_____ Strasse, Wurzburg, Germany, 1954

I am nearly two years old and it appears that I am the new year being ushered in or the steam heat in the apartment is out of control and everyone else not pictured is in their underwear too (my preferred version.)   What strikes me about this photo is how much of my character is on display; the tilt of the head, the smile pasted on for the camera, had I been screaming just before the bulb went off, we’ll never know; the provocative dishabille, the hand on the chest’s handle as if I might fall off at any moment or like the pony of my dreams it might gallop away with me astride.

And the tree off the floor, as if I were a pet that needed minding. Not a cat, though, a table a cat’s domain as much as the floor; you know it’s partly that and partly to make it fill the space and look like a proper tree and not as if it were the top lopped off a taller, more graciously proportioned one.  If you’ve ever been to our home for the holidays (when we were still decorating a tree,) it’s possible that you may have seen many of the ornaments that are adorning this pagan fetish.  My mother carefully wrapped each glass bauble and sparkle and the birds with the horse hair feather tails in toilet paper (a ritual that has endured for as long as I can remember.)

What I wish I could retrieve, besides the parsing of the image, are the actual memories of this time (or at least I think I would like that, it’s hard to say whether or not I would be prepared or willing to relive those times were it possible to dredge them up from the sandy bottom of my temporal lobe.)  What would I learn?  It appears that I was loved and taken care of (please note the perfectly parted hair); I am not underfed, my eyes sparkle with the glint of the tinsel on the tree, but those are all outward signs of love and are now the only clues I have left to the actual events that passed for life in post-war Germany for American soldiers and their families.

But here in this photo we are in the mid-point of my parent’s marriage; is it the apex or the nadir?   Will there be moments, such as this one, where the love between them glimmers with the spirit of their first love?  My mother was 10 years older than my father and they both made a decision to bring me into their family (a rescue, if ever there were one — how thankful I still am these many years later.)  That was a gift, was it not?  An irrevocable gift, wrapped in love, tied off with the bow of family, however imperfect or small, tightly knotted at the top.

 11th Street, Rapid City, South Dakota, 1959

Evelyn Patrick, left, son Robert, and Grandmother Holmes (maternal), Christmas, 1959

From that window, one dark night my mother let me lean out with a black piece of paper to catch the largest snowflakes I had ever seen.  The room was painted yellow (buttery and warm) in stark contrast to the night and the snowfall.  I remember her hand clutching the waistband of my pants so I could stretch out far enough to capture those beautiful crystals and she would pull me back in and we would quickly look at them with a magnifying glass before they melted, in awe of their intricate, fleeting beauty.

But the photo:  our first Christmas in Rapid City, my mother and hers parenthetically embracing me, in a second floor apartment carved out of a large house on 11th Street—Mrs. Ruggles, the elderly owner lived downstairs and would ‘babysit’ me when I got home from school, which meant I politely knocked on her door to let her know I was home and she would say, “go on upstairs now,” and that would be that. I loved my boy toys (trucks, bow & arrows, western wear with pearl snaps on the pockets,) but this is also the home where I learned “sticks & stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” from my mother after coming home in tears from being teased by the neighborhood boys for being a sissy.

It may have been about this time that I made up mind that it didn’t matter what other people thought about me, or it may have been that I knew who I was and that there wasn’t going to be any looking back, no navel-gazing, no introspection; it was just being (a snowflake) that was important.  Kids are adaptable and I think I found a niche and worked it into the fabric of who I was so that at some point in time, by high school, maybe, I don’t think it happened overnight, no one cared to bother me about it.

But still, I had a relatively happy childhood, I like to believe.   Loved by the women in the family, smart enough to be respected by the men.  That knowledge has sufficed for me and now it provides just enough nostalgia to make this time of year glimmer and shine, although with just a touch of tarnish.

