Another Late Christmas by Joseph Skibell

Last week in group therapy, people were complaining about the upcoming holidays. It was the seventh day of Hanukkah – that night, we’d be lighting the menorah for the last night – so I wasn’t sure what they meant. Upcoming holidays?

People often say things like, “Hanukkah is early this year,” when they should be saying, “Wow, Christmas is really, really late!”

Sometimes when I say this to people, they have no idea what I’m talking about.

My mother, were she alive, would have said, “Do you really have to tell the whole world you’re in group therapy?”

If my mother were alive, I’d probably tell her, “It’s just the Algonquin blog, Mom – who’s going to read it anyway?”

Or I might say: “Maybe they’ll think I’m a therapist. Maybe that’s what I was doing in group therapy.”

In any case, I’m thinking about quitting.

Sometimes when I was a kid, Christmas would be really, really late – we would have celebrated Hanukkah at the end of November – and after Christmas break, all the kids in my class would be invited to bring in their favorite present for Show ‘n’ Tell. By that time, you could hardly remember what you’d gotten.

There were kids from only three Jewish families in my elementary school: the Blumrosens (two sons), the Shines (a son and a daughter) and our family (two daughters, two sons). By that time, I’m sure none of the eight of us could remember what we’d gotten.

It used to worry my mother that my father’s cousin was in therapy. My father and his cousin were in business together. We lived in a small city, and I think my mother was worried that she’d meet somebody who already knew everything about her, but mostly negative things.

My father and his cousin weren’t completely happy being in business together. Literally for years, my father’s dinner conversation would start with “Guess what time Mr. Charles came in this morning!”

My father called his cousin “Mr. Charles” because that’s what the employees called him. The employees called my father “Mr. Irvin.” My grandfather and great-uncle were also partners in the business. The employees called them “Mr. Archie” and “Mr. Albert.”

When I was growing up, my grandfather often took me aside and urged me to become a doctor. “If you’re a doctor, then when they drive you out of this country, you can still be a doctor. But everyone else will be digging ditches.”

Sometimes he’d tell me about the many writers who were also doctors. Chekhov, for example.

My grandfather was driven out of his country, so it wasn’t an abstract point.

When, each night at dinner, my father said, “Guess what time Mr. Charles came in this morning,” he called his cousin “Mr. Charles” so we could understand that he was only concerned about how his cousin’s lateness looked to the employees.  “But Mr. Charles says arriving at 9:00 doesn’t jive with his lifestyle,” my father would say.

“Mr. Irvin” thought that, by arriving at 9:00, he was setting an example of a good work ethic for the employees, whereas I imagined “Mr. Charles” thought, since he wasn’t one of the employees, he shouldn’t have to arrive at 9:00.

Deep down, I think my father wished he also didn’t have to arrive at 9:00.

Although my grandfather often urged me to become a doctor, he never mentioned that I could become a psychiatrist. If I’d realized I could have been a psychiatrist, I might have become a doctor.

“You’d never have made it through medical school,” my wife tells me whenever I say this.

“Well, a psychologist then,” I always say to her.

At least then I’d have an excuse for being in group therapy.

Recently, when I was in my hometown as part of my book tour, I stayed with my cousin Charles. He and his wife Sherril are ‘the last of the Mohicans’ there. My mother is gone, my father is gone, my grandparents died years ago, Charles’ father “Mr. Albert” died years ago. Almost all of the cousins have fled to larger cities. Eventually even the family business closed down.

“Don’t you miss it?” I said to Charles. “Don’t you miss when everyone was alive and we were all here and everybody lived in one city?”

“I miss it every day,” he told me.

That’s another reason I don’t understand complaining about the holidays. Every day is a holy day, and every day, they disappear, one by one.

**

Joseph Skibell is the author of three novels, including A Curable Romantic and A Blessing on the Moon. His work has received the prestigious Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, among numerous other awards.  He teaches at Emory University and is the director of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.


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