I was always the kid that believed in magic; I lived for the fantastic. I believed in Santa Claus much longer than any of my friends, delighting when NORAD tracked his unbelievable Christmas Eve journey. And I was always the first to wake on Christmas morning. I can still feel that rush, half asleep, stumbling down the stairs of my grandparents’ house, the anticipation too much to bear. Christmas Eve was the only night I ever wanted to go to bed early. The earlier I went to bed, the sooner I could rise, and take the whole house with me. No one was pleased, in retrospect. Yet there is still a part of me that wakes early on Christmas morning, that seven year old that still believes there is something waiting just around the corner, under the tree.
I buried myself in books as a child. Hobbits, dragons, lions, witches, ghosts and knights my constant companions. I was a shy child, and a scared child, as many children who grow up in an alcoholic household are. I was scared of my father. Even after he stopped drinking. The Marine Corps does something to people. It changes them, as does war. There is a part that is left there that never returns home. It floats like driftwood down the Mekong Delta. But inside the pages of a book, I was untouchable. I was brave, certain… protected. I was the hero of my own life, something I certainly didn’t feel then, and a vacillate on now.
2012 has been a year of transformations, fleeting joy, and endless sorrow. Like any year, I am ambivalent to its passing. I turned 40 this year, which, given my past, is a landmark in and of itself. It wasn’t always a given. I also moved away from my home state, NJ, and from my son, to live in New Orleans. I still haven’t reconciled myself to this decision yet. I feel like a failure as a parent. And even though I try to travel home as often as possible, the physical distance is itself a wall. I find myself getting lost in thought at strange times, looking at old pictures, and crying at inopportune times. There is this illusion that I suffer: that somehow my physical proximity can prevent all bad things from happening. It is an illusion indeed, an illusion that was shattered by Newtown, the shards and splinters that are still lodged in my heart. There is no safety in this world.
When I think how close my son came to losing his mother this year I still shudder. A rare blood condition caused post-surgery clotting that almost killed her. She will be on blood thinners for the rest of her life, but she is still with us. I thank whoever it is you thank for such things daily. Unlike many divorced couples, we still support each other and look out for each other, because we owe that to our son. She is a good mother to him, and I can’t ask for anything more than that.
My son was able to visit New Orleans for Thanksgiving, visit us. It was joyful. His sense of childlike wonder immediately plugged into the socket that is New Orleans. Many think this city is for adults, but I would maintain it is for children, regardless of age. Because when you lose your sense of wonder, this place ceases to make sense. It is fantastic and ethereal. A waking dream. Often spiked with terrible nightmares. A place where everything seems possible yet often nothing happens. It is held in stasis and endlessly flowing past, like the river that gives its shape and lore. But only young eyes can see it. It becomes ugly under the harsh light of adulthood.
I have love in my life. Endless, warm, consuming love. Its own magic. I rarely speak of it. Its ours and ours only. Yet I am polyamorous. My son, my wife, and my city all consume me in different ways. It is an embarrassment of riches, the only kind I’m endowed with, and the only kind that matter.
It doesn’t yet feel like Christmas to me. I am having a hard time finding it. I can see it. Its symbols. The pageantry. I smell it as well. The smell of pine. The deep rich scents and flavors of winter cooking that seem entirely out of place in my subtropical home. There will be no Nutcracker at Lincoln Center for me this year — a seventeen year tradition comes to an end. There will be no Feast of Seven Fish for me this year either. Or my mother’s Christmas Day lasagna. Amazon will deliver my son’s gifts. Instead, we will have Réveillon and midnight mass at the St. Louis Cathedral. Christmas Day will be an open door dinner, for whatever poor souls like ourselves are alone on the holiday. Because I still need people — as many as possible — to grace the threshold of hospitality this Christmas.
Growing up, we had a special table that was only used on Christmas Eve, when my mother’s large extended Italian family would feast on fish, garlic pasta, and homemade wine. Sometimes we would bring out the guitars. We always sang a song called “It’s Christmas at Our House.” The lyrics that I remember are it’s Christmas at our house, the door is open wide. It’s Christmas at our house, don’t knock, just come inside. There were so many of, and always visitors, the back door flung open and a rush of energy as uncles and cousins flooded into the small “parlor.” As long as I live, as long as my mind is good, that is Christmas. The way I will always remember it, and on some level, try to recreate it every year no matter where I am.
Because I still believe in magic. A belief tempered by cruelty and galvanized by kindness. And I choose to live in a city that still believes in magic, too. When I open my doors on Christmas Day, the alchemy of my pots and casseroles and roasting pans will bring both far away and newfound Christmases to me. My mother’s Christmas lasagna, replicated unfaithfully, will sit next to a tray of jambalaya. And the faces that join us will become part of the tapestry of our lives, our holidays: our family. Magic, indeed.