Saturday, January 24, 2009

Christmas with the Feltners



Wrapping paper flying about the parlor.

Sixteen people at the table.

Little boys with pistols.

I recognize this scene. This could be my house on Christmas Day any year since we moved here in 2004.

"Each of us knew that the others were dealing nearly all the time with the thought of the war, but that thought we kept in the secret quiet of our own minds....The war was a bodily presence. It was in all of us, and nobody said a word."

My family is not directly impacted by the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We don't have it as a "bodily presence" in the midst of our celebrations.

But we do have griefs and burdens present in our gatherings that we don't talk about directly; immovable sadness over circumstances beyond our ability to explain or fix. I think they are present in some form in every family and like the Feltner Clan, we choose to celebrate and rejoice around them and in spite of them.

Wendell draws a most beautiful picture of mirth and warmth and nostalgia in this scene, doesn't he?

I love the details Hannah remembers, especially of the little boys and their pistols, of Virgil and his teasing and of the visiting dignitaries: Uncle Jack Beechum and Grandmam.

"To have the two of them there, at opposite corners of the table, with their long endurance in their faces, and their present affection and pleasure, was a blessing of another kind."
Hannah doesn't describe another Christmas Day like this one and in fact the chapter ends with the knowledge that "what we were that day was lovely and could not last."

How do you read this? What was it about that day that would not be repeated again? Is it just Virgil and seeing her life in sections: pre-war and post-war? I am really wondering about this because it seems to me that we think this every Christmas--when it's a good one. We think there won't be another one again so special as the one we just had. And then it happens and we repeat ourselves.

Is this Wendell inserting himself, presenting an ideal, asking us to pay attention, again, to the people around our tables?

Did it seem believable to you that they found Andy Catlett crying in a corner at the end of the day?

Too many questions, perhaps.

Discuss at will.



  1. This is a scene that I highlighted immediately when I was first reading; and I mentioned it in the earlier post about membership (or belonging).

    For me enjoying holiday rituals is very important. Even when life is sad.

    For example, my father-in-law had a stroke on a Saturday morning when we had planned to have dinner together that evening - 12 of us. He'd already give a check to cover the costs.

    It was clear that we should still get together and *break bread* even though we didnt want to talk about the implications of his stroke.

    It hurts my heart when the younger generation shirks family gatherings as boring. Or comments like *We want to start our own traditions* surface.

    Of course, it is really a comment on the state of their own hearts: true traditions dont represent *stagnation* but *the permanent things*

    Wendell is promoting permanence.

    Our challenge is to find that atmosphere, even if we dont have a family farm :)

  2. "I couldn't help going often to the pantry to look at what we had done and admire it, for these Christmas doings ran far ahead of any I had known before."

    I keep forgetting what Hannah came from, especially since she focuses so much on Grandmam after Ivy came along. What a contrast it must of been.

    Once again, Uncle Jack has one of my favorite lines, "That boy'll put the cat in the churn." What a funny image.

    I wonder if these reflections could be more of a mix of what Hannah felt then, and what she felt later. Looking back so long, she could be inserting the reality of the war and Virgil and others who were lost...and that could be the lens throughout which she looked at the past. If she was that aware at the time, I am truly in awe.

    I have a child who is an old soul, one who can feel and think about adult things way before her time. It does lead to tears, but so does lack of sleep for wondering about Santa Clause. Could be either.


  3. Um, that last paragraph was about knew that, right?

    I love Dana's comment about traditions holding fast, even when life is sad. Although I have been the child in the past who said she wanted to "start her own traditions." I have since repented of such nonsense.


  4. When we were first married we lived in the same town as my husband's family. We celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving with his 5 siblings and all the grandkids. It was a really happy time for us, though at the time I remember thinking how his family didn't do Christmas like MY family did.

    Now we are nearly always too far away from family to celebrate together, but we always adopt others to fill our table and home to overflowing.

    Last Christmas my husband deployed on Christmas eve. I was not interested in celebrating Christmas, but my good friend, Kelley, told me that the kids would need it. She invited us to Christmas dinner to their home. They had grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles visiting from the mainland. The food was great, but it was the teasing between Grandpa and the Grandkids (including my kids, though they had never met before) that made it feel like family.

    Next Christmas we'll be with my parents and siblings. And snow. I can't wait!


    I will emerge soon.


