Tuesday

Mar. 10, 2009

Making the Best of the Holidays

by James Tate

Justine called on Christmas day to say she
was thinking of killing herself. I said, "We're
in the middle of opening presents, Justine. Could
you possibly call back later, that is, if you're
still alive." She was furious with me and called
me all sorts of names which I refuse to dignify
by repeating them. I hung up on her and returned
to the joyful task of opening presents. Everyone
seemed delighted with what they got, and that
definitely included me. I placed a few more logs
on the fire, and then the phone rang again. This
time it was Hugh and he had just taken all of his
pills and washed them down with a quart of gin.
"Sleep it off, Hugh," I said, "I can barely under-
stand you, you're slurring so badly. Call me
tomorrow, Hugh, and Merry Christmas." The roast
in the oven smelled delicious. The kids were playing
with their new toys. Loni was giving me a big
Christmas kiss when the phone rang again. It was
Debbie. "I hate you," she said. "You're the most
disgusting human being on the planet." "You're
absolutely right," I said, "and I've always been
aware of this. Nonetheless, Merry Christmas, Debbie."
Halfway through dinner the phone rang again, but
this time Loni answered it. When she came back
to the table she looked pale. "Who was it?" I
asked. "It was my mother," she said. "And what
did she say?" I asked. "She said she wasn't my
mother," she said.

"Making the Best of the Holidays" by James Tate, from Return to the City of White Donkeys. © Ecco Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1876 that the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, made the first successful phone call. He picked up the receiver and spoke to his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was in the next room. He said, "Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you." To his shock, Watson heard him. Later that day, Bell wrote an excited letter to his father. He wrote, "The day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid on to houses just like water and gas — and friends converse with each other without leaving home." In 1915, transcontinental telephone lines were finally completed. Alexander Graham Bell was part of the dedication of the lines in New York, and he called up Thomas Watson, who was now living in San Francisco. Bell said the same thing he had said almost 40 years earlier: "Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you." Watson said that it would take him a week to get there.

It was on this day in 1785 that Thomas Jefferson was appointed the American ambassador to France, succeeding Benjamin Franklin. Before his trip to France, the farthest that Jefferson had traveled from his home in Virginia was to Philadelphia. He loved Paris, and he was popular there, and made friends with many prominent people. His wife had died a couple of years earlier, so Jefferson took his two daughters along to Paris. And he also took two slaves: James Hemings, who trained as a French chef in Paris, and Sally Hemings, who came to take care of his daughters. Jefferson probably began his long-term affair with Sally while he was in Paris. He served as ambassador for four and a half years, until 1789, and 12 years later he became the third president.

The first Book-of-the-Month Club selection was published on this day in 1926.

It was the Lolly Willowes, by English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner. The Book-of-the-Month Club was the brainchild of Harry Scherman. He found that it was much harder to market new books than classics. So he invented the Book-of-the-Month Club, where a prestigious committee chose a book each month. That way readers could be sure that the book they were getting was worth their investment. Membership grew steadily, even through the Great Depression, and by 1966, the club had more than 1 million members.

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