Christmas without Beth

by Bernard Brandt

I’ve been staring at the above title line, off and on, for the last four hours. All the while, I’ve finally been putting up (on December 28th) the artificial Christmas tree that Beth and I would trim each year for the last fifteen or so years. Oh, well, what the Hell. Time to begin.

Actually, the Christmas season itself was good. St. Andrew’s in El Segundo, CA, where I serve the Divine Liturgy as a singer, had a full set of Vespers for each Saturday during the Nativity Fast (15 November through 24 December). Alas, I don’t think I made any of those. By Saturday afternoon each time, I got elaborately drunk, and thought it best not to try driving over from my home in San Pedro. But on Sundays, choir and congregation would weekly sing a stanza of the Akathist to St. Nicholas, and so I managed to make some progress. Not much, though.

I finally figured out what was causing the problem on Saturdays. I would go over to Ride to Fly to volunteer there, in order to help the group for whom Beth had become a riding instructor. And there, I would have the strange vertigo which comes from feeling her presence, and yet having her physically absent. The result was so painful that I had to self medicate. As I generally don’t like or see doctors, and I don’t like pills or pot, beer and wine were and remain my drugs of choice. I have at least learned (generally) to avoid hard liquor: the consequences are even more painful than the reason for self-medication.

I was expecting the week before Christmas to be painful as well, but people were kind enough to help out. First, Fr. Alexei, my parish priest, arranged for Nativity Royal Hours to be served on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of that week. I’d go over and sing them with Gabriel Meyer, our choir director, and occasionally one of our other singers, and as I did and do not wish to get a DUI these days, I’d generally not drink until I got home, at around 9 p.m. A couple of beers (Newcastle Ale, if you must know) would be enough to get me asleep by 10 or so.

On Thursday, Christmas Eve day, we had the Compline and Matins of Nativity to sing, and then a Holy Supper afterwards in the evening. It has long been my custom to prepare a whole Salmon in Aspic to provide for the Supper, and this year was no exception. I’d gotten all the other ingredients on Tuesday, and the fish itself on Wednesday evening. I spent that Wednesday cleaning up my mother’s house for the Christmas day party and dinner, went to Cap’n Kidd’s Fish Market in nearby Redondo Beach, had the fish put in the poacher I’d brought with me, iced it up, went to St. Andrew’s for the last of the Royal Hours, and then home to get the fish (Levi, short for Leviathan) put to bed in the refrigerator for the next day’s cooking.

So, on Christmas Eve morn, I did the prep work, poached Levi, and began the reduction of the court bouillon in which he had been poached, all while listening to the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. How glorious it was. Afterwards, I continued to listen to Christmas music on KUSC, prepared the jellied aspic from the reduced court bouillon, and applied no less than six layers of aspic to the fish, together with mock scales made from peeled cucumbers run through a mandolin. The only twinge happened when I wanted to tell Beth how beautiful it was, and then realized that she was not within earshot.

Compline went beautifully, and at the Holy Supper, everyone said that Levi was almost as glorious as the singing our quartet did at Compline. And the next day, we sang the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great for Nativity Day. And afterwards, I went to my mother’s house, and spent the day with my brother Bill, his son John, and my brother in law, Tim, preparing the feast that our whole family, including my mother, my brother Michael and my sister, Susan, shared. It was wonderful.

Even on the Sunday after Christmas, I had the Divine Liturgy, and afterwards, I went with my brother Bill, my nephews Richard and John, and Richard’s fiancee, Alicia, to see the most recent Star Wars flick. Even that was good (and it was very good indeed). And we all went to Korean BBQ afterwards.

But now it’s the Monday after. I know that we will be doing the Vespers for St. Basil the Great, on the eve of his feast day (January 1st). I’m going with a friend to see my first Rose Bowl the next day, and there will be the Royal Hours, the Compline and Matins of Theophany, and the Divine Liturgy and the Great Blessing of the Waters afterwards. I’m even going this evening to a friend’s house to have steak and potatoes. I should be happy.

Look! The Christmas tree is up and lit, finally. I wove the Christmas lights between the branches as I was putting them in, and they look glorious. For the rest of the Twelve Days, I will be trimming the tree, and it will stand until after the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord. Look, Beth, how beautiful it is.

Oh, I forgot. You’re no longer here.