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What James Dean taught me about Christmas

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Melinda Pillsbury-Foster
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What James Dean taught me about Christmas

I last saw Jimmy though the front window of our home in West Los Angeles in September of 1955. He looked up and smiled at me, my nose pressed to the glass. In just a few days he would be dead but the ideas and conversations we had lived on in my memory. Eventually, those memories became a family tradition we call The Star for Christmas. It is a tradition that involves finding our way through life and doing the right thing as individuals. Jimmy was someone who thought intensely about who he was and what he should do.

All of my children grew to adulthood stuffing tiny folded and spindled letters of intention and wishes for the year to come into the musty interior of the Star that tops our Christmas Tree. Their tiny fingers were eager and trusting. Every Christmas Eve we gathered to read the last years letters and write anew. A generation of their wishes stretched both the Star's stitches and the faded yellow felt I had cut it from so many years before. At the end of three decades the Star had become an object notable mostly for its ugliness but remained the most cherished decoration on our tree.

Now all the children have grown up, found their own homes and carried the tradition with them into new families and a new century. As their mother I was glad for that. But over the Thanksgiving table one year, lingering over seconds on everything, my youngest daughter asked me how the custom had begun. Was it a New England custom? Had I filled my own small white paper with intentions and wishes when I was little? Had I folded the paper up small and stuffed it into another older Star, perhaps made by my own mother? None of her friends followed the custom, she knew. No, I told her, I had not. The custom was my own, begun before she was born in honor of a friend who had died when I was just six years old. Then I told them about Jimmy and our conversations.

James Dean has been in his grave for nearly fifty years at that moment but I have never forgotten the many gifts he gave me. Christmas is about gifts of unexpected grace that make us stronger. Jimmy had shared his own wishes and intentions with me in those conversations; each insight was a gift I cherished. Since Christmas is about gifts I came to associate the holiday with him. The gifts that stay with us are not the kind normally found under any evergreen. But they were the kind of gifts that last long after toys are lost and forgotten.

Jimmy gave me gifts of insight; he shared his own confrontations with life. He told me once that in celebrating Christmas we need to remember that Christ was born to live a life that was itself a message. Reverence your life, Jimmy said, by living it honestly, with understanding, and courage.

Truth is where you find it.

Kneeling over the desiccated carcass of a tortoise that I discovered behind a bush in the backyard one golden afternoon Jimmy had explained to me about dying. I was only three then but I can hear his words as clearly as if he was standing here now. Jimmy's voice told me he did not fear death. He explained that the essence of Tortoise did not die with its body but moved on to someplace else. Nothing really dies, he said. Jimmy accepted mortality as a part of life, believing that spirit would endure. This lesson was also taught by the Man whose birth we celebrate on December 25th.

That was the first lesson Jimmy taught me. Others followed.

Jimmy visited us sometimes in the afternoon, usually around lunchtime. This began, I think, when he was a student at UCLA. He wore thick glasses, just like me. He hunched his shoulders, just a little. He was quiet, sometimes pensive, and sometimes a little crazy. But he talked to me as if I were a grownup who could understand anything.

This taught me that I could do anything.

Over the next three years Jimmy taught me many more things. He taught me to listen to my heart beating as we sat quietly in the back yard. He said that I could hear my heartbeat and my breath as it moved through my throat and into my lungs if I listened and stilled the sounds outside myself. There was much in me to understand, he said. He had heard his own heart and breath and it taught him about himself; Listen to your self always, he said. Know yourself because you are here for a purpose and by listening you will learn that purpose. Jimmy believed he had a purpose and that his life's work would have meaning. He would do wonderful things, he told me.

Jimmy did amazing things in a life that was far too short.

When I was much older I began attending Quaker Meeting; Jimmy had learned to hear the silence in a Quaker Meeting in Fairmount, Indiana. There, he had found what he needed to fill the emptiness left in the wake of his mother's death. In the deep silence that healed grief, he had said to me, you touch your own soul and find your truth.

Jimmy taught me both to know myself and to trust myself.

I still have the old stuffed horse that Jimmy gave me when I broke both my arms. It is as dusty and as old as his memory is new. I have a tiny car, smaller than my then five-year-old finger that he flicked across the floor to me one afternoon just after he dropped by. He made the sound of a car, crying, Vroooom, vroooom, as it traveled like a shot into my hands. I carried it around in the pocket of my corduroy jumper for two weeks.

Insignificant material things may carry memories that can be far more precious than diamonds.
To the small child I was then the lessons of Jimmy were magic, magic that the older woman remembered when she placed a Star at the top of a Christmas Tree to carry the intentions of one year into the reality of the next. The ceremony, I told my children, was about gifts that do not fit under the tree, but that have great value.

After our family placed its new intentions in the Star the tradition was to light a candle for remembering and say a prayer. The small folded papers that the children filled up with words remained in the Star from one Christmas Eve until the next when they were taken out and read aloud, each by their author. Confronting yourself can also be a gift of unexpected value because in that you find new direction.

Saving those papers was part of the magic.

1979 Dawn (then four) - "I want to be an angel so I can turn Carolyn into a pumpkin."
1984 Ayn (then eight) - "I wish that when I grow up I become a witch like Sam on Bewitched."
1985 Dawn (then ten) - "I wish the Ethiopians stop starving by next year and it's God damed pres. is assassinated."
1985 Arthur (then six) - I want every single Transformer in the world.
1988 Dawn - I wish for the advancement of the human race through my genius. I also wish for the dissolution of all governments.
1992 Ayn (then sixteen)
1. To be brave enough to read this in front of the whole family.
2. to be a strong Christian.
3. to be happy at whichever school I go to.
4. that the family will be living anywhere but Burnet.
5. World Peace (Somalia) NOT!
1993 Dawn (then eighteen) - I wish for whirled pease, Clinton to have been impeached for his various crimes, Hillary to be in prison - nah, she'd enjoy it too much ala "caged fury"

Because I was always involved in politics, first as a Republican, then a Libertarian, and then again as a Republican, what was happening in politics became part of our family culture, working its way into the Intentions we placed in the Star on Christmas Eve. Jimmy would have approved, he always said if you want it to happen you need to start walking in that direction; he was not happy with the direction politics was taking even then. Jimmy believed each of us have inherent freedoms government cannot touch and that the job of government was to protect those rights, not cancel them.

This Christmas Eve we will again gather around the Tree to read wishes and place next year's intentions in the Star. We will light the candle; we will pray for justice and a new direction for America. This year the wishes that go into the Star from our house will be for Impeachment. Doing the right thing matters; Jimmy would agree.
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Melinda Pillsbury-Foster is the author of GREED: The NeoConning of America and A Tour of Old Yosemite. The former is a novel about the lives of the NeoCons with a strong autobiographical component. The latter is a non-fiction book about her father (more...)
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