Handprints for Christmas
© By Jack Bogut
I’ll never forget the year I got hand prints for Christmas. Of the countless gifts I’ve received, that one was probably the best.
It all started with an old pump organ in my grandmother's house, just around the end of the banister at the top of the stairs. My brother Don, sister Marilyn and I used to noodle around on it when we were kids. We couldn't really play it. We just made noise that was occasionally harmonic. Once in a while, purely by accident, a few notes would fit together and sound like a real chord and someone downstairs would holler,
"Sounds pretty good up there!" We lived for those moments.
"Which one of you geniuses played that?" Troublesome question because all three of us usually chimed with,"I did," and the fight was on.
Throughout history, taking credit for virtuosity in anything has caused trouble. I guess that's why we all tried to play at the same time - just in case musical lightning struck each of us would be famous for an instant.
That we were allowed to mess around on that old organ was a little surprising. The only things in life we were ENCOURAGED to touch were weeds, water buckets, hoe handles, chicken feed and dish towels. Not necessarily in that order. Anything else was usually forbidden.
"Don't touch that, you'll break it!"
We heard that a lot. My problem was that I was a serious toucher and I had eyes for that old pump organ. Crazy thing is that we'd never have been allowed to play it if I hadn't learned NOT to play the guitar!
I had made some subtle overtures about playing the organ that went something like,
"I love you!"
"What do you want now?" (Boy, was she sharp).
"What's that thing at the top of the stairs?"
"What thing?" She said.
"What thing?" She said.
"That big thing, under all that stuff."
"What stuff?" ( It was obvious she'd talked to kids before).
"All those boxes and everything". I said.
"You mean that old Organ?"
(Bingo!) "Could we play it, Grandma?"
"You'd break it!"
(I went for broke and used the killer approach that never failed.)
"Puleeease, Grandma. Can we play it"?
"Well, maybe someday," she said. “If we ever find a place to put all that other stuff."
(Wow! Back to square one! She had too much experience for me.)
What neither of us knew then was that I had latent musical and tactile tendencies that would not be denied, and would get both of us in trouble later on.
And "Later on" was a Wednesday. I know it was Wednesday because mom and Grandma washed clothes on Monday, ironed on Tuesday and forced us into slavery on Wednesday. We were outside pulling weeds in the garden under a blazing sun. It was so hot, sweat ran down the bridge of my nose in a steady stream. I was locked in a chin down, blank stare, watching the drops make a puddle in the dust when Grandma said sweetly,
"Stop daydreaming and start pulling weeds or I'll give you something to dream about!"
I needed to change my location.
I excused myself to get a drink of water and ran to the house before anybody could object. I glanced over my shoulder as I burst through the kitchen door and wasn't being followed so I breathed a big sigh of relief, walked over and grabbed the ice water from the refrigerator and drank right from the container. I was about halfway through my second gulp when it dawned on me - I was all alone in the house! I don't know how long I stood there but suddenly, an invisible force, one that every kid who ever got in trouble knows about, took me by the hand and led me into the living room...into serious trouble!
As I think about it now, it probably wasn't just putting my hands on uncle Elvin’s prized guitar that upset Grandma. It might have been the fact that I was… I was standing on top of her heavily waxed sewing machine in my gritty boots, on tiptoe, reaching up on top of the clock shelf where my uncle always put his guitar. I was running my fingers across the strings when she came quietly into the room. I was in the middle of my first serious composition, totally oblivious to everything, when Grandma tiptoed up behind me with all the stealth of Geronimo himself, and swatted my back pockets with the flat of her hand. If she had used a baseball bat, I'd have been a home run!
Have you ever been taken completely by surprise? I mean really by surprise? When she nailed me she also said in a very loud voice, "You let go of that, and I mean RIGHT NOW!" Boy, did I let go. I followed her instructions to a fault.
I released the guitar...and everything else in my system - all over the sewing machine, Grandma and me. It took the two of us about an hour to clean up the mess. It took two days for her hand print to disappear from my tail section.
She asked me why I did it and I gave her my best answer.
"Because why?" she asked.
I countered with another classic that sometimes shortens conversations you don't want to have.
And then she kind of half smiled and said something that really floored me:
"Well, If you HAVE to play something, why don't you play that old organ upstairs?"
I couldn't believe it! She had a deal. But what a hard bargain.
That night after supper, before Grandma could change her mind, my brother, sister and I ran upstairs. We moved enough “stuff” to squeeze in behind the keyboard, pumped those old bellows full and started making joyous noise. We held down as many keys as we could and tried to blow the roof off the house. We created combinations of sounds that made our teeth hurt. We must have driven every bird or wild animal within earshot either into a hole or out of range. Then, after we got tired of pure noise, we settled down and played one finger versions of all the songs we could remember - both of them: "My Country ’Tis Of Thee" and "Three Blind Mice".
