Family Christmas

Part of what I felt was shame -- shame for something I didn't understand, shame for other people's misery, shame that it had lain naked and exposed before us, shame that we'd seen it.

 

 

 

AT Christmas we went to my grandparents'.

My grandparents lived outside New York City in a private park, a strange nineteenth-century hybrid between a club and a housing development. The park was enclosed by a thick stone wall, and at the entrance were a pair of stone gateposts and a gatehouse. As we approached the gate, a man would appear in the doorway of the gatehouse, sternly watching our car. Our father, who knew the gatekeeper, would roll down his window and say hello, or sometimes he would just smile and wave, cocking his hand casually backward and forward. The gatekeeper would recognize my father then and nod, dropping his chin slowly, deeply, in confirmation of an unspoken agreement, and we would drive through the gates into the park.


One year there was a new gatekeeper, who did not know my father. The man stepped out of the gatehouse as we approached and waved heavily at the ground, motioning for us to stop. He was frowning in an official way.

"He's new," my father said, slowing down. "Never seen him before."

My mother laughed. "He probably won't let us in," she said.

My father pulled up to the gatehouse and rolled down his window. "We're here to see my family, the Weldons," he said politely. "I'm Robert Weldon." My father looked like his father: he had the same blue eyes, the same long, straight nose, and the same high, domed forehead. The gatekeeper glanced noncommittally at the car and then he nodded. He was still frowning, but now in a private, interior way that no longer seemed to have anything to do with us. He gave us a slow wave through the gates; then he went ponderously back into the little house.

The four of us children sat motionless in the back. After our mother had spoken, we had fallen silent. Our faces had turned solemn, and we had aligned our legs neatly on the seats. Our knees matched. Our docile hands lay in our laps. We were alarmed.

We did not know why some cars might be turned away from the park gates. We had never seen it happen, but we knew that it must happen; why else would the gatekeeper appear, with his narrowed eyes and official frown? We knew that our car did not look like our grandparents' car, or like any of the other cars that slid easily between the big stone gateposts without even slowing up. Those cars were dark and sleek. They looked fluid and full of curves, as if they had been shaped by speed, though they always seemed to move slowly. Those cars were polished: the chrome gleamed; the smooth, swelling fenders shone; and the windows were lucid and unsmudged. Those cars were driven sedately by men in flat black hats and black jackets. The drivers nodded to the gatekeeper. The passengers, who were in the back seat, never in the front next to the driver, did not even look up as they drove through the gates.

Our car, however, was a rickety wooden-sided station wagon, angular, high-axled, flat-topped. The black roof was patched, and the varnished wooden sides were dull and battered. Our car was driven by our father, who did not wear a black jacket, and next to him in the front seat was our mother. The two slippery brown back seats were chaotic with suitcases, bags of presents, the four of us children, and our collie, Huge. We felt as though we were another species when we arrived at this gate, and we wondered whether we would be turned away. The rules of entry and exclusion from the park were mysterious to us; they were part of the larger, unknowable world that our parents moved through but that we did not understand. Fitting in was like the struggle to learn a language -- listening hard for words and phrases and idioms, constantly mystified and uncomprehending, knowing that all around us, in smooth and fluent use by the rest of the world, was a vast and intricate system we could not yet grasp.

After we were through the gates that day, my mother turned to us.

"Well, we made it," she said humorously. "They let us in this time." She smiled and raised her eyebrows, waiting for us to answer. My mother was small and lively, with thick light-brown hair parted on one side and held with a barrette. She wore her clothes casually, sweaters and long full skirts.

We said nothing to her. We disapproved of my mother's levity, all of us: Sam and Jonathan, my two older brothers; Abby, my older sister; and me, Joanna. I was the youngest, and the most disapproving.

Inside the gates the road meandered sedately through the park, on the slopes of a small, steep mountain. Up on the top, along the ridge, the land was still wild and untouched. Deer moved delicately through the thickets, and we had heard stories of bobcats, though we had never seen one. Down along the narrow paved roads all was mannerly, a landscape of wide snowy lawns, graceful flowering trees and towering shade trees, now all winter-bare, and luxuriant shrubberies mantled with snow. Unmarked driveways slid discreetly into the road's docile curves. Set far back, even from this private road, were the houses: tall, ornate, gabled and turreted, half hidden by brick walls, stonework, and the giant old trees that surrounded them, they stood comfortable and secure within their grounds.

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