David and Kathy, my brother and sister-in-law, are in Houston, where they’ll be spending Christmas with my niece and her husband. David mentioned to me the other day that this will be his first Christmas away from home. That says something–quite a lot, really–about the place where I come from and the family into which I was born. Even after I grew up and moved away, I made every possible effort to return to Smalltown at Christmastime, and more often than not I succeeded. I doubt I’ve been anywhere else more than a half-dozen times in my life.
Not so this year. As I recently mentioned, I’m spending the holidays in Connecticut with Mrs. T and her family. We marked the occasion last week by putting up a Christmas tree, our first in six years.
Buying the tree was easy enough. There’s no shortage of places to pick up a Christmas tree in a small country town. Trimming it proved to be another matter. Life, as it has a way of doing around this time of year, got complicated. I was so busy knocking out columns for The Wall Street Journal and working on my Duke Ellington biography that I couldn’t think about anything else. Day after day went by without our finding time to festoon our little tree with tinsel, ornaments, and twinkling lights. Then Mrs. T got into the act.
I drove down to Yale last Tuesday to spend the day sifting through five boxes of Ellington-related oral-history transcripts. I was so tired by the time I got back home that I wasn’t good for much else beyond dinner and an unchallenging movie, after which I fell into bed and sank into a deep, dreamless sleep. The next morning I got up, went into the living room, and saw that Mrs. T had trimmed the tree while I slept.
I thought of one of my favorite moments in Satchmo at the Waldorf, the scene in which Louis Armstrong tells the audience about his first Christmas tree. I put the words in Armstrong’s mouth, but it’s a true story:
We get married, Lucille goes out on the road with me and it’s Christmas. Come back to the hotel after the show and there’s a little tree right there in the room, all lit up like nothing you ever seen before. She done trimmed it and put on the lights for old Pops! Now I ain’t never had no Christmas tree before. We couldn’t afford nothing like that back in New Orleans. Then I go out in the world, hit the road, nobody ever thought to put up no tree for me in no hotel room–not until Lucille. I come in, see that tree in the corner, and she say, “Merry Christmas, Louis!” And you know what? I wouldn’t let her turn it off. Lay in bed all night looking at them pretty lights winking and blinking, and I say to myself, “Satch, you done lucked out. Better do what you gotta do to hang onto that gal. You ain’t gonna do no better long as you live.”
All at once I heard in my mind’s ear the cheering sound of Satchmo rasping his way through “Winter Wonderland,” a song that my mother sang to me every night when I was a child. It was a decidedly idiosyncratic choice of lullaby, especially in the summertime, but I loved the song so much that I insisted. She was, as always, happy to oblige.
I dreamed the other night that I was calling my mother from a taxi en route to Broadway, the way I used to do whenever I went there to see a play. I assured her that I’d be home for Christmas in a few days, going on to say that I intended to make an extra-special effort to visit her more often in the year to come. Then I woke up.
Needless to say, I won’t be seeing her for Christmas save in my dreams, but I will be home–home with Mrs. T, gazing with delight at the tree that she trimmed for us. Home is where my spouse is, be it in New York or Connecticut or parts unknown, and I don’t need anyone to tell me that I’m not going to do any better as long as I live. Like Pops, I lucked out.
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Louis Armstrong sings “Winter Wonderland” in 1952, accompanied by a studio orchestra led by Gordon Jenkins: