The older I get, the more I'm haunted by ghosts of Christmases past. They are no longer laments, but merely faded memories that always resurface on lonely, windswept December nights in the company of colored Christmas lights, warm flickering candles, and hot cups of whiskey-spiked tea.
Sometimes our memories seem so distant that we have to retrace them occasionally just to assure ourselves that they really happened. The holidays have always inflicted me with a nostalgic sadness and the pangs of tainted sentimentality.
My father's explosive temper and outrageous unpredictability very often ripped the holiday season to shreds. I remember many cold December nights when my mother and I would hide shivering in the dark yard, praying that he wouldn't come out and find us.....or the times he locked us out of the house all night. I vividly remember the night we tried to take the car and leave......when he doused the garage with gasoline and threatened to burn it down.
I was fifteen during the worst Christmas Eve etched in my memory. Violently sick with a hacking cough and raging fever. My parent's personal problems had crescendoed into an unbearable degree of chaos. Mom was threatening divorce. My father cleaned out the bank account, packed the car, left us penniless. He went to Las Vegas to celebrate the holidays alone. Called my Mom long after midnight, drunk and laughing - - telling her what a wonderful time he was having.
On Christmas Day I was taken to the hospital where it was discovered I had pneumonia. A shot of penicillin was administered. I was unknowingly allergic, immediately went into anaphylactic shock. Was unconscious for half an hour. The ugly repercussions of that day still haunt me.
By the time I was twenty I didn't need my father to destroy my life. I was a master at self-destruction. Even when I finally became a professional musician and writer, I couldn't accept the fact that I was worthy of success. I hated myself and took evil delight in trying to expunge my own existence.
I was performing with a chamber group at the L.A. Music Center - - the annual Christmas Eve afternoon concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Afterwards I mingled with bigwigs of L.A. society. I actually met Dorothy Chandler.
And much later that night, on a chilly, lonely
Southern California Christmas Eve, I plied myself with the usual booze and quaaludes - - then haunted the all-too-familiar alleys near Hollywood Boulevard in search of any hardcore nightfreaks who were willing to share their loneliness. And they were always there to be found......
Another later Christmas Eve. I was the harpsichordist at a lavish performance of Handel's Messiah in a well-known Los Angeles church.
Afterwards.....after the festivities and music and applause......I drank myself into sweet oblivion....and woke up in an unfamiliar room in the arms of a stranger.
I'm not telling these things with any sense of pride. I'm merely remembering the pangs of a turbulent past....
.....those Christmas Eves when I played the piano in tawdry, smoke-filled bars, inhabited by soused, lonely patrons.....where haphazard strands of colored lights failed to induce any semblance of Christmas cheer.....
......but I still can't bear to remember that icy West Texas December five years ago. A December of endless blizzards and endless agony.......when my Mother suffered for three long weeks before she died.....when I was entirely alone, with no friends or relatives...when I saw her close her eyes and breathe her last......
......and I went home to the cold, empty house and sat all night by the fireplace, too numb to think but fully aware that I had suffered not only a loss but also a living death.....a death from which I could never be resurrected.
Let there be peace this Christmas Eve. Peace within ourselves, and peace within this night of haunted long ago memories.