Christmas Past, El Paso: It was after dark, and cars with their headlights properly dimmed crept in long, solemn lines block after block. They were not mourners paying last respects to a fallen rock star. They were just ordinary folks gazing at what Electricity Had Wrought: a stunning exhibition of holiday lighting spread across east El Paso yards and houses.
In recent years this well-appointed neighborhood has expanded the traditional custom of placing Christmas wreaths on front doors and colored lights along the roofs. The homeowners have gone all out—challenging the aurora borealis in their electrical extravaganzas. The guiding principle seems to be: How many strings of lights can be stretched across the greatest number of surfaces? How many shrubs, flower beds, doorways, window ledges and water faucets can be beaded with bulbs?
A good idea can always be pushed too far. A thousand of anything—diamonds, gophers, hamburgers—is either a suitable number or a gigantic overkill. A thousand Christmas lights can be a dazzling wonder or an immoderate indulgence, making the viewer yearn for the modest delights of a single candle burning elegantly in a darkened room.
As I drove by this bothersome display of homeowner technology, I could not help wondering: Do people in such a neighborhood start planning their Christmas in early July—getting the bulbs tested, laying out the master circuitry, freshening the paint on their plywood Nativity scene, overhauling the plaster-of-paris reindeer? It struck me that no one actually seemed to be there inside the houses. The half-drawn drapes revealed tastefully decorated living rooms, but no human figures. No children were out playing, there was no casual coming and going, no carrying in of groceries, no one tinkering with his car in an open garage, no one watching television. It was like a stage set readied for viewing but with the producers, actors and directors discreetly out of sight. I wondered if there had been a tacit agreement in the neighborhood to suspend family routines during the drive-by. To be glimpsed by the gawking citizenry might be unseemly.
I keep going back, without a guide or a goal, to my past—those childhood years that are dead and gone, except that they are not. They are still there if I want them.
They constitute the shadowed but perhaps the most significant part of me: that enormity of family, afternoons, yards, streets, rooms, vacant lots, animals, neighbors, relatives, radio programs, school days: the first, formative realities of my life before they gave way to the subsequent adult realities that were important, yes, but, as I think about them, have left fewer deep impressions, fewer memories.
It seems that the physical surroundings may have been as important to me as people. Can that be true? The back yard under the oak trees on long spring mornings and summer days as significant as my mother? The cow lot and chicken yard and rabbit cages and pigeon roosts as memorable as my father? Surely not, of course, but the point is clear. It was all one: the family, the home place, the days all blurred together and on occasion captured by a Kodak—photographs placed in albums: me in my Boy Scout uniform bending over one of my pet lambs in the back pen, ready to take her to the 4-H show; my brother by the front fence, smiling widely into the camera, holding his tennis racket in front of his chest like a trophy before heading up to the high school courts to play a game with Patsy Ross, his high school first love; grandparents and uncles on Easter and Christmas afternoons sitting beside the trellis of morning glory vines.
Our neighbor, Mr. Albe, who walked each morning around the corner from his little house down the block: never fast, always at a measured steady pace, looking straight ahead, hat square on his head, going I never knew where. Maybe downtown to the post office, maybe to a job I never knew about, maybe just out on the streets to be away from the house; I’d never see him again for the rest of the day. (Later, in college, when I read about William Faulkner in his hometown—a spare, private man who would go the courthouse to sit and think and observe—I would remember Mr. Albe.) His daughter, Louise, with her slightly curly brown hair and neat dresses, was in my class at school. She played volleyball. Mrs. Albe took in ironing, my mother said. I can’t remember ever talking to Mr. or Mrs. Albe while I was growing up.
Gilmer Street, toward the south edge of town: unpaved, a lower-middle-class street as I would later come to understand: a street with small frame houses set back behind small yards beneath oak and hackberry trees. A street where the women worked for hours in houses in town and the men were painters and carpenters and mechanics. I think our house was the only one with a fence around it—a white picket fence across the front yard and a wire fence going along the side past the front yard, garden, cow lot. …
After I had married I would be visiting the folks at Christmas time and maybe go for a Christmas-morning drive. One time I parked on a side street near Quinlan Creek. The sky was a gray mist left over from the night’s rain, and winter grass grew smoothly, like the green grass in a park, among the dark wet leaves.
Except for a few bird calls and a faint splash of water in the street as a car went by, the morning was silent. Winter mist, winter stillness—that’s what I remember. And the deep privateness of the modest homes and empty driveways. A bicycle was leaning against the side of an open garage. Christmas stockings hung on a front porch. There was chimney smoke and the sound of the creek down in the ravine. The moment was like the embodiment of the memory itself.
Most of my adult life I have been aware that I have a different way of responding to reality, of seeing things, and I have never quite understood how others don’t automatically see what I see. This way of seeing has played a significant part in what I have written. On a number of occasions I have tried, in writing, to “become the thing that is”: to leave my “self” and enter some observed Other. Then, becoming very still, I try to feel what it is like to be that Other so that I can later put down what the Other would say if it could speak.
I pay a price for such seeing, of course. From time to time I feel—profoundly—that my own identity has faded away and I am no longer there inside my skin.
A truth I think I have learned about writing is this: In some strange way, for me to tell you about me is also to tell you about you.
Meaning: If I present the specifics, the essentials of who-I-am, I am actually presenting the identity of who-we-are.
Never write out of a need to stay productive—out of a desperation to find something to say rather than just sitting vacantly and letting the days keep passing you by. The words end up as mere therapy, not art.
Little girls. I watch them at night when they come to the downtown library with their mothers, when the lights are bright over the room and people’s heads are bent and there is a special library glow in the air.
They select their book and then come back with a delicate and exaggerated quietness toward their table, sometimes stopping along the way to make a serious production of pulling up a sock and then carefully folding the top of it back down. At their table they first place their book down gently and silently flat; then, using both hands to bring in the back of their shirt, they sit in the exact center of the chair that is too big for them, their legs hanging down as straight and still as the legs of puppets. Finally, after picking up the book and holding it in front of them—with the weight of the book resting squarely on the surface of the table—they begin to read.
Elroy Bode is a longtime Observer contributor and the author of, most recently, In a Special Light (Trinity University Press).