If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts
Mrs. Potter’s Lullabye, Counting Crows
By Ryan Hilligoss December 24, 2017
Every year, starting around Thanksgiving, I watch the same movies as part of my inherent OCD compulsion to make sense of the holidays and to help jog my memory on years past. The usual suspects appear in a continual lineup of holiday spirits: Christmas Vacation, The Family Man, The Family Stone, Scrooged, The Christmas Story and last but not least, Love Actually which I watch late at night, as I wrap presents while the rest of the family is sound asleep upstairs. I always save it for last because it moves me the most on many levels. The film begins and ends at airports with opening and closing montages of family and friends greeting their loved ones as they come down the exit ramps. As you see random strangers hug and kiss their friends and family, Hugh Grant, who plays the British Prime Minister says, “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.” Each time I see the movie and hear the line, I am reminded of one of the many things I miss about my, and our collective lives post 9/11: greeting our loved ones at the airport, or saying goodbye.
The above picture was taken late January 1, 1987 in Phoenix, Arizona. My brother Sean and I are waiting to fly back to St.Louis along with our father Robert Lee and we wait at the gate with our uncle Ronald Edwin Hilligoss and cousin Erin. Ron and Erin didn’t have tickets, they just walked with us to the gate, killing time and shooting the bull before we boarded. Ron is gone now, and so are those days of walking past security without a ticket to either greet or send of your loved ones. Sean, dad and I had just spent the last week in Phoenix visiting our grandparents, uncles, aunt and cousins for Christmas and New Years, the only time as children we spent Christmas away from home. I don’t remember much from that Christmas other than receiving a boomerang and running out in the park to try it, failing miserably. One thing I do remember clearly was driving out into the desert surrounding Phoenix, far enough away from the city lights, to clearly see Haley’s comet as it made its first return to our planet’s view since 1910. Mark Twain was born in 1835, the same year Haley’s comet visited prior to 1910, and wrote this, “I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” Twain indeed did live long enough to see its return and died the following day. We all drove out together in our grandparent’s RV, all of us crammed in together. When we got far away enough from the city, we pulled over, went and stood outside and gazed up in wonder and awe at a natural phenomenon.
As long as I can remember, our Christmases consisted of two events: Christmas Eve spent at home, just our family, three boys and mother and father, having a nice home cooked meal followed by the exchange of gifts among ourselves and then Christmas day, spent at home with our Aunt Glenda and Grandfather Hubert Barr and Grandmother Ivy Barr. We would exchange gifts and have a meal followed by visiting in our “Christmas room”. I call it our Christmas Room because other than Easter and maybe Thanksgiving, Christmas was the only day we were allowed to enter or sit in there. Enter on any non holiday and you could face the wrath of Madonna Sue. I don’t have any memory of my Hilligoss grandparents coming when I was a child but I know they did as I have the photograph to prove it. Uncle Ron was even there as well.
“The path through the woods became a magical journey. The two friends skied along in silence, stirred by the beauty surrounding them. When they stopped to rest, Puddle said, ” I wish I could take this morning and put it in my pocket and keep it forever.” Me too, “Toot sighed. “It’s perfect.”Toot and Puddle, Let It Snow, by Holly Hobbie:
Five years later, Ron would make another appearance in Godfrey for Christmas, or at least I think it was 5 years later, 1983. I do remember that in 1982, Sean and I received ET sleeping bags from our Aunt Glenda since ET had been released in June of that year and was a smash hit in the theater and merchandising was running rampant at Christmas time. Ron came the following year and was greeted with chilly temps and several inches of snow, very different from the much warmer climate of Arizona desert he was used to at that time of the year. The snow was a tremendous gift of mother nature to Kevin, Sean and I as we loved nothing more than going out and sledding for hours and hours on the surrounding hills. We’d be gone from daylight to sun down or until our clothes were too wet and cold, and we’d return home to dry off ourselves and outer wear and then head out again for more thrills. Back on this particular Christmas, after our large family meal and presets were exchanged and our family left to return to Springfield, Sean and I begged our mom to let us go out sledding. I am sure my mom’s patience was long gone after hosting and cooking, and quickly told us to get out and leave her alone. Sean and I quickly gathered our snow pants, boots, gloves and hats as the snow waited for us outside. Ron surprised us by asking if he could join. Sean and I quickly conferred in secrecy, finally agreeing to let our special visitor join us for some adventure.
We had several choices of hills: the gentle and smooth one 10 steps from our door in our next door neighbor’s backyard, a much larger and steeper version behind the nursing home at the top of the neighborhood or a much longer, more narrow, almost luge like track deep into the woods behind our house. We decided to test our Uncle and headed deep into the woods, each pulling our black plastic sleds by the lead rope, leaving a trail behind us in the deep, quiet snow. The woods have a small, shallow creek that winds behind the houses, leading for a long ways, eventually heading over the cliffs along the Great River Road and into the Mississippi River, 5 miles away. The creek was our passage way to our secret sled run. We walked in secrecy behind all the houses lit up against the gathering darkness as the winter sun descended in the late afternoon. Ron, being big, strong and athletic stayed with us, trailing slightly behind us, as Sean and I walked and talked, lost in the childhood thoughts of 9 and 12 year olds, speaking a language only the two of us could understand.
After walking for to us seemed like an hour, but was probably more like a 15 minute trek, we reached our destination, an empty creek bed, indented into the ground a few feet, with scrub brush and black locust trees looming overhead in the darkness, monsters in our imaginations. The run started at the top of small hill, twisted and turned several times, and quickly lost altitude as it headed toward the larger creek at the bottom of the hill. Sean and I went first, laughing our heads off as we gathered steam, landing in the creek and water after a few minutes of gliding over the snow, now glistening in the moonlight. After a few runs, Ron absconded with one of our sleds and set off on his own with both Sean and I sitting in the other sled chasing after our uncle as we hurtled down the hill slightly behind him. After repeating time after time, Ron said we should probably head home so he could take his insulin shot and eat some dinner. Thrilled and exhilarated and yet exhausted from two days of Christmas, we begrudgingly relented and started for home, using the creek to once again guide us home.
As we approached our house and began the slow walk from the creek to the top of our backyard, I remember vividly looking at the back side of our family home with all the lights on in the house illuminating the backyard and snow-covered ground. I remember seeing my mom in the kitchen window, the one in front of the sink, as she stood working as she always did, cleaning up the plates and dishes from our Christmas lunch. What she had been doing since we left the house is lost to time and memory, but I am hope she had a moment to herself, perhaps a nap, perhaps watching one of her favorite holiday movies or I Love Lucy or The Andy Griffith Show. Dad was probably upstairs in his man cave watching TV and Kevin was in his room, playing our joint Atari gift we had received the prior year. At that moment, as we approached the house, we two warriors of the snow, we two brothers and our beloved Uncle Ron, with the lights of the house glinting off the snow, with the tracks of or boots and sleds in the snow behind us, all we could need or want was right there next to us, in front of us, at least in that fleeting moment.