More notes from Christmas past

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Nothing at this time of year can compare with the magic and glamor of Christmas. Thus we continue last week’s recollections from among our reports on Christmases past:

 

CHRISTMAS 2009:

 

The south windows of the News-Record glow with a remark-able display of tiny gingerbread houses crafted by preschoolers at Soderstrom Elementary School (with help from the 4th grade service club). That’s only one among dozens of lovely Lindsborg storefronts bright with creativity during the Christmas season. Check them all out, especially after dusk, when the lights are on, the trees aglow, the windows radiant, and Lindsborg says of the world: Joy.

Christmas preempts in May

 

Last spring the Historical Sites review board of the Kansas Historical Society recommended that Kansas City’s Town House Hotel, opened in 1951, be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. We thought immediately of Christmas and, of course, could not put the story on a shelf. From the May 22 edition of The News-Record, here’s why: It was long ago, a gauzy memory six decades past, a chilly evening when Mom and Dad packed us children into the car and we headed to Kansas City for Christmas with grandparents – and aunts, uncles and cousins thrown in.It was our turn. In alternate years, those of the family who lived in northeast Kansas would head west, to Lincoln, for Christmas. This time, all the energy and color and sound of a big, bustling city would be ours for the holidays with treat: we would stay in a hotel, a first for us kids.

Kansas City, Kansas, at the time was magical for children from a small town: Grandparents lived up the Trafficway from downtown, the great high buildings, the trolleys clacking over the tracks, people everywhere bustling. Here lay the thrill of our first escalator, our first elevator, ascending with strangers to unexplored heights, our spirits soaring. Imagine it all with the added noise and echoes, the scents, the rhythms of a city at Christmastime.

 

At last we were there. It had begun to snow as we climbed out of the car. A strange man in uniform came to help with the suitcases. We followed mother inside, skipping through the grand lobby, past the clusters of people and their piles of luggage, waited and waited, and then to our first elevator, soaring up and up, the lumps rising in our throat, ears popping, then out into the long double-loaded corridor lined with guest rooms, a long, long hallway filled the scent of consequence, an aroma of cleanliness and authority. This was grown-ups came to be important.

This was the Town House, 15 stories of blonde brick, clean corners, gleaming metal and polished woodwork. It was our first room so high in the air, our first corner casement window, cranked open to let in the snow and the view down, down and down, to the street and its tiny cars inching this way and that. Little specks of people scuttled like ants along the sidewalks as the flakes floated down through the light to meet them. Nothing was so glamorous as being in a place this high, looking down, seeing the world on a strange new palette.

 

Two nights later we were at our grandparents’, another whirling, radiant day downtown behind us. It had begun to snow again, great flakes tumbling down through cones of light from the old iron street lamps. We were supposed to be in bed, but something in the quiet night had awakened us. The light off the snow made a bright night, and we watched the snow, all of it, glad to be closer to the ground, closer to the sidewalk curving away, on up the street, glad to be at home again at grandparents’.

 

We weren’t so far from the Town House, now an apartment building and now declared historic. But we were close enough, then, to remember the place, and the Christmas that came with it, for a long time.

 

What’s missing this year?(The Smoky Valley Men’s Choir)

 

A few days ago we sent a note of panic to Leah Ann Anderson. Had we missed the traditional performance of the Smoky Valley Men’s Choir? She reminded us that the Choir performed only in Hyllningsfest years. Next year, not this year.So we offer a snippet from memory, this one from 2011, when the group began its concert season during Hyllningsfest and continued with several more through the holidays.

 

A message in history

 

Concerts of the Smoky Valley Men’s Choir usually offer more than one winsome pause, a breather for the performers, edification for the audience. The director, Leah Ann Anderson discusses the music at hand, its history, its significance. Last October, during the Choir’s Hyllningsfest performance, she noted at one point that the program included a lot of prayers – (Can you hear the…) Prayer for the Children, for example, and in a moment, she said to the audience, you will hear Dona Nobis Pacem (A Prayer for Peace). “All these prayers for peace,” said Anderson, “…and we keep writing them because it hasn’t happened yet.”

 

A Prayer… advances with sentiment and passion, a pulling of beauty, sorrow, faith. Here, a select trio from the Choir, with clarinetist Jay Steinberg, can move a place nearly to tears: eloquent music, a powerful message.

 

…These three and a half dozen men, under direction of Anderson and with accompanist Brenda Finch, perform with astonishing clarity, range and resonance. They offer a broad repertoire of both sacred and secular music. They are as close to exquisite as any group of its kind. As we have said before, the Smoky Valley Men’s Choir is the finest evidence that art is

 

It’s why off-years can seem incomplete.

 

Hoppy, a year after Margaret’s murder

 

It’s been a year since we offered the first of several articles about Larry Hopkins who, at age 67, he had just begun the rest of a life in prison. He had been in jail five weeks, since the morning of November 5, when he called 911 from his house in Lawrence and told the police that he had just shot his wife. Her name was Margaret, she was 61, and he loved her terribly.

Hoppy, as we call him, has been a pal since that brief, sweet moment of childhood, our very early days in Lincoln, Kansas, doing what pals did together growing up in a little river town on the plains.

Our decades of separation – college, marriages, careers – ended with a woman’s murder, and news that an old friend wasin trouble. We have talked by phone two or three times a week since May, when Hoppy pleaded no contest to a murder charge and was sentenced to life with no chance of parole for 25 years. We write letters and dispatch the rare e-mail but it isn’t the same as talking.

 

On Dec. 11 Hoppy was moved from the prison at El Dorado to Oswego – “the old folks’ home,” he calls it – a state penitentiary for elderly, infirm or disabled felons. But for a week or so in Ellsworth, he’d been at El Dorado since his conviction.

 

Hoppy’s story has unfolded over the months in occasional articles: He, a career Army retiree and later assistant librarian and curator (19 years) at the Spencer Library at KU; she, an accomplished and oft-praised social worker. In recent years they came to share the anguish of deteriorating health; Margaret‘s special torment, ceaseless pain, came from diabetes, nerve disease, obesity, arthritis, bad knees, the wreckage of two heart attacks and multiple strokes. Hoppy, rail thin, could walk only with the aid of a walker. He, too, had suffered heart attacks, strokes, quadruple bypass surgery, a cancer scare. A herniated disc added to his ceaseless agony.

Greater pain came in Hoppy’s realization that he could no longer care for Margaret. They were poor but not poor enough, she was old but not old enough, and they had fallen through the cracks, ineligible for any meaningful help. Reductions in state budgets and cuts in services have ensured in Kansas a living futility for the poor and the sick.

 

On Nov. 5, two weeks before their 24th anniversary, Hoppy gave Margaret “the only gift I could give her: “I did not let her wake up.”

 

Margaret’s murder was Hoppy’s way to exorcise them both of life’s evils, to cleanse them of its complicated, wrenching hesitations.

 

Soon we will have more about Hoppy, life in his “retirement home,” as he calls prison, and his plans and hopes. For now we wish him well these holidays, his second Christmas in prison.

 

– JOHN MARSHALL

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