Wednesday’s Child: Ritual Sounds
Well, gentle reader, the ball has dropped, “Auld Lang Syne” has been sung, corks have hit the ceiling and wishes have been made. “The year is no longer new,” as Pasternak said in a poem of nearly a century ago. “Another, newer, has been promised.”
Nursing my morning head will take awhile, possibly all the way through Orthodox Christmas next week and until the Old Russian New Year on January 13. As Robert Burns’ venerable text suggests, this is the time to reminisce rather than act, and memories, obedient to the call of the bagpipe, are now marching before my bleary eyes.
Skiing was mandatory on New Year’s Eve for all save my uncle, the poet Evgeny Vinokurov, who feigned skiing to the end of the path, just until he was out of his wife’s sight, and then walked through the woods, dragging the skis and the poles after him. An easy charade, as his skis were even more old-fashioned than ours, with leather stirrups into which the skier would simply insert his valenki, or boots of bulky black felt, and so in the end he could truthfully say to his wife that the skis had come off of their own accord.
The skis were hopelessly wooden, about twice as wide as today’s cross-country skis, and they stuck to the snow something fierce unless it was at least twenty below. To counter the sticking, a variety of pomades was to be used, color-coded according to the ambient temperature, so that if it was five below you used the orange stick, if ten the blue one, and so on. Needless to say, like all science’s attempts to make life smoother, none of them ever worked.
And yet this was a ritual, admittedly collateral, yet as permanent and convincing as those of the decorated tree, the dinner for which my mother spread our best linen, the sound of corks and crystal at midnight. Here in Italy, such collateral rituals are thick on the ground – in Rome, where old furniture is thrown out of windows to the street below with a joyous crash, or in Palermo, where the mayor’s reelection wholly depends on the grandiosity of the fireworks display. What can London or Paris, what can the vaunted First World, bestow upon their denizens to serve them and their children as childhood memories?
I miss my childhood. I miss it despite all the political and social conditions that surrounded it as night surrounds the flickering of a lone candle flame. Looking back, what made it what it was were the rituals, the fragmented heritage of tradition – some lost through natural attrition or entropy, others suppressed or misshapen into shadows of the original, a few as intact as a thousand years ago – rituals on which we rely to keep track of time and position ourselves in space. Above all I miss the skiing, and the snow that, when you have a pair of black felt valenki on your feet, makes a special sound with every step you take, as though somebody’s bitten into a crunchy apple next to your ear.
Here in Palermo it last snowed in the year I was born.