Our parents were not inclined to sing Christmas carols or bake Christmas cookies shaped like stars or dress up as a fat bearded Nordic fellow. We had one Christmas tradition that I recall, and it was this: on Christmas eve we gathered round the fire and read aloud The Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke. About half way though – around the time Artaban bribes one of Herod’s soldiers with a ruby to spare the life of a child in their otherwise thorough Slaughter of the Innocents - Dad started weeping silently, and he didn’t stop until the story was over, when Artaban finally shows up in time for the crucifixion. Most of us managed a few tears for the ending, but nothing so consistent as my father’s waterworks.
In case you are wondering, Henry van Dyke (1852 933)- was a popular writer, Presbyterian minister, English professor at Princeton and Ambassador to Holland and Luxembourg during WW1. In 1908 he participated in a collaborative novel organized by William Dean Howells called The Whole Family; each chapter was about a different family member, except the last chapter, "The Friend of the Family," which van Dyke wrote. Henry named his son Tertius. He retired from Princeton in 1923 but stayed active by opposing current literary movements; he especially deplored the doctrine of “Art for Art’s Sake."
About three years ago, after suffering a series of strokes that wiped out much of his short-term memory and disrupted his equilibrium, my father called me on the phone (that in itself was uncharacteristic) to let me know that his neurologist had diagnosed him with IEED, Involuntary Emotional Expression Disorder. Apparently Dad had described to the doctor his tendency to weep at the slightest provocation – the arrival of Duke the dog, a grandchild performing a handstand, carbon offsets – or with no provocation at all, and the doctor had explained that this was a common sequela to strokes. Dad related this with the satisfaction we all take in receiving a diagnosis for a nebulous condition, in learning the name of the ephemeral. His delight was palpable, even extravagant.
So I didn’t say: But Dad, you’ve always done this.
I didn’t say: Ten years ago you cried whenever Mom cooked a leg of lamb. But you were stoic when your college roommate killed himself at the age of 50.
I didn’t say: Dad, this has nothing to do with the strokes.
I didn’t say: You’ve just forgotten that you always got sappy.
I didn’t say: Nothing has changed.
This year we will read The Other Wise Man again, because I long to imagine that traditions exist, and I will probably shed a tear before Artaban has even made it out of Persia.