Of time, telephones, eternity, and Mrs. Appleton

 

il_fullxfull.698525860_c5jw

Nearly everybody I see driving a car nowadays is talking on a cell phone.

This certainly isn’t news to you.  And don’t go thinking this is going to be another diatribe about the inherent danger of  driving and using the phone at the same time. I’ll leave that battle to someone who can come up with a better argument than the one that should be pretty obvious.

It’s just that I see the cell phone epidemic running rampant everywhere.  In restaurants where whole families talk to their phones rather than to each other.  In movie theaters.  Even on the way into church, with folks getting a last little communication fix that will have to last a whole hour.

I sometimes wonder what those cell phone chatterers would do if technology was magically transported back in time about a half century.

Up in Oakwood, the little piney woods town where I grew up, every house had one telephone when I was a kid.  At least every house that I went into. And I wandered pretty freely.

That one phone per household was a bulky thing as ugly as a mud clod and as heavy as a boat anchor.  And, for some unfathomable reason, it was always located in the most inconvenient part of the house.  Ours sat in a curved wall niche in a narrow hallway directly under a big attic fan that rattled like a freight train when it was on. And it was on all spring and summer.  There was no room in there for a chair, so we had to stand up to yell into that phone.

It was as if some strong puritanical code forbade placing a telephone in some comfortable place, like beside an armchair or, God forbid, by a bed.

Our phone had no dial, just a glossy smooth front, and you had to crank a little handle on its side to engage it.  Then you lifted the heavy handset and told Mrs. Appleton, the operator, who you wanted to talk to.  Say, I’d ask to speak to my friend Chris Stevens and Mrs. Appleton would connect us or she’d tell me that the Stevens had driven over to Palestine for the afternoon.

Everybody kept Mrs. Appleton updated as to their whereabouts.  She called everyone “honey”, and she was a great font of information.

Sometimes too much.

One time my mother, who had come to our little town from a much larger one that had dial telephones, had asked to be connected to some lady who lived out near the Nineveh community because she’d heard that she had a sewing machine for sale.

The Nineveh woman’s husband was a butter and egg man, the rural equivalent of a milkman, and Mrs. Appleton told my mother “you don’t buy your butter and eggs from them, honey.”  Then she’d reminded my mother who she did use.

It made my mother so angry that she didn’t call anybody for the better part of a week.  After all, she told us at the supper table, Mrs. Appleton didn’t have absolute power, and certainly not when it came to where we got our eggs.

I liked Mrs. Appleton, and so did everyone else in town.  Even my mother, except for that one week.

Anyway, I have to wonder what this current cell phone society would make of one phone in the middle of the house, with a human being on the other end of the line who had to direct the call.

I even dreamed about it once.  I was at the Pearly Gates and, instead of Saint Peter, there was just that old black telephone on top of a short marble column.  When I picked up the handset, a familiar voice asked me where I wanted to go.

And I had to smile, in that dream, since it turned out that Mrs. Appleton ended up having considerably more clout than my mother ever suspected.

 

[This first ran as a Sunday morning newspaper column and then in a collection published by TCU Press in 2009 titled Sundays with Ron Rozelle, an unfortunate title which probably led some readers to believe it was a devotional guide]

 

 

 

Missiles, maypoles and mayhem

 

Happy May Day.

And if you’re wondering what we’re supposed to be celebrating on this first day of the fifth month the line forms here, right behind me.

Back when I was a gangling, crew-cut lad full of questions up in Oakwood I’m sure I asked, probably more than once, what the day meant because it was mentioned often enough for me to wonder about it. But I either never got a definitive answer or I couldn’t make much of it.  All I know is that I was perplexed.

Whenever somebody shouted “May Day! May Day!” in the movies something very bad usually happened, like a plane spiraling to earth or a ship sinking beneath an angry sea.

And every year Walter Cronkite – we never watched Huntley and Brinkley on another channel on our big Zenith: my mother didn’t care for Mr. Brinkley’s constant smirk – described the May Day parade over in Moscow, complete with images of plump Comrade Khrushchev saluting tanks and missiles and goose-stepping troops as they went by his reviewing stand.  I might not have been the sharpest pencil in the box, but I was smart enough to know that, so soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, we wouldn’t be celebrating Communists and their weaponry.

