Christmas Stories, Everyman’s Pocket Classics, Diana Tesdel, Editor – Susan’s Newsletter December 2015

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Susan's Thursday Morning Note December 17, 2015
Christmas” by Vladimir Navokov (1925) Miracle moment after death of a small child at Christmas.

Good morning!  Beautiful silence.  Our Christmas angel of dawn has arrived with the gift of a new morning.  A day ahead of us that we have the privilege of entering.  A day to focus our minds.  To plan.  To search for beauty.  To look through the eyes of a child at what we will see.  To think as a child when meeting each other.  To live in the moment.  Regardless of any pain.  To see the beauty.  The beauty everywhere given to all of us.  Angel of dawn.  Welcome to my home this morning. 

This week I reread a note on a father entering his home after the death of his young child.  A beautiful scene in the midst of intense grief.  I hope you will be able to find hope in this writing.  Helping to focus on the eternal perspective on how each of our days fit into eternity’s scheme.  To collect our thoughts and focus on what beauty surrounds us.  How life goes on.  Beauty in life continually given to us. 

This scene comes from Christmas by Vladimir Nabokov (published in 1925).  Here is what I found so beautiful…A father had just arrived home from the funeral of his young boy and entered his home…

After walking back from the village to his manor across the dimming snows, Sleptsov sat down in a corner, on a plush-covered chair which he never remembered using before.  It was the kind of thing that happens after some great calamity.  Not your brother but a chance acquaintance, a vague country neighbor to whom you never paid much attention, with whom in normal times you exchange scarcely a word, is the one who comforts you wisely and gently, and hands you your dropped hat after the funeral service is over, and you are reeling from grief, your teeth chattering, your eyes blind by tears.  The same can be said of inanimate objects.  Any room, even the coziest and the most absurdly small, in the little-used wing of a great country house has an unlived-in corner. And it was such a corner in which Slepsov sat.

It interests me that we are helped most by someone we’d never have dreamed when we are at our lowest.  I loved how he was able to put that into words.  The story became even more intense as the father entered his young son’s bedroom.  His son collected insects, and his pins and alcohol swabs were lying on the desk, along with his latest boxed collection…

In the desk he found a notebook, spreading boards, supplies of black pins, and an English biscuit tin that contained a large exotic cocoon which had cost three rubles.  It was papery to the touch and seemed made of a brown folded leaf.  His son had remembered it during his sickness, regretting that he had left it behind, but consoling himself with the thought that the chrysalid inside was probably dead.  He also found a torn net: a tarlatan bag on a collapsible hoop (and the muslin still smelled of summer and un-hot grass).  Then, bending lower and lower and sobbing with his whole body, he began pulling out one by one the glass-topped drawers of the cabinet.  In the dim lamplight the even files of specimens shone silk-like under the glass.  Here, in this room, on that very desk, his son had spread the wings of his captures.  He would first pin the carefully killed insect in the cork-bottomed groove of the setting board, between the adjustable strips of wood, and fasten down flat with pinned strips of paper the still fresh, soft wings.  They had now dried long ago and been transferred to the cabinet – those spectacular Swallowtails, those dazzling Coppers and Blues, and the various Fritillaries, some mounted in a supine position to display the mother-of-pearl undersides.  His son used to pronounce their Latin names with the moan of triumph or in an arch aside of disdain.  And the moths, the moths, the first Aspen Hawk of five summers ago!

The father then goes back into the main part of his home, sees a Christmas tree being raised and demands it be put away in this terrible time of grief.  Please take it away…repeated Sleptsov, and bent over the case he had brought.  In it he had gathered his son’s belongings – the folding butterfly net, the biscuit tin with the pear-shaped cocoon, the spreading board, the pins in their lacquered box, the blue notebook.  He then begins to read entries of his son’s journal and sobs uncontrollably in the readings.  The final entry states, It’s Christmas tomorrow, and I’m going to die.  Of course.  It’s so simple.  This very night….

He pulled out a handkerchief and dried his eyes, his beard, his cheeks.  Dark streaks remained on the handkerchief.  Death, Sleptsov said softly, as if concluding a long sentence.

The clock ticked.  Frost patterns overlapped on the blue glass of the window.  The open notebook shone radiantly on the table; next to it the light went through the muslin of the butterfly net, and glistened on a corner of the open tin.  Sleptsov pressed his eyes shut, and had a fleeting sensation that earthly life lay before him, totally bared and comprehensible – and ghastly in it sadness, humiliatingly pointless, sterile, devoid of miracles…

And in that instant there was a sudden snap – a thin sound like that of an overstretched rubber band breaking.  Sleptsov opened his eyes.  The cocoon in the biscuit tin had burst at its tip, and a black, wrinkled creature the size of a mouse was crawling up the wall above the table.  It stopped, holding on to the surface with six black furry feet, and started palpitating strangely.    It had emerged from the chrysalid because a man overcome with grief had transferred a tin box to his warm room, and the warmth had penetrated its taut leaf-and-silk envelope; it had awaited this moment so long, had collected its strength so tensely, and now, having broken out, it was slowly and miraculously expanding.  Gradually the wrinkled tissues, the velvety fringes, unfurled; the fan-pleated veins grew firmer as they filled with air.  It became a winged thing imperceptibly, as a maturing face imperceptibly becomes beautiful.  And its wings – still feeble, still moist – kept growing and unfolding, and now they were developed to the limit set for them by God, and there, on the wall, instead of a little lump of life, instead of a dark mouse, was a great Attacus moth like those that fly, birdlike, around lamps in the Indian dusk.  And then those thick black wings, with the glazy eyespot on each and a purplish bloom dusting their hooked foretips, took a full breath under the impulse of tender, ravishing, almost human happiness.

I loved all of that and don’t know what to take out.  Hope.  Beauty in his word.  Miracles constantly coming into our stories.  Time continues to go without our ability to stop the winds…can we make our epitaph on our stone tonight be worth writing on the moments we’ll never get back that are before us today?  Will we be kind, look into other’s eyes, not just thinking of our own situations?  Thank you so much for all of your encouragement & business again this year…if you only knew how much you matter to our store.  We’ll have the coffee brewed, cookies, a smile, a reprieve from your life, and hopefully you’ll leave with a book or thoughts that may change your life.  Susan


Latin for this week:
miraculum – an object of wonder, a miracle
imago – an image or a picture
imaginandi vis res vincit veras – imagination conquers reality
imaginatio – imagination
imaginari – to picture

Works Cited:
Tesdel, Diana Secker, Editor, Christmas Stories, Everyman's Pocket Classics.  New York.  Random House.  2007.