Long Ago at Christmas
Years ago, in the 1950s, as a young man working for a Madison Avenue advertising agency, Ives always looked forward to the holiday season and would head out during his lunch hours, visiting churches, to think and meditate, and, if he was lucky, to hear the choirs as they practiced their hymns and sacred songs. Often enough, he walked along the burgeoning sidewalks, crowded with shoppers and tourists, and made his way to Saint Patrick's Cathedral, where he'd become lost in a kind of euphoric longing-why he did not know. And in a moment, he would find himself, as a child, attending Mass with his adoptive family again, so many memories coming back to him: of standing beside his father during the services and noticing, as he looked up at his father's kindly face, just how moved he seemed to be by the prayers, and the Latin incantations, and the reverential chants; so moved, especially during the raising of the host, that he almost seemed on the verge of tears.
Each time he entered a sanctuary, Ives himself nearly wept, especially at Christmas, when the image of one particular church on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn, whose choir was very good and the worshipers devout, came back to him, its interior smelling mightily of evergreen boughs, candle wax, and pots of red and white blossoms set against the columns. Dignified Irishmen, with greatly slicked heads of hair, dockworkers for the most part, turned up in ties and jackets, their wives and children by their sides. And there were bootleggers and policemen and carpenters and street sweepers in attendance as well. And a blind man whom Ives sometimes helped down the marble stairs; a few Negroes, as they were called in those days, all, Ives was convinced, believing in the majesty of the child. The old Italian ladies, their heads wrapped in black scarves and their violet lips kissing their scapular medals, and crucifixes and rosaries, kneeling, nearly weeping before the altar and the statues of Christ and His mother; and at Christmas, the beginning of His story, sweetly invoked by the rustic and somehow ancient looking creche.
The fact was that Ives, uncertain of many things, could at that time of year sit rather effortlessly within the incense- and candle-wax-scented confines of a church, like Saint Patrick's, thinking about the images, ever present and timeless, that seemed to speak especially to him. Not about the cheery wreaths, the boughs of pine branches, the decorative ivy and flowers set out here and there, but rather about the Christ child, whose meaning evoked for him a feeling for "the beginning of things," a feeling that time and all its sufferings had fallen away.
Of course, while contemplating the idea of the baby Jesus, perhaps the most wanted child in the history of the world, Ives would feel a little sad, remembering that years ago someone had left him, an unwanted child, in a founding home. (To that day, to all the days into the future, there remained within him the shadowy memory of the dark-halled building in which he lived for nearly two years, a place as cavernous and haunted as a cathedral.) A kind of fantasy would overtake him, a glorious vision of angels and kings and shepherds worshiping a baby: nothing could please him more, nothing could leave him feeling a deeper despair.
Enflamed by the sacred music and soft chanting, his heart lifted out of his body and winged its way through the heavens of the church. Supernatural presences, invisible to the world, seemed thick in that place, as if between the image of Christ who is newly born and the image of the Christ who would die on the cross and, resurrected, return as the light of this world, there flowed a powerful, mystical energy. And his sense of that energy would leave Ives, his head momentarily empty of washing machine and automobile advertisements, convinced that, for all his shortcomings as a man, he once had a small, if imperfect, spiritual gift.
That, long ago, at Christmas.
A Sentimental Man
More sentimental than he would let on to others, Ives, in his later years, was the kind of fellow who saved just about everything, a practice that had something to do with his foundling beginning. In his study, he had file cabinets filled with letters, postcards, and Christmas greetings. He kept funeral cards, Jesus Christ with His burning heart welcoming the sanctified into heaven, the glorious place. He had autographed drawings from Winsor McKay, Walter Lantz, Otto Messmer, Lee Falk, Dick Caulkins, and dozens of other cartoon artists. And piles of cards and correspondence from commercial artists like himself, many of them friends with whom he had collaborated over the years. A curiosity: somehow and somewhere, he had acquired an autographed publicity shot of the actor Ray Milland. And there was also his collection of, affectionately kept, handwritten notes from fellow artists much more famous than himself. His favorite, because it took him back to a happier time during his childhood, was the note Wait Disney had sent him back in 1935, when, at the age of thirteen, he submitted some funny-animal drawings and gag ideas on the chance that he could go to work for the Disney studio, then making a new kind of animated, feature-length film called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A form letter turned him down, but a few lines had been added, which said, "Keep in touch and keep it up, your work is swell! Walt Disney." Ives showed the note to all his friends and passersby, as they walked by his stoop, the mild praise had him floating for weeks.
He even had a crinkly-edged black-and-white photograph taken of him back then—Ives in a tie and jacket posed on the steps of his building in Brooklyn, just after he'd come back from Mass, with the letter held up before him, for all to see. His expression was happy.
The foregoing is excerpted from Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers.