Christmas Past

My father’s favorite Christmas song was “Silver Bells.” Right after Thanksgiving, I would start practicing Christmas songs on the Hammond organ that had been crowded into our small living room after my parents gave in to my begging to please get an organ just like Nancy Pletcher’s. Dad loved to sit in his favorite chair to listen. “Silver Bells” was always his first request. I think he loved the idea of the hustle and bustle of the city. When the song began –“City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style” — I knew he was picturing downtown Scranton right in front of the Globe Store. I would return to the song several times during the evening, swiveling from my seat on the organ bench to catch Dad’s face when I played the first few notes. His eyes softened with a look of gratitude. “Aw, you’re playing it for me again!” they seemed to say.

The Globe Store was one of three downtown department stores that bustled all year round in 1960s Scranton, the big city just a short drive from our hometown in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region. The Globe presided over nearly an entire block of Wyoming Avenue, with a grand marble entrance in the center. I can still feel the icy cold of the large silver door handles and the way my breath caught for a second as I stepped into the furnace-like heat of the glass-enclosed vestibule.

Our Thanksgiving night tradition was to bundle into our coats, leggings, hats, and gloves just after dark and drive into the city to see the Christmas display in The Globe Store windows. The street would be lined with cars discharging clusters of families clad in heavy woolens, the parents struggling to catch up to their children who were bolting toward the windows as Christmas music blared from loudspeakers. On either side of the entrance were two display windows, each wider than our living room and just as deep.  The animated Christmas displays changed from year to year, but always told a story so that you had to start at the far left and make your way down the length of the building to view them in the proper sequence. The stories they told have long since faded from my memory, but a glittering array of images remains: figures in red velvet and white fur gliding across an icy pond, elves in red and green felt raising and lowering their wooden hammers over a row of toy trucks on a crooked workbench, cozy scenes of families gathered around a fireplace where ragged bits of parchment paper in the shape of flames flickered in a blinking orange light. Mom and Dad, like most of the moms and dads, hung back to let the kids get up to the windows. Sometimes when I turned around, I would panic for a moment if I didn’t see them. But my older brother, Tommy, would wordlessly grab my hand to let me know I was safe.

Without being told, we all seemed to understand the proper protocol, making way for the smallest children to scoot in front to get a better view. For how many children were crowded around it was surprisingly quiet. Eventually, parents would gently coax their children away from the windows, though it seemed they were just as happy to linger in the wonder themselves. Maybe they were trying to freeze this moment before returning to their cars where the kids would fight for the window seats.

As much as he loved “Silver Bells,” it was “Silent Night” that always brought tears to my father’s eyes. It was one of the few songs I knew by heart, which was helpful since it was often difficult to see the music through my own tears. Sometimes, my mother and grandmother would sing the hymn in its original language (“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht”). Dad and I would join in as we could, humming where we were unsure of the German words. We’d always finish with a repeat of the first verse, which even my brother knew by heart, slowing the ending down and drawing out the final “peace.” Then we would hold our breath in a collective moment of silence until someone peeled away. “Well, I’ve got to go finish that eggnog,” my grandmother would say. Or “Time to finish up the dishes,” from my mother. But Dad remained planted in his chair, swiping at his tears with the underside of his heavy wrists.


I remember so well
The aroma that wafted up
Whenever Aunt Carmella lifted the heavy lid
Of her cedar chest,
A treasure chest to a little girl who had yet to know adventure.

The smell was dry and sweet,
Just a bit dusty
And held the promise of exploration
As Aunt Carmella carefully removed items large and small
Tokens of her own adventures
To share with her wide-eyed niece.

There was the collection of salt and pepper shakers
All shapes and sizes
Made of tin and glass, ceramic and china
In the shape of animals and buildings and food and furniture
Each holding a story that Auntie was only too happy to share.

There were the black velvet pillow covers with bright yellow fringe.
Was one an image of Elvis? Another a tropical scene?
And the black and white photos, many of Auntie herself,
Looking glamorous and exciting.
I wanted her to transport me to the world of those photos
To New York City in the 1940s,
To a world of high heels and dating and dancing
To a world far from our small coal mining town.
She was my passport and I loved her for it.

I loved when she would get out her record player
In its brown leather case
And carefully set it up in the large kitchen
Selecting record after record from her collection of 78s
Which she kept in a special case with yellowed manila dividers
Indexing the music of her glory days.
Looking back, I feel I spent hours of my childhood
Dancing with Aunt Carmella on the black and white checked floor
To Elvis and the Andrew Sisters and Frank Sinatra.
Doing “The Hucklebuck” and learning the words to
“His Feet Too Big for the Bed’.”
To this day, I cannot step on a dance floor
Without thinking of Aunt Carmella.

I loved when she would play games in the yard
With my brother and me,
Youthful and fun and full of energy.
She would sit with us, when we were quite small,
In the small wooden sandbox our dad had built.
When we were older, she would catch fireflies with us
On warm summer evenings
Or play truth and dare on the steps of the back porch,
Always coming up with such fun dares
That we were never inclined to tell the truth.

I loved when she would sit with us
On the wooden swings in the back yard
Or the glider on the back porch
And teach us the words to all her favorite songs:
“Have You Ever Been Lonely?”
“Put Your Sweet Lips a Little Closer to the Phone”
“I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

And I can’t stop loving her
For how loved she has always made me feel
For being the family historian, sharing so many special stories with all of us
For sprinkling my memories of childhood
With so many wonders:
The magic that poured out of her cedar chest and record player,
The gifts of dance and song,
The spirit of fun and adventure.

She has touched my life
As only a dearest aunt can.
My heart is grateful
And will forever be filled with love for my “Auntie.”

Christmas 2020

I spent the last year
Writing about people who no longer walk this earth:
Living with them, loving them,
Learning from them, laughing with them.

I came to know them in new ways,
My heart and mind open to what is revealed
When we dwell in the spirit of our loved ones.
I found memories buried so deep in my heart
That I had the pleasure of living them again.
And even though some memories inflicted the pain of a fresh wound,
All brought me closer to those I have loved
And love still.

This Christmas, many of us will be separated from those we love most.

After a year spent with so many long-lost loved ones,
Here is what I have come to believe.

I believe, no matter how many miles or years separate us,
We will celebrate with our loved ones.
We will summon memories
That have often been lost in our frantic gatherings of the past.
We will have the time to think about
How much those we are missing mean to us,
And cherish them even more.

I believe that every moment we are apart
Is a gift we give to our loved ones.
The greatest gift of all.
The gift that arrived in a manger,
In a stable far away, in a time long past.
Jesus our Emmanuel–God with us.
The Savior who would sacrifice his very life
So that we might have life and have it abundantly.

Trusting in him, we are united one to another in love
Across all space and time.
We cannot be separated from those we love,
Just as we cannot be separated from the love of God.

“Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Debra Rose Brillati
December 2020

The Soul of Our Nation

My head and heart are imploding
Crumbling in upon themselves
Crashing with a heavy thud
In the pit of my stomach
Filling me with a hot dust
That burns behind my eyes.

This wreckage is multiplied by the millions
All across our country
As people of faith and goodwill and decency and morality
Witness the planes flying into the towers
Of our common humanity
Seeking to destroy from within
What terrorists from without failed to do.

Who will run towards the fiery rubble
To save us all?
Who will risk life and limb
To stop the madness?
Who will enlist in the army of better angels
To defend and protect the most vulnerable among us?

Even more than we did after 9/11
We the people need to rise up as one
And with courage and perseverance
Oppose the enemies within
Oppose the enemies in Congress
Oppose the enemy in the White House
And save the soul of our nation.

I don’t know how we will do this
I only know we must.

May God help us all.

Debra Rose Brillati
July 2019

Bleeding Heart

The very idea
that someone thinks
calling me a bleeding heart
is an insult
is at the heart
of our inability
to understand one another.

