Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, December 7, 2012

'Twas the Night ...

I had a moment today ... but first ... some flashbacks.

When I was a child we had in our home that 1942 recording of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians performing "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," a musical version of the famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas."  Our records were 78 rpm, so we had to flip the things over to hear the other side after a few minutes (I can't remember how many individual records there were--maybe just one or two?  Just checked: There were 4 records!).

I loved listening to that recording--now available on YouTube: Link to Waring recording  We played it all the time during the Holidays, and I pretty much memorized it.  (I just listened to the YouTube recording--the first time I'd heard it in more than a half-century; do I need to tell you what happened to my eyes?)

And when I was in third or fourth grade, my teacher (either Mrs. Ziegler or Mrs. Rockwell--depends on which year it was: cursed memory!), discovering that I'd memorized the record, decided it would be nice if I would recite it for the parents at our little Holiday gathering at school.  I thought that was a grand idea, too--until she gave me the original text to review, and I saw that Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians had added words, subtracted words, moved parts around, changed words--added a new "night-after-Christmas" ending.  Uh oh.  (Link: Text of entire poem)

And when I saw those lines that commence with "As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly" (words not in the recording), I was befuddled and bewildered.  I could make no sense out of them--even when my mother tried valiantly to explain them.  But I labored on, trying to un-learn what I knew, trying to shove into my brain the "real" words and progress of the poem.

Then came the Big Night.

There I was, wearing my little suit-and-tie, up in front of my classroom, a room jammed with all my classmates, with their parents, other family members.  My parents and brothers were there.  My grandparents (who lived just blocks from the school).  There were some carols and so on (by the way--all of this is unthinkable in a public school nowadays, isn't it?).

Soon--all too soon--it was My Turn.  And as I walked to the front, turned, and looked at all those faces, I blanked.  My memory was ghost-town empty.  Tabula rasa.  (Locke was right!)  I looked around.  Smiles and encouraging looks from everyone.  Then ... from somewhere? where? ... a wisp of a melody.  The melody of "Twas the Night Before Christmas," performed by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians.

And I recited that poem--well, that record--flawlessly.  The poem had flown from my mind like a startled starling, but Fred Waring had flown in, saving my poor little self from certain humiliation.  Afterwards, no one told me that I'd recited the record lyrics instead of the original poem--and I was happy, very happy.  Especially since I didn't have to try to deliver that dry-leaves-hurricane-fly stuff.

Years passed.  I had a son of my own.  And I decided to learn the poem again.  It actually came back very quickly (the starling returned!), and I've kept it in my head ever since.  Lately, I've been reciting it at Christmas dinner with our son and his family.  Little Logan--who was six the last time I did it--likes to add the rhyming words at the ends of the lines.  So I will say, "... not a creature was stirring, not even a ---"  And Logan will cry, "Mouse!"  This year, he may want to say more of it.  I hope so.

Okay, now for the "moment" from today ...

I am visiting my mom, 93, in a nursing home in Lenox, Mass.  She had a fall recently, back in her own place, and is trying to work her way back there.  It's slow.  But she's making progress.  Today I found her sitting in a wheelchair and reading a 1000-page novel about English history.  That's Mom.

We got to talking about the "old days" back in Oklahoma.  And I got a surprise.  I asked, "Do you remember when Richard [my older brother] had to memorize the opening lines of Longfellow's Evangeline back in junior high?"  (It was Longfellow Junior High, by the way.)

Did she?  She reeled them off perfectly.  "This is the forest primeval ...."  (Here's a link to the whole thing, if you're brave: Evangeline.)

I was dazzled.  And then I asked her, "Do you remember the time I had to recite 'The Night Before Christmas' for my class back at Adams School?"

Bless her heart--she said she did.

"Would you like to hear it again?

Bless her heart--she said she did.

I recited it with lots of thespian flourishes--messing up only on "he sprang to his sleigh": from my mouth came "he schlang to his sleigh."

Mom laughed--but only after I did.

I could see her, mouthing the words as I went along--almost as if she wanted to cry out the rhyming words.

And when I finished ... do I need to say what happened to our eyes?

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