The fact is I didn’t have a clue what the day signified.  And I’m not much better off now. So I set my crack research team (Google.com) to work clearing everything up.

Having perused some of the data that was generated, I can report that the only things the various sources seem to agree on are that the origins of May Day lie so far back in misty history that the specifics are blurry at best, and at some point the day was given over to the appreciation of workers.  Apparently everything began with a pagan celebration of the arrival of spring, complete with sacrifices, the consumption of copious amounts of wine and mead, and a good bit of misbehaving.  Probably because of the wine and mead.

When the early Christian church took over the day they weren’t about to have any such shenanigans, so it became considerably holier. But some remote pockets of Gaelic folk were far enough removed, geographically and philosophically, from pope and bishop to hang on to some of the original festivities.  Like dancing around a maypole for example.

Centuries later May Day became a worker’s holiday, a precursor of Labor Day, the American celebration of which, to further complicate matters, falls not in May but on the first Monday in September.

Several of the sources mentioned that at some point it became common to hang little sacks of wildflowers on friends’ and neighbors’ doorknobs on May first.  To hearken back to the whole spring festival motif, I guess.  If any of that was going on during my youth I must have missed it.  People would bring covered dishes of good food when somebody died, and fresh vegetables when they’d grown more than they could eat, but I can’t quite imagine the citizens of Oakwood, pragmatic and sensible souls, hanging flowers on doors.

I do remember being made to dance around a maypole once.  That would almost certainly have been at the Oakwood School Coronation, an annual spring event. All the grades, 1 though 12, took part in that extravaganza that was attended by the entire town in the school auditorium.  The King and Queen, always seniors, were crowned and their court was made up of a duke and duchess from each class.  I always wanted to be elected duke, which meant all I had to do was wear a white coat and a narrow snap-on black bow tie and escort the duchess down the aisle and sit on the stage for the rest of the evening. If I wasn’t the duke I had to take part in some sort of group dance with the other kids in my class, like the unfortunate “Sweethearts on Parade” routine to a Guy Lombardo Orchestra recording that lodged itself tenaciously in my memory and will not go away.

And I’m pretty sure we did a maypole dance one year when I wasn’t a duke. I’m just as certain that the wildly applauding audience wouldn’t have known the significance of it being called a maypole or its association with the first day of May.   Neither, a good many years later, do I.

Anyway, Happy May Day.

Whatever the heck it means.

 

 

When society’s habits went up in smoke

A professor once told told me successful authors are fueled by a constant intake of cigarette smoke.  Which must explain why none of my stuff has ever wandered anywhere close to a bestsellers list.

But if there is anything to the theory about secondhand smoke being hazardous to health it’s amazing I’m still here at all. And if you grew up in the fifties or sixties the same probably goes for you.

Back in my butcher shop days, when I worked in one in a country store as a teenager, a tobacco salesman came in once a week to refill the racks behind the checkout counter.

He was a friendly fellow probably in his sixties who was either smoking or chewing some of his merchandise whenever he arrived.  One week he’d be enjoying a pre-rolled cigarette (one brand seemed to serve as well as another) and the next week he’d be smoking one he’d rolled himself in a lightning-quick process that required only one hand.  Other weeks he’d puff away at a slender briar pipe, or a drooping Sherlock Holmes model, or a simple rig fashioned from a corncob.  Occasionally he’d be smoking cigars, large or small, and he often would show up with a jaw full of chewing tobacco or a protruding lower lip filled with Garrett sweet snuff.

I asked him once why he kept changing.

He smiled – he was always smiling, possibly the effect of such constant and varied nicotine stimulation – and told me he enjoyed tobacco in all its manifestations.

I was probably a high school freshman at the time, not yet a wordsmith, and in all likelihood I had never heard the word manifestations.  But I got the gist of his philosophy.

I don’t know what became of him; he was a traveling salesman and didn’t live in Oakwood.  But he’d be well over a hundred now if he’s still alive.  Which is doubtful, given the many and sundry carcinogens he consumed.