As time went on our favorite songs became those that could be played entirely on the white keys because the black ones were a complete mystery. I guess that's why we liked the song, "Chopsticks," it was played entirely on the white keys. Besides, all three of us could play that song at the same time. One of us would pump the bellows full to bursting and the other two would play the diverging melody. When Mrs. Flancaas, the church organist, visited one Sunday and showed us how to play the bottom chords that went with ”Chopsticks,” we went crazy - one finger on the low bass note and a three fingered chord above it. Boom, chuck, chuck. Boom, chuck, chuck. Boom, chuck, chuck. Boom, chuck, chuck. It was… it was enough to make you sick!.
We were untrained, enthusiastic, not very good and amazingly consistent. Until one Christmas eve, when something kind of strange happened.
Each of us had opened a few presents and one the usual Christmas Eve things: we sat on the laps of relatives who'd come to visit, stood under a ruler in the doorway for those who hadn't seen us in a while and wondered how much taller we'd grown. We'd been patted on the head and hugged by those who cared about us, given gifts by those who had something to give and blessed by the one who made us all. We couldn’t believe how good Christmas really was.
We were being obnoxiously loud and happy when grandmother cleared her throat about seven times. That was a signal we all understood. It meant our welcome had worn a little thin with the adults who wanted to drink coffee and talk, so we were not surprised when someone said, "Isn't it about bedtime for you kids? You know Santa Claus is coming!" No argument there.
So, we took the world’s slowest trip up the stairs, whispering and giggling all the way. It must have taken us ten minutes to climb the thirteen steps. We chattered about our new toys, grumbled about getting underwear for Christmas (Aunt Edna's favorite thing to give; that and toothbrushes), and wound up around the old pump organ when we should have been getting ready for bed - and that's when it happened.
I have no idea how or why, but all of a sudden in the midst of our usual musical cacophonous confusion, we began to play what sounded like music. Real music! Three and four note chords fell together like building blocks. And instead of random notes piled one on another we started to play one particular Christmas carol all the way through, in sequence and harmony.
We just looked at each other in wide-eyed delight and surprise! We'd never been able to play any song from beginning to end but there we were. We couldn't believe it! Real, honest to goodness music seemed to flow out of our fingertips, magically, onto that keyboard. It wasn’t anything fancy. We just played the melody and a few other notes, but they all fit together, in perfect harmony. We were terrific! We were so good in fact, that we thought about calling downstairs to the people who'd just gotten rid of us to come up and listen, but we knew they’d just make us go to bed, so we just kept playing and grinning at each other.
I don't think what happened was devine intervention or anything like that. Those musical notes were probably wedged in our little craniums somewhere and just chose that particular time to pour out in formation, but it amazed the three of us. We even remembered the words to this old Carol:
"It came upon a midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
With angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold".
The story was one we’d learned and liked, about clear skies, a bright star in the east and cold weather and snow and a bunch of angels giving a midnight concert and scaring the pants off a bunch of sheepherders. You know. Stuff we knew all about - especially the part about being afraid of things we didn’t understand. So we played and sang that song over and over...and no matter what we did to that carol, it still sounded good. We used elbow, hand and knuckle chords, my brother even invented a "fist" chord that was really powerful. We played “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” so many times we got sick of it and went on to something else. And we couldn’t play anything else ! .
Pretty soon we were back to making pure noise, and heard someone downstairs holler,
"Solva gott kids, it's almost midnight".
So we said "du ogg". (That's Norwegian for "good night and same to you." That night it also meant, “Quit messin’ around and hit the feathers,” literally.)
My brother and I slept in a feather tick - not on, but in. It was a feather filled mattress that looked and felt like a giant pillow and after you were in it for a while it was warmer than the coldest cold. But getting into it was the hard part; it was so frigid in that little unheated bedroom that we tried to jump out of our clothes and into bed, all in one motion. The nightly contest was to beat the bumps, to get under the covers before you had so many goose-bumps, you looked like a sack full of tapioca.
We never made it. It felt like we left all the heat in our bodies hanging in the air before we got in the sack. It didn't seem to make much difference to my brother. Sleep dropped on his head like an anvil. Boom! As soon as the chill was gone out of the mattress the "Sand Man" had him until morning (unless he had too much to drink before bedtime).
I usually drifted off without too much trouble, shortly after my brother but on this particular night, this Christmas eve, I couldn't sleep. I just laid there and stared at the window. I watched jack frost paint the lower corners of each pane of glass with one intricate design after another. Ice crystals in various shapes grew like flowers as the frigid night air stole the remaining heat and moisture in the room like an invisible thief.
As my head sank deeper into the pillow, my eyes went slowly up the window. There was almost no moon that Christmas, just a dark sky full of stars. And then, as the clock on the mantle downstairs was stroking midnight, I saw something: one great big star suddenly appeared, near the top of the window, much brighter than all the rest.
Our bedroom was located on the east side of the house. I knew that but had never thought much about it, until that Christmas. I had also seen stars in the sky before, looking out of that same window and hadn't thought much about that either. But this night was different somehow. I guess the excitement of Christmas Eve had filled my head like sand in an hourglass, running slowly down toward sleep, so I just laid there, my mind wandering.
