Dec. 26, 2011

The Old Life (Excerpt)

by Donald Hall

             December twenty-first
we assembled at the church festooned
             red and green, the tree
flashing green-red lights beside the altar.
             After the children of Sunday
school recited Scripture, sang
             and scraped out solos,
they retired to dress for the finale,
             to perform the pageant
again: Mary and Joseph kneeling
             cradleside, Three Kings,
shepherds and shepherdesses. Their garments
             were bathrobes with moth holes,
cut down from the church's ancestors.
             Standing short and long,
they stared in all directions for mothers,
             sisters and brothers,
giggling and waving in recognition.
             Then at the South
Danbury Church, a moment before Santa
             arrived with her ho-hos
and bags of popcorn, in the half-dark
             of whole silence, God
entered the world as a newborn again.

Excerpt from "The Old Life" by Donald Hall, from The Old Life. © Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Four thousand mourners attended a funeral for George Washington on this date in 1799. He had died of acute epiglottitis — a severe infection of the throat — at his Mount Vernon plantation on December 14, and we know a great deal about his final days, due to his secretary Tobias Lear, who kept a record of events as they transpired. Washington, three years into his retirement from service as the first president of the United States, was nevertheless busy with the running of his plantation. On December 12, he had ridden out to inspect the farm. The weather turned raw, with sleet, snow, and wind; Washington was out in the elements for five hours, and, returning late, went to dinner in his wet clothes because he didn't have time to change. The next day he complained of a sore throat that worsened as the day went on, although he still felt able to mark some trees for cutting. Before he went to bed, Lear suggested he take some medicine, but Washington preferred to let colds run their course. His motto was, "Let it go as it came." He woke his wife Martha in the wee hours of December 14, saying he was unwell, with fever and chills. He wouldn't let her disturb the servants to build up the fire until daybreak, though. The doctor was sent for, and tried many remedies on the former president: emetics, blistering poultices for his throat and feet, and various concoctions to soothe the throat, but by this time his throat was so swollen that he was unable to swallow or cough. He was bled four times, losing a total of about five pints. By the evening, he whispered to his doctors, "I feel myself going, I thank you for your attentions; but I pray you to take no more trouble about me, let me go off quietly; I cannot last long." At around 10 o'clock that night, Washington told Lear: "I am just going! Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead."

Washington's true funeral was held on December 18. He had stated his wish for a simple burial in his will: "[I]t is my express desire that my Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration." His family and friends could not let him go to his final rest completely without ceremony, however, and so his Masonic fraternity arranged a procession, complete with a military band and a parade of soldiers on foot and on horseback. Washington's horse was led along the procession route, its saddle empty.

The funeral procession in Philadelphia, attended by 4,000 mourners, was held on December 26. The result of a Congressional order, it was the first of many such observances held across the new nation in his honor. The procession also had a riderless horse and pallbearers who carried an empty coffin. Sixteen cannons were fired at daybreak, and every 30 minutes thereafter, until 11 o'clock a.m., when the troops and mourners began assembling at the State House. The procession made its solemn way through the streets of Philadelphia to the German Lutheran Church, accompanied by muffled drums.

Word of Washington's death spread. Napoleon Bonaparte, just named First Consul of France, gave a eulogy and ordered a requiem mass to be said for 10 days. In Britain, the flags of the Royal Navy's entire fleet were flown at half-mast. Alexander Hamilton called him "the man of the age." President John Adams said, "His example is now complete, and it will teach wisdom and virtue ..." and Abigail Adams wrote in a letter, "No Man ever lived, more deservedly beloved and Respected ... When assailed by faction, when reviled by Party, he suffered with dignity, and Retired from exalted station with a Character which malice could not wound, nor envy tarnish."

It's the birthday of poet Thomas Gray (books by this author), born in London (1716). He wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751), which is considered to be one of the greatest poems in the English language. The poem begins:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

It's the birthday of author Henry Miller (books by this author) born in New York City (1891), who wrote Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Black Spring (1936) while living in Paris. Both novels were banned in the United States for obscenity. Miller said "Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music — the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself."

It's the birthday of David Sedaris (books by this author), born near Binghamton, New York (1956). He grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. He moved to Chicago and made a living painting apartments, squirrel-proofing houses, and working as a house cleaner. Then, in 1992, he read his essay "The SantaLand Diaries" on NPR's Morning Edition. It was extremely popular. He signed a contract with a publisher, and his books of essays were huge best-sellers — Barrel Fever (1994), Naked (1997), and Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000). David Sedaris has kept a diary for about 35 years. He makes one for every season, and each one has a cover. He says, "It's a lot of work for something no one's ever going to see." His latest work is a book of illustrated fables about animals, called Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary (2010).

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