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A Switched-Off Christmas

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Martins Ferry, Ohio is a little town nestled close to the Ohio River. For decades it was a steel town, built up and brought low by the rise and fall of Wheeling Steel. When the smoke cleared and the barges left, my grandmother and grandfather built a little house on North 8th Street and settled in, raising my dad, and, later, making our holidays there just about the most magical times of my life.

I remember the blue-grey haze of Christmases in the Alleghany foothills: the hum of my grandfather’s television in the kitchen, the smell of cookies cooling on the formica counters, the happy hum of a family in repose.

There are actions that we remember, events that when repeated gained totemic significance. I remember my father turning off the radio as we approached Cambridge, outside of Ferry. We’d drive the last few miles in silence.

I remember getting out to pull open grandma’s garage door, the rumble turning into an echo of springs, the warm/sharp scent of the basement waking us up out of our reverie. I remember pounding up her old wooden steps and into her kitchen. I remember her face.

One Christmas I got an NES. I’d play it non-stop. I also got an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons book set. I read it from cover to cover. I watched too much TV, ate too much, spent most mornings and afternoons in pajamas. To be young, then, as they say, was very heaven.

It wasn’t all gingersnaps and joy. I grew up in the 1980s. We had good enough jobs, all my relatives, but there was little success. I didn’t know that times were hard, but they were. And I know age has blunted these memories, made them as soft-edged as sea stones. That’s fine.

The one thing that stands out is the quiet of those blue-grey memories. The love, the quiet discussions in the kitchen about nothing, the hiss of a football game on my grandfather’s old AM radio.

I miss a lot of that. I miss the feeling of disconnection that brought, the anticipation of future fun, the quiet evenings spent in my Uncle’s basement while the adults drank and the kids played bumper pool or read on rec room couches. I don’t want those days to come back, but I certainly am trying to build a similar world for my kids. We have a rec room, now, with scrap carpet on the floor and all their toys against the wall. We’re trying to keep TV and games to a minimum. We watched Elf recently. That’s about it.

I know it’s almost impossible to get those days back. Short of going somewhere with no Wi-Fi, no cellular connection, no Internet, there’s really no way to grab that feeling of contentment. We can try, in our own small way, but it’s hard.

But I think we have to try.

I remember a feeling I used to get as a boy. I’d be curled up on the floor and I’d imagine I was shrinking, like Alice. I’d get smaller and smaller, a thumb-sized being on an expanse of carpet. I don’t want that feeling back. Instead, I want the world around me to shrink down, to become more understandable, less jarring. I want to go five minutes without an email or a tweet or a plea by my son for a few minutes of play time on the iPad.

I want a world where the news is a dull buzz in the kitchen. I want a world where no one is paying attention to the newscaster because they’re all so happy and, after all, it’s the holidays. Nothing bad ever happens during the holidays and everything is quiet and still. I want that back.

That world is long gone. I know that. I wouldn’t trade it for this new one. But sometimes, when the light is right and the street outside is quiet and the blue LEDs flashing on a hundred devices are just out of sight, I can lie on the couch with a paperback and try to bring back that feeling of being cold and warm at the same time, of a morning full of promise and an afternoon full of fun. My hope, this holiday season, is that you feel that same way too, a way that brings what is gone back to you if only for a moment. That, I think, is the best gift of all.