Though that fellow did use more types of tobacco than anyone I ever knew, it wasn’t at all uncommon in the mid 1960’s for most of the customers in that store to be smoking as they did their marketing.  Folks smoked in the post office, at the eateries – the Bus Stop Café and Laurene’s – in Miss Flossie’s dress shop, and in the bank.  Ladies smoked under big hair dryers in beauty shops and men smoked while they got haircuts.  Some of the teachers at the school came into class from their breaks with smoke billowing out of their mouth and nose, and, though nobody smoked during services, the front porches of churches were stagnant and cloudy from the last frantic intakes before heading in.

My mother smoked unfiltered cigarettes until my sisters and I convinced her to switch.  Then she used Pall Malls, and I can still smell the unique stench of a burning filter from her transition period, when she as often as not lit the wrong end.  Still, we considered it a victory, hoping that the tiny filter would protect her from all that smoke.

It didn’t.  She died when she was younger than I am now after a long bout with cancer.

My father gave up cigarettes early on, replacing them with occasional cigars. He chose – no surprise here – the least expensive available: King Edwards.  By the time my mother died he had moved on to pipes, of which he had a handsome collection. He was an easy man to buy a present for; a new pipe was always appreciated. Until he remarried, that is, late in his life.  His new wife was intolerant of smoking – and a good many other things come to think of it – so the pipes got tossed.

I managed to get though all of that constant smoke – at home, in town, in the car – without taking it up myself.  Until I went into the army, at least.

When my battalion in Germany took part in month-long war games we had to eat C-rations, boxed meals consisting of horrible potted meats and canned cakes so hard and dry that they made good paperweights.  Each C-ration box also had a small pack of cigarettes.  Being thrifty – I was my father’s son – and not disposed to look gifts horses in the mouth, I started smoking them.

But I gave it up after several years, hopefully before any permanent damage was done to my lungs.

There’s a lot I miss about times gone by, but all that constant smoking going on in public places isn’t one of them.  I’m appreciative of no-smoking restaurants and hotels.  And I particularly hate to see kids lighting up, trying to look debonair, waving a cigarette around as if it were Harry Potter’s magic wand.

Because even though that tobacco salesman seemed to find some magic in his wares, I only have to remember my mother’s last years to know that it’s a very dark magic indeed.

 

 

When did the center of the home shift?

 

 

At a library event up in Sealy ten or so years ago I had a pleasant conversation with a lady about books.  That, not surprisingly, often happens in libraries.

We agreed that we’d both enjoyed David McCullough’s “John Adams”, the biography of the second president.  I asked if she’d seen the HBO miniseries and this lady, probably in her mid-seventies, told me she didn’t own a television set, and never had.

I must have looked sufficiently shocked for her to laugh and assure me I’d heard her correctly.

Now before you assume that I’m going to launch into a diatribe here about the evils of television let me tell you that there are four of them in my house. So anything negative I’d have to say about this topic would be downright hypocritical and I’d be sailing under a false flag. But meeting that lady in Sealy made me think about how TV sets and the people who watch them have changed in my lifetime.  And my lifetime is almost exactly how long television has been a constant fixture in American homes.

As TV screens get bigger and bigger, sometimes taking up entire walls, it becomes more difficult to remember when they were built into pretty pieces of polished wood furniture with doors that could be closed to hide the screen.  That way, the living room or den could look, most of the time, more like what they were intended to be: places where family and friends could sit and actually talk to each other. Or where you might settle into a comfortable chair and read the newspaper, a magazine, or a book. What a concept.

Nowadays hiding our television sets is to many people as ludicrous an idea as, unfortunately, reading books and talking to each other – in person, not on cell phones.

Back in the 50s and early 60s, most people had televisions. But it wasn’t uncommon for there to be only per household.  And that one was usually in a corner of the living room, so as not to be conspicuous when company came over.

Nobody would have dreamed of having the set turned on while guests were there, unless they’d come specifically to watch a program with friends.  But even then when the show was over the host or hostess got up and turned off the set – no remotes then, remember – and coffee and cake or drinks and hor d’oeuvres were served.  The conversation might have touched on what had been watched – maybe how good the June Taylor Dancers were on Jackie Gleeson that night or how funny Senor Wences was on Ed Sullivan – but at no point would anyone say “Let’s see what else is on.”

