Christmas 2018

Dear Everyone,

My brother and I were each conceived in New York City, almost exactly two years apart. We happened during an annual diamond show my dad used to attend for the family business (well, more accurately after the show, not like in the middle of it, which, let's be real, would be impressive). Mom tagged along twice, got two boys out of it, then decided she wouldn’t go back.

My favorite story she tells of those trips took place in the elevator in the very secure and very unmarked building that hosted the show. One time they got in and, right as the doors closed, a massive and hairy arm shot between them, and an honest-to-God Hell’s Angel stepped in, big as life and twice as unconcerned. Mom, new to the big city, naturally assumed that this would be the moment of her death. But he quietly rode up to the diamond show with them and was waved through security without so much as an ID check.

Turned out they were using Hell’s Angels as couriers. Because, really, who would think a large, leathery beardo who might have punched up a 1969 Rolling Stones concert would have $100,000 worth of diamonds in his saddle bags? Who on earth would try to look?

I heard the story decades ago, and it never left me. It was one of those early glimpses into my parents' history that made me start to wonder what else they'd been through, what they'd seen that I hadn't. You grow up thinking that your parents are boring…well, parents. You learn by fits and starts that there've been things going on when your back was turned. Or, indeed, when you were a steak dinner and two glasses of scotch away from existing.

There was the time Jennifer came home from college, where she’d gotten an earful of students discussing their heritage. This one was German-Irish, that one Ashkenazi Jewish, another whatever bare fraction of Native American. She’d had no idea of her own heritage, so she asked her dad, what am I?

He thought for a moment and said, “Well, I guess you’re half hillbilly and half swamp.” That opened up overlooks of identity and history she hadn’t explored before. She carries that with her now, as I carry the story of the bejeweled biker, little pieces of our parents that they broke off and slipped into our pockets for safekeeping.

We have bucketfuls of these pieces. My own dad used to wake my brother and me up by pretending to be a superhero named Underwear Man, barging into our bedroom with tighty-whities yanked down over his head. Mom once heard us listening to Cyndi Lauper LPs, charged into our room wearing every bracelet she owned, her hair frit up into some insane and hasty architecture, and proceeded to dance. Jennifer’s mom once watched me politely choke down her banana pudding, learning the hard way how much I hate bananas but love Nilla wafers and the approval of potential in-laws, and from that day on made me my own tiny banana-free pudding at family gatherings.

More trinkets: I have never been in the military but can report with the confidence of an expert that you can safely burn plastic explosives and use them as a makeshift campstove. Just don’t try to stamp out the fire. Dad taught me that. I know, because of mom, how to make giftwrapping ribbon curl up by running scissor blades down one side of it. I know how to set up a sewing machine because my mom showed me, and then I forgot, and then Jennifer showed me, which she could do because her mom showed her. Her dad taught me every contour of the yard my children now play in, including where the surveyor's pins are buried and the details of the deal he struck with a neighbor to not have to mow the far side of the creek.

So many fragments of them, bits of colored glass etched and rounded by grit and time. I stumble across them everywhere, in coat pockets with wrinkled bills, at the bottoms of desk drawers, in neglected storage boxes and scattered among the roots of the dogwood out back. They make a satisfying clack when I put them in my pocket, next to Molly McGee's old watch.

My mom and dad have moved nearby. I haven't been this close to them in over a decade and a half. It used to take a four-hour drive to go have coffee. Now I walk Mugsy to their new home on Saturday mornings, after I've got the kids situated with donuts and cartoons, and mom pours me a cup. I bump into them at the grocery store. I may have to build a shed to hold this new cascade of pieces, souvenirs of what might prove to be their last big adventure together.

So too with Jennifer's dad, though for different reasons. Time and circumstance have whittled away at the life he knew until only the pure shape of him is left, the love and humor and concern he used to steer himself and his family through the last eight decades. He needs us to care for him now, in much the same way he cared for the woman I love. He's wheelchair-bound and sometimes understandably frustrated at what he perceives as his lack of usefulness. I want him to know that his use is not gone but distilled. He doesn't see what we're collecting in the wake of his wheels.

There's pain and fear in all of this, of course. That's the price of admission. For my part, every now and then I'm struck by the weight of time, by the bone-deep awareness of how temporary this flood of fragments is. So I hoard them like a crow. I don't organize or catalog them, but I keep them close by, tucked hither and yon with no easily perceivable strategy or plan. God's own filing system.

Sometimes I cast them on the ground like chicken bones or yarrow stalks to tell my fortune, and it always comes up the same way: Quit screwing around with nostalgia and look around you. Let what you see change you. Go do something. Rilke put it better:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

I nod and gather the shards back up, and I know I'll go looking for more. Maybe it's because I wonder if the lesson will change. More likely it's because I know I'll forget it. But it's also because I want to show these pieces to you, the scratched and stained facets of the love that built us, because I want you to hold them up to the light and watch how they cast their colors down on you.