Friday, September 21, 2018

Ghosts of Christmas Past: You Can't Go Home Again

by Sylvia Smith (writer), Atwater, CA, December 18, 2011

Pray a prayer of thanks today, for the long and winding road that is right now taking you to who knows where. You can't go back. The road to back was washed away a long time ago.

Funny how, as much as things change, they ultimately remain the same.

The holidays conjure fever dreams of holidays past, stirring reminders of how we became who we are right now.

One day last week, lost in a really nice bottle of Chardonnay, I contemplated out loud with friends how, from the very first days of my youth, the handprints of my earliest decisions have continued to remain visible on all of my decisions to this very day - all of the good, and all of the bad.

Do we ever escape which way we decided to turn when we stood on our very first corner? Consider this, before you start running your maze today: no turn is ever fully undone, no matter how hard we try to go back. Even if we only turn left, or right, forever, Thomas Wolfe is still right: you can't go home again.

This does not stop us from trying. The steps we take daily are painfully predictable. The ground beneath us changes relentlessly, uncompromisingly, even if we stand still and nothing else changes except the passage of time - yet still we strive to reconstruct the womb, that place of rest we huddled in before we knew the world would force us to dance for our lives.

Fact is, we just can't go back there, because the there that was there is not there any more.

Embrace the wave. It will drop you. You will fall in the trough. You will learn to swim on the fly. You will not drown. You haven't so far - have you? If you had, you would not be reading this.

Pray a prayer of thanks today, for the long and winding road that is right now taking you to who knows where. You can't go back. The road to back was washed away a long time ago. You really don't want to go there anyway.

You know me by now, so you know what I am telling you. I am telling you now to let Jesus choreograph your dance, instead of predictably turning the same corner day after day after day. He can see the stage you're dancing on a whole lot better than you can. After all, He built it. So let Him have His way. Trust, and be thankful.

Here is the Christmas chapter of my unpublished novel Corners for you below. I wrote this not too long ago, but I'm a whole lot older now than I was when I wrote it. I can't go back even that far, let alone to who I was when I lived it.

Merry Christmas, my friend. Let go, and rejoice.

Shattuck and University

“An eye is blind in another man’s corner.” – Irish Proverb


The year I dropped out of Berkeley, Graham and I found a third floor Victorian apartment on Hyde Street, just three blocks down from the corner of Union Street on Russian Hill. Graham was now a college dropout too, a corporate jock working for the man full time at the gas and electric company.

Our apartment had become Bob’s crash pad of choice rather than his family home in Moraga, the pressure from the aging mistress he had been maintaining across the street having become too great. Her 19-year-old, Stacy, had finally discovered the affair - she had found a desperate letter her mother was in the midst of writing to her barely legal lover, bemoaning the fact that they could spend so little time together as a result of Bob being busy with work and school. Stacy descended into a drastic state of depression, exacerbated by the funk she had already been in as a result of having aborted a child she had herself conceived with Bob the previous spring, without having told him.

Barb and the Ethiopian boy, Yonas, were an item now. As it turned out, Roger’s trip to prison had been the greatest gift she had ever received, since she would never have chosen to walk away from him on her own. On her own, she had ignored voices both silent and audible, allowing the present warmth of Roger’s eyes to muffle them. Still, she had been rescued, in spite of herself. Since thinking of Roger now caused her to feel a stabbing pain dead in the notch of her throat, the place where things get stuck for a moment if you are choking, she thought of him rarely, and this caused her some guilt, but not a great deal.

And so it was I began my second year at Cal in fall of 1973 already set apart, having taken a year away to heal. And I was tied with tighter knots than before to home and to Graham, separate from the maelstrom of the counterculture. Graham was now a born-again corporate lifer at 20, never to make another steel drum as long as he lived.


Seemingly by magic, Bob had become natively fluent in both Spanish and Italian after a year of immersing himself in a Romance Languages major, during my year away. He now strived for only one goal as our 1973 year began: to be European. He had a plan to become first a vagabond on the Continent, and then to find simple employment there, living on little, slipping quietly out of the American cataclysm and into the deep mysterious green pool of the beckoning unfamiliar.