Part of the reason, of course, was that there wasn’t much else on.  There were only three networks, all of which played the national anthem at midnight and went off the air, leaving insomniacs and night owls with nothing to watch but a test pattern till dawn.   But the main reason the TV was turned off was that it hadn’t yet become Ground Zero in the home.

My mother was home all day during what came to be called the Golden Age of television, and the only time our big Zenith was turned on during daytime programing was occasionally for Julia Child’s French cooking show or Art Linkletter’s “House Party”, both of which were aimed at housewives.  And I think she liked “Password”, a game show.  But the rest of the day she spent cleaning house, cooking, or reading.  None of which she felt had to be done with the TV blaring away.

At some point in modern society the epicenter of the home moved from the hearth or the family dinner table to big radios that everyone would gather around.  Then those devices grew windows, so everyone could not only hear what was going on but actually see it.  Eventually the windows got bigger and bigger and televisions staged a coup d’état, taking over most rooms in most houses and staying turned on most of the time. Not too many generations ago a person walking through a neighborhood at night would have seen the soft glow of firelight or reading lamps in windows; now it would likely be the flickering lights of television sets, and probably in several windows.

So, did the lady in Sealy have the right idea?  Not for me.  I enjoy quality television, and I wouldn’t want to do without football and baseball games and the news.  But I also enjoy turning the set off and finding other things to do.

Remember Cicero’s advice: “Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide”.

I’m pretty sure I heard that on television.

 

A winter’s tale

I often tell folks in my wordsmithing classes and workshops that some of the most useful tools they can employ are the five senses.  I also tell them that the sense of smell is almost always the quickest one to trigger a memory of the past.  But the feeling generated by a really cold day, like several we’ve had more of than usual this year, might give smell a run for first place.  In support of that theory I offer the following piece I wrote one particularly frigid morning a decade or so ago for my Sunday newspaper column:

On more than one occasion in this little corner of the paper I have confessed to being a weather junkie. I’ve owned up to looking forward to big blue northers barreling in and to enjoying blustery gray days that normal people chalk up as failures.

But I also need to confess that I generally like such days from inside a warm house. You’ve found me on a chilly morning with a determined gust pushing against the windows. I just made a quick foray outside to get the papers, wishing I’d put on an extra sweater for just that short journey. Dry leaves scratched their way swiftly along the street and a stiff north wind practically blew me back inside, to a warm room, a cup of hot coffee and a winter memory.

When I was all of 20, in the Army and stationed in Germany, my company commander decided, during a frigid January, that a parking lot full of decommissioned jeep trailers that we somehow ended up with needed to be guarded. I never understood why those ancient rigs warranted any sort of protection. They had no doubt been built in World War II or just before it and 30 years later, when my fellow privates and I had to guard them, they were in a mighty pitiful shape. Most of them were immobile, all were banged up and more than a few were missing tail gates, hitches, tires or even wheels.

Now I’m here to tell you those were some downright cold nights when we took turns rolling out of our bunks, pulled on as many layers of Army-issued clothes as we could get into, slung M16s over our shoulders and made sure nobody stole a bunch of clunkers that I doubt the Army could have given away.

Some nights it snowed. Some nights it rained. But clear nights, with no clouds to serve as a blanket, were the worst of all. Because when the sky was full of stars it was bone-chilling, blue-faced, deep freezer cold. On those nights nothing in the world seemed more inviting — not home, or a weekend pass, or fried schnitzel with German-fried potatoes — than the prospect of ending our two hour stint, crawling back into a narrow cot and pulling stiff Army sheets and a couple of scratchy olive-colored blankets up over our heads.

When we’d suffered through that arctic sentry duty for a month or more, an order came down from the battalion or division or some other lofty zenith that all guard details had to be overseen by an NCO. So now our cadre of sergeants had to roll out with the rest of us, bundle up and brave the elements. And it was fortunate for us that when First Sergeant Shultz took his first turn the wind was whistling down out of the Bavarian north like a scene out of “Dr. Zhivago.” In the Army, a first sergeant — usually called “Top” — might have to salute officers, but make no mistake about it: He runs the company. So the next morning he had a word with the company commander and requisitioned a truckload of heavy chains, which we used to connect all the trailers together and secure with big padlocks.

