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Beacon blog: May the season's memories bring comfort and joy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2010 - You may want to send this into the "Block That Metaphor" editor at The New Yorker magazine, because what I am about to write quite possibly will be silly. Nevertheless, risking disapprobation, it occurred to me, as I used my pocket knife recently, that this mysterious quality called memory is quite like those fascinating instruments that pack so much function into so little space.

The similarity to memory is this. A loaded pocket knife, the deluxe Victorinox SwissChamp for example, sports all sorts of blades, tools and gadgets - objects one might find useful, necessary or amusing. Same goes for memory. Open it up and who knows what you'll find that is useful, necessary and amusing.

The ominous side both of multi-function knives and memory is that, along with their good qualities, there are dangerous aspects fully capable of inflicting serious physical or emotional bleeding. Although those situations manifest themselves anytime of the year, during the holidays the emotional perils are especially evident, when the simultaneous experiencing of pleasure and sadness ("Look at this glorious ornament! My Aunt Sissy loved it so! Oops, she died in 1988.") is an emotional phenomenon served up hot and cold, all day long.

The memories that flow forth from the ritualized opening of the metaphorical knife of the unconscious send many people to bed to pull the covers over their heads simply to get through the 12 days that others find so enchanting. Lords leap not for those so afflicted, neither do the geese lay for them. Rather, what they see and fear so desperately is the snarling and nipping of the mythic creature Ernest Hemingway called the Black Dog, a canine that is no joke.

Fortunately for others -- and I hope this applies to you, gentle reader -- these days are indeed merry and bright and filled with the sort of wonder the holidays can vouchsafe so abundantly, indicating that St. Nicholas is performing his job exactly right.

One Christmas present the peripatetic old elf puts in my mailbox every year at Christmastime is a card from a fellow I met long ago when we were both students in Italy. The place was Florence; the time was June in the summer of 1967, the year following the catastrophic flood that ravaged the city in October 1966.

I was supposed to be studying a 14th-century Sienese altarpiece, but I quickly discovered the action was not up in the library at Villa I Tatti but with the restoration crews in the trenches in town, and so I signed on. A couple of young women staying in my pensione introduced me to some English fellows who were working with a team from the British Museum, cleaning books in the National Library in Florence. The library - the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze - was ravaged particularly because it sits directly on the banks of the Arno River.

Some of you may remember the night of Oct. 7, when that usually placid river burst into the of city of Giotto, Brunelleschi and Dante Alighieri and went on one hellacious rampage, destroying some of Western Civilization's greatest works of art. Those of us who volunteered to help were called "angeli del fango," angels of mud, because we worked to clean off the muck that clung to books, paintings, sculptures, frescoes, buildings, you name it. Although the memories of the devastation are like nettles, other recollections of that summer, simultaneously, are positively golden.

My angeli pals had an apartment in the Borgo Ognissanti, not too far from our work. It was our clubhouse, and we all hung out there, watching television and drinking a very cheap wine that had straw for a stopper rather than a cork. A fellow named Peter Tillotson was the unofficial leader of the pack. One day, a Charterhouse schoolmate of his who was studying at the university for foreigners in Perugia appeared, and he and I became friends immediately. That was almost 44 years ago, a reality written here with memory's pain-and-pleasure phenomenon heated to a rolling boil.

You've heard the expression, "We picked up right where we left off." Well, in the case of my Florence-found friend, Richard Apley, and me, we've never really left off, thanks entirely to his perseverance.

His annual card assures the seamlessness of the friendship. Prodded by his example, after learning what he and his family have been up to, I eventually respond and tell him about my life and my family. Every once in a while, there is a telephone call. There are no dead pauses. We have things to talk about, things remembered and things that are shiny-bright and new, like an ornament on a Christmas tree. We laugh and sometimes there are moments when we might feel like crying, though those are very few. In fact, the Black Dog does not pay him visits, as far as I know.

In spite of that assumption, I would challenge anyone to say his or her life has been without trouble or sadness. Certainly ours, Richard's and mine, have not been. But when I open the memory-storing  instrument, and tear open the Christmas-card envelope and celebrate how fortunate we are, the bad patches are smoothed over, for the moment anyway.

As grown men, Richard and I have wandered into places of relative peace. We do satisfying work. Our lives are filled with music -- some of his is created by his talented violinist son, Sam, a chip off the old block if ever there was one. All our children are smart, productive and intelligent, and we are proud of them. Mine, for example,  are teachers, qualifying them for status as noblemen. I have grandchildren, and they too are bright and shiny as tinsel. We are fortunate, Richard and I, to have life partners who put up with us, and seem to enjoy our company. We are lucky to have each other as friends of almost a half century, and we truly are beneficiaries of the memories we share. Because of all this, we can number ourselves amongst the genuinely fortunate.

Come day after tomorrow, all the fortunate who chose to can enjoy/deplore the excesses of the Day, but for me, the Christmas card from Britain truly is present enough. In it dwell the promised glad tidings, the comfort and joy of the season, compressed into a small and magical space like a pocket knife, but dynamic enough, useful enough to help me to reflect on memory and to learn from it, and to keep me moving, mostly merrily but sometimes not, through the joys and sadnesses of another guaranteed-to-be interesting year.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.