The two of us had signed up together for the whole tour: French I, II, and III, 8:00 am to 9:30 am, Monday through Friday, every single day for a year. Our fellow travelers on this imaginary trans-Atlantic voyage were an impish nineteen year old named Jacki, kind of a cross between the Mona Lisa and Peter Pan; and our teacher/tour guide, a graduate student in French Language and Literature named Scott Winfrey. Scott couldn’t have been more than 23 himself, with deep marine blue eyes, and a leonine mane of flax blond hair framing his face. Originally from Montana, he exuded the essence of a genu-ine Frenchman, not only in his fluency and inflections, but in his mannerisms, the tilt of his head, the way his lips pouted when framing his “oeu’s,” the way he draped his hand like a divo and sidestepped the length of the room when speaking passionately and at length, which was often. He had traveled in France every summer since he was eighteen. Jacki and I found him devastatingly handsome, and he appeared to return the favor.

Jacki and I commuted together by bus, and together rode the 7:22 from the AC Transit stop on Shattuck up University Ave. to the Tolman Hall side of campus every single morning, rain or shine, like clockwork. We became bus sisters, nestled together like sardines in a can or twins in the womb, depending on our mood, pressed into the same seat, the same routine, the same hot bosom of the same family of commuters every single day for a whole year. We knew things about each other that nobody else knew, the things that made us who we were at 7:22 in the morning, still loose and groggy from having studied until 3:00 am, combined with the lack of urgency to operate a motor vehicle. Our hair was still a little unkempt and our guard a little down, enough to free us to share the human things that show who someone really is at the core.

Over the first three or four weeks of our daily ritual, I learned that Jacki had been an Air Force brat who had struck out on her own to see the world. Her dad was a high-ranking officer, and he was, from her perspective, a force to be reckoned with, as he would be for any child. But Jacki was not intimidated by his stature, having been born her own woman, and possessing a natural, smart-assed cynicism that constituted both her armor and her means of connecting to those she chose to let in. Yet still alive inside her were the small, lonely girl who never believed her Daddy loved her, and the girl whose fundamentalist mother had tried to break her rebel spirit by locking her in solitary confinement for long hours at a time, so painfully long that she was still afraid of the dark.

At nineteen she had just finished hitchhiking through the verdant Redwood Valley area of Northern California, through Ukiah and the Russian River, having also finished a side trip through “a far Eastern religious type thing.” Whatever was not Air Force, whatever was not capitalist, whatever was simply NOT – that was what Jacki was seeking.

Up there by the river, she had stumbled upon an evangelical church community with a fired up Indiana preacher who taught peace, freedom, equality, and the full integration of all races, all colors, all people, man and woman alike, worldly goods and all. The core of their membership had migrated there from Indiana to plant the little church, coming to California to escape right-wing persecution and to be closer to the poor, in addition to finding a geomorphically safe haven in case of nuclear holocaust, according to people who study such things. Once there, their numbers had grown quickly. The group was an eclectic mix, from the county Deputy District Attorney, to the poorest of the poor who had found their home, including food and clothing, inside the congregation.

A number of them lived together as a family in a little village off the road, safely battened down each night to protect them from the rednecks and back woods folk that populated the immediate area. The pastor was a genuine faith healer, had a broken heart for children in need, and spoke strange, unknown languages of Heaven that flowed from his lips like water from underground, languages that had never been heard on earth before, except from the lips of those touched by God.

Jacki was now employed at the church in their newer San Francisco congregation, the big one, handling finances for its overseas work and all of the pastor’s public relations. This was no small deal because the church had become very important in the City, and had hosted such dignitaries as State Senator George Moscone, Assemblyman Willie Brown, Art Agnos, Joseph Alioto, Angela Davis, and the Rev. Cecil B. Williams. The protocol involved in her position was considerable, and the relationships she made critical, because it was through these relationships that the church would save the poor of San Francisco from desperation, just as they had done in Ukiah.

