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War and Peace

One December, when our three daughters were very young, my wife Lynne and I hosted the English Department's Christmas Party, and the Dean came, Janet Portolan, and Jane Armstrong, the College's Vice President of Instruction.

Now at this time, it was common at Department parties for there to be a "literary trivia" contest, with questions put to all who were interested by Larry Keough, who told me once that a graduate school friend of his, upon finding out that Larry had planted his flag at a community college, sniffed archly and drawled, "Academic Siberia." Later on, of course, Larry went blind from diabetes, and his wife and he used to drift across campus on their way to his car like down-on-their-heels ghosts of another era. Yet Larry’s students loved him even when he was blind, and all signed a card saying so, which he received and heard shortly before he died.

But all that happened later, and at this time, Larry was our master of the questions, and most of the Department participated, with wine and party food and a genial atmosphere, often at the home of Lis and Leon Leyson, about the time Lis was chair of the Department and before anyone knew that Leon was a holocaust survivor, the youngest person on Schindler's list. Now it seems like a dream time, wrapped in a warm and convivial glow. And at the end of the trivia quiz, someone won like Herb Guthmann, who may or may not have received a token prize of some sort, and conversation recommenced in small groups all over the house, or outside where Bruce Henderson would explain that in China there wasn’t a man in the moon, but a bunny rabbit, and we all looked to see, while Christmas and maybe Hanukkah music filled in the background.

And so, one party at the end of the semester, as I said, was at my wife’s and my home, and we had a theme. Everyone who came was to bring a reading appropriate to the season, and after food and wine had done their work, we gathered in our newly carpeted living room, with many people sitting on the floor because there weren’t enough chairs in the house, so we settled in to see what tidbits or treasures everyone had brought.

But first it was "good night" to Lynne's and my three daughters, who surprised everyone by so willingly and charmingly saying their good nights and then retiring without a complaint to their room, where their nightly ritual of going to bed ended as usual with the girls and I saying, " And good night to Shakespeare, planting his garden," because we had a poster with that theme on the wall, courtesy of the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival.

And I remember they were joined at bedtime that night by Sheilagh, daughter of Mark Knoernschild and his wife Elizabeth, who came to our party and in later years became famous for the fabulous Department/Division/College dinner parties at their home, with Mark bustling in the kitchen, producing culinary gems as if he didn’t have a clue how he managed to do it.

Jane Armstrong read from Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: "Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Don’t take things that aren't yours. Clean up your own mess." Jane always supported her people and she always had her eye on the good of the college and the students, too. When Jane retired, Humanities Dean Janet Portolan made and distributed a little pamphlet she called "The Book of Jane," with "lessons" for all in it like "Show support and concern for those with whom you work," and "Put people first, paper second," and "Demonstrate compassion because excellence is sometimes caring more than others think wise." I've kept "The Book of Jane" in my office or my class notebook ever since.

As everyone shared their stories, poems, and snippets, the outside world seemed to fade away, and a comfort took over that I only remarked on later, when it had passed. I remember I read "A Child's Christmas in Wales," where Dylan Thomas "at the rim of the carol-singing sea," recalls "the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver."

Lynne and I had named our first daughter Caitlin, after Dylan Thomas’s wife, before we had read Ms Thomas's autobiography and found she wasn't the lovely and romantic figure we had imagined, but it was the Caitlin Thomas that we had imagined that gave us our Caitlin's name, in any case.

When I was in college in rural Massachusetts, one winter a professor had read "A Child's Christmas…" to a crowd of students, professors, and townspeople in one of the old stone and wood-paneled rooms, with everyone trudging through snow and steam coming off their coats when they got inside, and where the college provided mugs of hot cocoa, and we sank back into Thomas’s childhood for a time, while having a singular moment of our own lives, had we been able to notice it.

I had always intended to have a reading like that at Fullerton College one December, but so far have not made it happen. I guess there's always next year. Carpe diem. But then Jim Armstrong went next. At one time he had been married to Jane, both of them on the rebound from other broken relationships, I was told, and always cordial with each other now that they had gone their own ways. And for me this reading by Jim was the highlight of the evening. He said it wasn’t about the season but that somehow it seemed right, and he read a chapter from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. To this day I have not read that book, and to this day I am glad I heard Jim read that chapter. For some reason, Lynne’s and my children toddled out of their bedroom, and Sheilagh with them, just as Jim began, in their old-fashioned nightgowns as I picture it, and they sat silently on the floor with everyone else as he read. I think there was a feeling of community.

If anyone there felt then or later, "Oh, no, he’s reading from War and Peace," I didn't sense it then or hear of it later, though times change and people with them, so that after a while the quizzes disappeared, and the parties changed, with some people wanting to dance, and the music changing, and a little more emphasis on hard liquor and trying to ride a razor skateboard down the street when nobody was in condition to do it.

Good times, to be sure, but good as they were and are and no doubt will be, for me no single night since has equaled the night we all sat on the living room floor and heard War and Peace for the holidays.