John Bennison Words and Ways | White Dreams in Joliet – A Christmas Story

White Dreams in Joliet – A Christmas Story

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A Christmas Story

 

Preface

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark street shineth, the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Philips Brooks (1835-1893)

 We know the story of Jesus’ birth is a fanciful tale, unique to the gospel narrative attributed to an unknown first century believer named Luke, and his early tradition.  Like any good story that hardly hesitates to blur the lines between fact and fiction, it nonetheless conveys some ageless truths that can reveal the “hopes and fears of all the years” in countless other times and places.  For the season we call Christmastide, I offer a reprise of another semi-fictional tale that comes as close as I’ve been given the gift to see what it’s all about, “full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

 

A Christmas Story

 

I grew up in the small Midwest town of Kalamazoo.  But I wasn’t born in Kalamazoo.  Instead, the place of my own nativity was a grimy little town thirty miles south of Chicago, in the Land of Lincoln; though given the choice, I am almost certain Honest Abe never slept in Joliet.  And, I imagine if the early French explorer after whom the town was named had ever come upon the place, he probably would have kept paddling.

Silver Cross Hospital, birth certificate, circa 1948

Winter was particularly grubby in Joliet; especially February, the deadest part of winter and the month of my birth.  Everything was gray; the sky, the buildings, even the pallor of the people’s faces.  The snow, if once white, had become dingy with dirt and soot.

Silver Cross Hospital, where I was delivered, looked like a gothic fortress; an institutional-looking stone building not unlike the state penitentiary located just across the Des Plaines River that sliced through the town.  When the December holidays rolled around, the hospital staff would perch a huge five-pointed star on the rooftop, ablaze with lights, like a shining beacon from the ramparts. It was visible for miles.

Some years the giant wooden structure remained there for weeks and weeks into the New Year, as if no one really wanted the light to go out in that drab place.  As a child, I liked to think they left it up on purpose in the winter of ‘48, until close to midnight one evening in February, when Dr. Joseph Fields delivered a second son to a young clergyman and his wife.

My father was the rector of Christ Episcopal Church, located on West Van Buren Street, just a block from the river.  He also served as chaplain to the Joliet Police Department, which included double-duty at the State Penitentiary.  As a boy, I remember gazing with fascination at the star-shaped silver police badge he’d wear on the lapel of his black clerical suit on the days he’d call on the cons in the prison.

The warden’s name was Carpenter.  He was new in town, and had a new bride with him.  Her name was Margaret, which she would always pronounce Marguerite when introducing herself.  She desperately wanted to believe she came from somewhere else, anywhere else.  She fantasized being from some exotic foreign city; though, in reality, the true voice beneath her feigned French accent sounded more like Indiana Hoosier.

She had met her husband on a trip to the Windy City, when he was there for a convention for correctional officers, and she a teacher’s conference.  They had struck up a chance conversation in the lobby of the Palmer House.  In her eyes, he was a dashing young man with great promise from an exciting town out to the west, in Iowa; a place she pronounced Des Moines, which, according to her rough translation skills, meant something like “more of less.”  It should have been an omen.

Her future husband had told her he was getting an important job in a town not far from the big city.  Joliet, sur le rivre Des Plaines, was the way she pictured it in her mind.  As if entranced in a beautiful dream, before the weeklong convention had ended, she knew she would follow him anywhere.  They were married on a Monday morning in the spring of ‘47, at the Cook County Courthouse in Chicago, and moved to Joliet.

It didn’t take Marguerite long to discover Joliet was no the City of Lights, and le Rivre Des Plaines was not the River Seine.  Words like sleek or sophisticated or magnifique were not part of the local dialect.  Mon Dieu, this was a town where the locals spoke in short, slurred sentences, running one or two syllable words together.  That is, except for one particular idiomatic expression which got unconsciously tagged on to most sentences. “Don’t-cha-know?” they’d say, making everything a question, which only perpetuated the nonsense.   “Don’t-cha-know?” they’d say to anything:

“Gonna-be-a-cold-one-t’day, don’t-cha-know?”

“Yep–‘fer sure-you-bet, don’t-cha-know?”

“Got-dat-right , don’t-cha-know?” they’d say.

There wasn’t what you would call any joie-de-vivre about the place.  Nor was there any je ne sais quoi about the smell that would emanate from the river on those hot, muggy summer days with what came floating downstream from Chicago.

By the fall of ’47 Marguerite was asking herself in bewilderment, what had she done?  In one brief, blind moment she had taken all her dreams and tossed them to the wind.  And like a cruel twister from out of the plains, it had plopped her down in Joliet with a jailer from Des Moines.

The reason our family knew so much about the warden’s wife was because she’d begun teaching art lessons that first summer to local children on Saturday mornings.  I was too young to take part in the program at the time, so my mother would take my no-talent big brother, the first-born and my father’s namesake instead.  I was happy for him.

Teaching art lessons had been the warden’s idea he’d said, in part to bring new innovative thinking to criminal rehabilitation through the applied appreciation of the arts; but also perhaps to try to satisfy his wife’s desperate desire to bring a little bourgeois culture to this otherwise-bleak Illinois river valley town.

