Raymond’s birthday is in December. I bought him a bottle of Burgundy, and Vicki baked him a loaf of pumpkin bread. “Birthdays,” Raymond began his thank-you note, “were once a time of anticipation, then a time of indifference, and now a time of dread.” “How do you suppose being a December baby affected Raymond?” Vicki asked after reading the note. “If he had been born in a less-confining time of the year, say May or June, when buds and life were opening, do you suppose he would be cheerier?” “No,” I said. “Age affects mood more than season. Ray and I are trudging through the winter of life. Every morning pain, cold, and vitamin pills bigger than dogsleds greet us.”
What I said to Vicki was slightly inaccurate. The pills I swallow resemble inner tubes more than sleds, and wintry birthdays do influence life. Despite Christmas, December is associated more with conclusions than beginnings. December is the month of end papers. Friends mail each other newsy family letters, indices that distill the past year into lines. Most entries are unseasonable and describe blowsy doings of the young. In comparison, deaths merit only perfunctory phrases, this in spite of snow’s wrapping the ground in a white pall. “In an adult, optimism reeks of galloping dementia,” I told Vicki after reading a letter, half of whose words were printed in green, the other half in red. “’Tis the season to be jolly,” Vicki said, adding, “You laughed when you saw the shirt Eliza wore home on the bus from Boston.” Stamped across the top of the shirt, at about shoulder-blade level, was a question: “What’s the only thing Harvard and Yale students have in common?” Lower down, above the small of the back, appeared the answer: “They both got into Yale.”
I smiled when I read the shirt, but I didn’t laugh. Eliza’s tuition was so high that it reduced my capacity for laughter. I did chuckle, however, one morning in the Husky Bean. When four women sitting behind me started listing friends dying from cancer, I shifted body and coffee to another part of the café, joining Bill at a table for two near the front window. “Sam,” Bill said, “Good to see you. Merry Christmas.” “I’ve got something to show you,” he said, reaching into a folder on the table. “Do you get many Christmas letters?” he said, sliding three pages toward me. Cantering across the tops of pages were eight minute reindeer pulling a sleigh loaded with toys and a Santa fat as a bubble. At the bottoms stretched hedges of holly looking like wreaths that had been unwound and pressed. Six family photographs decorated the letter, the people in the pictures jovial and toothy with smiles. “Sam,” Bill continued, “I don’t know these people. For fourteen years a woman has sent me her Christmas letter, and I don’t know who she is. About a decade ago I thought about writing and telling her she was sending letters to the wrong address. But then I got interested in her family.” “What?” I said. “Yes, interested,” Bill continued. “Her grandson entered Bowdoin this fall. Four years ago he almost dropped out of school. The turnaround is stunning. In tenth grade he started running cross-country. Maybe that has something to do with the change.” “Are you sure you don’t know the woman?” I said. “Well,” Bill said pausing and looking thoughtful before continuing. “When I started receiving the letters I didn’t know her. But now we are almost cousins. After learning about her husband’s death four years ago, I sent her my condolences.” “Did she answer you?” I asked. “Of course,” Bill said. “She said she hoped to see me again before too many more years passed. And,” Bill added, shaking his head in disbelief as he spoke, “maybe this summer I’ll pay her a visit, or if not her, her son William. In October he and his family bought a summer place near Brandon, Vermont. He went to Middlebury and had always dreamed of returning to the area.”
Appendices often constitute the bulk of end papers. In them writers store matters that don’t fit into chapters but which like old clothes they cannot toss aside. In December dreams disturb me more than they do during any other month. During the first week in December my father rose from the grave to pay off the debts of a stranger, $36,384. Moreover, he gave away all the valuable possessions in my house. “But that is not the worst I’ve done,” he said, and I woke up. Two days later I woke just as a grizzly bear bit my head off. “His stomach was orange,” I told Vicki after shaking her. That weekend I took the college board examination. At the beginning of the test a section of questions fell out of my packet. When I stood to hand in my answers, I discovered the section on the floor beside my desk. The questions referred to a complicated paragraph analyzing the acidity of soil disturbed by coal mining in Pennsylvania. Since time was running out, and I knew I couldn’t finish the test, I woke up. One morning shortly afterward a little boy slipped out of my closet and grabbed my right leg. Immediately I called the police. They said a squad a car was on the way to my house, explaining that someone else had already telephoned and told them about the boy. I realized the boy had been planted in the closet in order to destroy my reputation. Before the police arrived and charged me with molestation, I woke. In another dream I was a camp counselor in Maine. After trying unsuccessfully for days to learn the names of the campers in Hawks, my cabin, I gave up and left, waking up when I walked through the front gate of the camp.