“Why don’t you come to church with me sometime?” Jacki asked. “It’s over on Geary at Fillmore. The 38 bus goes right to it, the Peoples Temple. You’d like it.”

A vague memory of a Berkeley school bus bound for Strawberry Canyon buzzed around me like a fly. I swatted at it unsuccessfully.

I frowned, trying to think of when I could make room in my day for anything new at all. “Well, I get pretty busy on the weekends. I just got a job at a bookstore, on top of staying on part-time at the power company. But I’m not ruling it out yet.”

But I had ruled it out, albeit unconsciously, because something in the middle of the warm, sticky harmony of the space between us was tiny and hard and cold, and – empty. Whether that was wisdom or neglect, I still haven’t sorted out.


Everywhere you go in Berkeley, you see tulip trees. Liriodendron tulipifera. I had learned the Latin name for them from the herpetologists, who also loved botany. Sometimes, on the bus in the morning while Jacki and I were riding to French class, we would just sit quietly, looking out the window at the trees and the street life they sheltered. Other times, we would show each other things and places that had been part of our lives, like the massage parlor with Barb’s flat on top, once Barb’s and Roger’s, and the sign lettered in Olde English, “Herein Lies the Rub.”

One day we were talking about our majors. Jacki told me she was taking French because her financial work with the overseas projects required her to travel to Europe, and sometimes to other places where French was spoken, like the Bahamas and French Guiana, sometimes even Paris. She didn’t have a major picked out yet, but she knew her future was somehow connected to Peoples Temple.

“Maybe I’ll take some business classes later when I know more about what’s in the cards for me, but right now I’m just enjoying the ride, so to speak. Jim looked at me one day and told me I have a special gift. He said I was someone who can be trusted with many things. No one had ever told me that before. I guess I’d been told I was smart enough, even pretty, in a boyish sort of way, or funny. But no one had ever told me I was special. That I could be trusted, with things that mattered to them. Not even my own father – well, especially not my own father. I would go to the ends of the earth for Jim Jones, and back. And I believe he would do the same for me.”


Attendance was light as usual that morning as Jacki and I walked into class, with seven or eight of the 35 or so chairs, each equipped with its own right-armed note table, occupied only by the dust that floated in the flood of 8:00 am light that hovered above them. There were two left-armed chairs in the room, and Bob always got there on time so he could nab one of them.

The light was beautiful in the side rooms at Dwinelle Hall at 8:00 am, especially in fall, the sun slanting at just the right angle through the high, narrow windows along the corniced ceiling, illuminating the surfaces that still carried the scuffs and carvings of decades gone by, traces of who knew what great scholar or poet or villain had shared this space with us.

Bob was already there, and he and Scott stood inches apart, eye to eye, while the rest of the sparse group looked on. Scott was showing Bob a large format brochure of some sort, the color pictures of rough hewn stone houses and rolling hills and the Arc de Triomphe brilliant enough to capture attention even from a distance. Scott spied Jacki as she entered and accosted her immediately.

“Ma petite Jacqueline, this is for you aussi,” he bubbled, fully in character as always. “Robért is going to travel to France with me before Christmas, and you’re coming too. We have scholarships every winter break for four epatant beginning French students to travel and practice abroad, and the two of you are my choice. You may not say no! Quelle est tienne réponse?”

“My response is yes! But can I ask my boss?” Jacki asked, looking pleased and worried at the same time. “I think he’ll like the idea. But is he allowed to say no?”

“Absolument non! And you tell him I said so.”

“Oui, monsieur. I’ll check,” she answered, lips smiling, eyes frowning. Bob walked past my arm-chair on the way to his left-handed one, raking his fingertips across my desktop as he passed. “I’ll miss you, ma petite. No Christmas caroling this year.”

“Je sais, je sais,” I sighed, feeling abandoned, a great grey expanse of emptiness spreading dramatically like a pool around me.

