walking slowly downhill
Eighty-fifth Day, December 6, Melbourne
Today is St Nicholas Day, the patron saint of Italian children and the mysterious visitor that comes overnight and leaves presents, so that when children wake on the morning of the sixth of December, there they all are, lined up on the windowsill, or on the kitchen table or under one’s pillow!
Why do I remember that St Nicholas falls today?
Not so much because of my memories of this day in Trieste, because I haven’t any memories of presents, just of the excitement at the idea that a saintly visitor might have graced our room with his presence, and then astonishment at the mystery of how he had managed to get in and out without forcing the door.
These are the questions that preoccupied me as a young child, even though I managed to glean after the age of five or so from the conversations that went on around me that it was actually parents and grandparents that gave the children the presents, though always in the name of St Nicholas.
To me it somehow didn’t make any difference because I felt that the love and good will and care still abundantly permeated the giving.
So, why do I remember this day each year? Because of a memory, or simply the fragment of a memory, of St Nicholas Day, December 6 1956.
It’s this; I am standing in the early summer sunshine in Smith Street, Collingwood, in front of a brightly coloured Coles store.
I am nine years old and my mother, who is thirty years old, stands next to me.
She is speaking with another young woman from Trieste; I know this because the conversation that is taking place is spoken in our dialect.
They’re talking about St Nicholas Day; how it seems to be ignored by everyone in Smith Street, no one seems to want to celebrate it.
My mother suggests that perhaps no one knows about it here in Australia; her friend agrees.
I am waiting in silence to see if the conversation will include a description of what my sister and I might receive, though it’s already way past the giving-time.
I especially try to listen hard for whispered, conspiratorial conversations that might include descriptions of tiny toys, but there are none.
That’s all; the two young women then exchange goodbyes and the three of us are on our way, heading together towards Gertrude Street.
So, I now realize, this is an amusing memory; a memory of something that didn’t happen, of a present my sister and I didn’t receive, of an empty space on a windowsill.
But there is a tiny fragment of light in all this, a redemptive ray shining from the eyes of St Nicholas, that I imagined was watching the three of us from the cornice above Foy’s Furniture Store as we walked along Smith Street, all the way from the Coles store to Number 35.
The light that shone and warmed my heart that morning, and still does each December 6, was simply the glow of connection that suddenly bridged, via the agency of St Nicholas’ shining eyes, my former life in Trieste to my current one.
In that moment the empty windowsill of a first floor room in Via del Bosco Number 3 was connected forever to the empty windowsill of a room behind the hairdressing salon at Number 35 Smith Street, and perhaps from that day on to all the empty windowsills of all of the rooms I have ever lived in.
This transformed the former nightmare of an unexpected, unmanageable departure (and I realize as I have grown older that perhaps the nightmare I experienced was that of an exile, leaving his birthplace for ever) into the redemptive dream of a final arrival.
No small gift, handed to my sister and I with glowing love, through the shining eyes of St Nicholas, on the very day of his celebration.
Since then emptiness has always appeared to me as abundance waiting to be gifted.