My aunt and uncle lived up the hill from Martins Ferry, Ohio, high above the river. My uncle ran a used car lot — Snezek’s — and so it was understood that they had a little bit of money and a bigger house than the rest of the family in the Valley.
We would drive there every year at Christmas; first the two and a half hours to Martins Ferry, a pit-stop at my grandmother’s, and then a drive up the woods that covered the winding upper roads like a dark cloud. These were family gatherings before distractions, before everyone carried their lives with them in their pocket, so you had to prepare.
I always brought a few books or some Christmas presents to play with. One year I brought my entire Dungeons & Dragons set in an effort to learn how to play — even though I had no one to play with.
We’d shiver in the backseat as we wound up the hill. House windows faced us, candles aglow. White glowing reindeer and sleighs peeked between pines. At the house we’d coast into the driveway and hop out into the crystalline cold. A few steps more and we would be warm.
Walking into the house through the door next to the garage, into the warmth of a home fired with cooking and laughter, is one of my fondest memories. The family made pierogi and lasagna, two staples in the pot-luck rotation of those old coal and steel towns. There would be plates of cookies and plenty of ginger ale and Buckeyes, the best candy on earth. There were jars of pretzels and nuts here and there, a sprinkling of gumdrops or hard candy for the old folks. There was fried chicken someone made and wedding soup my mother made. As you walked into that warm place you heard the clack of billiard balls and the roar of the game in the other room. My dad cracked a beer. I got kissed by my aunts a few times and then hid, perhaps in a corner or maybe upstairs by their big tree in a darkened room lit only by a fire roaring on a tube television.
That was the height of interactivity, then: a live fire on TV (or, more likely, a looped fire). You imagined what it must be like on the other end of that picture, how much technology you needed to make something so primal and imperative appear on a glass tube. It was as if we had traversed space into a strange craft outfitted with the comforts of home and none of the discomforts. Nestled on the couch, the TV crackling, you were on a space station and safe, a self-sufficient place where memories of cold were far distant.
They aired the first Yule log in 1966 from New York’s Gracie Mansion. By the time I was watching it had been around for 20 years. It was a holdover from the early days of broadcast, from the days when the air was dead if there was no one to play in front of the cameras. In a few years the tradition would vanish, but in 2001, in the wake of 9/11, it came back, a reminder of simpler times.
There was something about it that could change your outlook. A distant roaring fire was almost as good as one in the house, and far less work. I’d curl up, read, and nod off, the voices of the adults below lulling me to sleep.
Now we carry things that burn brightly in our pockets. We don’t need these camera tricks to see fires everywhere. We don’t curl up to the magnet hum of a cathode ray tube and the tinny crackle and pop of facsimile logs. We’re beyond that.
Maybe we aren’t, though. Maybe there’s still a warm place, the umbilicus to get there a crystalline moment between the backseat of a car and warm basement rec room. And maybe upstairs there’s a dozing kid watching the last drops of Christmas burn away into the country dark.
I think there still is. I hope there still is.