I. Greensboro 1948
When we would go home for Christmas,
It was to my mother's town,
Where I was the cousin with the Yankee accent,
Who didn't like grits:
A gentle, Southern place:
Gracious lawns, winding drives
In our grandfather's Buick, past the golf course.
I see a dim American past, parts best forgotten:
Cedar Christmas trees, trackless trolleys,
Water fountains "For Colored Only",
Maids summoned from the kitchen with a bell,
Bearing trays of puffy rolls.
Christmas would be over and we'd go back north,
New toys stored away, my mother crying.
II. Metairie 1977
A child's Christmas in Metry
We called it then,
Until our girls, teachers' kids, would catch on.
A plumbing contractor
Lavished new wealth
To display for children and parents
Along the sidewalks of a subdivision
The lights, the moving creatures of Christmas:
In one room, Santa's helpers,
In another, an animated crèche:
He watched, approving yet sullen,
Dimly seen behind the picture window.
It does not matter that his home is darkened now,
That other families
Who did not live in Metairie then
Now drive by another spectacle
All the more preposterous
Further up the same street:
Thousands of lights blinking,
Reindeer, elves, angels, God knows what,
A parish policeman sourly chants:
Keep moving, keep moving.
III. Shreveport 1982
A downtown church on Christmas eve,
Well loved, well cared for,
Worshippers in fine clothes crowd together
In the old walnut pews-- it is too warm for furs:
Married daughters, handsome nephews
In from Houston, people we do not know:
Of all the places one could be this night,
As lonely as any bus station or manger.
But there is this:
The particular tears of Christmas,
The precise fragrances, the harmonies
That make it palpable,
That release memory's stubborn catch
Differ for us each
And for every home far from home.
I hear the sound, thin and sweet,
O Holy Night,
Scored for the voices of teenaged girls,
The white light of candles
Dancing on their faces.
IV. Greensboro 1988
A Christmas reunion:
Three generations of scattered kin
Eat the same hors d'oeuvres,
Tell the same stories as last year.
The young are polite, restless:
They do not know that others before them
Have stood to have their pictures made.
My father and I do not ask each other questions:
He may not know where the girls go to school
Or what he had for lunch.
An interloper, I drive through Irving Park
Early on a still, bright December day.
The golfers who Christmases ago had seemed so old
I see now are my own age:
Their carts glide silently in the morning sun.
Old home movies are shown:
A single tear disappears
Into the wrinkles of my mother's cheek.
I tell myself I would come back here for good one day,
To these gentle streets,
This place which, strictly speaking,
Has never quite been home,
A passage come full circle, debts repaid,
Journeys ended, journeys begun.
“Christmases” appeared in Paris/Atlantic, Spring 1999