By Michelle Railey
So it’s the very end of the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story. It’s a feeling, a scene, a wish. I think it might be the meaning of life in less than 30 seconds of film. Ralphie is in bed, cradling his air-rifle. Randy is in his bed, with his yellow security blanket and his zeppelin. But the parents, the parents are sitting downstairs in near-total darkness. You see the father’s back as he looks out the picture window, large soapy snowflakes falling in the sky. The mother clicks on the radio and, so softly, choir music starts to play Christmas carols. She sits down on the arm of the davenport next to the dad and Darren McGavin hands her a glass of wine and she slips her arm across his back. The movie ends with the parents, together, in silhouette, lit by the Christmas tree and the snowflakes, with music barely playing. And you scarcely get a chance to appreciate what you’re feeling before the credits start.
And that’s the moment. That one, right there. In a very foolish and sentimental way, that’s the moment that is, if I’m honest — maybe if you’re honest, too — the moment you find yourself wishing for every single Christmas, every single non-Christmas. Just you and something pleasant, something peaceful, maybe with quiet music and snowflakes and good old-fashioned, fuse-blowing multi-colored C-9 lights. Actually, just you with someone to love who will place their arm around your shoulders. All is calm. All is bright.
The year A Christmas Story was released, my family went to see it at the movies. First release. We trawled off, the four of us, in a lemon-yellow Oldsmobile (Cutlass Supreme?). My sister Heather and I were in the back in our matching winter coats from Sears (Heather in burgundy, I in cream; puffed sleeves with pink insets at the shoulders. They were warm coats, nice coats, completely at odds with our detested but essential moon boots, which were warm but less visually appealing, appropriate for three things: avoiding hypothermia, tripping gracelessly, and kicking up the carpet on the backseat floor of the yellow Oldsmobile when your mean parents don’t buy you Crystal Barbie upon immediate demand). My dad wore a puffer vest in khaki over a plaid flannel shirt. My mom wore nubby mittens in a vaguely rusty color and these mittens obscured the fact that my mom was wearing the most elegant, thin-strapped gold watch with an ethereal, nearly invisibly fine chain and that my mom has the most beautiful wrists — it occurs to me I spent a not inconsiderable time as a kid watching my mom’s wrists while she was driving. The watch caught my attention but my mom held it. My mom had and has a grace she doesn’t realize. I loved looking at her. I still do.
And so, we went to the movies, something we didn’t do all the time. It was Colorado Springs in 1983 and it was December and our little family went to the movies and watched A Christmas Story. We laughed at all the funny parts and left, a happy, contented band of four. We walked briefly through the mall and, so chipper was our parents’ moods, they let the Hickory Farms salespeople con us into a bag of potato-ham-cheddar soup mix and a stick of summer sausage with assorted cheeses. Deciding this would be our dinner, our family left the mall, sliding down the escalator at the Sears and back out to the Oldsmobile. We drove to a Safeway, where my mom dashed in to buy crackers to complete our Hickory Farm feast for dinner. My sister and I waited with Dad in the car. “American Pie” played on the radio and my Dad sang along, drumming his thumbs on the steering wheel. He talked about hearing this song when he was a kid.
And life couldn’t have been more perfect. Even with the moon boots.
It was the perfect day and the perfect movie. We have watched that movie together countless times. And I watch it every year in a dedicated fashion, even when I’m alone. I don’t play the movie on its cable loop as background noise. I sit down, put the phone aside, and I watch it. And my parents and my sister are always there beside me, sometimes with the Oldsmobile, sometimes with Crystal Barbie, sometimes with the ivory Sears coat. Never with the moon boots.
Even as a kid, I would have told you, if I could have expressed it, that it was that moment at the end of the movie that I loved best. That, on every Christmas of my life to that point and forever more, it was the quiet moments when there was something magical and possible and yet somehow also completed and perfect and definitely doomed to always be too brief, that those were the moments that would and are and will always be the ones to cherish and to hope for, to dream of, to be so lucky as to have.
Some Christmas Eves I am able to manage a moment like that: the dim lights, the snow, the quiet majesty and nearly unbearable poignancy of carols playing softly in a nearly timeless sort of way; to feel both deep contentment and the perfection of the moment and its brief fragility.
I am selfish: those moments are never frequent enough; they are notoriously unstable, popping like bubbles if you breathe too hard. They never last long enough. But they are the moments that, to me, the whole frenzied month of December is leading up to. They are the moments that the rest of the crazy year, in its varied and seasonal, occasional flashes of brilliance attempts to match. They are the moments that life is, somehow, for.
Or so it seems.
At any rate, this season, like every other, it’s that final moment of that movie that I will seek in every corner of the holidays. It’s that final moment that I will wish for everyone I love. It’s that moment that can be experienced but never really had — it’s the best memory and the best goal, even if it is just the last couple frames of a movie.
And being in a yellow Oldsmobile with my family in 1983, not that it will be interesting to you, Dear Reader, is a really, really close second. All is calm. All is bright.