I wanted to share one of my old Christmas essays tonight. It's about Bing Crosby and my dad. And the power of memory.
Saint Marty wishes you all a Merry Christmas Eve eve.
Just Like the Ones I Used to Know
by: Martin Achatz
1. Remembrance in the Bible
I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times.
I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search. –Psalm 77: 5-6 (KJV)
2. A Confession
I listen to Christmas music all year long. In the middle of August, when dusk sneaks in around ten o’clock at night. In May, when the world is all lilac and “Pomp and Circumstance.” In October, when pumpkin and zucchini appear on doorsteps. In the dead of winter, when the moon gilds snow with silver light. I listen to Nat King Cole crooning about chestnuts. To Judy Garland hanging a shining star. To Bing Crosby dreaming of ones he used to know.
3 3. Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby
Harry Crosby was born in 1903, twenty-four years before my dad. He was old enough to be my dad’s dad. Yet, for some reason, I’ve always thought of them as contemporaries. I imagine them playing stickball just off Gratiot Avenue in Detroit on one of those July days when every breath tastes like gasoline and asphalt, my dad calling to him, “Knock it into next week, Bing-o!” Or sitting at the Woolworth’s lunch counter together, watching a pretty, red-headed waitress shovel French fries onto plates.
Harry and my dad shared the same triangular features. High foreheads. Hawkish noses. Wedge chins. Harry’s face was softer, kinder. My dad’s is more severe. Yet, they could have been brothers. Of course, Harry Crosby grew up in Spokane, Washington, at the turn of the twentieth century, and when Harry’s recording of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” became an anthem on Armed Forces Radio for homesick troops during World War II, my dad was a fifteen-year-old kid in Michigan, shoveling snow instead of singing about it.
4 4. A Definition from Merriam-Webster
Nostalgia: pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.
5 5. Pleasure
Smell and taste are strong memory triggers. Marcel Proust, in Remembrance of Things Past, describes eating a madeleine with tea:
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin…
6 6. More Pleasure
For me, it’s baked ham. When I smell or taste it, the brine of its meat and ginger of its skin, I experience that same detachment Proust describes, like I’m dangling at the end of some ribbon of time. Stuck between now and then. It’s December 24, and I’m in bed, my mother’s Christmas ham in the oven, filling the house with clove and Vernors and heat. It’s December 25, and my father is spreading thick mustard on homemade bread, adding warm ham, making a sandwich. My brothers and sisters drink Faygo cream soda. Rosemary Clooney sings in the background.
7 7. Sadness
In 1928, about ten years before he wrote “White Christmas,” Irving Berlin lost his three-week-old son, Irving Jr., on Christmas day. Berlin never got over his death. Every year, on Christmas, he and his wife went to the cemetery, stood by their son’s grave, thought of all the might-have-beens: days at the beach, school programs and dances, birthdays, graduations, partings and reunions.
8 8. More Sadness
This Christmas will be the first since the death of my brother, Kevin. In May, I sat in the funeral home, watched my parents mourn. They looked like Russian immigrants, newly arrived on Ellis Island, not understanding the process of admission. They sat. Listened. Nodded. Got their papers stamped. Passed through the gates. New citizens. Just yesterday, I caught my father staring at my brother’s picture on the wall. My dad looked tired, poor, wretched, tempest-tost.
9 9. Arizona or New York or Beverly Hills
Nobody knows where or when “White Christmas” came into being. Irving Berlin’s daughter, Linda Emmet, once said, “I believe it was written in either 1938 or ’39, possibly in Arizona, possibly in New York or perhaps in both places.” Jody Rosen, author of a book about “White Christmas,” said, “Possibly over Christmas in 1937 when he was separated from his family for the first time in Beverly Hills…” When Bing Crosby originally recorded it, he turned to Berlin and simply said, “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.”
“White Christmas” is a song without a home, written through loneliness and longing for something temporal, like a snowflake on your tongue.
1 10. A Little More Pleasure and Sadness
For my wife, it’s pumpkin puff pancakes and eggnog. The cakes were thick, orange, seeped in butter and maple syrup. The nog, sweet, golden, freckled with cinnamon or nutmeg. My wife’s mother started the tradition, everyone sitting around the breakfast nook, tired, eating, drinking. Roy Orbison on the record player, singing about pretty papers, pretty pencils, ribbons of blue. My wife’s mother has been gone twenty years now. But, on Christmas day or the day after or the day after that, my wife will sometimes make pumpkin puff pancakes, and we’ll sit and eat and talk about her mother’s laugh. The waterfall of it. How it would leave her breathless and weak.
1 11. An Abridged List
Bing Crosby didn’t take much credit for the success of “White Christmas.” He said, “A jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully.” It has been recorded over 500 times. Some of the other jackdaws who sang it include:
- Elvis Presley (Irving Berlin thought Presley’s rendition was a sacrilege)
- The Drifters
- Ernest Tubb, backed up by The Troubadettes
- Ella Fitzgerald
- Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
- Bob Marley
- The Beach Boys
- Barbra Streisand
- The Partridge Family
- Slim Whitman (sans yodel)
- New Kids on the Block
- Neil Diamond (a rocking do-wop version)
- Crash Test Dummies (a Halloweeny bossa-nova arrangement that frightens my six-year-old son)
- The Moody Blues
- Twisted Sister (heavy metal with a screaming guitar solo)
- Rascal Flatts
- Andrea Bocelli (his recording hit the Portuguese and Hungarian Singles Charts)
- Boy George (think funky, dance-club Irving Berlin)
- Cee Lo Green
- Keith Urban
- Iggy Pop
1 12. In the Field for Soldiers
Bing Crosby still holds the Guinness record for the biggest-selling single ever. Fifty million copies of “White Christmas” worldwide. Bing once tried to explain the song’s popularity: “I sang it many times in Europe in the field for soldiers, and they’d holler for it. They’d demand it. When I’d sing it, they’d all cry.”
1 13. A Dream
There are bombs exploding. Mortar shells whistling. I can hear gunfire in the distance. I’m four or five, wearing an army uniform, and I’m surrounded by other GIs. They all look weary, wounded. My brothers and sisters are among them. A rocket sails overhead, and we duck, cover our ears. My brother, Kevin, is in the mud beside me. He smiles at me. Then, somehow, the battle sounds fade. Quiet descends. And in the quiet, a music box plays, like wind chimes on a clear December morning. My dad stands up in front of us. Or is it Bing Crosby? I can’t tell. He sings in a deep baritone. “I’m dreaming…” Kevin is listening. I’m listening. My other siblings are listening. The war is gone. We’re all together, thinking of baked ham. Homemade bread. Cream soda. Deep. White. Christmas.
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