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HER WORLD

Silent Nights and Holly Days Aboard Ship Off Antarctica

December 24, 1989|JUDITH MORGAN | Morgan, of La Jolla, is a magazine and newspaper writer

The carols began playing over the ship's public-address system on the day before Christmas, and as usual, with those holiday tapes, every fifth melody was "The Little Drummer Boy."

Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum.

I sat alone by a window in the ship's lounge and, over the top of a book by the explorer Ernest Shackleton, I stared at the ice of Antarctica.

It was the most peaceful Christmas Eve I'd ever known; quiet, cozy, uncomplicated. No rushing. No shopping. No open houses. And too cold to go outside and play.

Across the lounge, three white-haired fellows were swapping travel tales. The odd exotic word drifted my way: Borneo, Sherpa, Xian. I saw that they were listening to each other. There is time for such luxury at sea.

A Christmas Eve without parades--just a line of crystal fog that drew an opaque curtain around our ship, there near the bottom of the world. I pushed my book aside and wrapped up in a blanket.

In the library, an Australian rancher was busy with water colors. The ship's doctor studied an atlas. A woman from the island of Sark scratched happily at post cards, which would not be mailed until we reached Chile in two weeks. ("Of course, you may post them at the Polish scientific station on the day after Christmas," our leader had said. "But they might not leave Antarctica until a supply ship comes in six months.")

Simple acts, if any at all, seemed called for. In my cabin, I cleared a space beneath the porthole and arranged five blue limpet shells that I had collected in the Falkland Islands. They were keyhole limpets, and I had found a beach littered with them, in lavender, rose and blue.

The fog moved closer. We were the center of a small ring of ocean. We were the keyhole in the limpet. We were the most people for thousands of miles, the 80 of us on that ship.

The fog was blinding bright, and when I turned away from the porthole, white circles followed, full moons that bounced on the walls and into the mirror, like the blue dots that burn in your eyes after a flashbulb pops.

But enough of drifting dreams. I remembered that I had one Christmas errand. I needed a snip of tape so that I could attach a sprig of Russell lupine to a sack from the Falkland Islands Company store.

The lupine was from the garden of a child named Poppy, whom I met on tiny West Point Island. She had handed me a nosegay as I left to sail farther south. Packages were adorned with blue petals and green stalks. It seemed wondrous in this world of icebergs and glaciers.

As I left for dinner, I saw that a California couple had come prepared. Printed cards on each door said: "From our cabin to yours, Merry Christmas."

A fir tree had been decorated in the lounge, and flickered with green and red lights. I wondered if it had traveled with us from Uruguay, where we began this journey; I had not seen many trees since.

We had breakfast in our cabin on Christmas Day: coffee and hot chocolate, bran muffins and orange marmalade, a ripe banana and pears. We traded gifts. I gave him a glacial blue marker pen and two linen towels showing Falklands maps and penguins. I also gave him a fisherman's sweater, knitted by the wives of Port Stanley.

He gave me snow-white long underwear, trimmed at the neckline with lace. Far too fancy for the Falklands general store, I thought, and then saw the Nordstrom label.

Christmas lunch was a feast of Smithfield ham and roast turkey, baked yams and pumpkin pie, homemade ice cream and baklava. It was borne by a Greek named Babis, who had brought our breakfast tray.

After the last hearty toast, we put on red parkas and walked out on the sun-splashed deck. It was warmer now, and snow was beginning to fall. Fat flakes stuck to our hair and wool gloves.

Music began booming from the loudspeaker.

Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum.

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