  6. My warmest childhood memories are of Christmas Eve's at my Grandma's house. Grandma was widowed before I was born but her house had always been the gathering spot for her sisters who had also moved from the Ozarks to St. Louis, their families, cousins, Grandma's three children who lived in St. Louis and eventually 9 grandkids. As we've talked about in an earlier post, I joined this history without understanding how long the tradition had existed. In my childhood, I remember the adults around the dining table, the older cousins around a card table in the living room and the younger cousins in the small bedroom. Great aunts brought the same wonderful dishes each year and we younger kids finished dinner quickly and started begging to open presents.

    This Christmas described in Hannah Coulter reminded me so much of those Christmas Eve's of my childhood.

    My favorite part was Hannah's pride at having her Grandmam there and seeing how well she fit in with the Feltner clan. I don't think Hannah was ashamed of her Grandmam in any way, but of the poverty of her house compared to theirs. I remember a time in my adolescence when I became aware of how poorly my family's financial situation compared to my friends' families. Looking back now I only remember how hard my parents worked and how they made the money we had stretch so much farther than I can imagine. Still, in those adolescent years I felt shame on more than one occasion.

    The last few years, I've been hyper-aware of how precious our Christmas traditions are and of the fact that the year will come when one or both of my kids won't come home for Christmas. So I can somewhat understand Hannah's feelings about that Christmas. I do think she is looking back, though, when she says "what we had could not last." I doubt she fully understood that at the time, because I doubt she allowed herself to fully contemplate losing Virgil.

    This Christmas scene remains in my memory as one of my favorites in the book, six months after first reading it!

  7. One thing I haven't mentioned is that our house has become the "holiday" house since we moved in and since my folks sold our childhood home and are now living in an apartment. I'm the nearest daughter and the only nearest sibling who owns a house so it falls to us.

    Everyone comes here on Christmas Day and we manage to host as many as 20 people, sometimes more, sometimes less, in a fairly smallish house. Wendell's view of Christmas includes very bucolic descriptions of all the work! Have you noticed that? In my experience his description is not realistic and so, again, I wonder how much of that is Wendell and how much is an old woman forgetting how tired she was after doing all those dishes! (We don't have a dishwasher or a garbage disposal and we don't use paper plates.)

    There have been years after we've hosted Thanksgiving that we have a hard time gearing up for Christmas. Our boys, though, love it. And I think it's because of their enthusiasm and their reminders of what they love about having the whole family here that encourage us to keep doing it. That and knowing it's the important thing to do. :)

    Does that resonate with anyone? Or am I alone in the family holiday curmudgeon category?

  8. what struck me about this scene is how hannah "spoke" with such admiration and joy. to know that her christmases had never been such a scene and to realize what she had been missing. it is a picture of what we all want our christmases to be, i think.
    i did not think it believable that andy was crying in the corner. i think he nearly crossed the line with that one...

  9. Yes, Anna. I agree about nearly crossing the line.

    And I think you're right about Hannah realizing what she had been missing. I don't recall her ever comparing the Feltner Christmas to one of her own but it's there in her reaction to it, certainly.

  10. Hannah certainly soaked up every moment of that day. I just adored the moment when one of the little boys jumped out in front of Uncle Jack with his pistol. Uncle Jack's reaction was very telling of his gentle character.

    Andy crying in the corner was puzzling and unrealistic to me. I have 5 little boys... I just can't picture it.

  11. Lynn,

    The thing I CAN buy about Andy crying in the corner is the typical overwrought-kid-at-the-end-of-a-gathering piece... too much sugar, not enough sleep. but I think Di is on to something - the lens of hindsight, even fictional, sees things in a different light. My short story teacher in high school used to call it (and maybe this is a well-known literary phrase, I just haven't heard it since) 'Hanging a rifle on the wall'. such obvious foreshadowing that it seems rather abrupt, out of place. At least here it's done with pretty words.

    Lynn, I share a little of the curmudgeon-ness with you, only because of the circumstances of our Christmas - Pastor husband with a Christmas Eve AND Christmas morning service, daughter birthday on Christmas Day, Son birthday on 28th... it's just a big time for our family on every level, and in no way a vacation for Scott. So we can't realistically just pick up and leave. For us, the idea of 'starting our own traditions' is sad, because we'd love to be with family. But, both of our families are small, my parents are aged, my brother is in California with his new wife, hubby has a wicked stepdad so we can't go home.. blah, blah, blah. So they're all welcome here and they know that. We just can't do it all, as we declared - and loved - this year for the first time.

    But, girl, no disposal?!?!?!?!

    I'm all about the compost pile, sure, but... wow. you've just moved up several notches.


  12. *tap*


    this thing on??