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November 22, 2009

Edward Falco: In My Family...

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It's almost inevitable that bringing large families together for the holidays will result in chaos, and Edward Falco --- author of SAINT JOHN OF THE FIVE BURROUGHS --- recalls the one Christmas he found the perfect escape from the disorder around him through the pages of a good book.

In my family, growing up in my part of the world --- working class, Italian; Brooklyn, New York, Williamsburg --- we didn’t give each other books for the holidays --- or any other time. The only books in our apartment were, miraculously, a fifty-plus volume set of The Harvard Classics, which my father had purchased decades earlier in an apparent fit of self-improvement, and which had been for many years sitting and gathering dust and mold in a dark corner of the upstairs hallway. I don’t know how old I was when I found these books --- I have a sense of them as having always been there --- but I had been dipping into them and reading here and there for a couple of years before the Christmas Eve I’m remembering, the one when my uncles --- I had seven of them --- decided to shoot out the hanging ornaments on our Christmas tree with the BB gun I’d just been given by my father. I was one of the rare kids in this world who had no interest at all in things like BB guns, and I think that worried my father, which is why he gave me one.

We lived in a two-family house on Ainslie Street, and our living room was below street level with a window that looked out onto a little gated yard set back from a slate sidewalk; we always put the Christmas tree in front of that window so that it showed out festively onto the street. As part of our family’s tradition, we put the children to sleep early and then woke them at midnight to open presents. Whoever thought up this tradition was clearly out of his or her mind since it was nearly impossible for the kids to fall asleep, and when they did, they woke up to find themselves surrounded by adults who had been drinking all night. (Actually, looking back on it, it was usually a lot of fun, though I never even considered adopting the tradition myself once I had my own family.) The Christmas night in question, my father and his brothers were having an especially joyous night with lots of shouting and an occasional fist fight (which was just the natural way of things in a family with eight brothers), and by the time my mother and a cohort of aunts woke up the children, the house was loud with shouting and laughter from the thirty or more aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends crammed into a couple of rooms.

Let’s just say that on that particular Christmas Eve, the gift-giving didn’t go smoothly. I think one of my uncles may have given one of my aunts a gift deemed inappropriate by her husband, something like that --- and let’s just say that the results were…raucous. Things were knocked over. People were carried bodily away. And I, being as I was at the time, an oversensitive ten or eleven year old, found it all at least a little frightening. When I finally got around to opening my BB gun, I remember thinking that I might be able to use it for self-protection; but before I could even get it all unpacked, one of my uncles grabbed it away from me and started shooting out the ornaments on the Christmas tree. And that was when I left the room and slipped out into the quiet of the hallway. I went up to my bedroom, grabbed a blanket from my bed, a flashlight from under the mattress, and then went back out into the dark and cold hallway to snuggle up in quiet corner next to the Harvard Classics, wrapped in my blanket and wielding my flashlight, and read for the first time, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”

At the time I remember thinking, “This is not so bad: a nice quiet place to sit and read.” I had no idea then what a sconce or a flambeaux was --- or what a cask of Amontillado was, for that matter --- but that was of no concern. At that time, I didn’t know what three-quarters of the things I read about in those books were or meant. The point was not so much what I read but the act of reading itself, which was then and is to this day a wonderful escape from the lunacy of this world and into the lunacy of someone else’s world. But in books, as was not the case in my world, then or now, the craziness was ordered and coherent and meaningful --- and even if I didn’t get most of it, I could still sense all those things, and I was drawn to them powerfully. Still am. And that shaped world of a narrative that exists inside a book? That’s among the best gifts this life has to offer, holidays or otherwise.

-- Ed Falco

Join us again later today as Wendy Smith recalls a Christmas tale of how the act of re-gifting can make a present all the more meaningful.