If my heart did not bleed
For the pain of others
If it did not boil
Hot inside my chest
At the sight of a child
Being separated from her mother
If it did not send thick blood
Rushing pulsating throbbing
To fill my head with
A deafening white noise
At the news of shots
Ringing out in a sacred place

Then I would wish my heart
to stop.

Because after all
What is the alternative
To a bleeding heart?

One made of stone?
Or ice?
Or paralyzed
by a hard shell of hatred?

My heart may bleed
But it continues to beat
And as long as it does …

I will bind up my wounds
So I can tend to the wounds of others
I will get close enough to the cold-hearted
So that my heart’s warmth
Might melt their own
I will cushion the landing
As others fall on hard times
So that hearts of stone cannot crush them.

Yes, I am proud of my bleeding heart.

Maybe I’ll even wear it on my sleeve.

Debra Rose Brillati
June 2019

Feral Child

Feral child.
A psychiatrist’s description
Of our daughter in full meltdown.

How can so much rage
Reside inside this petite and delicate form,
Behind the grey-green eyes
So prone to sparkle
Until the demons within extinguish them?

Starting life
Lost, alone, without family or love or support,
An innocent little orphan gone wild.

Our feral child.

How do we reach inside to touch
The lost child
So she knows she is not alone
And never will be?

Why can love not cure
What lack of love has caused?
Are we just impatient?
Or have the long days of care-giving
That never seem to be enough
Fed our own demons,
Leavings us exhausted
from the struggle to wrestle hope
From their clawing grasp?

As her raging subsides,
She seeks my body now.
While at first there was no comfort in my touch,
She has come to endure a prolonged embrace.
Maybe, just maybe,
In these moments
She does truly know that she is not alone,
That she is loved,
That we are not going anywhere.
Just maybe.

I want to strap her lanky seven-year-old body to mine
And carry her through life.
But no,
As much as her heart needs anchor in my love
Her spirit needs to soar.

I pray that each embrace will work some small magic
To quell the dark feral child inside
And bring peace to my bright light
With the sparkling eyes.
Because one day,
She will light up the whole world.

Debra Rose Brillati
March 2004

Where Do You Go?

Where do you go when it feels like the whole world is conspiring to drive you mad?
When all that you honor and hold to be true is shredded and trampled by evil forces disguised as saviors?
Where do you go when rage and grief are intertwined like long abandoned chains
And your effort to tease them apart only adds frustration to the tangled mix?

You pack your heart in a suitcase and go as far away as you can.
You leave those who have taken arms with the devil against you
But also those who have loved you and love you still
In your desperate need to run as fast as you can.

There are choices to make on this journey.
Do you allow yourself to fall prey to the evil lurking within you
and chart your own path of revenge and destruction?
Do you add to the suffering of our suffering world
By magnifying your rage and grief
And projecting them onto others?

Or do you search along the way
To find your better angels wherever they have flown?
Do you place the tangled chains in God’s hands
With no request but to accept them?
Do you muster the courage to find your way home
And unpack your heart
But beating still.

You must choose
But perhaps it does not have to be today.

Debra Rose Brillati
March 2019

I Got Nothing

I got nothing.

Perhaps it’s just the usual
Blank page panic
That terrorizes every writer.

And yet
This nothing feels different

I got nothing.
I am empty

Outrage has coursed through my veins
For so long
That I am eroded from the inside
A vast Grand Canyon of emptiness
That somehow feels oddly heavy.

This emptiness is filled
With stories that will go untold
Poetry that will never sing
Music that will never resonate in our hearts.

Somewhere deep down
At the bottom of the canyon
A small voice cries out
The tone is plaintive
But too soft to carry it out of the depths
To my ears
which long to hear

But I got nothing.

For so long now
I have watched
as truth as been hollowed out
as decency has been discarded
as cruelty has seeped in to fill the void.

