Saturday 19 October 2019

Hazy Christmas memories bring back feelings of delight and pain

Dad’s favourite: Judy Garland
Dad’s favourite: Judy Garland

Dave Robbins

In my mind's eye, I see a Christmas from when I was a boy. It is hazy, but there are sharp points of delight, and of pain.

In the kitchen, my mother is preparing the Christmas dinner. She is in her dressing gown and slippers. There is a cigarette burning in the ashtray and a Christmas carol is playing on the radio.

The kitchen is a big room at the back of the house, with a fireplace, a table and a picture window looking out over the back garden. A grey light that is almost like fog comes in through this window.

In the front room, my brother, my father and I are watching television. The Wizard of Oz is on and my father is getting sentimental.

The movie comes from a time when he was in his heyday, when he and my mother were dating and going to the pictures and to tennis club dances.

Judy Garland is a favourite of his too, and his nostalgia for the days when he was a young man in Dublin and the sadness of Garland's tragic end somehow get tangled up in his mind and bring a tear to the corner of his eye.

On the coffee table, there is a pile of TV magazines: the RTÉ Guide, the TV Times, the Radio Times, plus newspaper TV supplements. My brother and I are preparing for an orgy of television.

Back in Oz, the Lion is singing about courage, and his lack of it, and I can see that the song is reverberating deep within my father. Perhaps he is wishing that he too had more courage.

Later, my mother comes in, dressed now in her best, and all business. The television is switched off and she demands that her favourite record -- Perry Como's Christmas -- is put on the stereo.

My brother is the only family member allowed near this machine -- a giant silver apparatus the size of a large suitcase, bristling with knobs and levers. Soon, the mellow sound of 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas' fills the room.

Suddenly, there are lots of people in the front room. It is bright with that extra-clear winter sunlight coming in through the front window. It glints off the Waterford Crystal and shines through the amber liquid in the decanter.

Pieces of delph and sets of glasses and coasters that are never seen all year are produced for this one morning and there is a golden glow about the room. Good-natured conversation drowns out Perry Como.

There is a sudden tension, one of those awkward pauses, when my father pours himself a tumbler of whiskey. My mother's face falls and my brother and I exchange glances.

The room empties gradually and the sound of the last "Merry Christmas!" dies in the winter air outside, by the bare roses and turned earth of the front garden.

The four of us sit for Christmas dinner and dutifully put on our paper hats. There is some perfunctory reading out of cracker jokes, but our hearts are not in it.

As soon as he decently can, my father announces that he's off out. He's ordered a taxi, he says, but he won't be long. We see the dark outline of a figure through the textured glass of the front door.

We go back to the front room, which seems sadder now that everyone has gone. The fire, neglected while we ate, is dying in the grate, the last of the briquettes almost smothered is ashes.

Briskly, my mother pokes it back into life. She puts on more turf and tidies away the glasses and paper napkins. She puts my Action Man figure on the mantelpiece.

Then she sits on the sofa and beckons us over. We stand, one on either side of her. She hugs us tightly, pulling us in until our three heads are touching.

"Happy Christmas boys," she says fiercely.


Irish Independent

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