The Christmas Video
Photo Courtesy of Jane Morse
A home video taken Christmas of 1992 shows a thinner, sicker Mick. The camera never lingers long on him. Jane, in the background, keeps her distance.
By ROY PETER CLARK
Every family needs an aunt and uncle like Joan and Ralph, loving, supportive, tolerant, resourceful and a hell of a lot of fun. In a movie, the part of Uncle Ralph would be played by Jimmy Stewart, tall, handsome, with a squeaky Middle American voice. His wife, Aunt Joan, is harder to cast. But imagine, if you can, an Irish Golda Meir, her face round and intelligent, her voice sharp and expressive.
Ralph Brandt is the brother of Jane's father. Aunt Joan's maiden name is Murphy. Ralph and Joan have the classic American marriage: Every time Ralph starts a sentence, Joan finishes it.
Ralph and Joan had bought a house near Eckerd College, where their nephew David was going to school. It was the sign Jane had needed to make the move to St. Petersburg. She had confided in them about Mick's illness, and she knew that her aunt and uncle would provide an anchor of support.
Now, at Christmas, they would help her in a big way. They would let Mick stay at their house for his Christmas visit. That way, Mick could see the kids whenever he wanted. But Jane could maintain a discreet distance from Mick. It was part of her plan to get on with her life.
Mick arrived from Spain with a large suitcase loaded with presents. He took the girls on a Christmas shopping spree, and, as Aunt Joan tells it, "charged like the Charge of the Light Brigade."
By the time they were through, there would be dozens of presents for the kids under Ralph and Joan's Christmas tree.
Jane could not deal with the festivities. Trying to go through the motions of a normal family, experiencing a normal Christmas, made her crazy. She had to do something.
Several phone calls connected her with an emergency shelter for homeless mothers and children in south St. Petersburg. She volunteered to help out there on Christmas Eve. From early morning and through the afternoon, she helped prepare meals and served them to the mothers and their children. It reminded her of the time she had worked with orphaned children in Rio. It took her mind off her own troubles.
The next day, Christmas Day, would be so difficult for all of them. The poignancy of the event, Mick's last Christmas, is captured unintentionally by a home video made by Uncle Ralph. It is like a zillion other Christmas morning videos. Jingle Bells and The Little Drummer Boy play in the background. The camera focuses on the beautiful tree, the opening of presents, the joy of the children and the antics of Lucky the dog.
But some moments go beyond sadness:
There is the way that Uncle Ralph's camera is polite to Mick, glancing off him just long enough to catch him opening a present, a new shirt, a pair of shorts. "Thank you, Santa," he says with a smile. The camera does not linger. But you can't help but notice the hollowness of his cheeks, the pallor of his complexion, the thinness of his frame, the single lesion above his left eye.
Mick holds up a new sweater, which looks about two sizes too big for him. You can see that Mick is still wearing his wedding ring.
Jane sits across the room. She opens her new earrings. A new wallet. Four pairs of silky panties. She holds up a pair for the camera. "Red is my color." It is a playful remark, and sexy, but with Mick across the room, painfully sad. You can see that Jane is not wearing her wedding ring.
The kids are trying their hardest. David shows off his new tennis shoes and a beer stein Mick has brought him from Europe. Meghan wears her gorgeous new silk blouse, dangling earrings and sunglasses. She vamps for the camera. Erin seems the most natural of all, flashing a shy smile, as she turns the bill of her cap up and does a little dance, home-girl style.
The dinner table is groaning with food. Aunt Joan has outdone herself. No table in Union City, Mich., could look more Rockwellian than this one, as friends and family approach the feast. Mick sits near one end, next to his son David. Jane looks like she is waiting for this to happen, so she can sit down at the other end, as far from Mick as the geography will allow.
Aunt Joan stands at one end, an Irish Catholic among these Midwestern Protestants, and says grace. "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts, that we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ Our Lord. Amen."
Mick has his eyes closed, his head bowed against the steeple of his hands.
You have to look closely to see Mick in this video. He appears in tiny moments, or in the background, or in the corner of the frame. He is never captured in full light. When the camera is on one of the children, you can sometimes hear him saying, "Wow, look at that," or laughing at one of Uncle Ralph's bad jokes.
At some points he does not appear to be in the room at all. He is not at the table later in the evening when the family gathers for "31," a card game he taught the children.
Mick is disappearing. Mick's once strong body, now ravaged by disease, is disappearing. Mick's presence in the family is disappearing. The bond between Mick and Jane is disappearing. At moments, he seems almost transparent, other-worldly, as if you are looking at a ghost.
Then, at the end, he reappears. The light is golden, but dim, which is good for Mick. He is seated near the children, his feet up. His lesion and the shadow under his cheeks are invisible, washed out by the half-light. His face looks, for the first time, peaceful. He smiles gently.
Uncle Ralph focuses on him directly. "Here's poppa -- resting," says Ralph.
Mick raises his hand. "Merry Christmas," he says.
THE SERIES: This is the 23rd installment of a 29-part story.