view counter

Christmas Memories

Finding — and giving — refuge from the storm

The deaf cat, a skinny princess getting on, could not hear her own purrs, nor our learned conversations above her head, at a festive gathering in a lovely house on St. Leonard’s Creek beyond Jefferson Patterson Park.
    Though I demurred, our hosts, Stovy and Anne Brown, pushed the cat (code named Lady Godiva) off her chair so I could sit down. This untoward act of displacement required my offer of lap and a good caressing. For an hour I warmed her elderly feline bones, did not murmur baby talk she could not hear nor mind she left beige hairs on my black slacks.
    Since my aged white angora Pusscat died, I’m delighted when other people’s cats honor me. Siamese she was, this frail kitty.

Chicago 1939

    Siamese too, or rather Thai, the destitute human my father rescued in a long-ago blizzard. Driving in the snowstorm, my father, noticed a slight figure in an odd district of town. He stopped and found a foreign student searching for a flophouse. Over Christmas break, the university dormitory closed, the student had no place to go but the back streets of Chicago. And these were Depression years.
    Turned out the stranger was a young prince from what is now Thailand. Sent to study in America, his funds had soon run out. My father brought him home to a couch shared with our angora tabby, King Tutankhamen, who warmed him all Christmas week.
    My father sometimes sang the Old Russian song of the Caucasus: Each guest is sent to us by God, no matter how torn his shirt. He believed that principle and put it into practice. I, in turn, was thrilled by all the assorted guests around my parents’ table, including the Siamese.
    I kept that couch for years, for other strangers and cats, and many a Christmas it was occupied by guests of many nationalities and languages. In Greek, I learned, the word for stranger and guest is the same: ksenos or xenos.

Twice Round the World

    Did my Russian émigré father, George Leonidovich Artamonoff, tell his guest how during Russia’s Civil War he trudged snowy battlefields seeking safe shelter? Or how, escaped from Sebastopol onto an American ship, he reached Ellis Island midwinter — penniless except for the $20 bill lent by a sailor from somewhere in Maryland so he would not appear a destitute refugee? Once the $20 bill gained my father entrance to the United States of America, he returned it to the generous, but almost-as-penniless, sailor.
    My father hitchhiked to Washington, where he landed a job at an auto-body repair shop, and at night attended George Washington University. My father was merely related to princes, but because an American admiral befriended him, he received invitations to Christmas dinner on an elegant estate above the Patuxent.
    That house belonged to journalist and Washington Times-Herald editor, Cissy Patterson, and has since become Jefferson Patterson Park, near where, in 2010, I sat in a borrowed chair petting the Browns’ deaf Siamese cat.
    A scholarship for foreign students sent my father to Yale for electrical engineering. For two winters, he slogged through storms and shoveled coal, tutored calculus and French, and wound all the university’s numerous clocks, survival jobs to pay for meals, books and clothes.
    An electrical engineering degree in 1923 plus some business instincts and a penchant for new ideas and new languages took him in time via the balmy Philippines to snowy Chicago, where at Christmastime 1939 he first encountered his Thai student-prince.
    When my father’s job took him to Thailand, the prince, doing well, greeted him warmly. I, beside the icy Patuxent in St. Mary’s County, again missed him and envied my parents’ Christmas in Thailand.

Another Turn of the Wheel

    Christmas of 1982 was incomplete with the absence of my younger son. In Syracuse, New York, Alexander George Ritchie stayed to finish late exams and overdue term papers. By the time he could head home, a blizzard had closed in. All other students departed, the dorm was locked in and out, the heat down to a minimum.
    Alexander threw his suitcase out the dormitory window, then jumped into the growing snowdrift below. With $20 in his pocket and no friends left in Syracuse, he trudged through the snow to the nearest open door, the veterans’ hospital, and phoned us collect.
    “Go to their personnel office,” I suggested, “and volunteer. Institutions get short-handed on holidays. They’ll surely give you a meal and a bed in return for help on the wards.”
    His next call reported that instant volunteering was against regulations. Nor could he hang around till dawn when flights might resume. “Call back,” I said. “We’ll think of something.”
    Finally we located a fellow journalist in Syracuse, Ron Somebody.
    “Don’t worry,” Ron answered. “My wife cooked a huge dinner, but our relatives are snowbound in Omaha. Send your son along.”
    We phoned the VA hospital. Alexander had disappeared.
    Finally he phoned from a corner store near a housing project. An elderly African American had overheard his plight, led him back to his efficiency, served him tea — which was all he had — and offered him an extra mattress on his floor.
    “So I’m fine,” Alexander insisted to us on the phone. “With my 20 bucks I’ve bought groceries for my benefactor …”
    “Wonderful, but this Ron Somebody expects...”
    So Alexander presented the groceries to his first host, and several hours later made it through the storm to his second host’s house in the suburbs.
    Ron under another name turned out to be a leading television personality in Syracuse, and as Alexander was weighing a career in journalism, conversation that Christmas Eve was lively. By morning, the blizzard abated, flights resumed and — thanks to Ron’s loan for the airport taxi — Alexander reached home by Christmas afternoon.

Stock Up for Unexpected Guests

    This cold blowy afternoon in late 2011, cars grinding up and skidding down icy hills, inside my warm house I rush to the cupboards: Are they stocked for unexpected visitors in blizzards? This is a lean season.
    Yet with local supermarkets vying to offer the best deals in oven-ready turkeys, I won’t have to tackle the turkey vultures who hang out in our jungle of sycamore trees, honeysuckle and poison ivy along the winding dirt road.
    I’ve stocked kibbles for the feral feline from the marsh, a shorthaired white kitten, tabby patches asymmetrical, lopsided, witness to generations of untoward trysts in barns up the lane. One skinny waif, nobody will claim her.
    Despite spousal disapproval (I don’t want to become attached to any more pets), she has willy-nilly adopted me.
    But as the Chinese say, Any cat who comes to your door as if following a yellow thread (perhaps only the cat can see) is a blessing, must not be turned away.
    Many a yellow thread, too fine for my all-too-human eyes to spot, has evidently led to my door. So I, too, rescue strays in a blizzard.