Published November 28. 2010 4:00AM Updated December 22. 2010 11:12AM
Of course, I don't remember it, but I have this photograph of what surely was, for me, the best Christmas ever.
That's me, in the middle, occupying my rightful place in the center of the universe, orbited by the planets Mom and Dad and Grandpa and Grandma. I am 2½, and I have no clue that my perfect world is about to crumble, my baby sister just three days away.
But, for now, it's still Dec. 25, 1954, in the one-horse town of Augusta, Kansas, and we are sitting in the living room of Grandpa and Grandma's little brown-brick bungalow. You'll notice that the men are wearing ties; apparently, one still dressed for Christmas then.
My father, to my right, has just run back to his seat and is trying to look nonchalant, as the timer on his camera ticks down. He was what people called a "shutter bug." My mother, to my left, hated this picture, because her eyes are closed.
Clearly, this is no way to begin a memoir. Memoirs, after all, are about what we do remember, not what we do not. But for me this photograph is a window into the world of my childhood to come.
That's because, while Charles Bacon and Florence Wing were my mother's parents, they would become my parents, too. While my father and mother struggled with a fractious marriage, my difficult new sister, my father's bout with cancer and, at last, my sickly baby brother, I lived with Grandpa and Grandma.
And they loved me beyond all reason.
This was my living room. The Christmas tree behind Grandpa? That's where the television usually stood. And the sofa, the corner of which just juts into the right side of the picture, is where we sat each Sunday night to watch Lassie and Ed Sullivan.
Their house was perched on a ridge overlooking the western plains. In the summer, Grandpa and I would often sit on the front step and watch the sun go down. He would smoke his Winstons and tell me off-color jokes:
"So this guy takes a tour of a cigarette factory. Before going in, he orders a case of the cigarettes. Inside, he watches as first one worker throws in a shovelful of tobacco, then a second worker throws in a shovelful of horse manure. When he comes out, the guy says, 'You know what?'"
And here Grandpa would pause to take a dramatic drag on his cigarette.
"'I'd like to double my order; there's a lot less ---- in these things than I thought there was.'"
But my favorite stories were the ones that were true, like the one about his courtship of Grandma. Grandpa loved to tell this story in front of her, because his embellishments infuriated her.
It was her big sister Gladys he was after. But Gladys, being coy, sicced him on Florence at the county fair.
"You see my little sister, standing over there?" Gladys reportedly said. "I'll dance with you if you buy her pie."
"So I walked over, and your Grandma winked and said, 'Hi, Honey! You wanna try my pie?'"
At which point Grandma would erupt, "Charles! I did no such thing."
Grandma was a school teacher before she married, and I remember her own story of the time a tornado picked up the schoolhouse and set it down in a farmer's field a mile away. No one was in the building at the time. But when she went inside, she found the book on her desk just as she'd left it: open to a verse by Thomas Carew:
"Ask me no more whither do stray
The golden atoms of the day..."
It was Grandma who taught me how to read before I started kindergarten, and it was Grandma who introduced me to Carew, her favorite poet, and Andrew Marvell and John Donne and, of course, the King James Bible.
As I grew up and went to high school, I would come home to have lunch with her every day, and we would debate evolution (she didn't buy it) and politics (she didn't trust the Democrats).
And on many a Saturday afternoon, we'd wind up the old Columbia Grafanola in her basement and dance to the reedy voice of Vernon Dalhart singing "It's Just an Old Spanish Custom."
Looking back at this photograph now, you can see that I'm holding a gift. What it is, I cannot guess. Not that it matters. Gifts, in the end, are ephemera. Only rarely do we remember them.
More important is the gift you cannot see, like the one in the box on my grandmother's lap, the gift that she and Grandpa gave me: They loved me beyond all reason, and they are the reason I can love today.