Christmas memory brings 8-year-old and adult together

ALICE STEINBACH

December 24, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

While walking alone at night through the neighborhood, my intention being to admire the wreaths and trees and candles shining in windows, I hear a door open and out spills the sound of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas."

A woman appears briefly, a cat runs outside, the door closes.

Through the window, I watch as the woman walks back into a circle of light, back into the room decorated with fir and red flowers and lit candles. She hangs an ornament on the tree.

I walk on: past the house whose dozens of windows frame tiny, flickering candles; past the porch where Santa sits in his sled; past the giant wreath that frames an entire doorway; past all the windows through which I can see signs of Christmas.

I walk on: Above me, I hear the wind moving through the trees. I breathe in the clean smell of air fragrant with coldness. Looking up, I see galloping across the winter sky the flying horse Pegasus.

I walk on: A stray hemlock branch brushes my cheek. A man carrying bright red shopping bags, two in each hand, passes me. "Merry Christmas," he says. And just as I turn to head home, a black cat with yellow eyes springs out from behind a row of hedges. He leaps onto the hood of a green Buick parked nearby.

A memory springs out with him. And suddenly I see another cat, another green car and another Christmas.

Now I'm remembering driving at night along slick, wet streets, the car's headlights shining two small circles onto the iced blackness of the road ahead. It is freezing outside and heat is pouring out of the little vents in the --board causing the windows to fog up. Enclosed inside this small cubicle of warmth and light are just my father and me.

The radio is on and the words "Away in a manger, no crib for a bed" fill up the car. From the window I watch the houses go past in a blur of colored lights and electric candles. Once in a while, if I refocus my eyes, I see myself reflected in the icy window, an 8-year-old dreamer, dreaming of Santa Claus and Christmas morning.

And now I'm remembering how when we got home, my cat jumped down from the window sill and ran across the grass to meet us. It is a clear, moonlit night and I can see tiny beads of ice clinging to his gray fur. And with each of his elegant steps, I hear the crunch of a paw breaking through the thin crust of old snow.

Inside the house there is more light and warmth and, later, tucked into my bed I hear the voices of the adults downstairs.

Listening to them through the half-open door, the sounds blend into one voice.

It floats up to my room: up past the pictures of my grandparents that line the stairway wall; up past the banister my brother and I slide down every morning; up past the hooked green and white rug where the cat sleeps; up past the cushioned alcove where I read my Nancy Drew books.

Outside, I hear the ice creaking in the fir tree and someone calling in his dog from the wintry night: Here, boy! Here boy!

A slight movement of my blanket tells me the cat has jumped onto my bed. His paws smell of the damp earth; his fur of wood smoke from the neighborhood chimneys. His yellow eyes glitter in the dark like bits of gold confetti.

I lie in bed imagining what they look like, my family, sitting downstairs in the living room, the lights of the tree blinking off and on behind them.

I imagine how surprised my mother will be when she opens her present: a crystal powder box for her dressing table.

I imagine what my presents will be. A gold locket, I hope. And a pair of roller skates. Maybe a powder blue sweater.

Remembering all this now, as I walk at night through the stillness of the neighborhood, I think: Something is stirring in me. What is it that I seek in such memories? What is it that I want returned to me?

I turn to the black cat with yellow eyes who still waits patiently on the hood of the green Buick. I lean over to stroke his fur. It smells smoky and cold, and suddenly I find what I was looking for: A link to the child I once was.

Finding that, I feel happy. Finding that, I feel connected. Finding that, I feel excited.

I walk on, the black cat following me.

"Merry Christmas," I call out, although no one is on the street.

No one, that is, but me -- both past and present.

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