Starry, Starry Night

One particular Christmas Eve 28 years ago is etched sentimentally in writer Glenn Arbery’s memory.

Starry, Starry Night
By the time you reach middle age, Christmas has a way of melting into the years like snow, dissolving under the warmth of many children and much time passed. So why has one fleeting moment, experienced 28 years ago on a dark road, stayed so firmly etched in my mind?

Repetition makes the world stable, but it also dulls otherwise remarkable things. Like Christmas.

On Christmas morning, my wife and I go downstairs early even now to make sure that the stockings are all out, even though our children are now—except for the last three—in their twenties. It isn’t Christmas unless they cluster at the top of the stairs waiting for the signal, then troop down, full of ironies and smart remarks now, of course, but still retaining some of that air of being little children trembling in their pajamas with the excitement of what was about to unfold.

But which Christmas was which? Photographs don’t help. Here’s one of Joan—or wait, that’s Therese—holding up a sweater. Here’s Will standing beside a bicycle. Boxes everywhere, colored paper, the Christmas tree with its angel leaning out a little unsteadily over the proceedings. One runs into another. It’s the earliest Christmases that are easiest to remember.

That first one in 1978 is emblazoned in my memory. Ginny and I had driven back to my hometown in Georgia. She planned to write her dissertation on the novelist Caroline Gordon, whom we both knew in Dallas, and on the way, passing through Monroe and Jackson and Meridian, she read aloud to me from a novel called The Malefactors, which included references to saints whom, as a newcomer to Catholicism, I had never heard of—St. Eustace, for example, who supposedly converted when he saw a buck with a crucifix between its antlers. It was pretty exotic stuff for an ex-Methodist.

My hometown, with a population of 5,000 or so, sits in the middle of Georgia, and like most small towns in the South, it is predominantly Protestant. The only Catholic services offered in those days were in the abandoned newspaper office, where a big, shambling priest from Brooklyn, N.Y.—this was missionary territory—used to come in and minister to a ragged little flock. (“So, uh, peace be wid’chou guys.”) The Catholics concentrated in Macon, about 25 miles south on Interstate 75 or U.S. 41, where the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” was “born on the backseat of a Greyhound bus.”

Ignorant as I still was of the history and traditions of the Catholic Church, there were many things I had never noticed about Macon. For example, one of its major streets was Pio Nono (PIE-a-NO-na).

“They have a street named after Pius IX!” Ginny exclaimed.

“Where?” I said, looking around.

“We’re on it. PEA-o-NO-no,” she said.

That first Christmas, we said goodnight to my parents and drove down to Macon for midnight Mass. It would be more difficult, 28 years later, to remember that night, except that it was the only midnight Mass we ever attended, since the children came pretty fast thereafter, and taking them out at midnight would have been absurd. But that Christmas, we were young, our first child was on the way, and we were free.

We got off the Interstate and drove up to St. Joseph’s, a big church facing east across the valley of the Ocmulgee River from the hill at the northern end of the city. The priest was a circumspect, charismatic man named Father John Cuddy, who moved with an air of slightly crouched anticipation, like a former boxer, aware of everybody as he came down the aisle.

I don’t remember his sermon. I remember the spaciousness and warmth of the church amazingly crowded with people at midnight, the smell of incense, the readings familiar since my childhood and now suddenly new—Isaiah’s prophecies of Emmanuel, God with us, shepherds watching over their flocks by night, the heavenly hosts announcing peace on earth, and the revelation of a child in a manger. That was a night when surprise overwhelmed repetition.

Getting on the Interstate—merely driving back to Forsyth at 2 a.m.—seemed too dull. It was a cold night, clear and starry. At any moment, it might break open with angels. So after Mass, we went north on Riverside Drive, then cut off on a virtually unused, four-lane stretch of road going toward the village of Bolingbroke and Highway 41. We were in no hurry. Nothing was stirring.

Then, looming out of the dark shoulder was a buck, his big rack poised. After a moment, he gathered himself and disappeared in two long leaps, white tail flashing.

Not talking, we crossed the Interstate, turned north on 41, and passed all the sleeping farms. I don’t remember the next morning or even, frankly, anything specific until the next summer when our first daughter was born. Then the years sped up between the memorable births and baptisms, life changing and staying the same, repetition and variation, one Christmas blending into another.

When I asked my wife recently what she remembered most distinctly about Christmas, she said, without hesitating, “Do you remember that deer we saw after midnight Mass that first Christmas when I was pregnant with Joan?”

Some things never happen twice.

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