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Local view: Remembering what others no longer can

Over the top of my newspaper, I glance at Marianne across the room, seated at the kitchen table. She removes tissue paper from one of the figurines of her Christmas crèche. Twenty of the tiny statues are wrapped and stored in a shoe box, including Mary, Joseph, and, of course, the baby ensconced in the cradle.

All are old and some chipped. One of the three kings went missing years ago, likely when Marianne was a child and the crèche belonged to her mother Ruth. Several shepherds are cast in kneeling and standing poses, and the rest are the animals: a cow, a donkey, four sheep, a camel, and a too-tall angel, likely an after-market purchase for the collection.

A compatibly sized golden retriever also was added when our children still lived with us, when they could not imagine a stable or a farm without a dog.

One December in that same era, I made the pragmatic and immediately regrettable suggestion that we donate the crumbling crèche. Marianne's parents had died, and I astutely and thoughtlessly proclaimed that saving such old things only reminded us of what was lost.

Today, I am old and keep quiet. Or else know better.

Marianne seems to examine half a dozen of the unwrapped figures. She raises one, a shepherd, slightly above her head to see something in the light. A crack in the plaster, perhaps. Or faded, indecipherable lettering. She does not know I am watching, and she draws her hand to her face, pausing to breathe in its scent. Her eyes close.

And I feel a pang of jealousy for what it may evoke: her many other loves when she was a girl, as she lay on her stomach under the tree, Christmas party shoes crossed behind her, playing with the same figurines.

A child's world of dreams and possibilities. A life before me. The principals in her world then were her mother; her six siblings; her neighborhood classmates; and her father Tom, a theater actor with a New York accent who delighted in her over the other six children. A secret, of course, which he confided when I first met him when I was 19 — too dumb, too immature and too intimidated to read between the lines.

It was one of those blindingly bright winter days after a weather front had come through, when plain cold air can scald the skin over your cheekbones. His right hand in a cast, he asked if I would split three maple logs for the fireplace. He handed me his ax with its new ash handle, and I bounded down the steps and into the yard without a coat.

The first log would not snap in two the way I'd seen it done so easily. I turned to see him watching through the window. I windmilled the ax high over my head, swinging with all my strength, the dull thud rending nothing, except something deep in my shoulder. I kept swinging wildly, missing the mark and splintering the handle where it connected to the ax head. Eventually, two of the logs were as split as was the web of skin between my thumb and forefinger.

Even after many years had passed, Marianne's father never mentioned the ax handle I splintered and ruined that day. Just one of a hundred kindnesses I wish I had acknowledged before his sudden death.

I put my newspaper down, thinking to inspect one of the figurines myself, but Marianne has unboxed and moved them all to the place of honor in the living room. I look at her with expectancy, to forge a new knowing between us. But she attends to the crèche, positioning the figures with hesitancy, a certain longing.

And it is at that moment when I understand that the greatest loneliness is remembering what others no longer can. A thousand scenes of former loved ones milling and touching, in bright, familiar rooms; smiles, musical laughter; a treasure chest of memories locked away, voices fading.

On Christmas Day, please tell someone. More importantly, listen. Spouse, grandmother, uncle, that elderly neighbor. Help them open up the chest. To swim in ancient joys. To keep secrets alive with your giving and imagination.

This day I tell Marianne about me and her father. How I walked, freezing, with an armful of wood, and how, with his good hand, he held the door open at the top of the stairs. How I pointed to my snowy shoes that needed first to be cleaned so I could disappear through the basement door with the broken ax.

David McGrath

David McGrath is an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page, and the author of "The Territory." Contact him at profmcgrath2004@yahoo.com.

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