Tuesday, December 16, 2014

12/16: Allie Leach on Ferguson, St. Louis, and Judy Garland singing 'bout Christmas

I was born in Ferguson, Missouri. I was only three when my family moved away from the now infamous town, so I don’t remember too much, besides what I’ve seen in pictures: my Dad smiling widely, hugging me down a slide in Jefferson Wabash Park. Licking an ice cream cone from Turner’s Frozen Custard. Splashing around with my sister Mary in our plastic elephant swimming pool. All happy memories. My family moved westward, further from the city, like the rest of my relatives, like many other white families. The schools were better, they’d say. It’s safer out there, they’d say. Even though I didn’t live in Ferguson for very long, I still feel some ownership: that’s my hometown. There’s a sense of nostalgic pride that comes with having a hometown. I want to protect it, like I would a young child who’s fallen down. And yet, simultaneously, I feel other mixed emotions: anger, sadness, embarrassment. Before the shooting in Ferguson, I never told people that I was from Ferguson. I never told people I was from Ballwin, either. Ballwin—a suburb about 45 minutes west of downtown St. Louis—was where I truly grew up, and where my parents still live. Whenever anyone asked where I was from, it was always St. Louis. Or sometimes: St. Louie. Or, if I wanted to strike up some pseudo street-cred by quoting the rapper Nelly: St. Lou-way. Where the gun play rings all day. That lyric strikes a bitter chord in light of what’s happened now.

When I go home for Christmas every year, my family holes up in our little ranch-style home—the house I grew up in—and watches a medley of Christmas movies. We watch the usual ones, the ones that I imagine many other families like mine and not like mine watch together, too. You probably already know which ones I’m talking about: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, A Muppet’s Christmas Carol, and White Christmas.

Another movie that we always watch—which most people probably wouldn’t consider a Christmas movie, though I do—is Meet me in St. Louis. Perhaps it’s because Christmas reminds me of home. But Christmas is a minor actress herself in this movie, when Esther Smith (played by Judy Garland) sings, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to her much younger sister, Trudy. The songwriter, Hugh Martin, didn’t intend or even foresee that the song would become so synonymous with Christmas. In fact, the original lyrics weren’t supposed to be as warm and optimistic as the lyrics that many people can sing from memory. Check out these original lyrics below, which pertained more to the specific scene from the movie, when the father of the Smith clan tells them that they’ll be leaving their beloved hometown to move to New York:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Pop that champagne cork
Next year we may all be living in New York
No good times like the olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more
But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows
From now on, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Wah-waaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh. Am I right? What a downer of a song. But these lyrics are more honest and true to what the characters were feeling in the movie. When Martin presented these lyrics to the MGM executives, they were reluctant: “Couldn’t it be more uplifting?” And so Martin changed the lyrics to this, to the song that we know today:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yule-tide gay
From now on our troubles will be miles away

Here were are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more

Through the years we all will be together, if the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

A complete shift, a completely different song. Through these lyrics, Esther tries to soothe Trudy, tries to convince her that even though the family is forced against their will to move, that everything will be alright. That it’s Christmas, and they’re all together, and everything will be okay. That leaving St. Louis for New York won’t be so bad. Trudy’s not convinced. In the midst of Esther’s cooing vibrato, she runs outside crying and screaming and smashes up the snowmen in their backyard with a stick. Unlike Esther, she can’t hide the pain and anger she’s feeling.

It’s been a long time since I’ve visited Ferguson. My family drove past our home once or twice when I was younger, just to see what it looked like, how it had changed. I remember my Mom saying that the new owners needed to trim the bushes back, because you could barely see the house. This Christmas, I want to go back to Ferguson for different reasons. I want to see what it looks like in the aftermath. What’s been destroyed? What’s burned down? What’s been broken? I want to talk to families in the neighborhood where I grew up, where Michael Brown grew up. I want to know how far away my old house was from his home. As much as I want to relate, I know that the lyrics to my Christmas experience will be the sugar cookie version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” while the Brown family’s experience will probably mirror that of the former version. The more painful and honest version. I’m lucky and privileged and white. And I’m not sure what to do with all that.

Allie Leach’s work has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, South Loop Review, DIAGRAM, and Tucson Weekly, among other places. She lives and teaches in Tucson.

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