Done for the morning, we came out into the light and headed across the quad toward the Life Science Building, where the songbirds were doing their free-fall dance, skyrocketing in pairs to heights at least two human body lengths above the five story structure, then diving twice as fast to within inches of the ground, passing each other in a tantalizingly close arc. Then they ascended again, passing in midair, flirting, practicing for next spring’s avian love dance. Bob grabbed my hand and swung it up in the air, then back down, then up again, and winked at me. Smiling broadly, I suddenly felt very sad, and very, very alone, knowing that Bob and I would never be together, but totally failing to understand why. And having Graham back at home, slaving away as the financial head of our informal family day in, day out, didn’t make me feel any better.

So Bob flew away for the winter, far across the farthest pond, and laughed and drank Bordeaux and met new people and learned to speak fluently in a language I almost didn’t understand. When he came home, he was a newer, deeper, shinier, more joyful Bob than ever, one that I would love even more than I had before.


Bob arrived back from Paris the morning of Christmas Eve, and I knew as soon as I saw him that he had not really just come home, but instead had just left it. A faraway joy shone at the back of his dappled blue-green eyes, and the taut cords of muscle that had always coiled just under his skin like a hyperactive spring had smoothed out and loosened their grip, leaving what appeared to me to be a man occupying the space where the boy had lived before. I could have sworn his voice was slightly deeper, too, but with more - flair.

Graham and I met him at the shuttle stop, where the bus had just brought him back from SFO. He had left with one back pack and one giant Samsonite suitcase, and come back with an extra backpack, full, hinting at the trouble he had taken to bring home the perfect thing for everyone. He chattered all the way up the hill on the 41 Union, a new French accent coloring everything he said.

“Do you really speak French now?” I asked, the electric arms that tethered the bus to the lines overhead clacking against each other as we pulled to the curb for a stop. “You sound like a transplanted Frenchman! And you look like one, too!” His hair was a little fuller, his shirt had that je ne c’est quois, and his hands floated like birds, inflecting important phrases avec l’emphase. And he smelled good.

A flood of rapid French flowed from his lips in response, more and faster than I had the capacity to hear, given the almost two weeks I had just gone with virtually no French in my head whatsoever. “Well, I didn’t understand a word you just said, so I guess you speak French,” I replied, starting to unzip his extra backpack.

“Not so fast, ma cherie. There’ll be time for that later. Let me tell you about nôtre petite Jacqueline, though, and how much fun she had.”

“C’est vrai? Tell me more.”

“She flew the coop, twice. Once all afternoon, and once all night.”

The bus hissed as it came to a stop at the red light.

“The afternoon she ran off was the day Scott took us to sidewalk cafés so we could practice ordering everything in French, and then strike up conversations with the waiters about how to get around Paris and whatever else they would agree to talk to us about. So we were at Les Deux Magots near the Quai, and you could see directly into Café de Flore on the opposite corner. She was sitting over there with her back to us with a guy in a grey business suit, which in no way matched what Jacqueline was wearing, being Jacqueline, as you know.”

“I know indeed. Go on.”

“She had had a little flat case with her on the plane that she kept under her seat, and she never got up that we saw, so she must have used the bathroom when we were sleeping, because those were two of the longest flights I have EVER been on. She never took off her sweatshirt, either. Quel horreur.”

“Yeah, yeah, keep going –“

“Well, in the café, she had the case by her foot. The two of them were talking, and the man was making notes in a little book. He tore out a page from the book and handed it to Jacki, and she put it in the back pocket of her jeans. When they had finished their drinks, she picked the case up off the ground and laid it flat on the table. He took it, and they both got up and walked off toward the Champs Elysees. We watched them until they disappeared in the trees. What do you think about that?”

“Well, she said she did financial business for the church that took her overseas,” I speculated. “That sounds like business.”

“Actually, there’s a Swiss bank in that direction, across the Quai.”

“Well, that’s probably it. It’s part of her mission work,” I said matter-of-factly, flagrantly ignoring at least two separate voices proposing less friendly explanations, one of them in French. “That’s probably why the pastor let her go.”

