As for me, yesterday was a very nice Christmas as Christmases go; the family came and we ate to excess and opened presents and went to Mass, although not necessarily in that order. Christmas Mass invariably brought on the usual theological debate with myself; should I really go to a ritual when I’m not entirely sure I believe any of the theology that goes with it, but for the peace of the day I went and enjoyed the music; we had bell ringers doing the hymns, along with the piano and the violin—the music there at my mother’s church is invariably better than the music at the church I usually go to and debate the existence of the Deity. I don’t go there (to my mother’s church, I mean) because of all the modernistic flourishes, and there are a lot of them; the place is a big commuter barn designed to pack the maximum number of bodies into the pews. The church I usually go to is one of those old red brick churches put up by Irish immigrants in the 19th century. It’s smaller than my mother’s church and, to me, the place looks the way a Catholic church ought to look, complete with statues and pews designed for human beings and not for some particularly pious species of sardine. My mother’s church doesn’t have that many statues and the Stations of the Cross, which, for the non-Papists here, are representations of incidents in the Passion of Christ, are a sort of bas-relief along the back wall that could be limning the Passion or could be a series of universal safety signs warning the especially inattentive passerby to please watch their step. The Archdiocese built this modernist monstrosity during the 1960's, in the full heat of Vatican II, when church architecture in this country took a decided turn for the worse, because overly ecumenical Catholics wanted to convince your average American Protestant that Roman Catholics were just like Southern Baptists, only more organized and with a snappier wardrobe. At the church I usually go to here in our happy little burg the Stations are larger, Jesus looks like he’s really getting stomped on, and the Romans all look like they're auditioning for bit parts on The Sopranos just in case this whole Pax Romana thing doesn’t work out.
In any case, after Mass we all trooped over to the cemetery to visit my father’s grave. He’s still there, of course, and we decorated the grave with a Christmas wreath and put the usual couple of pennies on the top of the tombstone, the two coins being a symbolic representation of the two cents my father would feel the need to put into any conversation occurring in his immediate vicinity. Down at the end of the row, just past one of my father’s best friends and just across the road from the grave of a guy who used to beat me senseless in grade school just for the fun of it, on this most dank and drear Christmas day, a man in a parka, hat, and gloves lay on a beach chair reading the Modern Library edition of Marcel Proust’s In search of lost time, specifically the volume II of that great work, Within a budding grove, wherein the Narrator, Marcel, experiences the anguish and delight of young love. He seemed totally engrossed in Proust’s classic, although I must admit I do not know why anyone would choose to read Proust in either a paperback or hard cover edition while lying on a beach chair in the middle of a cemetery on an otherwise cold and miserable Christmas day. There are far worse places to read Proust, as you might imagine, and on the whole, cemeteries are a fine place to read, the residents being a usually courteous lot not given to disturbing the serious reader. The man was still there when we left; we passed him as he lay on his beach chair, nodding to him as we passed and saying, Merry Christmas. He returned the sentiment of the day, and as we left, he turned the page and returned to the warm sunshine and bracing sea air of Balbec and Marcel’s first meeting with Albertine.
I suppose the man reading Proust had as much right as anyone else to read Proust in a cemetery; it’s a free country, after all, and within sight of my father’s grave are the graves of soldiers of every one of America’s wars, men who died for the right of every American citizen to read Proust whenever and wherever the desire to read Proust might strike them, even in a cemetery in the middle of winter, but there are times when I can’t escape the feeling that I am the odd American character in some cosmic Fellini film and that everyone in this picture can see the subtitles explaining what’s going here while I wander aimlessly about trying to remember my lines and not bump into the furniture.