Perhaps “nothing”
Is better than the images
That haunt my waking and my sleeping:
School children cowering in closets
Babies ripped from their mothers’ arms
Refugees huddled in squalid camps
Dead black boys
And Palestinians
And Puerto Ricans
Swastikas and burning crosses.

I got nothing.

I will face the blank page again
I will listen very hard
To hear the voice from the depths of the canyon
Maybe the cries will reach me
And I will hear something
And it will give me hope.

But for today
I got nothing.

Debra Rose Brillati
June 2018


A cane in each hand
she carried herself
With remarkable grace and dignity
As she entered the large circle
of worn and mismatched chairs
In the dark church basement,
Nodding and smiling
at each of the handful of people dotting the circle.

She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall
Petite and fine-boned
Her long blonde-gray hair
Soft around her face
And drawn up loosely
In a messy bun
That didn’t look like it would last the day.

Her dress was a deep blue floral cotton
Almost reaching the floor.
Over it she wore a very fine pale yellow pullover
That draped softly from her thin shoulders
The wide neck stretched just enough
To offer a narrow glimpse of freckled skin
Peeking out at the top of her left arm.

She nodded and smiled as she passed in front of me
Then with great care and a flourish of the two canes
Took the seat beside me.

Someone quickly drew up an extra chair in front of her
And gently helped her lift one leg onto it.
On her small arthritic feet
She wore what looked like orthopedic sandals
Thick and black
Too heavy for her delicate frame.
Her left leg stretched out in front of her
was swollen from knee to ankle,
The paper-thin skin so shiny and taut
It looked like a bruise-colored balloon about to burst.

“I’m Julienne,” she said,
In a most refined British accent
With a lovely lilt on the last syllable
That combined with the twinkle in her gray-blue eyes
To give the impression of a sprite
Ready for a little mischief.

I just had time to smile and say my name
when the training started.

We were here,
Some of us,
To learn what it would be like
To get arrested
To stand up for what we believed in
To stand in the safety of our privilege
And fight for the rights of others.

Others were here to teach us.
Gray and bearded men in rumbled khakis and plaid shirts
A woman with a headscarf battling cancer and injustice
A trans person with a funky designer oxygen mask
Who from their field experience as a medic
Counseled us about the health issues
Of being arrested.

All had been arrested
Most several times
Many overnight
Some for a few weeks

But Julienne
Was the hero of heroes
Veteran of three months in prison
A tortuous stint she earned
By standing up against torture.

“Oh, but you should do it,”
She said during a break
With a glimmer in her eye.
“You need to really see
How people of color
Are treated differently.
You need to experience it yourself.”

I know next week
She will be locking arms
With some of the people in this room
Counting on them to be her canes
As they are counting on her to be their courage.

Will I stand and be counted
Like Julienne?

Debra Rose Brillati
May 2018

Long Flowing Hair

She had long flowing hair and longings
to be seen
to be beautiful
to be desired.

“What are the words,”
she wondered,
“that are painted on my forehead?
Do they say stay away?”
She would scrub her skin raw if it would erase them.

She had long flowing hair and longings
to be a poet
from another more romantic time,
or the mysterious muse
of a roguish artist
whose depths only she could mine.

Beneath the arched stone window
in a small nook of the musty library
She sat cross-legged on the worn red cushion
and inhaled centuries of novels,
inhabited worlds
so far from the small coal mining town
she longed to escape.

The college on the river
was her chance.
The row of old stone buildings
Looking down on the rural campus
From the top of the grass-covered hill,
The gilded age mansions converted to dorms,
The octagon chapel and columned library.
This was the village
Where she imagined her dreams would come true.

But the roguish artists had other muses
And her crime of rhyming
Banished her from the creative writing program.
So her dreams dried up
And disappeared like coal dust
In the breezes from the river.

She had long flowing hair and longings
And did not know
That one day, when her hair no longer flowed,
she would be her own muse
And create from coal dust
And memories and love
A life of beauty where,
at last,
she was seen and desired.

Debra Rose Brillati
April 2018