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Ghosts of Christmas Present

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“Hello, Neighbor.”

Howard Tabor has written very little of late. And I have no excuse to offer for my friend’s extended silence. He and I don’t connect as often as we once did, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of productivity on his part. Howard’s series “Ghosts of Christmas Past” comes to mind tonight as I reflect on the value of friendship; most of those “ghosts” are, in fact, based on friends of mine, people who have become part of the Agincourt narrative through no fault of their own.

Some of these “ghosts” are shielded by pseudonym; others are present in their own right. My friend Marilla Thurston Missbach — a name I’d be hard-pressed to invent — was part of my life from about the age of ten or twelve until her death in 1996. Marilla was a contemporary of my mother and a surrogate sister in my teenage years after Marge had disappeared (“with a suitcase of lingerie and loose cash” in the spring of 1953).

After her own divorce, Marilla moved back to Bedford Park with daughter Leah and moved into her mother’s home, just four doors west of my own. I became a regular at #7735 — mowing the yard (calling it a “lawn” would be social climbing); caring for plants and taking in mail when she was away; babysitting for Leah; decorating the tree on Christmas Eve (Leah believed that Santa brought the tree itself, as well as the presents) — and when Dad died, Marilla’s became my second home. She acted as intermediary when I decided to reconnect with Marge (HUGE mistake, by the way, but that’s another story) and eventually she was executrix (she would have liked that title) of Roy’s estate. It would be difficult to overemphasize Marilla’s guidance at that critical stage.

In his poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost says “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” That was #7735. Whether I was alone, with three students during an impromptu field trip, or traveling with Mr Vandervort to a conference, Marilla’s couch, floor or spare room were always available. One of those visits coincided with the “croning ceremony” of Marilla’s friend, an event held at Unity Temple in Oak Park; a New Age celebration that Mr Vandervort was simply not prepared for: smudging with smoldering herbs and an eagle feather; liberal sprinklings of glitter; a roving videographer; a three-piece combo paying Broadway show tunes; and the pièce de résistance: a trapunto quilt with three-dimensional breasts and a vagina. That’s pretty normal for Unitarians.

Two or three times each year, my phone would ring, and after my usual greeting there would be an “Hello, neighbor” at the other end. Every conversation began as though it had ended just a few moments earlier and this was a call-back to add an off-hand tidbit. Those late-night conversations validated the meaning of “family” for me, and her passing in ’96 was a blow like the loss of Clara and Roy. The advantage of a small family, I suppose — whether real or virtual — is the infrequency of having to say goodbye.

That list of Ghosts of Christmas Past is short; probably no more than a dozen. There will be a handful added to the list, but not anytime soon. In the meantime, I’m preoccupied with maintaining the Ghosts of Christmas Present.

“One of the hardest things we will ever have to do, my dear, is to grieve the loss of a person who is still alive.”

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