said right away. ‘Are you okay? Can I get you something?’ and I thought, ‘Boy, am I a jerk. He’s lost his leg to cancer and he’s comforting me.’ I really felt lousy.”

“Yeah, but you’ve told me yourself, Alan, ‘When you think you’ve hit bottom, look around for someone who’s worse off than you and help him. Then you’ll feel better.’ For Chris at that moment you were the one worse off and you gave him a chance to feel a little better.”

“I just really felt bad.”

I asked Rob and he said, “Chris and I rode the school bus together. He was a sad kid; everyone made fun of him a mean way. I remember he spilled something on the bus and the driver handed him a roll of paper towels to clean it up. He dropped it and it unrolled all the way to the back of the bus and everyone laughed at him. I think I helped him roll it up again. I’d like to think I stood up for him but you know, I was a new kid. You have to be careful, ‘cause if you speak up everyone might turn on you.”

I thought about what Rob said. I have these thoughts all the time, in any situation. Would I do the right thing? If I lived in occupied France would I hide Jewish children in my attic? If I lived in Montgomery, Alabama in 1953 would I join a carpool to help people get to work during the bus boycott? Would I pay my cleaning lady even if she couldn’t get to work?

I like to think that I will always do the right and generous thing, but who am I kidding? I didn’t even help my brother with his bad knee.

Then Rob said, “When I saw Chris in Alan’s hospital room I held the door for him--was he on crutches? In a wheelchair? I don’t remember, but as I held the door he sang to himself, ‘I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.’ I don’t know if he was being sarcastic. I don’t know if I was a friend to him.”

After Christmas we all went back to school; Alan to college in South Carolina, Robby and Larry to prep school on Long Island, I to art school in New York City. We didn’t keep up with Chris and learned that he died a few months later, alone in the hospital.

We’re taught to welcome the stranger and we say, “Of course we will.” But how? What if the stranger is boring, like Buck? What if she’s a drunk like Jean? We had the chance to welcome Chris and I think we tried. Could we have done more for him? Did we have any understanding of what he was going through? I wish I could ask him.

Christmas wreath in red and two shades of green

December 19, 2019

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