Do You Hear What We Hear?

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone


It’s the sounds of the season. Yes, above the bickering and braying of politicians and pundits, it’s the soft, sweet sounds that reside inside our mind’s ear, gently yet insistently calling us home for the holidays.

Sights, smells and tastes can all magically summon memories of people and places, moments and moods.

But the ear stores memories as well, memories summoned to life during this festive season by songs, both sacred and secular. By the steady crackle and startling pop of an awakening wood fire. By the crunch of late autumn’s laggard leaves underfoot. And by the amalgam of animated voices, rising and falling, as family and friends bustle breathlessly from the chilled darkness into the warm light of a holiday home.

During this season, magical memories can also emerge in quiet places. In the blessed silence of midnight’s approach, foggy breath filling the night air, sparkling stars filling the night sky. In a dark family room, the showy holiday tree now a shadowy prop, the lively wood fire now a skeleton of scattered embers, dying on the hearth, as sleepy revelers, exhausted, nod off in the warm darkness, the day’s, and year’s, work nearly done.

As the close of 2013 approaches, we at    Cooperative Living wish for you and your family the very best holidays ever, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, and herewith offer our annual gift: a selection of some of our favorite passages from much-loved works of the season.

Late November brings an end to full-fledged Autumn. The lasting warmth, the balmy days, the hazy in-between time, seldom endure much beyond Thanksgiving … The season changes so slowly that I must pause and listen to hear the silence. Autumn creeps away in sandals woven of milkweed floss; Winter makes no noise until it owns the land.

— Hal Borland, This Hill, This Valley, 1957.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable — not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate, too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”   

— Truman Capote, “A Christmas Memory,” from Selected Writings of Truman Capote, 1956.                                            

The bobsled would move off, creaking over the frost-brittle snow ... As the horses settled into a steady trot, the bells gently chiming in their rhythmical beat, we would fall half asleep, the hiss of the runners comforting. As we looked up at the night sky through half-closed eyelids, the constant bounce and swerve of the runners would seem to shake the little stars as if they would fall into our laps.                                                             

— Paul Engle, “An Iowa Christmas,” from Prairie Christmas, 1960. 

Christmas began when pecans started falling. The early November rains loosened the nuts from their outer shells and sent them plopping like machine gun bullets on the roof of the veranda … And so you lay there, listening to the drip drip of rain and plop plop of nuts, feeling something good is going to happen, something good and it won’t be long now.

— Lillian Smith, “Tree-Shaking Day,” from Memory of a Large Christmas, 1961-’62.

To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year. There was a little device we noticed in one of the sporting-goods stores — a trumpet that hunters hold to their ears so that they can hear the distant music of the hounds. Something of the sort is needed now to hear the incredibly distant sound of Christmas in these times, through the dark, material woods that surround it.

 — E. B. White, “The Distant Music of the Hounds,” from The Second Tree From the Corner, 1949.



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