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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 23

Are The Lights on at Palmer?

Like many of the northern states and provinces, Michigan is a showcase for all four seasons. Springs are lush; summer days are warm and long; autumn runs the hills in melancholy splendor; and winter brings hope of a white Christmas. But before that grand and frosty entrance, there's the empty in-between when trees are bare, skies are gray, and people huddle in winter coats with collars up and everything in place but snow, the consolation of the cold.

During those in-between days, there are two kinds of people: those who wish they lived where it was warm and those who look to the sky for snow. My mom and dad were in the latter group, and one by one, we children joined them there.

To this day, my mother gets goose-bumps at the very thought of snow, and when it actually begins to fall she is beside herself with glee, looking out each window with dramatic sighs and smiles. And once the snow begins to “stick,” she runs to the phone to call those who know the meaning of this magically mystic question: “Are the lights on at Palmer?”

It’s a question she grew up hearing on the phone more than sixty years ago when she lived on Forest and Riverview and could look north one block to see the lights at Palmer Park.

The ice rink itself cannot be seen from there. It's in a deep flat basin surrounded by sparse but sprawling trees. The ice is shaped roughly like a large Christmas stocking with the heel of the sock on the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Garfield, and at the toe of the stocking was a small shelter where skaters could gather to tighten laces or get warm around a pot-belly stove. (The old building has long-since been replaced by a nice facility.) On the far crest of the hill is a playground and picnic area, but the park is most beautiful when the basin is flooded and frozen and the surrounding hills are white and all the lights around the rink are glowing in the falling snow.

It was when the snowy night was perfect for ice skating that Mom’s friends would call and shout into the phone, “Are the lights on at Palmer?” Mom would run to the street to look. They were most often on during weekends, but week nights, if the lights were not on, it meant the ice was freshly "re-flooded" or not yet shoveled for skating.

But if the lights were on, it meant there was good ice, and music playing in the night, and the pot-belly stove in the Skate House was ready to warm your hands and seat. The news would spread from friend to friend, and soon they were all bundled up, laced tight, and twirling on the ice, and the whole scene looked like a giant jostled snow-globe.

The winter before, Mom was still at home when that first snow fell and the phone began to ring; this year, she was married and living a few miles away, when the snow began to fall the Friday evening after they brought home the Duncan Phyfe. Mom’s voice was bubbling over when she phoned home and ask the question for the first time.

“Are the lights on at Palmer?”
“Yes,” her mother replied with a laugh, “You’re the third to call. I wish you were here to answer the phone. It's starting to aggravate your dad. Everybody’s going skating. I told ‘em they could all come over for hot chocolate afterwards.”

And just like that the tradition changed from Mom taking the calls to making the call. It did not occur to her at the time that this ritual had become a tradition. But what else do you call it when that single question is passed on to your children and your children's children who heard it all their lives, and who even now call home to ask as the first snow falls, "Are the lights on at Palmer?" (though no one we know has lived near the park for more than thirty years).

But that night the question was not a tradition--it was asked in earnest, and Mom was giddy to hear the answer!

“Don, the lights are on at Palmer. Let’s go! We've got to stop by Mumma's to get my skates.”
“Are you sure you can skate… I mean what would Dr. Licker say?”
“He said I could still do anything I was comfortable doing. I’ll be fine. I almost never fall, and you’ll be right there with me if I do. Let’s go.”
"If you're up to it, I'm game. I sharpened my skates last week."

As they walked toward the park, they heard the faint music coming from the loudspeaker on the skate house. The following were among the "new Christmas hits" that have since become timeless traditional favorites that will forever remind us of Christmases past: Winter Wonderland was not new. It had come out in the 30's, but many of its recorded versions were new. Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" was not yet ten years old. He recorded "I'll be Home for Christmas" in the middle of WWII [this is a recent cover of the song], and his Melekalikimaka with the Andrews Sisters came out after the war in 1950. [Hawaii did not become the 50th state until 1959.] "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" was six years old. "The Christmas Song" was five years old. "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas" was four years old. "Let it Snow" was three years old. Gene Autry's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was two years old, and his "Frosty the Snow Man" came out in1950, along with "Baby It's Cold Outside," Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," "Blue Christmas"--not by Elvis but Earnest Tubb, and one of Mom's favorites, "Silver Bells." "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" had just been written and recorded that year (1951).

Mom and Dad were excellent “pairs” skaters, but that night they took it slow. Dad did all the backward moves. Most of the time they stood and talked with friends they hadn't seen it seemed for ages. It was just like old times to gather in that snow-globe, surrounded by all the familiar shapes of dimly-lit houses.

When it was time to go, they climbed the hill toward Forest, and held each other's shoulders as they put on their skate guards. Then holding hands, they walked under a canopy of bare tree limbs toward what was still for Mom the only place on earth that felt like home.


Blogger the walking man said...

OK cute chapter Tom but I am blaming you now for this white junk falling all over today, because you wrote about it,it came. Now you have to come and shovel my house out. I lost my gloves and it's to much for Joann to do.

Give me the long languid days of summer anytime over this mess. lol



16/12/07 7:50 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I thought it was kind of funny that I was writing this during our first big snow storm.
Last night, I called Mom over there near you and asked her, "Are the lights on at Palmer?"
She said it was just starting to snow. I took a half hour to shovel out this morning. The hardest part is digging out at the end of the driveway where the plow comes by and buries you in.
Even with all the work it brings...I love the snow!

16/12/07 10:12 AM  
Blogger HeiressChild said...

hi Tom, i am such a romantic at heart, and this is such a perfect chapter with your mom and dad taking it slow on the skates--his love & caring for her, and her trusting him to make sure she didn't fall. i love the family atmosphere of the town. i'm sure some smaller towns/cities somewhere still do things like this. in the larger cities, something gets lost.

17/12/07 11:50 AM  
Blogger HeiressChild said...

can you believe you've written 23 chapters already? i remember when you first got started.

17/12/07 11:51 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

There is a great place to skate just north of here. We went there twice last winter. I hadn't skated in an outdoor setting like that in many years, and it reminded me of Palmer Park.

It has been a long writing process. I'm sure the whole thing needs drastic revision, but I'm about to wrap it up for Christmas and the end of my folks first year together.
Thanks for sticking with it and prodding me along.
Have a great week before Christmas!

17/12/07 5:45 PM  
Blogger Dr.John said...

You paint such a great picture of your parents and their love.

17/12/07 6:27 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I have a Norman Rockwell snow globe of a couple skating. I gave it to my parents years ago. This image and that question are one of those unique family traditions that requires "knowing the story."

17/12/07 9:42 PM  
Blogger Tammy said...

This was so nice to read...I haven't read all your chapters yet, but I love that you're writing this about your parents.

And the songs from that time...this was parents' time also, so I grew up learning about some of them, and for some reason, even as a kid, I thought they were all wonderful.

Anyway, another romantic here, and loved picturing your parents skating together and the snow globe feeling it gave me. :)

18/12/07 2:04 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Glad you came by. It's amazing how many of the songs that have been recorded by so many artist through the decades came from this era--it's also amazing that the original recordings from the 40's and 50's are still played on the radio. Nostalgia at its best!
Thanks for "seeing it" with us.

18/12/07 8:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read this one and cannot wait to come back to read the ones I have missed. I missed the main one I was waiting for last week, but I plan to read a bunch all at once. Our family has had tons going on. I wish we had outdoor iceskating where we live.

19/12/07 6:47 PM  

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