It took just a few minutes outside on a bitter night for Top to come up with a little common sense and a new plan. And our trailer vigil came to an end.

I’m pretty sure nobody ever cut those chains and tried to steal any of them, though a few of us did manage to roll one over to our barracks that May, where we filled it up with ice and bottles of German beer to celebrate my 21st birthday. But even on that warm day the combination of one of those trailers and all that ice made us wince. Because it was enough to take us back to those long nights of polar misery.

If you’ll excuse me now I’ll turn up the gas in the fireplace and get those flames lapping up a little higher. Then I’ll top off my coffee, Miss Karen and I will read the papers and our two opinionated, elderly cats will curl up into balls by the hearth and go to sleep.

The winter day can spit and blow all it wants to outside. And if I start considering taking a walk around the neighborhood I’ll just think, instead, of a lot full of rusty trailers that may still be chained together, for all I know, in Illesheim, Germany.

Then I’ll nestle more comfortably in my chair and be content to look out the window.

Sam Houston Q&A / Houston Chronicle

Sam Houston

An interview I did with Allyn West III of the Houston Chronicle was just posted on their ‘Gray Matters’ page online. Allyn asked very good questions about General Houston, his marriage, his legacy, and the last years of his amazing life.  I hope my answers did them justice, and I look forward (I think) to responses from readers.

Here’s the link:

http://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/Who-was-Sam-Houston-at-the-end-of-his-life-12494274.php

 

 

Read all about it, while you still can

 

 

A moment of silence, please, for the recently departed. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer was 146; the Rocky Mountain News was three years older. They’re the latest additions to the roll of the honored dead, two of which were from hereabouts: The Dallas Times Herald (RIP 1991) and The Houston Post (1995).

There was a time when it wasn’t at all uncommon for big cities to have at least two daily newspapers, each of them putting out morning and afternoon editions. Not to mention extras that newsboys would hawk on the streets when juries came in with important verdicts or crooks got arrested or things blew up.

We shouldn’t assume that the newspaper graveyard is full; in fact I’ll predict that it’s in for an expansion. Not because journalism has hit the skids; papers are mostly as good now as they were in their heyday, but as an author and avid reader I resent the fact that so many of them have done away with on staff book critics and rely on reviews from other publications. The reason of course is that wicked old bottom line: cost.  For whatever reason — I could nominate several — fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers. Or, I fear, reading much of anything. So when the readership and the ad revenue dwindles, journalists have to find new lines of work.

One time I bought a couple of copies of the Sunday paper in Houston. I needed the book review sections for my creative writing class and I wanted them to have the actual newsprint, not sheets conjured up by a computer and regurgitated out of a printer.

My own copy of the paper had arrived in my front yard early that morning, and it seemed a shame to throw away the rest of those two bulky masses of information, minus only the sections I needed. So I offered them to a couple of policemen on the sidewalk. The older guy thanked me and said he had a copy at home that he looked forward to reading that evening; the other fellow, maybe all of 21, shook his head.

“I get all the news I need right here,” he told me, tapping a sleek device: a cell phone or iPod or BlackBerry or some other beam-me-up-Scotty contraption. His partner grinned, and asked him if he ever really used that thing to get the news.

To which the young fellow responded that he could if he wanted to.

Which is absolutely true. But being able to do a thing and doing it are two very different endeavors. As a general rule, more and more of modern society stays as clear of the news as it would a mean stepmother.

These days it seems most folks are content to watch a reality show or two and think they’ve really gotten a dose of reality, or listen to a bellicose, blabbering host of a radio call-in show — at either end of the political spectrum — and think they’ve actually gotten the news.

