is the author of "Handling the Truth:
On the Writing of Memoir"
In late December, we went searching for light.
After the stories had been told, the recorder played, the piano attempted ("O Holy Night"). After the fried smelts of the Eve and the feast of the Day (a turkey too big for its pan, desserts stashed beneath dish towels in the narrow sewing room). After our uncle, ever mischievous, subverted the games our mother thought we might play. After the opening of the gifts that had been bought so far in advance that our parents mostly couldn't remember what the bowed-up boxes contained.
Into the car we would climb. If there had been snow, we would listen for its crunch beneath the wheels and watch the world through the long yellow eyes of the headlights. The crystal hats on the houses. The icicle beards on the mailboxes. The snowmen with their stick arms and their stiffened scarves. The sleeves of freeze on bent-necked trees. The channels and ruts where the sleds had made their way down modest hills.
Even if the snow had not yet arrived or had already (cruelly) vanished, we found what we were looking for, because they were always there, they always are - the lights of Christmas. Persistent blue bulbs and glamorized pines. Crèche scenes and delineating haloes. Pellucid angel wings and peppy Santas. Rudolphs dazzled by their own red snouts and candles on sills and the secrets of interior trees and the feverish electric blink of yuletide excess - like Atlantic City, we thought, like an airport runway.
It was variations on awe.
It was hush.
It was suburban Wilmington when we were young and suburban Philadelphia when we got older. It was always my father behind the wheel, because he was the one with the innate talent for hunting down the lights fantastic. We never asked him where he was going; he just drove - away from the house on Maple Shade, down the back roads of Haverford, along the outer hem of Broomall, into the dark swerves of Newtown Square. Small roads paralleling big roads. The friendly loops of cul-de-sacs. The notched ups and downs and arounds of Darby-Paoli Road, where it was dark except when it glowed and where the daytime herd of cows never did make a starlit appearance.
Where had they gone?
We drove - or, rather, our father did. We hardly spoke, save for the short verbs (Look), the exclamations (Wow), the necessary adjectives. It was like going to the movies in reverse - we moved, the scenes stayed still. It was like going window shopping, but there was nothing to buy. It was like getting away with something, but hunting for light is never a crime.
Finally, of course, we'd turn back toward the house where our holidays had begun - the house with the half-eaten turkey still in the pan and the gifts unwrapped and the games subverted. In our slow and usually silent approach along the bend of the last road, we could see, for an instant, our own lives lit as mysteriously and spectacularly as the strangers whose homes we'd just spied on. The shimmer of that big tree through the window. The white wings of the angels in the yard. The illuminating lights beneath the twin wreaths.
Who was lucky enough to live there? We were. It caught us, fabulously, by surprise.
Now, when the days grow short and the air is brittle, I find myself behind the wheel, on the hunt for lights - sometimes alone, sometimes with company. I'll head back toward the wide backstreets of Wayne, where the interiors are amber and mistletoed and the outsides are bright. I'll drive down Goshen Road toward Willistown - past the horse farms and the preserves and Bartram's Covered Bridge. I'll steer toward Lancaster Avenue and its parade of lit-up snowflakes. I'll drive the streets where I live.
I'll stop at lanterns.
I'll consider rooflines.
I'll watch a dozen Santas blink.
I'll want nothing that I can buy.
And sometimes I'll stop by the side of a road named Church, where there is little, in one glorious stretch, but a long wooden fence and winter grass and sky itself, on the horizon. I'll turn the key and climb out of the car and watch the last versions of the sun fall down while the first versions of the stars rise up - scintillated spacklings of bright.
I'll count the colors that blink on and off.
Another variation on awe.