“That’s some mission she’s on then.”

“Why don’t you ask her?”

“Peut-être pas - perhaps not, ma belle.”

“Well, here’s our corner anyway,” I noted, as I pulled the cord overhead to ring for the stop, grabbing one of the backpacks and stepping out into the aisle, reeling a little from the motion.

Graham, a man of few words as always, just smiled slyly at Bob, and hefted the big Samsonite up and over the seat, working it up the aisle toward the front of the bus.

“I missed this place more than I thought,” said Bob, looking at Graham, and then back down the Union Street hill toward North Beach as we climbed out into the veiled wintry light. “We still have a lot to talk about, mes amis. A whole, whole lot.”


Bob had parked his car around the corner on Green Street, and our neighbor Al the cable car grip man had moved it for him every couple of days. He was expected at his mom’s house for Christmas Eve dinner, but neither Graham nor I had re-established normal relations with our parents yet since we had moved in together, so we had planned a quiet dinner at home. It was almost time for Bob to load up the Mustang and head for Moraga, but first, we had a few things to share, a couple of gifts, and Christmas chatter. Graham and I had put up a scrawny six foot Douglas fir in our bay window, hung with 99-cents-a-box ornaments from Woolworth’s on Market Street, God’s eyes we had made, cranberry and popcorn garlands, and multicolored lights, one string. It was about three cuts above a Charlie Brown Christmas. I poured everyone a glass of apple cider with a cinnamon stick, and Graham and I curled up on the gold velveteen sectional, Bob in the Cost Plus beanbag chair.

“Hmmm. For me?” asked Bob, pulling out two wrapped gifts from under the tree.

“For you,” Graham replied, twirling the mustache he had been growing since Thanksgiving. It made him look just like a captain of industry.

Bob opened Graham’s gift first, a large flat package wrapped in red foil with two stick-on bows.

“Is it underwear, Dad?”

“No, son,” replied Graham. “Just open it.”

Tearing off the paper, he found a framed 16 x 20 matted black and white print, on Agfa Brovira Rapid glossy, unpressed, of a stand of redwood trees across a clearing in Muir Woods, a place Graham and Bob had often gone alone to hike and breathe and talk about whatever. Graham had taken it himself the last time they were there together, and had printed it in our bathroom while Bob was in Paris. It was signed in the lower right corner. Their friendship was a deep one, and had its own unfathomable identity separate from me, separate from any other combination of the three of us. Bob held the photo at arm’s length, moved.

“Thanks, man,” he finally said in a hushed voice. “Thanks.”

Graham nodded, his eyes moist, and Bob gently set the picture down and reached for the other gift labeled with his name.

“Ma petite,” he said. “What have we here?” He shook the oblong box and held it to his ear.

“You’d better wait till you open it before you decide if you want to shake it, not break it,” I replied, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, mommy,” he sing-songed, and ripped off the paper. “Oh, wow, this is special. Thank you, sweetheart.” He leaned over and gave me a peck on the lips. It was a high-powered tabletop telescope on a tripod stand, one he could use to find the planets we used to lie on our backs and look for on clear nights, which were rare and special in Daly City, over on the high school football field right at the end of the block where Bob lived.

“I will look for Venus just for you, my love. Thank you.” He set it down and reached for his backpack and unzipped it, pulling out a long box and a tiny square one.

“Graham, friend, this is for you.” He handed Graham the long box, and Graham carefully removed the muted tissuey paper, exotic and foreign looking, folding it neatly in four and setting it on the arm of the sectional. He opened the box and pulled out an inlaid wooden kaleidoscope, which he immediately put up to his eye.

“Amazing,” he said, and walked from the lamp to the Christmas tree, then to the kitchen window, then the bathroom, aiming it into every source of light he could find to see the variations in the colors and shapes, turquoise and rose, purple and sea green, stars and triangles and whorls, both two-dimensional and three, a transforming work of art.