Other appendices disturbed daylight hours. Sewanee, my old college, sent me a “Financial Planner.” In urging me not to forget my adolescence when I wrote my will, the planner stated: “If you have children, consider not how much your children can receive, but how much they should receive, based on your value system. Would they be better off receiving the lion’s share of your estate or sharing your largess with a charitable institution like Sewanee that will perpetuate your personal values and commitments?” Few people live according to systems, value or otherwise. Life is too broad for the systematic. Most people just live. They cope with daily event, try to be helpful and decent, and hope for the best. Of course people often become dissociated from contemporary doings as they age. Some become rancorous and confused and blame their dissociation on others, the times or more often their children. If you are a Republican and your child insists upon voting Democratic, the Planner seemed to suggest, disinherit. If you raise cattle and your daughter lives on tofu, disinherit. If your child is homosexual, liberal, or marries outside her race or religion, disinherit and donate the money you planned to leave her to your old school, a place forever associated with simple youth, a place “that will perpetuate your personal values,” no matter how tainted they might be.
“You have become rancorous yourself,” Vicki said. “Sewanee isn’t the enemy of family. The Planner was poorly written. Sewanee is wonderful. You’ve said so many times. Come spring, you’ll want to visit the campus.” Spring was distant. At the end of the year, ends, not beginnings, were on my mind. As I and the year faded, email delivered an increasing number of advertisements for untoward invigorators. One day I received nineteen, including a puff for an elk extract, better suited for high-plains, keratinous material and the rutting season than for lowland Connecticut and sleep splintered by dreams.
Like prints in snow, footnotes reveal meanderings. “It is well to go where the writers of books have been,” Charles Abbott wrote in 1900. Compare “your impressions” with those of authors, Abbott urged budding naturalists. “So much the better,” Abbott wrote, if “your impressions” disagree with those of writers. Disagreement and study fostered growth. “No really great man ever blindly followed his teachers, or he could never have become great,” Abbott declared. “Ascribe infallibility to the professor, and you become at best his echo and condemn to slavery what should be free as the air, your own mind.” Abbott addressed youth. Older writers rarely explore new landscapes. The familiar reassures the aging and matters more than growth. Instead of striding into disagreement with others, older writers retrace their own footsteps and echo themselves. In December I wandered a comfortable world I had described before. Canada geese gleaned Horsebarn Hill, amid them two snow geese, blue as ice. One dark afternoon a bunting of silver light wrinkled through a hickory, momentarily wrapping a Carolina wren. The wren fluffed itself into a bell and swung into song. A flock of starlings rose from a pasture then shuddered above the ground like a black veil beaten tempestuous by emotion. From a used book dealer in Columbus, Ohio, I bought a copy of Abbott’s Days out of Doors, published in 1889. The book came with its own footnote, a scrap of paper tracing a wandering almost melted from recollection. “We enjoyed your presentation for Thurber House a few years back,” the owner of Books on High wrote. “Hope you enjoy the book.”
At the end of many books are two or three blank pages—white silences tidying the cadences of print. Vicki and I spent New Year’s Eve alone. Edward was somewhere in Spain. Francis vanished early in the day without leaving a note. After saying that I was “more controlling than Rasputin,” Eliza took the mid-morning bus to Boston to spend New Year’s Eve with Russian friends. Late in the afternoon Vicki and I spent three hours clearing trash from the Nipmuck Trail, the section running through the university forest along the Fenton River from the Gurleyville Road through the Ogushwitz Meadow. “Our personal end papers, all graffiti erased,” I said. We collected hundreds of beer cans and bottles and enough plastic to shrink wrap our house five times. A friend jogged past and seeing me at work said, “You’re a good man, Sam.” A stranger asked what we were doing. I told him, and he said, “That’s really nice.” Then he paused and thought for a moment, before adding, “You must be a socialist.”
After dumping the trash, Vicki and I drove to Video Visions and rented a chase-and-explosion movie. On the way to the store George the dog threw up on the back seat, but once we got home, I tidied the car up quickly. For dinner Vicki stuffed eggs and thawed cooked shrimp. We also munched cheese and bread, the cheeses a Christmas present from Barbara, Vicki’s sister-in-law. We can’t get the cheeses in Storrs, and I don’t know their names. But they all had thick moldy rinds and were good. With the meal we drank a $9.99 bottle of Champagne. “Life can’t much better than this,” I said, sitting on the couch in the television room, drinking Champagne, something blowing up on the screen across the room. We felt so good that after the movie we installed the new telephone Vicki had bought in September. Attached to the phone was an answering machine, something we’d never owned. “This will perk up the New Year,” Vicki said. It hasn’t. Today we got our first message, 1032 hours and 57 minutes after we plugged in the machine. “That was a let-down,” Vicki said after we listened to the recording, white wine in hand to celebrate the occasion. “I would have remembered to take the dogs to have their teeth cleaned. I don’t forget that kind of thing.”
Sam Pickering is a professor of English at the University of Connecticut. The author of fifteen books of essays, he was also the inspiration for the teacher in the film The Dead Poets Society. In spring 2004, the University of Michigan Press will publish two more of his books, one an account of a year he spent in Australia, the other his selected essays. (updated 5/2003)