If I might offer a subtle opinion: They haven’t.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am much in favor of newspapers. I start every day with two of them and they are as essential to me as coffee. When I travel, I look for the local paper wherever I am, thoroughly enjoying the big boys like The New York Times and The Washington Post and just as thoroughly, and maybe more so, the tiny publications — usually weeklies — that are mighty strong threads in the fabric of the nation. I do believe that reading the sheriff’s report in a rural paper is as satisfying as a wedge of coconut pie in a country café.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to technology, or gadgetry. A little gizmo that can tell me the time in Cairo and the weather in Iceland is dandy. But it’s not a newspaper.

A newspaper is something I can stretch out with in my favorite chair, ruffle the pages and wander slowly through its various sections. Then when I start to nod off, I can spread the whole thing out wide over me like a blanket.

I keep thinking that America will awaken from its own nap and rediscover newspapers before they’re all gone.

But the day might very well come, hopefully after I’ve had my last word on this matter or any other, when a child will dig down into a trunk one rainy afternoon and pull out an old paper, brittle and brown in its dotage.

“What is this?” that child will surely ask.

And some ancient, sad soul will look at the relic being held aloft by smooth, tiny hands and smile.

“It —” the great-great-grandparent might respond, a flood of memories rushing out of the dark past, “— was wonderful.”

Regarding angels

 

angel

 

During the yuletide seasons of my childhood, we took a break at the Methodist church from our usual repertoire of five or six old standards in the brown, threadbare Cokesbury hymnals and switched to an even shorter selection of Christmas carols.

So, instead of “In the Garden” and “Yield Not to Temptation” and “He Keeps me Singing” (on page 110 and my favorite because it had a snappy beat) we made a joyful noise – emphasis on “noise” – with “Silent Night” and a couple of others as Miss Mae Greer pounded away on the upright piano.

One of them was “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”.  When I was in the first or second grade, I thought the angels were all named Harold (I might not have been the brightest crayon in the box early on).  But Miss Mae Scott, my Sunday School teacher, put me right about that by explaining that heralds were particularly special angels because they were messengers.  And that the message they brought at Christmas was the best one of all.

Several years after that revelation, when I’d fallen into the habit of perusing the two newspapers that were tossed into our yard beside Highway 79, I read Dallas Morning News columnist Paul Crume’s take on angels on the front page on Christmas morning in 1967.  Little did I know that that short essay would be remembered by many as the very best of thousands of Crume’s columns published between 1948 and 1975.  He and Houston Post columnist Leon Hale were in large part  responsible for my taking up writing in general and columns in particular. So blame them.

Here’s part of what Mr. Crume said in the piece that is still, I think, printed every Christmas morning on the front page of the Dallas paper:

“Any adult human being with half sense, and some with more, knows that there are angels. If he has ever spent any period in loneliness, when the senses are forced in upon themselves, he has felt the wind from their beating wings and been overwhelmed with the sudden realization of the endless and gigantic dark that exists outside the little candle flame of human knowledge. He has prayed, not in the sense that he asked for something, but that he yielded himself.”

He went on to include a few lines by Francis Thompson, a 19th century English poet, who maintained that “the angels keep their ancient places.  Turn but a stone, and start a wing.”

I can’t claim to have ever actually heard wings fluttering nearby, but I can tell you that there have been times in my life when I’ve felt the presence of something bigger, better, and infinitely wiser than myself that was guiding me through a potentially dangerous or important situation.

One of those times was when my wife Karen and I were driving up to East Texas on a pretty fall morning and our car just simply stopped running on a country road. What seemed like thousands of warning lights lit up on the dash board and I had to maneuver us over to the shoulder before we rolled to a complete stop.  As bad as that seemed at the time, it could have happened a couple of hours before when we’d been in the center lane of heavy traffic on the Pierce Elevated in downtown Houston. Or when an 18-wheeler was nudging up too close behind us.

If I’d listened closely that morning, I might have heard an angel’s wings.

I believe Mr. Shakespeare was on to something when he had Hamlet tell Horato that there are more things in heaven and earth than can be explained.  And one of those things might just be the presence of angels.

This can all be waved away as foolishness, of course, by people who can’t bring themselves to believe anything that can’t be physically proven.  “Show me an angel and I’ll believe it exists” they’d say.  And I wouldn’t be able to produce one.