“It’s really far out, man. Thank you.” It did not need to be said that the kaleidoscope was the gift of seeing the world abstractly instead of literally, in motion instead of still, in living color instead of in black and white. Just once in a while, Bob wanted Graham, when the mood struck him, to go to that place and know that Bob had taken him there, and Graham was happy to go if it was with Bob – but never with me.

“Now you, cherie.” He handed me the small box. “But don’t open it just yet. Graham, do you mind if I borrow your imaginary wife for just a minute?” Graham shook his head no, and the two men caught each others’ eyes in some unknown silent communication.

“Walk with me, petite.” And he took my hand and led me outside, down the stairs to the front stoop. “Sit with me. Now open.”

“You are a man of mystery, Bob Bertrand,” I sighed, as I tore away the paper and found the grey jewel box inside. I gingerly popped open the lid.

Inside was a delicate gold locket, with tiny ornate openings cut out around the outer edge of the heart on the face. I rested my hand on my collarbone and took in a small gasp.

“Take it out, open it,” he said anxiously.

I lifted the small heart from its cotton resting place and put it in the palm of my left hand, gently prying back the cover with my right. Inside was a tiny photograph of the Eiffel Tower.

“Bob, I . . ,” and I put my arms around his neck and hugged him.

“Let me,” he said, pulling away, and took the locket from me, turning my shoulders away from him and reaching around my neck to clasp the locket closed. “I stood in front of the Eiffel Tower and thought about you when I was gone, and I wanted to bring it back so you could keep it.” Then he took my shoulders again and turned me to face him.

“Cherie, I have something to tell you.”

We looked at each other for a minute in complete silence, except for the cable revolving on its pulley system under the cable car tracks in front of us.

“When I was in Paris, I met someone.” My heart stopped still, and I didn’t breathe.

I found myself on solid ground because we had both known for some time that something was not aligned with us, something we didn’t understand. And now it looked like somehow, he had found his answer, and I was happy for him, and ready. I was ready, and had been. Still, for him to have found the right person so quickly after all we’d been through together . . .

I stopped myself. “I see. I’m glad for you, sweetie. What’s her name?”

He breathed, one long deep breath.

“Scott. His name is Scott – yeah, Scott the teacher. And you know I didn’t meet him for the first time. I only met him in a new way. I don’t believe he’s the one I’m going to share my life with. And he certainly is not you – no one will ever be you, ever.” There were tears streaming down his face now. “But he helped me find the Bob that I’ve been looking for all this time.”

He waited for me, and then spoke again.

“I love you with all my heart. You’re the other half of me. It’s unfair in a lot of ways. But this is who I am. Do you still love me?”

I was stunned by a sudden peace I didn’t recognize, overcome with perfect love that lifted me high over the street, gave me a lightness of letting go. It was – inexplicable, and sudden, like a recognition.

“Oh my God! Wow. Well, I think I love you more. Are you all better now? Will you be OK?” I stroked his cheek, which was tense again underneath like a coiled spring.

We wrapped our arms around each other and held on for dear life. He was trembling so hard it worried me. “I’ll always be here, always. Don’t ever be afraid of losing me,” I whispered.

“OK,” he gurgled into my hair, right in the same spot where Barb had rested her face, after she had returned from her break with time and space on the bus back from Strawberry Canyon. “Now let’s go back upstairs.”

When we had pulled ourselves together and walked into the apartment, Graham was at the kitchen counter, pouring the filling into the pie shell for the pumpkin pie. He turned, and he and Bob were eye to eye.

“Everyone OK?” Graham asked.

“Yes, OK,” Bob answered, and Graham nodded knowingly and looked back at his task, wiping a spill he had made and rinsing his hands. “I put the chicken in when you were outside, Shel. It’ll be ready at 5:00.”

And I was alone.

About the Writer

Sylvia Smith is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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1 comments on Ghosts of Christmas Past: You Can't Go Home Again

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By Notumbus Bumbus on December 18, 2011 at 05:15 pm

Superb. Simply superb. 'Nuff said.

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