IT IS ALWAYS sunny on the Christmas morning of the mind, a silent world gleaming with new-fallen snow. I am thinking of a Christmas I never knew, brought to life for me by a curious book that I have lost but which drifted about the family all through our childhood, to be periodically mislaid and rediscovered, usually about this time of year.
It was a thin, red, bound volume with three pigs cavorting on the cover. I believe it was given to my Aunt Isabel for Christmas in 1890. It was an autograph book, and what you did was close your eyes and draw a pig and then sign your name. There are scrawny pigs, timid pigs, grotesquely misshapen pigs, disassembled pigs and one almost perfect pig, made by a 10-year-old who undoubtedly peeked, as 10-year-olds will.
Somehow I can see that particular Christmas Day when I leaf through those pages: a hilarious day, a grand, noisy, jolly day, with cousins and neighbors filling the big old house at 3 Rutger Park (high, molded ceilings, pine boughs draped behind the massive gold-framed portraits on the walls, mistletoe dangling on ribbons from the chandeliers, the aroma of mincemeat, sage, woodsmoke) with laughter and welcoming shouts and the tinkle of glasses. And people taking off galoshes and outdoor-smelling overcoats in the vestibule and talking respectfully to old ladies in wing chairs, and the uniformed servants smiling as newcomers greeted them, while Isabel made the rounds of living room and study and front hall and library to get signers for her book. She would have been 15, the second oldest of the 12 children.
My father was 6, and his name is there, his whole, formal name, carefully penciled with a slow and earnest hand. His pig is pretty good, except the legs don't meet the body. My father -- 6 years old! He was a silent child, one of those kids who always knew exactly what he thought about things and what he was going to do next. That morning when his older sisters came back from mass at cavernous, red-brick St. John's, just down the street, they found him swinging on the wooden back gate, jackknifed over the top of it, swinging himself back and forth, back and forth, totally absorbed, his lips moving.
Probably he had been chased out of the huge kitchen where the cook and the maids were working at the big iron stove and the zinc-lined sink along the wall and the sturdy table in the center of the room, now cluttered with mixing bowls and large spoons and the noble turkey itself, naked and pink, waiting for the stuffing.
Kids always got the feet with the white tendons dangling from them like strings. You pulled on them and the claws clenched.
The book was quite filled with names. My father's father was one of 10, and his father was one of nine, including the old senator. There were at least four Johns, from John A. to John D., and Utica Frank, Syracuse Frank, Francis, Frankie, Mary Frank, and duplicate Margarets and Marys and Nicks and Edwards.
"John D. was a kind of Pied Piper at those parties," a cousin told me recently. "Wherever he went, he'd have a tail of kids running after him. He gave out coins, and when everyone did their recitations after dinner he would pretend to forget his lines and everyone would laugh. It made it easier for the ones who were nervous about reciting."
In that tradition, my own Uncle John (that would be John A.) used to give 50-cent pieces to all the children when we called at his house on the Parkway on Christmas afternoon. The main thing I remember about that house was the portrait of an ancestor in the dining room, a man in 18th century dress with horrendously crossed eyes. Children would take each other in there to stare covertly, incredulous and afraid to giggle. The grown-ups never mentioned this amazing thing, and I never knew who the man was.
Some of the book's signers had come up from New York or Albany for the holidays and mentioned that fact along with their names (and pigs) as though they were somewhat overwhelmed by all these relatives and felt the need to remind themselves who they were. The home family hadn't yet scattered, as it would in a few years, its members to return each Christmas from college or career. Aunt Marge was only 13 that year and hadn't yet entered the convent in Pennsylvania where she eventually became the mother superior.
She was the beauty of the family, my father used to say, and when she announced her choice, her parents asked her to give it a year. So according to the legend, for a whole year she went to all the parties and balls, became the belle of Utica society. And when the year was up, to the day, she told them she hadn't changed her mind. She was radiant that day, they said.
Dinner was served in midafternoon, and all the extra leaves had to be put in the table. There is a famous story about my father and the mince pie. His seat was far down the line, and he watched as the master of the house -- his father, Nicholas E., stern and forbidding, a tall man with white mutton-chop whiskers and the long, fleshy family nose -- cut the vast, steaming pie, one piece after another, leaning back slightly each time to let the maid take the loaded plate from in front of him.
The pie shrank and shrank. Each cut required a comment. "A good healthy piece for you," he told John, the eldest. "I trust you saved some room for this," he told Cousin Edward. And the women protested. "Oh, just a sliver, please," said Adelaide.
The 6-year-old's eyes followed every precise slice of the knife. The pie dwindled to a quarter, an eighth, a sixteenth. Finally there was only one piece left. Frozen-faced, he watched as the last wedge was lifted onto a plate and carried far down the table to his brother Nick, a year older than he.
He looked up at his father.
"Well, Michael," the deep, solemn voice boomed, "it seems that we have run out of pie."
No one moved. Everybody watched. The small face fell.
And then the swinging door to the kitchen creaked yet one more time and the cook burst in, grinning, carrying before her . . . another pie, exactly as vast and steaming as the first, and instantly my father's face broke into a total smile, and everybody roared.
After dinner came the recitations and songs. My father's mother always sang "Maryland, My Maryland" in her sweet, shy voice. She came from Baltimore, a Jenkins. His sister Mary Plowden played the piano. Half a century later, Aunt Plowdie still played for us at Christmas. She and her sister Grace usually spent the day with us at the farm, and she always played the same Chopin prelude, which she told us was about marching soldiers, and you could hear them far away, coming closer, then right up the street, and finally fading into the distance. Plowdie wore a great red wig and cracked all her walnuts at once and piled up the meats beside her plate before eating any of them.
By nightfall, many of the day's guests had left, and people sat around quietly reading or napping by one of the fireplaces. My father had been outside making snowmen with some of his brothers and sisters and cousins, and now they had all gone indoors and he was alone out there throwing snowballs.
The house next door had a porte-cochere and a curving drive that bracketed the front lawn. A life-size iron deer stood in the center of the lawn. He was throwing snowballs at it, spattering its black flanks with white splotches and pocking the smooth foot-deep snow all around it.
Silent, concentrated, methodical, he made a snowball, packed it hard, aimed and flung it at the deer, then reached down to scoop up more snow. Maybe he had an instinct that as long as he was still throwing snowballs the day wasn't over. Again and again he threw, tirelessly, obsessively, while the light died, and the little battlefield of comet-shaped holes turned dark blue, and ice bangles formed on the wrists of his jacket, and his nurse called, and then his mother called, the open front door throwing a great stream of yellow light across the yard, and they called and called . . .