"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Friday, December 17, 2010

The most endearing version of "Silent Night"

I'm not sure I can tell the kind of Christmas story that will get you misty by the time I'm done. I do have a candidate. There's an irony in that the situation I'm describing happened outside of Christmas on the calendar.
The family of an elderly man invited me to a gathering at the Villa of St. Francis, as it was called then (WWV today). He resided there and he was going to be the center of attention. Perhaps it was a birthday but I can't remember the circumstances.
This gentleman's mental acuity had deteriorated. But, people with these afflictions can surprise you sometimes. Anyone knows this full well who has been a caretaker.
I was invited because of my role in the local news media then. But I knew the people well enough that I didn't consider my role to be detached at all. Actually I hardly ever felt detached from people in this community.
When you think of being surrounded by family, what time of year might come into your mind? Christmas, naturally.
The time of year for the Villa event was distant from that, but as this wonderful and patriotic man, a World War One veteran, was surrounded by all these loving people, he broke into singing "Silent Night."
Nobody could have cared what the calendar said. I can close my eyes and remember exactly how he intoned those opening phrases.
Such a memory provides the basis for Christmas, the trappings of which are all around us now. We don't require the material aspects.
Our family attended a church youth Christmas program Wednesday evening. I'm reminded what a musician friend shared with me once about such events - that when you get to second grade and younger, the kids don't really sing, they "shout." Totally charming of course. Musical precision is hardly a prerequisite.
Update: I've decided there's no reason why I can't report here the name of the man in my little recollection. He's Thore Mathison, RIP. A grandson is named for him. I wrote a feature article on him as a WWI veteran once.
Thore called me up a few days after the article appeared and invited me over to his house for lunch. He lived alone at the time.
I remember that he saw no combat in The Great War (as it was called for many years) but was a culinary specialist - "peeling potatoes," as he put it.
It's important to preserve those memories while you can.
Our family is at a point now where we're "de-cluttering," getting rid of "stuff" accumulated over years past. There's no need for anything new now.
So rather than focus on gifts, we attend a Christmas Eve church service - our church offers three - have a nice meal, enjoy some Christmas-themed media and retire for the night.
I think the best Christmas music CD we have came with a box of Chex breakfast cereal. It's a collection featuring several artists. The artists were well-known but I don't think I had heard any of these recordings before.
There are several treasures like Gladys Knight (with the Pips) singing "Away in a Manger." And Mario Lanza singing "Silent Night," and Perry Como singing "O Holy Night."
I suspect that the Lanza and Como names increasingly don't register with young people. Maybe not even Gladys Knight. Como was a "crooner." He stood out in the early days of television. He had a reputation of seeming totally relaxed all the time (affectionately mocked by some of his entertainment peers).
Lanza was an opera style singer featured in several movies in the 1950s. Gladys Knight is a very familiar name to the boomers, and let's not forget those "Pips."
To think that I could get such a wonderful collection of songs with breakfast cereal; it truly made the communications tech revolution hit home with me. When I was a kid you had to shell out several dollars (when "several dollars" seemed like a lot more) for music on a vinyl record.
Our family always watches a VHS tape of The Little Drummer Boy with Greer Garson narrating. Garson was a big-screen actress from a bygone time.
"Drummer Boy" was an annual TV special when I was a kid. It ceased to be seen after a few years. The strong sacred focus might have been a bit much for a U.S. population that was becoming more diversified.
The explosion of VHS tapes and DVDs meant we could see "Drummer Boy" again.
Ditto for "Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol," a TV special that introduced me to the Charles Dickens story when I was a kid. It didn't seem to surface in the early years of tapes and DVDs. Then, to my absolute delight, I saw it displayed at the Coborn's store here as a DVD. I was so delighted I thanked the store manager, Dean Mithun.
Jim Backus was the voice of Mister Magoo. You'll remember Backus as the rich guy character in "Gilligan's Island." His wife was "Lovey" (not to be confused with the Chicago Bears coach, who is preparing to bring his team to the quite inhospitable setting of TCF Bank Stadium this coming Monday for what will be an interesting spectacle, hopefully with no concussions resulting from a playing surface that will be hard).
There's probably a tinge of political incorrectness with Mister Magoo today. The character seems to poke fun at visually challenged people. Boomers, who grew up with that cartoon character, are pretty indifferent about that.
