Thursday, January 6, 2011

Not Alone on Ash Street

joan parker by ana traina
Today is Little Christmas, and before the widespread use of the Gregorian calendar Christmas was celebrated on January 6th. Many countries, including Ireland, honor this original date by celebrating Little Christmas, known in Gaelic as Nollaig na mBan, “Little Women’s Christmas,” a time when women had the chance to go out and relax with each other... “ a girls night out” if you will.  In honor of “Little Women’s Christmas” I would like to share three Christmas stories from a woman I deeply admire. A woman I have known now for many years, and with each passing year my admiration only grows. This woman is Joan Parker; a powerhouse, small and fit.  A once upon a time child psychologist at Endicott College. Now an avid fund-raiser for people with H.I.V. and AIDS.  She is the mother of my son Liam’s godfather, Daniel Parker (an amazing actor, working with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) as well as mother to David Parker (a wonderful choreographer with his own company, The Bang Group). She is sadly, also the recent widow of Robert B. Parker, the best-selling mystery writer who passed away last January 18th, and this is where my story begins.
photo by ana traina
For the last seven years my family has made it our holiday tradition to celebrate Christmas Day with “the Parkers” in Cambridge, Mass. Their Victorian home has always been a cheery treat, decked with all the trimmings.  From brightly lit conversations, to the carving of a roast beast, right down to festive Christmassy Cherry pie (a favorite of Bob’s) and many, many spontaneous songs! 
However, this year would be different, Bob would not be there. Many doubts and questions filled our thoughts as we drove up to Boston on I-90. Mainly, how deep of a toll would widowhood have taken on Joan?  You see, they had been married for 53 years, they had seen the worst times together and the best. They loved each other deeply, had children, worked, struggled, fought, mused (Joan being the model for the self-ruling and brilliant girlfriend of Bob’s Boston private eye, Spenser), leaped monumental hurdles, and laughed ‘till they cried. In short, they really had made a wonderful life.  Now, Bob was gone. Not just living on the first floor of their home, an arrangement that suited both Joan and Bob, each had their own apartments in the house, but really gone. Yet, when Joan opened the doors to welcome us into her home, all my fears just melted away as we hugged hello. She was still Joan, still spunky, lively and oh so lovable, only perhaps a little bit more vulnerable.  As the evening wore on we laughed, and we teared, we filled our bellies with Cherry Pie as we remembered Bob with love, warmth and humor. 
Then somewhere between the passing of the créme fraiche and caviar and the shrimp, I asked Joan if she would like to share some stories with Zingertales.  At 77 Joan is still always game for new and wondrous adventures, she did not hesitate for a moment, she simply replied with a plucky smile, “Absolutely!” Knowing full well that Joan would have none of that maudlin, self-piteous, woebegone widow’s stuff, I thought about asking her to share some stories that would celebrate their lives.  So in the age old tradition of “Little Christmas” and an illuminating “girls night out,” this is where her tales begin...
One of the most outstanding Christmas’ she can remember, from when she was a child, goes something like this -- It was Christmas Eve in a small New England town and Joan was about 5 years old and her parents were going out. Leaving her in the clutches of her evil, Cruella D’Ville like sister, who was 11 years older than she.  Her sister would have been ecstatic if Joan were to meet with an unfortunate accident or even to throw Joan under a bus if the opportunity ever arose.  Needless to say, Joan was terrified to be alone in the house with her sinister sister, yet nothing of great importance happened that evening as they waited for Santa to arrive.  Well, not until much later in the evening when Joan awoke with a start from her sleep after hearing a noise in the living room. Relieved, thinking that her parents were home, she gleefully crept down the stairs to greet them.  However, her parents had not arrived home as of yet, but what to her wondrous eyes should appear but Santa all bedecked in his Christmassy Cheer, with his, poinsettia-red suit, lined with white fur and his big, shiny black boots. Yes, his eyes did twinkle and his beard was long and winter-white to dear young Joan as she stood in the shadows of the stairs. She watched with a strange mixture of absolute fear and fascination, trying to see exactly what he was doing. “You see”, Joan pauses, “seeing Santa in your very own living room is a bit like seeing God standing before you, as very few people to none have ever seen him...” As the five year old Joan stood in the darkened corridors, peeking in on Santa, visions of beautiful sugar plums danced in her head, “He was beautiful. It was magical, it was a true Christmas miracle!” When like thunder and out of the blue she heard her sister’s voice bellow from the top of the stairs, “Get back to bed stupid or Santa won’t come!” And without saying a word she dutifully scampered back into bed. The next morning came, and an eager Joan dashed into the kitchen bursting to tell her parents what she had seen the night before. How indeed she had seen Santa! Her parents listened with smiling patience ‘till her sister rudely stated, that she was just a stupid little child as she always was! Although, through out the years many people have tried to persuade Joan that her vision was probably nothing more than a bad piece of pork which in turn induced a wonderful technicolored dream, she still believes...she indeed saw Santa in her very own living room.
The next tale that Joan shares is a tale that takes place in the first 25 years of their marriage, when they did not have money. Yet even without, on Christmas, they would try to get each other one extravagant gift. Joan's eyes sparkle as she thinks back. The story that she wants to tell is a legendary Christmas story in the Parker household, it’s a sordid little fable of her duplicity and the worst gift Bob ever got her! Well, it so happened on this one particular Christmas with David and Daniel sitting around the tree, Bob, who had spent some time searching for just the right gift, proudly presented Joan with a huge box. When she opened the box she was confronted with a very large and hideous, black and white, zebra striped wrap coat. Putting on a good face, and thinking to herself, “Must I wear this thing? Yes, I must!” Brightly, she tried on the coat... Joan describes the feeling of being swallowed up whole in layers upon layers of a very itchy horse blanket.  Yes, this coat was truly revolting. Was she truly expected to go to work where she was the head supervising advisor to the Department of Child Psychology, swaddled in this thing. Yes, she was. So, Joan in the spirit of saving her husband’s feelings, devised a plan, she would wear the hideous zebra striped coat out of the house and in the car she would change into her old ratty camel hair coat. No one would ever be the wiser. She did that for weeks, pretending to treasure the dreadfully ugly coat. However, one night in a hurry she forgot to change and walked in to her home wearing her old coat. Bob quickly asked, “Why are you wearing that old coat when you have your beautiful Zebra Coat?” Joan, caught red handed but thinking quick on her feet, shaded the truth by saying, the weather was much warmer now and she need just a lighter coat. They never did revisit the subject again.
The third tale that Joan shares is about their second 28 years of marriage, when life was plentiful, and they began to exchange poems for the holidays. Joan states that her poems went something like this...Roses are red, and violets suck! But, Bob’s poems, well Bob, wrote beautiful poems. In fact, she's thinking of collecting them and making an anthology of his poems to publish. Until then, Joan has generously given me two poems from Bob to share with the Zingertales' readers.

In closing, I asked Joan if she objected to my using the word “Widow” in this Zingertale article.  Why I asked this question, truthfully, I don’t know. However, the answer that I received from Joan after several awkward moments of silence made it oh so relevant.  She said, “I don’t object to the word ‘Widow’ for that is what I am...yet, I do object to you using the word ‘alone’ as I am not that.  For although my mate is gone, I still revel in the life we’ve built together, in my two sons, Dan and David, in my huge robust circle of friends, and in the wondrous future where Evie Peck, the long time friend of Dan, will give birth to my first grand child...” And then lastly she said, with a wink and a smile, her belief in Santa really does exist. “I saw him.”

"I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight, Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!” 
Thank you Joan for an illuminating “girls night out.