As it turned out, the program quickly became so successful with Chicago’s most hardened criminals that they decided to offer it to Joliet’s children.  So every Saturday morning my mother and brother would file in through the heavy lock-down gates, behind all the other women from the outside going to visit their men.

Marguerite’s most successful effort that Fall was a Christmas card project with the inmates.  Supplies and postage were provided from the state prison rehabilitation fund, and inmates could draw cards and write holiday greetings to whomever they wished: wives & sweethearts, old buddies on the outside, etc.  Not surprisingly, many sent cards to the Governor, don’t-cha-know?

By the time December had arrived, Marguerite herself considered writing to Springfield to ask for a reprieve.  It was already cold and gray.  How she longed to escape.  This!  This was what had become of her life, and she felt as if someone had locked up her heart and thrown away the key.  She was doing hard time for the simple crime of falling in love.

It wasn’t until she sifted through all the Christmas card contest entries and picked the winner, that she began to think differently.

The front of the card had been sketched by a lifer who’d been doing hard time since before she was born.  While other inmates had drawn the typical, colorful holiday scenes – an assortment of Santa with reindeer and sleigh, or holly and mistletoe, Courier and Yves-type prints, or manger scenes with Madonna and child, wise men, shepherds and sheep — a convicted murderer from Skokie had sketched an image of the only thing he could see from the second tier window of his cell block.

It was a five-pointed star atop a ghostly building across the river.  From where he gazed, it was the biggest star in the steel blue Illinois night sky.  It hung over a place of nativity; a place that spoke of something different, something new, new beginnings, another chance, a fresh start.  There was something redemptive about it.  It was a star to wish on, a star to dream on; about exotic, adventurous, faraway places, Marguerite thought.

She had just been thinking to herself Christmas was something too good for a place like Joliet.  Or Bethlehem, for that matter.

She had just been thinking to herself Christmas was something too good for a place like Joliet.  Or Bethlehem, for that matter.

But then she asked herself, had she forgotten Christmas?  The first Christmas?  Had she forgotten about the dreary stable, and the inhospitality of the innkeeper, and the donkey dung in the bed of straw?  Had she forgotten about the murderous strife and division, the insurrectionists, the fickle religious and political bickering, the cruel might of the Empire, the plight of the innocents and – in the midst of it all – something so powerless, insignificant and outcast; yet nonetheless, something that would so change the course of the human story that two millennia later folks would still be writing cards and letters over and over again to each other about it?

It was 1947.  Here were all the convicted incarnates in the Illinois State Penitentiary.  And across the river there was every new delivery at Silver Cross Hospital.  There was little difference between her own dreams, and those of every child born to every mother’s greatest hopes and fears.  Though she cringed at the thought of it, Christmas in Joliet was probably as holy, and real, and telling a place as any; and maybe more than most.

Still, she had to admit to herself the other reason she’d picked the winning Christmas card that first year.  The convict-born-artist had sketched the cover in simple black and white.  Everything was so white.  It was only a dream, of course.  A dream scribbled and sketched on paper.  And Margaret would keep her own dreams to herself, and ponder them in her heart.

Staring out across the half-frozen river, she’d continue to dream en francais; of faraway places like Paris, or Vienna, or Venice, or some other exotic place far, far away from here.  Why, she’d heard there was even a Venice in sunny southern California, of all places; not far from a City of Angels, where an azure Pacific lapped against it’s sandy shores.   Just imagine that.

On Margaret Carpenter’s first bleak Christmas in Joliet, Illinois, the distant musical sounds from a cellblock radio filled the air with an old familiar Irving Berlin tune:

The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day,
in Beverly Hills, LA.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth,
and I’m longing to be up north … 
 
I’m dreaming of a White Christmas,
Just like ones I used to know.
Where the treetops glisten, and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.
(don’t cha know?)
 
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write.
May your days be merry and bright,
And may all your Christmas’ be white.

Irving Berlin (1888-1989)

 

White Dreams in Joliet is an excerpt from Context: A Collection of Writings

© 2006 by John William Bennison.  All rights reserved.

 This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

 To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to the Words & Ways Archives: <http://173.254.107.125/wordsnways>

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for this story on Christmas Day. It is permeated with that hope that this season can rekindle, that in the most mundane or dreary of circumstances we can look for a star of hope.

  2. + John T. /

    J.B.: I remember that story. It’s one of the best – not just one of your best – one of the best anybody has even done. Thanks for sending it. JT

  3. Robert /

    Merry Christmas, John. Thank you for the wonder filled story and the comments that followed. Your talent as a writer and storyteller are clear, and thank you for sharing them with me.

  4. Katherine Angle /

    It’s 2010 Christmas, but the star in 1947 real world of broken heart and dreams can be found in this hardened season of times not much different from then. To me, every Christmas is a new opportunity to find faith and hope in a very black and white world of hurts and disappointments. The story is a reminder that each of us can find our Star and follow it right where we are today. The key is “are we looking” for it?

  5. What a lovely story. Thank you for telling it, and telling it so well. It reminds me of something Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “Youth fades; love droops, the leaves of friendship fall; A mother’s secret hope outlives them all.”

  6. John – That is quite a story. I wonder if you missed your true calling. I shall avoid Joliet.

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