Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wishful and Thinking

Looking towards Radio CIty Music Hall from 49th and Sixth. 10:00 PM. Photo: JH.
12/24. Yesterday was grey with occasional but fading sunshine and temperatures in the low 30s and high 20s. The weatherman reports big storm systems moving into the Northeast although it looks like New York City will get rain. Just north of us in Litchfield County, Connecticut they’ve got more than a foot of the white stuff and it’s staying.

Yesterday in New York a banker and hedge fund investor Rene-Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet, 65, committed suicide in his Madison Avenue office by slitting his wrists and taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

Mr. de La Villehuchet’s fund was a major loser in the Madoff swindle. He was from an historic French family (the Magons) and his fund was associated with several high profile European names such as Philippe Junot, the first husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco, and Prince Michel of Yugoslavia, the twin brother of Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia. According to associates, Mr. de La Villehuchet was at odds over how to right his clients’ enormous losses. It was learned last night that among the man's clients was Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L'Oreal fragrance empire and the richest woman in the world with a fortune estimated at $22.9 billion. Mr. de La Villehuchet's Access funds with $1.4 billion were invested solely with Madoff.

The questions now remain: was the man’s suicide an act of despair and distress at his failure to avert those losses, or was he somehow implicated in what may be the greatest swindle in the history of the world? The matter of suspicion with many of the players will be a long time in unraveling and the list of suspects of “who knew” and “how much” they knew will not be short.

Meanwhile we have arrived at two of the most exciting days of the year for the little ones and for many of us who are not little ones but retain those joys at heart.

When I was growing up in that little town in Massachusetts, December began eagerly for me with the first Christmas trees in the neighbors’ houses and the evergreen boughs decorated with pine cones and red ribbon on the front doors. Many set up their trees near a front window for all to see while passing by. For the child, all trees were subjects of magical notions.

One of the first to go up in my neighborhood was that of the Walls who lived across the street. Their lights were all a soft lavendar blue. Soon thereafter, up and down the street, the multi-colored lighted trees appeared before living room windows. Except for the two Jewish families who did not have Christmas trees, we were the last family to put up ours.

The lateness of our putting up the tree always dismayed and worried this kid for a couple of reasons. Because of my father’s habitual lack of funds (because he was a compulsive gambler although I was not aware of it at the time)(but my mother was), and because I feared at such a late date that all trees would be sold by Christmas Eve, there was always the possibility we might not have a tree at all.

There was one particular Christmas when I was about eight or ten when it was seven-thirty at night before I cajoled and pestered my father into acting on it. On this cold and snowy Christmas Eve, it turned out that he had not a dime in his pocket. And so, after another one of their relentless altercations (known as “fights”), my mother finally broke down – probably because of the kid – and pulled a couple of bucks from her purse. He and I finally went out and found a beauty for just that price.

Except for my father’s begrudging willingness to put together the metal stand and set up the tree in the living room, the kid pretty much decorated the entire tree with the Christmas balls, the strings of colored lights and the tinsel. Once finished, I’d turn off all the lights in the living room as well as the dining room and hallway so that the place was dark except for the glow and sparkle from the Christmas tree. That’s when I knew the holiday would be all right.

In those early days of this life,
I of course believed I was the only child who had to worry about whether or not there would be a Christmas tree in our living room on Christmas morning. Children often have no way of knowing they’re not the only ones living with adults in despair and distress. In retrospect, I can see now that the matter of having a tree was never in doubt: my mother, with the active support of my sisters, particularly my eldest sister who had a family of her own by then, would always see to it. My father? I’m not so sure.

I was too young, of course, to recognize or appreciate the enormous effort those women made for me and my niece and nephews. As it is in a lot of households, I have since learned, the men of the family were often the grinches, to put it kindly; sullen-faced, short-tempered and generally unenthusiastic about the joys so obvious to the children. Their “dark moods” were a burden to bear for the duration of the holiday, and I vowed at a very young age that when I grew up, I would always have a Merry Christmas.

I have succeeded in life with that vow although of course by the time I reached adulthood, my child-like enthusiasm had cooled, and getting the tree or getting the gaily wrapped presents lost much of the excitement it had for the kid. Nevertheless, it’s always been a good time, a good Eve and a good day in my house for this grown up kid.

So it is a time when I think about those kids out there, the ones, of which there are many, who are growing up in circumstances similar to mine, or much more burdened with fear and deprivation threatening domestic turbulence. A lot of us are not skillful at growing up and evoking that joy for our children, let alone for ourselves. A lot of us have a hard time and can be menacing to those who are dependent and innocent. The little ones pay for this and the price is often prohibitive and punitive: sadness and pain, much of which can linger down through a lifetime.

This year has been particularly difficult for many of us.
Many of us are surrounded by tragic elements lurking. Children are well aware of the stress of the grownups in difficult times, even if they can’t articulate it. They are also aware of their own lack of power to alter the harshest circumstances of the grown-ups. We must do it for them.

The little ones naturally see fresh joy in the lights of those Christmas trees bedecked by the sheer beauty of the tinsel and the candy canes. We older ones can see it too, if we want to, simply by opening our eyes, and taking a good look. It can be an easy resolution to achieve, just by trying. The day can be Merry and Bright -- even if for that one brief shining moment when we turn down the house lights and bask in the glow of the colored ones dancing in the branches of the evergreen.
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