Columns » Max Brantley

Goodwill toward men

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The Arkansas Times goes to press early for Christmas. I write Dec. 20, should something happen between now and the Dec. 26 issue date and you find the omission curious.

The weather has cooled. For a while, I feared a Louisiana-style Christmas. Invariably, my mother would give me a new sweater. Invariably, it was too warm to wear it. I've had another taste of old-timey Christmas this year — no rush to the season.

Regular readers know that I left Little Rock on Thanksgiving Day for a three-week trip to India. Part of my mission was a final resting place for the ashes of my mother, who died in Little Rock shortly before Christmas 1999. I had preserved a token part of her remains for a dreamed-of trip to India. Her life, and mine, had roots there.

An Army dietitian during World War II, mom was assigned to a hospital in New Delhi. It was there she met an Army sergeant from Louisiana. They married after the war and here I am.

I'm happy to report that I discreetly deposited those ashes in a bed of mums and marigolds at a New Delhi hotel built during the art deco period of the British colonial era. My dad took my mother to tea there during the war. Her thrift would have bridled at prices today at the restored hotel. It was the scene during our stay of a sumptuous Indian wedding. The groom's party arrived in ceremonial dress on white horses. A 30-piece brass band entertained. It took a full day to erect the flower arbors, stage, bars and other features of the event, set on well-manicured lawns. We ogled from a doorway, which won us an invitation to the party from the host. But we went to bed. A long ride to Agra and the Taj Mahal was on the schedule for early the following morning.

The sights, smells and sounds of India overwhelm the senses. Food, religion, dress, music and more are alien to a white-bread American. On the other hand, English is an official language and we were never marooned by a language gap. The sheer number of people, the poverty and potential stomach bugs give some pause. But we were wide-eyed throughout, never fell ill and rejoiced at a once-in-a-lifetime vacation along with personal mission accomplished.

The best part was arriving home a mere 12 days before Christmas from a place where Christmas is non-existent (except as an emerging commercial gimmick). I put up the Christmas tree Saturday, 10 days before Christmas. Ellen didn't finish the household decor until Dec. 19. At this very minute, we're still finishing off Christmas cards and shopping.

The compressed season brings excitement that is diluted, if not cheapened, by the minimum four-week run-up that now marks Christmas. For many, the season starts even earlier.

There's food yet to be cooked, returning kids to be prepared for. The time is so short I haven't yet begun to tire of the brass choir music and Charles Brown's Christmas album that are my go-to seasonal staples. Heck, I didn't play "Please Come Home for Christmas" for the first time this year until this very day.

The heightened seasonal happiness turned me away from unpleasant subjects this week — the punitive litany of legislation being ginned up by the new dominant Arkansas political force; the potentially game-changing revelation about yet another leading politician thinking with something other than his brain.

Instead, I choose to join Mr. Brown in sending salutations to friends and relations. It's the time of year to be with the one you love. If not by Christmas, by New Year's night.

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