Sunday, December 16, 2007

the lost ritual

She would say that there had always been a voyeuristic element to her personality--and she had confessed on countless occasions to close friends that she often felt like a ghost haunting even her own skin--displaced, oddly unhinged and out of time, wandering through life as if she were looking at photographs musing on the present as if it were instead the past.

It is early and cold, and she is irritated because she forgot to buy coffee and so she must perform the ritual recollection of the particles of herself without the binding power of caffeine. It puts things right again, things that have shifted out of place during the night, pieces of herself moving just so slightly that the machinery cannot function, or worse, pieces that have drifted so far she must call them back patiently. She sometimes performs this ritual in bed, but today she does it with a cup of tea, watching the morning sun cleave the cold from the skinlike fronds of an agave across the street.

Today they will procure the Christmas tree. This is a quasi-ritual fashioned over the years for her three children intended to replace the Lost Rituals of her childhood, which they cannot know about but she is sure they suffer anyway for the loss. The quasi, replacement ritual feels unutterably lame to her, a vague and insincere gesture toward Holiday, but it is as close as she can come to the Lost Rituals.

The Lost Rituals exist in a space-time vault accessible to anyone who participated in them, and are additionally supported by photo-documentation lest any of the details grow blurred or risk being forgotten. Most of this documentation was performed by her grandfather, who was socially inept, and an in-law privy by marriage to the rituals so he was never a bona fide participant. He used the camera and a highball as a foil.

The Lost Rituals were led, and performed for numerous, happy years, by her great-grandparents. They were working class who had made it to the middle class, and they owned a large house comfortably furnished with overstuffed sofas and Victorian era relics all organized upon a vast sea of white carpet. The formal living and dining rooms were where the ritual was celebrated. There was always an enormous flocked tree. It was hand-flocked by a local nursery and delivered in a giant plastic bag. The ornaments were never eclectic--simply iridescent glass balls and fake birds, and multi-colored lights.

Those who participated in the rituals wore their finest clothes. One year, when she was five, she recalls a nondescript dress with red polka-dot stockings. She can still vividly recall those stockings, and the joy they filled her with as she looked down upon her dancing legs. Others wore fur, or silk--for all day the great -grandparents had been engaged in the preparations--baking brisket and pie, making jelly and jell-o salad, rolling out biscuits and mashing potatoes. Then there was the eating and revelry, the present opening, and singing, and the laughter that had been looked forward to by all for the entirety of the long year.

At the time of the red polka-dot stockings, her family lived on a farm in the country, about an hour from the town where the grandparents lived. Her mother had grown up with the ritual, and would never have conceived of missing it, or worse, replacing it with another family’s ritual. On Christmas Eve they piled into the Buick with all their finery and drove the deserted farm roads the hour or so to the grandparents' and reveled happily until Midnight, when the grandparents informed everyone that Santa Claus would pass the houses by if the children were not asleep in their beds, so the the parents would bundle up the little ones--it was most often snowing--into the night and ferry them homeward.

Her mother and father always seemed happy during the ritual, but on the way home they began to shake off a studied composure to be replaced with bridling resentment. He has had too much to drink, the mother bristles at the father. The children in the back seat are not listening to the fighting, nor are they noticing the slight weaving along the curving canyon roads in the snow. They are scouring the black, star-filled night sky for signs of Rudloph the red-nosed reindeer.

This memory has turned sour in her stomach as she sits by the window with her tea watching the sun dismiss the frost. She picks over the seeds of her life, and wants to reject them all, paling as they do in comparison to the perfect seed of the Lost Rituals. There came a time when the grandparents grew too frail to host the ritual. One by one the children attempted to recreate the magic, but none were able. Each in turn failed to produce anything that could have bound the disparate members together for even a single evening. There were many noble attempts. She looks back over her life and marks this loss as the end of uncontrived happiness.

And she thinks again of the snow, the long ride home on Christmas Eve and the three children huddled in the back seat, unaware of anything but the magic of Chrismas: What if?

What if he had, while the mother nagged in the seat next to him, and the stars bore down brightly upon him, and the thought of the falling price of cotton that year and the incessant desires for things he struggled to provide, and he did, after all, have quite a lot to drink-- and the sheet of ice was glassy and beautiful and reflected the night, and when the wheels hit it, the Buick went spinning off into the snow with great speed, tumbling over and over, almost with a whisper in the forlorn fields of snow, to rest, at last, in the silence of the frosted winter grass. Not a movement, not a breath.

There is a shear force of will that turns the cantankerous wheels of fate in unseen directions. There was so much will that night, maybe only the children in their joy was enough to muster a mighty cry against the Great Inhuman Will, and they rose up in their joy with a resounding NO! Time, like a mighty steam engine that slams on the breaks to avoid hitting a cow on the tracks, issued forth a terrible sound of immense friction. The world shuddered. The animals pricked their ears. And the mother nagged, and the father turned on the radio. O, Holy Night was playing, and he took her hand.

They made it home safely, a little addled, though they knew not why. As the parents carried the last warm, slumbering body to bed, they felt as if somehow their lives have been irrevocably altered. The children dreamed of ice and silence. And this would never change. That night will always be the last night. The Lost Ritual will always be the last true thing they ever knew. And they will walk through life, and live, almost as everyone lives, but there will be a feeling, a vague, uneasy feeling, of being a ghost, haunting even their own skins.