Lance Street, Rapid City, South Dakota, 1961

Evelyn Patrick, left, with Mary Boyle, Christmas, 1964, at Ralph & Marilyn Holmes’s house on Lance St., Rapid City, South Dakota, a few years after the Christmas described

I don’t recall taking pleasure in spoiling my cousin Rodney’s Christmas in 1961, at least not at first, although after his tears had subsided, no doubt assuaged by the mountain of gifts set before him by his doting parents, it may have come to me that speaking the truth may have unintended consequences — some that you can control and others that you cannot; you just need to remember to assess the risk/benefit factors before opening your mouth which is not always easy at any age. I speak from experience.

Banished by grown-ups to the Rec Room in the basement (or bored by the grown-ups we retreated to the Rec Room on our own) on Christmas Eve, he and I, never close to begin with, stood facing each other across the pool/ping-pong/foosball/game table and not knowing what else to say, but feeling pressure to say something, I blurted out, “you know, there is no Santa Claus.”

I stood there and watched as his face crumpled, his eyes welled up with tears, and a wail of disbelief left his lips, but by this time, just seconds after speaking the truth, my ears were burning and humming with blood, drowning out any sounds–watching him in pantomime then as he ran up the short flight of stairs from basement to foyer and up again to the living room (split-levels, you do remember them, don’t you?), the deep pile of sculpted carpeting like quicksand, all of this in slow motion, me following to see what would happen.

If only there were more to tell.  All I know for sure is that evening a shift in our relationship occurred and although we were cousins born the same year just two days apart, living in the same small town, we never really ever were friends.

Willsie Street, Rapid City, South Dakota, 1970

The Patrick Home, Christmas, 1970, on Willsie St., Rapid City, South Dakota

This year we ‘flocked’ the tree ourselves, copying what the Martha Stewart of our family (my Aunt Marilyn) had done every year before — since forever.  That big white box with the red cross bow on the floor to the left is an antique lamp that I had bought for my mother (it was silver plate, a kerosene lamp repurposed for the Edison century with a lovely, milky glass shade, a few years later, my mother had a local artist paint blue flowers all over the shade and somewhere in the depths of my garage, today, it rests in a box, carefully wrapped and cushioned, most likely never to be used again–although I did try to scrub the flowers off once, but they seemed to have been applied with car paint, tant pis and yes, I know that adding ‘tant pis’ was a gratuitous use of the French language, but if I don’t use it, it will languish like the lamp, wrapped in old Paris Match  magazines, stored in a musty corner of my brain.

Secret: sometimes when I would get home from high school in the afternoon and I would have the house to myself for a couple of hours before my mother got home from the air force base where she did something relatively important (high security clearance, no less,) I would draw the drapes in the living/dining room—a great room before there were great rooms, but small, because you know, we lived on the other side of the tracks and the creek, the house was no bigger than a cracker box with a roof on it.  I would fill the house with music, my music, my generation’s music—I had a fondness for female singer/songwriters/poets: Joni, Joan, Janis, Laura—and I would take off my shoes,  move furniture out of the way and I would dance.  Dance by myself and tip and swirl and jeté and dream of being partnered by Nureyev or any other magical, masculine creature, Pan perhaps, stopping between tracks to catch my breath, look at myself in the mirror and dream of a life where what I hardly understood would/could be true.

As soon as I left home to go to college and  then, later, I set aside Christmas, but now, now in 1970 I was committed to Christmas as were my friends, we went to the same evangelical church, we sang in the choir, we did deeds (good ones, I think) and after church, we would go to A & W  on 8th St. (Hwy. 16 to Mt. Rushmore) in my car and laugh and giggle and my best friend, Alan, would make out with Sarah or Kathy or any other young girl who would fall under his sway. He wasn’t particularly good-looking, but he was magnetic, with a gravelly singing voice and musical talent pouring off of him that the girls, our classmates, found irresistible. I would look at him in the rear-view mirror with his arm around someone and he always seemed so happy then.  That particular happiness eluded me, but I never begrudged him his.






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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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