Sunday, December 18, 2011
Another Child's Christmas in Wales
This is a woman named Jane Alabaster, reading some of her work at last Saturday's weekly meeting of the Puerto Vallarta Writers Group. She called her piece "The First Lights of Christmas," but it wasn't as twinkly as it sounds.
Ms. Alabaster makes her living as a doctor now in Mexico, but she was born in Swansea, Wales. Her dad was Welsh and her mother was German, and the family lived in a farmhouse just outside the city.
Her story was actually a memoir, a series of vignettes recalled from her childhood Christmases. She told us in the post-reading discussion that it was meant to be warm and life affirming, an ambitious goal, inasmuch as she chose to begin with an account of her sister's death by drowning in a river near their home during a long-ago holiday season when both girls were toddlers.
"I don't recall a Christmas afterward when my parents didn't weep," she wrote. The narrative never regained altitude, which does credit to the author's honesty.
Predictably, little Jane Alabaster took on herself the burden of making her parents as happy as two living daughters might have done. But melancholy was the subtext of most of her other Christmas recollections.
In one, she was to sing a solo in Welsh at her school Christmas pageant but unaccountably forgot all the words and had to make up phrases to keep the music going. Most of the audience were English speakers and thought she was wonderful, but her classmates knew she was singing nonsense, and she was humiliated.
In another, she recalled the pain of realizing that she and her family would never be fully accepted in their community because anti-German feeling left over from World War II remained strong in Swansea.
In another, she recorded her shock at the public spanking of a classmate who had misbehaved, an incident that clearly still appalled her. "Discipline at my school was strict," she wrote, "but it wasn't usually barbaric."
The "first lights of Christmas" made their appearance in the last tale of the series, but they didn't shine nearly bright enough to clear away the shadows.
Much of the writing was lovely, and a couple of group members rightly suggested that she might make longer stories out of individual segments. But I think she knew from the comments that she'd missed the mark she'd set for herself.
It's a trope of the season that being merry isn't as easy for everyone as it looks in the Christmas specials. Trying anyway and being brave about it is even harder. Writing about just how hard it can be, and then reading aloud to strangers what you've written, takes an extra measure of grit.
Feliz Navidad, Jane.