Looking at Dickens’ Christmas Stories…Part I
It is a Saturday; I’m on campus from 8 – 2, usually a very quiet time. I do my rounds, chat with visitors, touch base with our adjuncts teaching weekend classes. It’s mid-November and the grounds are gasping their last autumn glory; there’s a path leading to a bench, nestled in bushes whose leaves are the same exact coppery shade as the bricks of the path. The bench beckons, on this warm autumn day: what a perfect place to sit with a book.
But I have work to do; I head back to my office.
My husband, Mark, has a wonderful mission this weekend: he is going back to his hometown, Brocton, New York. There, Angelo, Mark’s dad, will receive the medals he never got after World War II. Angelo is 94. The snag in the awarding of the medals is a mystery, but the local authorities are excited to make up for it as a Veterans’ Day remembrance and a personal surprise. Mark’s mother, Pat, three of his siblings and their families, our oldest guy, Matthew, daughter-in-law Julie, and their girls, will join in the ceremony at the local American Legion. Some of Angelo’s brothers will also be honored, along with other men who served. The crowd will be full of nieces and nephews, cousins, and friends.
Because of work and an unshakeable Sunday commitment, I can’t go, so just around lunch time, Mark drops our son Jim off at the college. Jim is 24 and a part-time student, and he has autism. He might have gone to his grandpa’s ceremony, but we’ve traveled quite a bit in the last two months, and Jim’s routine is off. He needs a weekend to re-adjust, sleep in his own bed, to gather his bearings, as they say, and to decompress just a little bit.
Jim goes to a cubby and hammers out his homework while I catch up on desk-work, clean out my email messages, return calls, and take my little campus tour again. By then it’s almost two; I clear my desk, and it’s time to go.
In the car, I tell Jim about an event that’s happening that night. The great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens, Gerald Dickens [Gerald Roderick Charles Dickens, to be absolutely precise] is doing a one-man show in nearby Cambridge, Ohio. Jim is familiar with Cambridge; my college has a campus there, which he’s visited. And last Sunday, after a rambling family road trip, we stopped off in Cambridge to visit a store I’d heard about. Its name is ‘Nothing But Chocolate,’ and they make one of the best peanut butter cups I’ve ever tasted.
They also had the Victorian figures up.
Every year Cambridge creates a Dickensian village on its downtown walkways; community leader Bob Ley conceived the idea in the early 2000’s, and villagers pitched in to create the statues and clothe them. There are literally hundreds of Victorian vignettes–carollers, courting couples, impish boys, prim ladies, rugged workmen–on Cambridge’s winter byways. So it’s a perfect place for a Dickens-themed event.
“That,” says Jim,–of the one man show–“sounds really cool.”
“I’m thinking of going,” I tell him. “Do you think you’d enjoy something like that?”
“Oh, yeah,” he says without hesitation. “I’d love to go.”
Jim is a movie buff, but his taste runs to action/adventure dramas–he loves the whole new evolution of Marvel and DC superheroes–and eerie, Stephen King-type stuff. He’s a sucker for a good fantasy, and that’s a family weakness; we’re all eagerly awaiting the Christmas release of the last Hobbit film.
But outside of that, it’s hard to tell what he’ll enjoy. Surprisingly, he loves the musical comedy Mama Mia; A Good Year is a favorite rom-com. But he hated The King’s Speech–couldn’t make it through the first 15 minutes. And, other than a few concert-musical type productions he was involved in during high school, I don’t think he’s ever really been to live theater.
So we straighten up the house a little when we get home, check in with the dad; I do a little reading, Jim plays a video game, and we grab a light dinner. By then it’s dark; freshened up, we head off to Cambridge, about half an hour away.
The parking lot at the community center is pretty full, but there are plenty of ‘at-the-door’ tickets. The lady at the table–she’s beaming in a black bonnet and a velvet jacket (I would love to be able to say her long skirt is bombazine, but I wouldn’t know bombazine if it buzzed me. But I do know that it was a thing back in Victorian times–and it’s such a wonderful word…)—gives us glossy souvenir tickets on which Gerald Dickens’ costumed picture is emblazoned. She gives us, too, business sized cards with his blog address, geralddickens.wordpress.com, in case we want to follow him on the road. She tells us it’s open seating and to help ourselves.
In the roomy auditorium, the stage is brightly lit. An old fashioned arm chair sits front and center with a little round table next to it. There’s a coat rack with a top hat and a long woolen muffler hanging from it. There’s a plain wooden stool.
