This problem is phrased hypothetically
and — as it rhymes — quite poetically
“Stopping by Woods”
might deliver the goods
but just if you look alphabetically
We were surprised, but on the list of things our children remember from childhood, Christmas limericks are near the top. Our “kids,” all in their 50s now, flew in from various far-flung exotic metropolises to spend Christmas in St. Petersburg, which is, after all, an “Arts Destination City” — though they think of it basically as a “Mom’s Cooking Destination Kitchen.” Of course, different versions of family stories arise, but they’re pretty united about Christmas itself: they all remember the little folded limericks left in their stockings with hidden clues leading to a secret gift, usually a modest bill, though like Social Security it’s gone up about 1½ percent a year. Most of these poemlets are lost to time, or at least to attics, but a few recently surfaced, including the one above, which our son Pete once pulled out of his miniature stocking, strung with the others above our fireplace.
To solve this riddling limerick, Pete — a scientist — had to remember two things: One, that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a poem by Robert Frost; and two, that unlike most of our bookshelves, the tall mahogany one in our living room is crammed with alphabetically ordered poetry books. He solved this one pretty quickly, finding a gift card on page 224 of The Complete Poems of Robert Frost, squeezed between Edward Field’s Counting Myself Lucky and Roy Fuller’s Collected Poems. (Fuller, not known much in America, was a slyly clear-eyed British poet, as in the opening of his “Follower’s Song”: Oh to be simple and give the salute, / To be hopeful and happy, / For life to be sucked through the root / And the branches sappy …)
When our children grew up and got married, their wives and husbands got pressed into this ritual, usually harried into confusion by contradictory hints from their extended family. Tim’s wife, Aya (born in Tokyo), was studying French when she got this murky one:
This present is hidden en haut
where your beau-père might scribble his mots
There’s no one to blame
but still it’s been framed
near the Seine or behind or below
Aya had to know the French — en haut = upstairs, beau-père = father-in-law, and mots = words — in order to go up to the room where I write. There she found on the walls a lot of framed artworks, one of which is an etching of a Parisian book stall, with Notre Dame in the background and a glimpse of a river between them. Aya, having been to Paris — probably walking by that exact stall — knew the river was the Seine, and found her present behind the etching. Des bravos!
These games are less embarrassing than they could be, because they’re always accompanied by traditional cups of eggnog under our also traditional decorated tiny live tree. Now this was embarrassing while the children were students at Lakewood High School. They referred to it as our “annual Christmas bush,” because their friends always asked, sarcastically, “Well, what kind of bush are you getting for a Christmas tree this year?” Fortunately, our charming handmade pine-cone Christmas wreath — made by Betty, my dad’s third wife — generally went unnoticed.
But these little ditties were popular enough that they began to appear at other celebratory events, such as this one for our daughter Gretchen’s high school graduation, when she found an envelope on her bed.
Today other girls get a Porsch
a stereo a pearl or a horcsh;
It’s really embarrassing—
We can hardly give anything
(except for some casch but of corsch)
Happy Holidays to everyone! Eggnogsch all around!