A Magical Christmas Tale | For the Feast of Saint Nicholas
I never planned on getting married, and I never planned on heading for a divorce. Like the weather, divorce sneaks up on you like the misery of an advancing tornado.
I was a beat reporter for a local newspaper, driving along the rural hills of western Pennsylvania listening to an NPR program on the radio about Ringo Starr.
Ringo is my favorite Beatle because he always seemed to be the ignored one, at the edge of the fame, talent, and pandemonium that surrounded the group. That was me: ignored and filled with misplaced ambitions.
In an interview Ringo spoke about coming up from a working-class neighborhood in Liverpool to wearing a tuxedo at the movie premiere for A Hard Day’s Night. I like how he said he was standing next to George Harrison, smoking a cigar. My idea of success was wearing a tuxedo, smoking a cigar, and standing next to George Harrison.
I was on my way to Green Meadow Farm to interview a beekeeper. The managing editor of the paper thought I would be a perfect reporter for the job, maybe because at the time I had a ponytail and was a vegetarian. Somehow beekeepers get a bad rap. All that talk of honey and the environment makes them sound like orphans of the sixties.
I had a poster of Henry David Thoreau hanging in my cubicle at work. There was Henry wearing a bowtie. His beard looked like my grandfather’s beard and his face looked like the face of a principal ready to give a kid detention for smoking in the bathroom. Under the photograph were Henry’s words: “The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.” I had no idea what that meant. It sounded profound coming from a famous writer. I wanted to be a famous writer and say things that would impress people, and there I was driving a beat-up pickup truck on my way to interview a beekeeper.
So I was driving up and down along these Pennsylvania hills looking for Green Meadow Farm and preparing questions in my head to ask the beekeeper, a Mrs. Grace Davis. She had written a book about bees and was in her late eighties. I had a hard time juggling the map in my hand and keeping the car on the right side of the road. There are people today who don’t even know what a map is.
I knew I had to go a few more miles and make a right at Old Stone Road and was afraid that I’d missed the turn. I was hoping to see the next road on the map when I noticed an old man standing near a crooked mailbox at the end of a driveway. I pulled up to the guy. He looked used up: white beard, red shirt, worn suspenders looped over his shoulder.
I turned my radio off and rolled down the passenger side window.
“Excuse me. Can you tell me where Old Stone Road is? I think I’m lost.”
The old man leaned into the window and said, “Lost? Who you seeing?”
“Mrs. Grace Davis. I’m a reporter. I’m going to interview her about her bees.”
“Nice lady. Makes great cookies. Just keep going a bit farther. Next left, then follow the sunbeams.”
“Sunbeams?” I asked, thinking he must have the same Thoreau poster.
“Just down the road.” The old man stepped back from the car, and as I began to drive away I thought I heard him say, “Good luck, Jim.” How did he know my name? But then I realized that it must have been my own voice hoping to find Old Stone Road.
I turned the radio on again and heard that just before the Beatles were coming to New York for their first concert a reporter asked Ringo, “So what do you think? How do you find America?” And Ringo answered with a straight face, “Turn left at Greenland and keep going.” He didn’t say anything about sunbeams.
Sure enough, the old man was right. Old Stone Road quickly appeared to my left. I turned onto the road and knew the bee farm was less than a mile away. I tossed the map onto the back seat and was about to shut off the radio when I saw to my right a car tilting precariously beside a ditch, and standing in front of the car was a young woman about my age.
NPR was playing, ironically, Ringo singing, Don’t pass me by, don’t make me cry, don’t make me blue. I pulled up behind the lopsided car, turned off the engine to my car, opened the door, and asked the girl, “Are you all right? I saw your car.”
“Oh. Hello. No, I’m fine. I just stopped to look at the view and those sheep.”
I gazed across the field, and sure enough, there were sheep grazing on a deep green pasture in what looked like a painting right out of Norman Rockwell’s studio.
“It looked like you were in trouble.”
“No. I’m okay. I just had to stop and look at that hillside.”
“Your car looked like it was falling into the ditch.”
“I thought I came too close to the shoulder. I’m okay. I better be on my way.”
The woman wore jeans, a flannel shirt, and an illuminating smile. Impulsively I said, “Well, as I see it, would you like to go to a play in New York with me, visit the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, or go out to dinner.”
She looked at me and said, “Yes. But how about we also go to Paris on a magic carpet.”
“That too,” I said.
That is how I met Anna. We exchanged phone numbers, and as I watched her drive away, I tucked her number into my pocket, grabbed my car keys, and drove up to a sign that read Green Meadows Farm—Honey.