We had recently learned in school that some stars never die, that they last forever. They just keep twinkling; night after night, year after year, one lifetime after another. And I wondered if...if that big, bright star in the window could have been the same star that hung in the eastern sky over Bethlehem on that first Christmas, the beacon that guided the wise men and marked the stable, the same star that brightened the night for those shepherds.
As I wondered about that star, I also couldn’t help wondering about Christmas. Was the story really true? Or was Christmas mostly Santa Claus? Just a nice story and a chance to get presents and stay up real late. I hoped not, but I was at the age where I was starting to question a lot of things - things I didn’t dare discuss with anybody. For example, I wasn't too sure about church!
To me, church was a place where old guys sometimes slept and snored until somebody gave ‘em an elbow in the ribs. Where kids squirmed on people’s laps and kicked the pew in front of them because they didn’t want to be there. Where women sat up real straight and sang too loud even when they couldn’t sing, especially on the high notes.
And the minister would stand up in front and preach for a long, long time about stuff nobody could really explain, and when he was done everybody was so happy he quit talking, they put money on a plate when it was passed around. Then the minister went to the back of the church and stood there while all those people who slept through the service told him how much they enjoyed the sermon. It was a little confusing.
The best part of going to church was after the service - no confusion here! That’s when we all went down in the church basement and ate. “Pot luck” they called it.
The women in the Ladies Aid Society made their favorite recipes and brought them from home in covered dishes. Tuna casserole, fried chicken, deviled eggs (some straight-laced soul said they shouldn’t be served in a church basement), homemade bread, runny Lemon Jello with canned vegetables in it, crab-apple pickles and every kind of homemade pie and cake you can imagine. It was the best! And each lady stood behind the dish she brought and got flustered if you told her how good it was (as if that wasn’t why she stood there in the first place).
Afterwards the men went out and played softball and a few guys who didn’t go to church (and a few who did) drank foamy stuff out of brown bottles that some guy had iced down in a washtub in the trunk of his car. We didn’t know what it was they were drinking but we noticed that if they drank enough of it, they started to act kind of goofy and their wives or mothers would get mad at ‘em and make ‘em leave. It was a lot of fun to watch. One time we hung around after the game was over, drinking what was left in the empties - it tasted awful! Kind of bitter and strange, but it made us feel grown-up...and then we stood around the rest of the day, afraid somebody would smell our breath. We laughed about that for weeks afterward. We always had a good time at Church but some of it was kind of hard to believe or explain.
What if Christmas was like that? We always had a good time at Christmas. But what if the story wasn’t TRUE? I got tired of thinking about it. Questions like that bounce around in your head like a ping-pong ball in a jar. Drive you crazy!
Ever notice when your eyes water or you squint, if you look at a lamp, the light seems to get fuzzy and scatter. The same thing happens when your eyes are half-closed right before you go to sleep. Any lingering light seems to spread out or get longer. In fact, those stylized stars that we see on Christmas cards are patterned like that - long, fuzzy shafts of light with shorter arms on the side.
Well, I was lying there, deep in doubt, covers pulled up around my neck, looking out the window, trying to drift off when all of a sudden, that big star in the east seemed to blink at me. Then all the smaller stars around it started going out, like someone turning off the lights. All except that big star which got bigger and brighter and started to change shape. It radiated up and down from the center and out from the sides, almost like a cross.
Then the bottom part of the star got longer and started to point straight at my Grandmothers little house. That shaft of light got longer and longer and came faster and faster toward our house until it touched the window in my bedroom - the glass glowed like neon! It was the brightest light I'd ever seen. I was scared to death! I was way beyond a sack full of tapioca. You could have hung ornaments from my goose-bumps.
Then, just when it seemed I couldn’t stand it anymore, the light started to back away...almost as if it knew. The light stayed on the window until it got real thin and then let go, like a finger pulling away from wet paint, slowly at first and then faster and faster, shrinking like a bright rubber band, snapping back until there was just that one big bright star, hanging all by itself in the dark sky. Then, one by one, other stars popped on around it until the night was back to normal. I was lying there, waiting for my heart to stop pounding in my throat...when I noticed something.
All the ice crystals were gone from the window. Every trace of Jack Frost's wintry paintings had disappeared. I slipped out from under the covers, crossed the room and felt the window with my bare hands - the glass was warm, almost HOT! In fact, it wasn't even cold in the bedroom anymore. I jumped back in bed as fast as I could and pulled the covers over my head. That’s the last I remembered.
Boy, what a dream! What an imagination, huh? It must have been belief wrestling with doubt or something. It couldn't have been anything more than that. But then again....
We all get signs in our lives. Sometimes we don't know exactly what they mean. Sometimes we're not even sure that they're signs, but they make impressions on us, lasting impressions. They might even be the difference between believing and not believing in something, particularly if what happens, sticks with you all the days of your life.
Incidentally, there were hand prints all over the window the next morning.