But I believe they are here, not only the hovering variety but those inside of us that can affect our moral compasses, the ones Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature”.

On this day that is holy for much of the world’s population, and is not only about faith but about the memory of lost loved ones and the bonds shared among family and friends, I’m betting that angels are in abundance, their wings fluttering all over the place.

On that Christmas morning in 1967 the late Paul Crume ended his column with a few words that I couldn’t possibly improve upon.  So we’ll let him close this out.

“There is an angel close to you this day. Merry Christmas, and I wish you well.”

 

 

A holy night, a warm fire, and a story

 

So.  Here’s my list of possibilities for your Christmas Eve reading with your family.

What’s that?  You don’t do a Christmas Eve reading with your family?  Well, maybe it’s a good year to start.

Here’s the scenario.  Lights twinkling on the tree, flames crackling and spitting in the fireplace, everybody settled into soft cushions, hot wassail all around, and the fragrances of gingerbread and Douglass fir floating along.  Now somebody opens a book, clears his or her throat, and starts reading a story out loud, a form of entertainment that has been around since long before radio, television, movies, or video games.

It might be a good tradition starter, and tradition is mighty important during the holidays.  You want proof?  Go changing things up – like the placement of the tree, or not unpacking a few ugly, old ornaments – and see how quickly somebody howls.

In our house, we put great store in traditions, especially this time of year.  We always light a pair of candles in memory of my parents in the front window on Christmas Eve.  And we partake of homemade chili for supper (we are Texans born and bred after all), followed by my wife Karen’s famous pumpkin bread.  When our girls were young, we’d drive up to Houston during Christmas week to see the Alley Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol.”  Those trips fell into a definite routine, which is just another word for tradition.  First, we’d have lunch at Birraporetti’s restaurant.  Then we’d have the waiter bring around the dessert tray so everyone could mull over their options during the play.  In the theater I’d glance at the girls from time to time. When they weren’t watching the stage, they’d be squinting, weighing those various sugary concoctions. Once the curtain fell we hurried through the late afternoon around the corner back to the restaurant for hot chocolate and whatever goodies we’d decided upon.  Of course, we sampled each other’s choices.  Except for Megan, our youngest, who was downright territorial when it came to chocolate layer cake.

To this day, when all three girls are grown up and out in the world, we’ve established a new tradition.  This will be the second year we’ve taken our oldest granddaughter – daughter of Megan, the chocolate aficionado – to Houston to see “The Nutcracker” ballet. So, a tradition has tumbled from one generation to the next, as good traditions are apt to do.

Now, to that list of story possibilities I promised you.  I’m including secular literature only and am, of course, leaving out some worthy yarns, the most meaningful of which, to my way of thinking, is the perfect rendering of the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel.

Here’s my suggestions, in no order whatsoever. And I fully understand that getting your kids (or maybe your spouse) to put the cell phones away for a few minutes might prove difficult. But you might be surprised; you might be providing a memory they’ll treasure later.

You really can’t go wrong with “A Christmas Carol,” by Mr. Dickens. It’s lengthy, but it’s worth the time, and I think there are truncated versions.  “The Gift of the Magi”, by that old master of the ironic twist O. Henry, is shorter. And it packs a powerful punch about it being better to give than to receive.

One of my favorite short stories is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, Dylan Thomas’ superb, poetic reminiscence of the holidays of his boyhood.  Mr. Thomas was a genius among poets, but he led a tortured, short life.  And this account of what may very well have been his only happy time is mesmerizing. As is “A Christmas Memory”, Truman Capote’s account of helping an odd, elderly relative make a fruitcake to send to President Roosevelt. And don’t forget, especially if you have tiny tots (with their eyes all aglow) in your audience, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” by Dr. Seuss. And there’s always “The Night Before Christmas”, a fine old poem you can rattle off in short order and let everyone get back to their phones

“Maybe Christmas,” the Grinch says in Dr. Seuss’ classic story, “doesn’t come from a store”.  A fine thought, that, and worth thinking about.

Maybe Christmas comes, sometimes, from something as simple of a good story written by a talented wordsmith and read out loud on a particularly sacred night.