Monday, December 18, 2006

it was good

If I could make an amalgam of all the Christmas memories I ever had from childhood, it would be this: driving past someone else's house that's been strung with lights, a brilliant festive tree standing smugly dead center in a boastful, uncurtained living room window.

If I could point out one person who taught me the meaning of Christmas, it would be my fifth-grade teacher, the one who took me aside after I'd made my classmates cry when I told them with disgust: There's no Santa Claus; you're all a bunch of fools.

Just because you don't have Christmas, he said to me gently, doesn't mean you can't be tactful with those of us who do. This isn't about focusing on what it is you don't have, or what you believe and what other people don't. It's about giving people what you can, even if it's just kindness and respect.

I'd never seen it that way. I felt so ashamed of myself.

Come to think of it, that teacher helped me with my speech, too, because I used to lisp -- I couldn't say the "th" sound, like bath, Thursday, father. I used the "ff" sound instead. People found this no end of irritating. I really tried hard to avoid using any of those words. Unfortunately I wore a size three shoe, everyone always wanted to know what day it was on Thursday, I couldn't get away with taking a shower instead. The th sound is everywhere.

I couldn't get speech therapy. (It's a long story. Don't ask.) So this teacher coached me privately for I don't even know how long, helping me repeat sentences over and over until I captured the enunciation: "My father takes a bath on Thursdays." "The thimble thinks of things three times." The sentences were so ridiculous that they made me laugh, which also helped with my stuttering.

Did I mention I stuttered? But I doubt most people know that about me.

Since then I've spoken fairly fluently. I only lisp and/or stutter if I'm very upset (and when I'm very upset I'm more likely to clam up entirely lest I do either one). What I aim for (what I always aim for) is a smooth, modulated control.

I had no way, then, to say thank you -- until a few weeks ago when I tracked down an address.

I sat down and wrote that teacher a letter today.

The moment I pulled out a blank page the words tumbled out: you helped me at Christmas time and I always appreciated it --

I wrote the letter but there was no way to put this into words really -- what it meant to be able to say, Thank you. You changed my life. Christmas was always bearable, after that. Did you know? And so was speaking in public.

I couldn't wait to mail the letter. I had to wait until my husband came home from work to mail the letter because all three boys were home today, sick. And then I practically ran out the door with his dinner still on the table ("I'll be right back, it'll just take a minute," I called over my shoulder, hurrying away).

The post office, so bustling and lively during the day, is eerily quiet at night. I walked the letter inside and studied it again -- as if saying goodbye to a friend -- before dropping it in the OUT OF TOWN slot.

I got back in the car, put the key in the ignition, swung away from the curb. I should have circled the block and turned back toward home, but instead I went on driving, slowly, up and down every street in town, looking at all the houses with their Christmas lights, gliding smoothly past the bold twinkly fir trees in the windows and the bristly wreaths hanging on the doors.

For how it felt, I could have been nine years old again, looking out the car windows dreamily at everyone else's lives.

Some people hang clear lights only, and it looks so dressy. Others hang multicolored strings, or only blues. I always favored the blue ones. Not as flashy, not as bright, but calmly lovely -- that's what the blue lights are.

Our house has blue lights, and green lights, and a string or two of multicolored lights thrown in for fun. I had to admire them before I parked in the driveway.

I'd been crying, it seemed, while driving through town. I felt so peaceful, too. Like I'd just said a perfect sentence, without missing a single syllable, and it was kind, and it was...good.