Remembering my father (July 21, 1924-December 18, 2015)

Fifteen years ago, my mother died on Christmas Day. Four weeks ago, just a seven days short of the anniversary, my dad followed after. Christmas. I think I need to tell you about Christmas.

Dad was a child of the Great Depression. For him, childhood Christmases were heartbreaking, hungry, and austere, but for us, even when times were hard, Christmas Day was the very best day, and Christmas dinner the very best dinner of the year. Preparations would begin early in November when (a story in itself) the kitchen would be cleared, pop bottles  washed and laid out rows, the canning kettle filled , the bottle-capper set up, and we would bottle our own root beer. Later, there would be home made chocolates: peppermint (my favorite), chocolate coated raisins (also my favorite), vanilla and almond creams, and chocolate-dipped maraschino cherries. There would be shortbread, plum pudding soaked in brandy (Shhh…don’t tell Granny) and mincemeat pie. A week or two before the big day, we would drive out into the country to find and cut the perfect Christmas tree—a tree that would sometimes scrape the ceiling, if not quite scrape the sky. Dad would test and string the colored lights (too hot to be touched) and when he was done, we would help hang the decorations: delicate blown glass in silver, red, gold and green. There were children’s decorations, too—decorations of our own: bright silver bells, plastic snowmen with black top hats, miniature glass peacocks with fiberglass tails, and from mom’s childhood tree, perhaps half a dozen yellow plastic canaries. We hung old burned out lights on cotton strings: lights too beautiful to be discarded, lights shaped like Santa, frost-covered bells, snow-covered houses, Victorian lanterns, lights saved from our mother’s past, lights that glowed with memories older than our own. They may have looked tired and tawdry to others, but to our eyes, they were beautiful. Mom would pull out her Christmas music box, in the shape of a Middle-Eastern church, complete with clear Lucite spires and illuminated picture of Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus in the stable. It looked, (so we children imagined), as Bethlehem must have looked if only we could have been there. Carefully, she would wind it up, and it would play “Away in a Manger.” It was a gift from my father, given her their very first Christmas.

When all was done, beneath the glowing tree, Mom would spread a sheet like snow, and place the old cardboard Santa, and our part in the preparations was done

On Christmas morning there would be fruit salad and sausage rolls, and that long, delicious agony of anticipation as we waited for breakfast to be over and for the grown ups to finish their coffee. Already, our stockings would have been emptied of chocolates, nuts, candy canes and oranges, crayons and pencil sets, intricate wooden or wire puzzles; once, (oh, wonderful!) a gyroscope that would balance on the tip of a pencil. In the living room, Dad would be “Santa” and one by one, he would pull each present from the pile beneath the tree: “To Diana, with love; To Craig, Merry Christmas, To Joey, love, Dad…From Santa, with love, to [me].”

Sometime in the afternoon, the company would start arriving. The silver would be polished; Christmas roses, candles, and cloth napkins set upon the table. There would be dogs underfoot (St. Bernards, just so we’re clear) and once the turkey came out of the oven, one or two cats as well. When the bird was carved, and we all finally sat down, gathered would be grandparents and uncles and aunts, and cousins, and Dad would raise his voice above the din in mock complaint about all the gol-darn freeloaders come to eat his turkey and stuffing, not to mention his sweet potatoes and cranberries, and especially his Christmas pudding. Look what he had to put up with.

“Pass the creamed corn, you cheapskate Scotchman,” Uncle Jack would snort.

“Creamed corn? Sheesh, really? You already got most of the potatoes!” My Dad would offer him a bowl. “Look, I’m a nice guy. Have as many brussels sprouts as you want.”

“I don’t want your brussels sprouts. I want the creamed corn.” Someone would pass him the bowl, and eyes locked with my dad, he would take a spoonful. A big sloppy one. And then another.

It was an old and comfortable routine, one of their favorites. It meant everyone was right where he belonged, and we would all dig in.

In the afterglow, when all had been cleared and the leftovers put away, Grandad would settle into the armchair and light his pipe, puff once or twice, then light his pipe again. (He smoked a pound of matches for every ounce of tobacco, my uncle would teasingly say). Gran would spread her new jigsaw puzzle across the card table and begin to sort the pieces. Others would sit down to a Monopoly game that would go on far, far into the warm darkness of the night. That was Christmas.

I remember one Christmas in particular, at our house. Gran was there, and my sister. (Both gone.) Uncle Jack (gone) and Aunty Betty and cousin, Eleanor and her family (we haven’t heard from them in years), Mom and Dad, Craig and Cheryl, our children and theirs. It was a Christmas just as I have described. I think there was probably a Monopoly game.

Late in the evening, I glanced out the window and noticed the driveway light had turned itself on. “It’s snowing,” I said, to no one in particular, and the room went suddenly still. Our green Christmas (this is the West Coast, after all) was turning wondrously and unexpectedly white, and there in the light, stood a doe and her nearly grown fawn calmly gazing back at us through the window while onto their backs, the first feathery flakes of snow came drifting down. It felt…sacred.

“Someone should write this down,” my father said quietly. People nodded in agreement. “I think this is the best Christmas we’ve ever had,” he said. “Ever.”

There have been others, good ones, but none like that. Then Christmas changed the day my mother died. Sadness seemed to settle on him—on all of us—like ashes fallen on snow. Family dispersed. Doors were closed; invitations regretfully declined.

Those last few months in the lodge, were such a gift. Zoee and I would visit him in the evenings, and he would feed her cookies. “She’s a good friend,” he would smile. “She’s so gentle.” He would scratch her behind the ears, remembering other dogs and happier times. When it grew late, and the cookies were done, and it was time to say good-night, I would kiss him on the cheek and tell him, “I love you, Dad.” His eyes would tear, and he would take my hand and hold it tight. He would kiss me and say, “I love you, too.” It was so hard to let him go.

The night before he died, he didn’t respond. If he heard me, I will never know. More than anything else, he wanted one more family Christmas like the one I have described. I did write it down for him, finally. Here it is. Family is coming. Christmas, at least in my heart, is near. I love you, Dad. It’s going to be the best Christmas. Ever. They’re predicting rain, but maybe there will be snow.




~ by karenmcl on January 15, 2016.

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