Walter Mencken 4 p.m., May 3
- Community Blog
Christmas of '87
The Ghost of Christmas Past drags a broken chain and carries a spotty record in my lifetime of memories. Mom put it well in a letter a few weeks before I left Germany in December 1979 after three years there without seeing the United States; I've certainly had some lonely Christmases. That one in '79 was probably the most euphoric ever, just for the sheer impact of seeing everyone and everything again after so long and at a time of the year that people are at least supposed to be happy to see each other.
There's another later in the decade of the '80s though, that in some ways was the most meaningful of all. I'd spent much of that decade as well living abroad, and would continue to do so for another nine years. Along the way I worked on a master's degree in linguistics at SDSU, finishing the coursework between jobs in Peru, Japan, and Mexico. All that time out of face-to-face contact with my main advisor in the days before email and Internet had made it hard to finish my master's thesis though, and many people were wondering if I'd ever get it done.
Before leaving Japan in mid-1987, I'd come up with something pretty substantial in a furious burst of effort. It was a big thesis, almost 300 pages long, and wide ranging. My advisor was pleasantly surprised to see that it was, in essence, ready in a single draft, as if I'd carried it around until my head was ready to burst then suddenly released the pressure.
Now I was in Guadalajara in the fall of '87, teaching and developing a new program at the university there. My mom was retired as a secretary at SDSU, and dad had retired some years before that as a teacher for San Diego City Schools. They enjoyed traveling, and often picked wherever place I was working at the time as their destination. In my absence, mom cheerfully agreed to walk my thesis through the review process and arrange for the publication and such. I remember calling them once in mid-fall to find they were sitting at the dining room table in the family house near SDSU, proofreading every word. Mom said later that the review service at SDSU had commented that the finished product was almost completely free of typos or other stylistic discrepancies that normally occupy their attention.
This was good news, and as the fall term ended in Guadalajara I looked forward to returning home for Christmas for the first time in four years. It wouldn't be that big a deal, afterall, to fly home with my return ticket and then ride a bus down the Pacific coast of Mexico before classes started up again in late January. At least it wasn't as big a deal as flying across the Pacific, as I would have had to do during the recent years in Japan.
One of the last evenings in Guadalajara was spent walking around Plaza del Sol, which at one time was the largest shopping mall in Latin America. I was staying a few blocks away with a family I'd met during a previous stay there in the summer of '73, after graduating from high school. It was an odd return, and the family and I never really knew what to make of each other. They were a somewhat dysfunctional bunch, with several generations under the same roof and two other Mexican pensioners living with them.
From my interactions with them and my other experiences, I found that Christmas in Mexico was more like the one I'd spent in Peru a few years before than like the party-hearty holiday it is in the U.S. There were more nativity scenes--some with live animals--than Santa Clauses and elves, though I remember the candy canes and snowmen drooping forelornly and half-heartedly around Plaza del Sol that evening. Maybe the forelornness, on the other hand, was just my own perception after the family invited me down for a drink and one son had gotten into a loud altercation with his brother-in-law before I could excuse myself and take a walk.
I got to Tijuana a couple of days before Christmas, and made my way over the border as a pedestrian. Then I took the trolley to downtown San Diego, and a city bus along University Avenue to the old neighborhood. I ran into a friend while coming up the hill, and ended up calling my folks and telling them I'd be staying there with him until morning after we'd gotten ourselves pretty snockered on tequila and beer.
That morning, though, I've never seen a more beautiful Christmas scene. There under the tree in my folks' living room was my bound and completed master's thesis! All of us, my folks and my friend and I, just stood looking at it for a time. It was the happy ending to a long and winding process, and in time before returning to Guadalajara I'd stop by to visit and thank all of the people who'd helped me to complete it. No one, however, had been as helpful as my folks.
The rest of the buildup to Christmas had memories and blank spots, unlike the nearly constant eidetic perception of Christmas '79. On Christmas Eve, we went to the candlelight service at our church near the corner of Campanile and Montezuma, where today my folks' ashes are interred in a columbarium in the middle of a small garden. I sat next to my sister during the service, which was a bad idea because during church services we always give each other the giggles for some reason. It didn't help that some poor soul decided to pass gas at the end of a choral number and timed it badly, letting a major one rip just as the organ music cut out. No one else seemed to notice it, but my sister and I spent the rest of the service suppressing laughter while my brother-in-law and our folks shot us dirty looks.
My brother-in-law was still a patrolman on the campus police force at SDSU, and had drawn duty Christmas night. My mom, sister, and I packed up a warm Christmas dinner in plastic containers and took it over to the campus that evening, and the memory of bringing it to that small contingent of people who had to be on the otherwise deserted campus that Christmas night is as vivid in my mind as any artist's re-creation of the three Kings of the East, bearing gifts.
I would go on back to Guadalajara for a few more months, then take a better job in Japan that kept me there for eight years. By then, the folks were getting pretty old and wanted me around. I felt it was the least I could do for them after all they'd done for me. My next San Diego Christmas after '87 would be four years later, when I decided I'd had enough of lonely Japanese Christmases and showed up unexpected at my folks' house. Dad especially never cared much for surprises, but was awfully glad to see me.
There were several more holiday absences before I moved back to San Diego permanently, but I'm glad we eventually got back into a holiday tradition of being together until the end of my folks' lives. My sister commented to me once some years ago, as we walked down the church steps after a Christmas Eve candlelight service, that it would be a very strange day when eventually they both were gone.
She was right. It is.