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Toby Thompson & Ken McCullough: A Longing For Christmas Out West

Murray Hotel in Livingston Montana
Flickr user Carol Vinzant (CC-BY-NC-ND-2)
Murray Hotel in Livingston Montana

To Toby Thompson, the Christmas spirit is really just the warmth of community, something we can find any time of year.The Christmas after my parents died, I awoke in the Murray Hotel in Livingston, Montana. Two feet of snow had fallen. The street below my window was empty of traffic. It looked impassable.

My parents had died three weeks apart, in Washington, D.C. A tree lit with candles stood in the Murray’s lobby. Before the window sat five elderly tenants. No one spoke.

Probably like the others, I recalled an earlier Christmas, that of 1950, when I was six. Beneath our tree rested our first TV. That morning Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and a cowboy named Monty filled its screen. Monty was short for Montana. I sat hypnotized in the nation’s capital, and my heart was in the west.

This year the situation was reversed.

I’d chatted Christmas Eve with one of the boarders. He’d asked where I was from, and when I said DC his eyes filled with tears. “I’m from Virginia,” he said. “It’s forty-two Christmases since I’ve been there.”

A jacked up Ford skidded round the corner and the hotel’s owner leapt out and came inside. “Cheer up,” he said, “I’ll open the bar.” He fixed coffee and fed us quarters for the juke. We all began to talk. Stories spilled forth. The spirit of Christmas was upon us.

There was a party later, twelve miles south. I worried the night’s snow was so deep that I’d never get out, but the tenants helped dig my car free. When I arrived twenty friends had gathered in a tiny cabin. The hostess's turkey couldn’t match my mother’s, but her tree’s lights spilled onto the snow, with the brilliance of distant stars.

Ken McCullough’s poem, “Until a Break in the Weather,” is set in a hotel in the West, at a time when the narrator’s sense of community lies in the future. It’s from McCullough’s book, Broken Gates.

"Until A Break in the Weather" - Ken McCullough

It was a small hotel
but well-appointed
in a town near a long-

abandoned gold mine.
A small town yet prosperous.
A preposterous trundle bed

for four in the living quarters,
a brass spittoon and a brass bed
in every room, and once

in a blue moon a brass band
strode by in the street below.
Sitting Bull slept in the lobby once

and earlier, Custer, shirtless,
was mustered out bewildered.

I came here when I was in between.
The darkness in my room

resembled me, the sunsets
the same—I could or I couldn’t.
I read the copy of Ben Hur

and took some notes
on nothing in particular.
I had no real conversations

except with myself
and my father showed up
in a dream one afternoon.

But when I left after
eleven days, the road
I took led me soon to you

and to our children.
It was a small hotel
but well-appointed.

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 07/01/15. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)

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