The Leading Player of Memories

Annie D. Stutley

Nov 30, 2022

Maybe that’s what Judy Garland meant in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” when she sang “we’ll have to muddle through somehow?”

Growing up, I always looked forward to coming home from church with Grandpa. 

 

As we walked up the back steps of our house in Bay St. Louis, Miss., Grandpa would say in his booming voice, “Annie, you were so good in church today that I deserve a milk punch.”


Soon the smell of bourbon and nutmeg would fill the porte cochère, the little room off the kitchen where Grandpa would blend his post-religious cordial, pouring out a kid-sized portion for me. I’d pucker my lips to suck up the frothy cap of milk floating on top and relish the simple Sunday ritual. All was well in my world where Grandpas were reassuringly predictable.

 

I have taken to the occasional post Mass sarcasm with my own children. There’s something warm about traditions. We don’t always know quite how they began, but as the world spins around us, they are our constants, beacons of comfort, ready to wrap us in their arms and remind us that all is still well.


Most of us have holiday traditions we anticipate as the calendar rolls into December. My cousins in Lake Charles look for a gold pickle hidden in the evergreen of the Christmas tree. My neighbor spends a full Friday from lunch to supper gallivanting through soufflé potatoes and French 75’s with friends in the front room at New Orleans’ famed Galatoire’s Restaurant. When my husband was a child, every holiday season they baked homemade ornaments from clay and painted them. Most of the cutouts were badly altered in the hot oven, creating timeless characters like Sweaty Angel, whose wings were too small and too fat, morphed from the steam. Only copious sweat and divine intervention could allow the aerodynamic Christmas miracle that would get her off the ground. Then there was Black-Eyed Bart, the fear-inducing Santa ornament whose eyes were black as pitch and whose red painted lips dribbled down his chin. My husband recalls the jubilation that would fill his living room when these ornaments were unpacked from ten months of attic hibernation each year – as anticipated as opening presents on Christmas Day.

 

Growing up, my family celebrated two Christmases, one with our nuclear family of seven and another over New Year’s weekend back in Bay St. Louis with Grandma, Grandpa, and all our cousins. The first Christmas was for Santa and his magic. The latter was for the predictable magic: Grandpa’s scavenger hunt clues through the big drafty house leading to our Christmas checks and Pop’s notorious poems on the rest of the presents. 


My father knew the secret to a healthy sense of self: laugh at yourself first, and the rest will laugh with you, not at you. During second Christmas he exercised this through verse written on the outside of our presents. His poems were supposed to be clues, but more times than not, they only made sense to him. That was the best part – seeing Pop chuckle at his own expense, standing before the twinkling lights of the tree in his red shirt, ready to hand out the next gift, while the receiver of the previous gift scratched their head, trying to connect the words of Pop’s poem to what they’d just unwrapped. There came a time when I began to save all these poems. Something told me that someday, maybe sooner than I feared, the predictability of Christmas poems would be gone and the poem itself would be more valuable than anything Pop bought me.


As much as I find comfort in what is expected of rituals and traditions, I’m also energized by the unexpected. There’s promise in the unknown because the future has not been determined. I’ve always had this feeling that something great “is just around the corner.” But my first holiday season after Pop died – the first gift exchange without Pop’s poems, without that glint in his eye, without seeing him laugh at his own buffoonery – I entered Advent with a lump in my throat, paralyzed by the unexpected. Where would the silliness stem from now that our Leading Player had finished his run?


Sweaty Angel and Black-Eyed Bart came from my mother-in-law’s annual effort to mix clay and gather everyone around the table for messy memories. My cousins’ pickle hunt is the result of keeping the same date on the calendar every year (Pickle Night), and Pop’s poems only happened because he took the time to make them happen, and because he was exceedingly generous with his sense of self. Eventually, however, it’s not just the tradition itself that’s passed down. It’s the responsibility to creating memories. When a new actor steps into an established role, preceded by a long-running fan favorite, the new actor has to make that role their own. Otherwise, the performance is trite. Nothing breaks the fourth wall like seeing a performer reach. In the same way, when we become the keepers of the keys formerly held by our ancestors, we have to do the best we can with the script we’ve been given. We can’t keep what was entirely, but that doesn’t mean that run has to stop.

 

They set the scene, our parents and. before them, our grandparents, but eventually, it’s our turn. We may not follow through with the same flair, but we keep the story going. We may even spin off toward new traditions, new predictability of the season, building upon the family catalog of memories. Maybe that’s what Judy Garland meant in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” when she sang “we’ll have to muddle through somehow?” We take what we’ve been given, and we serve the role of the Leading Player (not the traditions), keeping our motivation on what matters most: transporting those in our audience (our siblings, kids, and grandkids) to that timeless, childlike place where the joy of the season is felt most.

 

Somewhere in that first Christmas after Pop died, I realized that the silliness of the season was mine to lose. I was destined for the role of Memory Maker, Leading Player of Christmas, the instant I first laughed at those who came before me. Because long ago in those moments of unhinged joy, kept safe in the catalog of my most treasured memories, my heart bursting with love for Pop, Grandpa, Mama – all my life’s Leading Players, I knew the feeling would last and that when it was my turn, I’d want to keep the laughter going. 


Because just as Pop knew, laughter is best shared.


 

Annie D. Stutley lives and writes in New Orleans, La. She edits several small publications and contributes to various print and online magazines. Her blog, "That Time You," was ranked in the Top 100 Blogs by FeedSpot. To read more of her work, go to herwebsite, or follow her at@anniedstutley orAnnie D. Stutley-writeron Facebook.

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