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CRITIC AT LARGE

There's No Yule Like An Old Yule

December 26, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

A Boston columnist, a sort of Beantown Herb Caen I used to read with pleasure when I was in college, had an occasional feature he called "Thoughts While Shaving."

It struck me later as a useful device for those transient notions that may not be worth much more than a sentence and three dots. But more often than not, when I get ready to seize the passing perception, I discover that what I have been thinking is, "You missed a patch under the left nostril," or, "Even up the sideburns, dummy."

Yet there is one line that comes to me almost every time I shave. The narrator of Christopher Isherwood's 1962 novel, "Down There on a Visit," is as I recall either shaving or studying his face for further evidence of aging and decay, and he thinks to himself, "Who am I but a daily succession of statements to a mirror that I am I?"

This continuity of self--the painfully shy child, the yeasty teen-ager, the striving professional, still present, like stowaways, within the middle-aged man who gazes back at you from the mirror--is one of the small but pleasing mysteries of our days.

The Isherwood line is linked in my own reflections with the often-quoted opening passage from L. P. Hartley's 1953 novel, "The Go-Between": "The past is another country; they do things differently there."

The self who keeps insisting that "I am I" continues. Much else changes, including the prevalence and color of the hair; yet in some equally pleasing way, the past seems (deceptively) not really to have disappeared but to have relocated just out of sight, in another county if not another country.

The past is never more at hand, never closer, than during the Christmas season. You don't have to be Marley to believe in ghosts. Absent friends and distant streets and shops seem by some wishful trick of the mind to be just around the corner, in another room. It is not so much deja vu as toujours vu, I suppose: that holiday in-rush of all memory--cheerful, bittersweet, poignant, melancholy.

The persistence of the past is even more suffusing here in California, I've always thought, because for so many of us the yesterdays were truly somewhere else, across a continent, across a world.

I've by now spent more Christmases in Los Angeles than anywhere else, yet it is the hometown recollections that flood in: never more sharply, I must say, than on the recent sweltering and smoggy afternoon when I stood contemplating Christmas trees that already looked dry and exhausted but that, at $10 a foot, cost $75. (I moved on and kept looking.)

I suppose you could buy cut Christmas trees in Hammondsport, N.Y., but my memories are of chopping our own in the woods off the Winding Stairs Road. It is probably illegal now; it may have been then, but it was part of the Christmas adventure.

The Hammondsport that is fixed in memory is timed, of course, to the brief years of my early childhood. But the town is now organizing its researches into its longer, deeper past, and there is a Crooked Lake Historical Society, energized by a local archivist named Dick Sherer.

Possibly at Sherer's urging, a local native named Maurice Hoyt, whose father was a town druggist for decades, listed all the town businesses he could remember from the years 1900-1929.

The village has never had, I think, more than 1,200 citizens, though it was a trading center for the hills around. Yet Hoyt names among the enterprises four hotels, seven saloons, five grocery stores, 12 wineries, two blacksmith shops, one airplane works (Curtiss), three pool rooms and, to my astonishment, three silent-movie houses--one of them actually called the Bijou.

The Bijou, Hoyt indicates, was upstairs over the old firehouse, where, later, the town band used to rehearse. All three cinemas were gone by my day; the Park was the theater then, admission 15 cents as I saw in a photograph taken at the time of the 1935 flood. It was no wider than a storefront and it looked even smaller than I remembered (it, too, is long gone).

But it was where the magic began, and there are images from the movies and the serials I watched at the Park that stay crisply in mind, part of Christmas memory in this other time and other place.

I turn away from the mirror and the past (grateful the visible damage has been no worse than it is) to celebrate the present, and to wish you the best of all seasons and all the tenses.

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