By the same token, I was never bothered by Johnny Carson's "Dear Old Aunt Blabby" character. Did this poke fun at older people? If it did, I certainly don't think it was in an offensive way.
She had a "thing" for Ed McMahon, remember? Her cane could be a little dangerous. I remember a spokesman for a senior group actually coming out and saying he wasn't bothered by "Aunt Blabby."
I have a DVD that includes two Jack Benny holiday specials from the 1950s. The New Year's Eve program is a treasure and it has become an Eve tradition with our family.
Unfortunately the Christmas special has a problem with dated attitudes - political incorrectness as it were. You can't "spin" this humor as with Aunt Blabby. It gets humor from the idea of someone committing suicide.
You see, the picky idiosyncrasies of the Benny character grated on a store clerk (played by Mel Blanc who was once the voice of Bugs Bunny). We hear a gunshot at the very end. Not funny. I watched it just once.
I bought the Benny DVD at Coborn's too. The Coborn's building today is as cold and desolate as the dead of winter here on the prairie. It's sad.
I think the community of Morris would be better served by two modest-sized grocery stores than one super-duper one. No business that functions as a monopoly is ever going to be managed as sharply as a business with competition.
Coborn's was a true focal point on the north end of Atlantic Avenue. For it to be abandoned is a tragedy. But hey, we have a new courthouse! Please hold your applause.
I smiled when I heard Elena Kagan, during her Supreme Court nomination process, saying she was probably in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day. She's Jewish.
I remember making a trip to Alexandria one year to see a certain ballyhooed new movie on Christmas Day, and becoming nearly desperate to find a restaurant first. Yes it was Christmas Day, but in contemporary times we don't expect the world to reach a standstill for holidays.
Surely Alexandria would have a restaurant open.
(. . ."And don't call me Shirley." - Leslie Nielsen RIP).
Alexandria is a "micropolitan" community. But as I drove along, everything seemed as bereft of activity as the Morris Coborn's building.
I began to worry about where I could even stay warm before the movie. The movie theater, I suppose. Hey, they used to have pinball machines there!
But it didn't come to that. "Thank the Lord," I thought to myself as I passed a restaurant with cars parked outside. It was a Chinese restaurant.
I have never appreciated Chinese food so much. There were quite a few customers there.
When I was younger, I never would have taken a jaunt to Alex by myself. Our family had relatives living close to us much of my life.
We always got together for the major holidays, taking turns hosting - sometimes here in Morris and sometimes in Glenwood where my uncle was a well-known banker but lived a most humble life in terms of his house and general lifestyle.
He and his wife never had children. They "adopted" Glenwood as their family.
Like my parents, he and his wife had grown up in the Depression. They were most thankful for the essentials. They had outdated appliances. They never purchased cable TV.
Their house on Christmas Day could seem like the most peaceful place in the world. We would take a walk in the afternoon and find the surrounding neighborhoods to be so totally still and at peace. How therapeutic in our otherwise frenetic world.
Time passes and our relatives in Glenwood passed away. Their house is the place I'll always think of when hearing the Christmas song "I'll be Home for Christmas. . .If only in my dreams."
The last Christmas they were alive, I visited them alone as there was some illness in our family. I made a run to Lowry in the company van that day and continued on to Glenwood, which was probably not according to Hoyle.
(My old boss, Jim Morrison, might be reading this but I think the statute of limitations has expired.)
That company later sold out to non-local interests and today it's a totally corporate organism. The company rules are probably chiseled on stone tablets today. It's not like Mayberry anymore.
This has been a secret until now, but I also used to drive the van to the Burger King in Alexandria when there was a long delay in getting the newspaper printed in Lowry (Quinco Press). Delays were common in connection with "bulldog" editions which jammed up the printing schedule for holidays.
How many other secrets do I have? Is using the copier to make covers for your class reunion booklet OK? I think there were worse transgressions than that at the old Morris Sun Tribune.
I'll never forget that last Christmas Day when I visited Glenwood - the looks in our aging relatives' eyes - they were barely able to stay at home on their own anymore - when they saw me, unannounced.
"I'm Brian," I said loudly. With aging people you have to assert obvious things sometimes.
Howard and Viola were so delighted and we had such a lively and memorable visit at the old dining room table. Viola was able to prepare some coffee and snacks. They appeared to have no other commitments that afternoon.
These were the most special Christmas moments possible.
"If only in my dreams. . ."
Maybe Thore could have sung that too.
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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