Grace Davis gave me a tour of her hives and explained that honey is the only edible substance produced by any insect, that if stored properly, will never spoil, and will build up your immune system.
When I explained to Mrs. Davis that it was thanks to an old man down the road that I was able to find her farm, she said, “He’s one of my best customers. I bake him cookies every Christmas Eve, but he loves my honey. I sometimes think that honey is all he eats. He probably has the strongest immune system that will make him immortal like my honey.”
I wrote my story for the paper about Mrs. Davis and her bees, and the day it ran in the paper, Anna called and said she had bought two tickets to Les Miserables on Broadway. I wanted to see Jersey Boys.
We went to see Les Miserables, and when in the first act Fantine sang I dreamed a dream in times gone by, when hope was high and life worth living, Anna took my hand for the first time. On our second date, when we went to see the Rodin sculptures in Philadelphia, and as we stood in front of Rodin’s most famous work, Anna turned and spontaneously kissed me. On our third date, after wine and sushi, she asked me in the restaurant to marry her. I said yes, and then we ordered dessert. We planned to go to Paris for our honeymoon, but I was too busy at the newspaper, so we just went to New York for two days. I suggested going to a Yankees game. Anna wanted to spend both days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To me, Tommy John’s pitching style was far more beautiful than anything Rembrandt painted.
Anna was ambitious and wanted to paint. I was ambitious and wanted to write. After the New York Times hired me as an investigative reporter, we bought a small house in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, just a short bus ride from New York City. Anna began painting large flowers on wide canvases in the style of Georgia O’Keeffe.
We converted the basement into her studio, and one afternoon, during our third year of marriage, Anna asked me for an opinion on one of her paintings. I said, “It’s okay. It looks a lot like a Georgia O’Keeffe flower.” It was a large, purple iris. I don’t know much about art, and that afternoon I began to discover that I didn’t know much about Anna either. “And too much purple.”
“Do you always have to criticize what I do?” she said, as she leaned over the studio sink to wash a brush. The water gushed from the faucet.
“You asked me if I like it. I said it’s okay.”
At a neighbor’s Christmas Eve cocktail party Anna and I attended, Ida, our host, asked us each to share our greatest joy as she handed out glasses of wine. When it was my turn, I said my greatest joy was writing, and when it was Anna’s turn, she looked at me as her eyes watered and said nothing.
“Let’s go to the piano and sing some Christmas carols,” Ida suggested.
On our way home in the car Anna said, “Let’s try and have a baby.”
I didn’t know much about art, and I didn’t know that Anna thought that having a baby might bring us closer together.
As we entered the house, I helped Anna with her coat, and I began to sing I dreamed a dream in times gone by, when hope was high and life worth living. Anna turned to me and asked, “Jim, do you really know who I am? I mean on the inside?”
I was afraid this was a trick question.
“We’ve been married for three years. You leave the house at six, you come home at six. You squeeze me in between football in the fall and between innings in baseball in the spring. I talk more to my painted flowers than I talk with you. Where are we going?”
I knew my work. I could dig into the depth of a political scandal. I knew the nuance of a quarterback sneak. I knew the value of statistics in baseball, but I did not know who I was.
Marriage to me was just the next step in life, another merit badge to pin on my Boy Scout uniform. I fertilized my own lawn, never missed a day at work, made sure we had plenty of beer and potato chips in the house. I never had an epiphany, or an “ah-ha” moment that knocked me into a new way of seeing and living.
When I first saw Anna by the side of the road I was attracted to her; our dates were fun. We got married. She was pretty. She liked me. I liked her. I wanted to have fun. I didn’t know at the time that she wanted me to pick irises with her. I wanted football. She wanted to talk.
When she asked me where we were going, I thought she meant where we were going on vacation for the summer.
“We are drifting apart, Jim.”
“You read too many books,” I said.
“Books talk to me more than you do.”
“Anna, we talk.”
“Yes, about the need to paint the house, or to buy a new car. I want to talk about us. You never ask me if I am lonely.”
“Lonely? How can you be lonely? You have Ida and her friends. We’re together.”
“No one sees me, Jim.”
“I see you all the time. I see you right now. You’re not invisible.”
“Jim, we need something that will connect us, and it’s not football and my painting.”
That is when we agreed to try for a baby. Anna was hoping I’d see things differently if we had a baby, and then she and I would grow closer.
But when JB was born, to me a baby was a baby and I just kept working, commuting back and forth between the city and our small town, watching football and eating potato chips.