By Kathrine Ryden
December 24, 2008 - FOR BILL 

I am standing on the top of the stairs of the aged brick Long Island Railroad Station in Forest Hills Gardens. It is 6:00 pm on Christmas Eve. For decades, our community has gathered here to celebrate Christmas. Modeled after an Old English village,  Station Square’s architecture is kind of Tudor Gothic, lovely and quaint.  The buildings are attached by arches and Passage ways on all four sides, and include a beautiful old inn. Underneath the platform, is an arch with a crèche, and on the tiny center island, stands a Christmas tree.

It is a damp cold,  and I am stomping my feet to keep them warm. I  am excited and nervous. Ever since I can remember, my family has led the musical celebration on Christmas Eve.  My father, with his magnificent basso, leads the choir. His thrilling voice sings out with gusto, “Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen.”  June had a sweet high soprano, like Julie Andrews, that cut through Daddy’s rich, low tones. The rest of us were relatively musical, old friends and family members.  

My brother Bill, the Conductor, led the music at Station Square for 29 years.  He wrote carol arrangements that were original and very beautiful. But, he wrote such difficult parts that we struggled to get them right, even after weeks of rehearsal.  I sang second alto. Staring straight at Bill, I hope to sing my part on pitch. He rarely repeated an arrangement. If you thought  you had “Adeste Fideles” down pat, three years later, he would write another version. One Christmas when Bill was in the army in Korea , he sent the carol arrangements home so the show could go on without him.

Bill, composer, arranger, conductor and trombonist, also led the brass choir.  Composed of four trombones, they played in sweet, hushed harmony. Even now, when I hear a brass choir play carols, tears come. Cliff Heather, was a gifted professional, who once was a back up for Tommy Dorsey. Cliff, who had taught Bill to play the horn, was a dear family friend.  He was large, warm and gentle with a soft, light laugh. Everyone loved Cliff. He was a great story teller.  His lips were always swollen from years of playing the horn. One year, Cliff invited jazz trumpet player, Thad Jones to join us. He was a cool dude.

On Christmas Eve afternoon, we would gather in the Community House to rehearse. Bill would drill us and we would struggle to meet his expectations. The tenor section had only two singers; my husband, who has a sweet Tony Bennett style voice, and Cliff’s son, Dee, a total cut up who never learned his part. Dee made Paul laugh so hard he could hardly stand up.

 The choir sounded strong after an hour or two of rehearsal at the CH. Our voices rang out with increasing confidence and zeal in the large echoing hall. After, we would go back to Mom and Dad’s for a cup of soup and a feet up. Then, we would walk the long, dark three blocks to Station Square passing houses with candles in the windows.

One year, it was exceptionally cold and raw, and we were standing on the windy platform waiting for the Christmas Decoration awards to finish. The horn players always had flasks for “medicinal purposes”. They would grease theirt trombones  with Ponds cold cream so the slides did not freeze. They also greased their lips with a little booze. I remember having a sip and grimacing, which generated much laughter. A train pulled up and the conductor greeted us with a hearty “Merry Christmas." Cliff handed him a flask ,and he took a greats swig and hopped back on the train.

Then, it was time. We would assemble on a small ledge over the Square, crowded together for warmth and harmony. I would look down and see the familiar faces of former classmates and neighbors. Our voices seemed to disappear in the crisp air. It was over before you knew it. We were relieved, but , there was always a let down when we walked down the steep steps to join the crowd.  At the end, Santa Claus ( played by an old vaudeville actor we all knew named Charlie Mac) arrived in a sleigh with candy canes for the little ones. Afterwards, we hurried to Bill’s apartment to warm up and party. He served hot buttered rum from a huge copper pot. Friends streamed in with babies on their shoulders, crowding into his cozy apartment.

After Daddy died, we sang at Station Square one more time. It was etched with sharp, brilliant,  joyful but painful memories. We decided, as a family, “no more”.

Now, Christmas is at my house in East Hampton. We still gather around the piano to sing carols. John’s robust baritone belts out “Good King Wenceslas”. Paul’s tenor croons  “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Linda leads us with her beautiful soprano in “Silent  Night.”   The rest of us join in.

All thirteen of us, four generations, are together.  

They still sing carols on Christmas Eve in Station Square.

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