“Huh,” says Jim, and I can’t tell if that’s dubious or impressed. We find seats on the right side, in the further-back half, with ample escape room should we need it.
Our timing was good; we have just a few minutes to page through the 2014 Cambridge Visitor’s Guide before the beaming bonnet lady strides up to the stage and asks for our attention. The Queen, she says,–Queen Victoria, that is, of course–will be seated now; would we all stand?
We lumber to our feet, and a diminutive lady, regal in Victorian dress and laden with the golden burden of office, appears on the arm of a solemn, stiffly tall escort. Her round face is merry. She surveys the room, left to right and back again; then the couple begin their royal descent toward the front of the auditorium.
We begin to clap. The little queen takes her time, bowing kindly, waving that stiff little wave that royals seem to be born knowing. The little procession progresses calmly; when the regal couple reaches their destination, she turns, smiling, waves once more, and is seated.
“Please take your seats!” says the Bonnet Lady, and after the seating shuffle, she introduces Gerald Dickens. He’s a man, she says, who wanted nothing to do with acting–or with the ‘family business’– until he did some readings in the 1990’s at a friend’s behest, and discovered he loved it. Tonight, she tells us, Dickens will singlehandedly act out the entire story of The Christmas Carol.
“Huh,” says Jim again.
Gerald Dickens bounds on stage, and the timeless story immediately begins.
Dickens is Scrooge; he’s Marley; he’s the poor guy trying to get a donation to the “Keep ‘Em Out of the Work House” fund. The table is Scrooge’s desk; the stool is Marley’s perch.
Dickens is all over the stage; he strides, he threatens, he cowers. He whips from place to place as he acts out dialogue. When his character is female and the scene requires, he simpers and minces. Somehow, even with his dark, dark beard and shining bald pate, it works.
Next to me, Jim, who never took his jacket off, leans on the back of the chair (thankfully vacant) in front of him. He’s thoroughly engrossed.
The story unfolds; Dickens seems to expand and shrink depending on the part he plays. His first spirit is child-sized,and reaches up for Scrooge’s hand; the second is large and lumbering, and Scrooge must reach up to touch his robe. On an almost empty stage, with a few spare props, a talented man brings vivid pictures to my mind.
For 90 minutes he enthralls us; we hold our breaths through the graveyard scene, laugh at Scrooge’s goofiness on finding he hasn’t missed Christmas, after all, and we stand for rousing applause after the final, “God bless us–every one!” The Bonnet Lady and another, similarly garbed, come on stage with a glittering glass ornament,made by a local glass-maker, for the actor. Dickens accepts it graciously, and they promise they will wrap its fragile beauty so well it will have no trouble traveling back to England with him. And it’s over, although we’re invited to stay and have Mr. Dickens sign our special tickets.
“No, THAT’S okay,” says Jim, and we are the first ones out to the parking lot–not a bad thing. We slip out before the heavy traffic hits, and we’re on the interstate, headed home, in a wink.
“That was great!” says Jim. “Did you see the Queen? That was cool, huh?”
It was cool, I agree with him completely, and I am so thrilled that he enjoyed the show. This introduction to theater will open the door to new adventures for him–possibilities expanding just a little bit.
We stop at the store for dessert, since dinner was light and seems long ago, and take our ice cream and frozen yogurt home. After the little dog and I take our nightly constitutional, I come home and hit the bookshelves.
“Don’t we have a Dickens omnibus?” I ask Jim, and he says, yes, absolutely; he pauses his game, sets down his controller, and makes a beeline to the book, which he pulls down and hands to me. It’s A Charles Dickens Christmas, and, in addition to A Christmas Carol, it has The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth. This week, I think, I’ll read those other Christmas stories. I vaguely remember a recorded presentation of Cricket on TV in the 1960’s or ’70’s, but I can’t remember the story. And The Chimes is completely new to me.
Mark is home by 9:00 the next night, with photos to share and stories to tell. He had a wonderful time at a wonderful, once in a lifetime, tribute.
The next day, we stop at the library and I pick up a slender biography of Charles Dickens. I’ll use it as the background music to my reading of the Christmas stories this week. When Jim notices the volume, he begins to tell his dad all about the evening, from the arrival of the queen to the antics of the actor to the presentation of his special, handmade glass gift.
“It sounds like you had fun,” says Mark. And Jim agrees, twinkling.
“It was the BEST of times,” he says.
I’m looking forward, this week, to reading The Chimes, which Dickens billed “A Goblin Story.