Ghosts of Christmas past

I spent Christmas day 1995 driving. Went and did my mom’s side of the family on Christmas Eve, and then got up at the crack of dawn to go to my paternal grandmother’s (she was long gone, but my aunt and uncle still live there) house for breakfast and the annual Great Ripping of Shiny Paper, just like we’d been doing since I can remember – we kids had always insisted on getting an early start, much to the feigned chagrin of our elders, and nothing in our semi-adult experience had led us to any awareness of a flaw in that program – and then headed for the gf’s parents’, which happened to be in Mattituck, on the south side of the north fork of Eastern Long Island. Fourteen hours of driving if it was a minute. Being an idiot, I hadn’t thought of this in advance, but fourteen hours of driving on a day when every single last gas station except the biggest truck stops would be closed. Ah well, some of us live and learn, and others of us..well, it’s all we can do to just live.

Obviously, something had to be done. An adjustment had to be made; compromises that would satisfy no one, thereby proving their worth and essential fairness. It was mutually decided to alternate Christmases between her family and mine. Her side won the ’96 coin toss, and I was faced with the dreadful task of informing my family (both sides) that I wouldn’t be seeing them at all for Christmas that year. Yes, I’d be sure to be there for Thanksgiving, but we all know what a sorry substitute that is. Nothing wrong with Thanksgiving, of course, but we’re talking Christmas here, the Big Kahuna, the Whole Egg. It’s like saying the Spanish Civil War was every bit as important and meaningful as WWII.

Problem is, and I know I should have thought of this and at least insisted on best two out of three on that coin toss, my dad was sick. Very sick indeed, in fact, and sicker than even he knew. After a lifetime of cigarette-smoking which began with corn silks at fourteen, my dad had spent the last year and a half or so in that last brief but long struggle with emphysema. Long story short, I ended up getting The Dreaded Phone Call early on a spring ’96 Sunday morning from my uncle, at around 4:30 AM, after having done a big show celebrating the release of a certain movie whose soundtrack featured seven of our songs. It had been a big night, and a hugely enjoyable one, and I was just getting ready to turn in. I was planning to drive back to NC on Tuesday, since he’d recently spent yet another week in the hospital and had been released Friday night. I’d spoken to him on the phone that night and he was in good spirits, and sounded as strong as he usually did after having been so sick for so long; i.e., not very, but hopeful in spite of it.

As it worked out, I had missed my last possible Christmas with my father completely, through a wholly unanticipated confluence of bad timing, unconquerable illness, and poor judgement. So naturally I always think of him this time of year.

My dad was a wonderful father in every way, and the fact is I’m grateful to Whomever for having grown up in a time and place – and with parents, family and friends – that guaranteed me as close to an idyllic childhood as it is possible to have on this hellbound planet. I’m truly a lucky man, and even though I do feel bad about having cheated myself out of that last Christmas morning with my dad cracking his usual godawful cornball jokes and playing the Vince Guaraldi tape over and over that I had made for him years before, the truth is this: how could I possibly feel at all shortchanged? How many people get to live their life as a mere pale reflection of such a good and truly kind man; how many have had the opportunity to learn so much from so gentle a teacher; how many have been so fortunate as I have: to have so many generous and open-hearted people care so much about them, and ask precisely nothing at all in return for it?

When I was a kid, there was just no telling what my dad would do for Christmas. The ritual went like this: my brother and I would go to bed around 9 and spend a good long while squirming and squealing under the covers, telling ourselves that that last creak was surely Rudolph setting hoof on our roof. I’d spin abominable lies to dismay poor Jeff, such as that most likely Santa wouldn’t make it this year due to some horrible accident involving a sled crash or horrible reindeer-eating monsters. We’d hear some rustling around in the living room, site of the Best Christmas Tree Yet, try to sneak a peek around the hall corner so as to catch ol’ St Nick in the act, and get yelled at for it. We’d finally get to sleep probably around 11 or so, which is when the rustling around would begin in earnest – unbeknownst to us, of course.

Then, around 1 or 2, I’d sneak SEAL-style down the hall, maybe getting caught a time or two and sent back to the insufferable Gulag of my bed before finally winning through to the incredible display of absolutely everything I ever dreamed of and more gleaming faintly in the dark under the tree. Then, a few hours spent playing Q..U..I..E..T..L..Y with everything, alone until I decided to wake Jeff and let him know that Santa had made it after all, despite the unfortunate devouring of all his reindeer by Gamera or someone. That playing-quietly part turned out to be a real problem the year I got my first drumset, let me tell you.

Of course, you all know that story; you’ve all lived it, either from the kiddy perspective or the other end. But the funny part is the odd twist my father would always find to put on things. He was a merry old prankster his whole life, and that never ever stopped, in sickness or in health.

He did the usual tricky stuff, like giving Faberge egg-style presents to people ordinarily lacking the sense of childish silliness required to appreciate them – a big elaborately-wrapped box with nothing but a smaller one inside, repeated on and on until the hapless and humorless recipient got all the way down to – nothing whatsoever. Of course, the real present always popped up eventually, but not until the precise moment when the joke had gone almost, but not quite, too far.

Then there was the year of the dirt bikes. I’d been riding for a year or so, and that had sparked the interest not only of my brother and cousin but of my dad and my older cousin too. After a couple of disastrous experiments with placating us younger kids with minibikes, it was decided that everyone was getting an honest-to-God motocross bike that year, and the plan was to sort of wink at the de rigeur pre-Christmas uncertainty and acknowledge what was coming Christmas morning. The main topic of speculation for my brother and my younger cousin Mark was not what they were getting for Christmas that year, but whether our folks would actually attempt to roll those Hodakas into the living room and make a proper “Santa brought it” presentation of it or not. Our front steps were plentiful and plenty steep, and there were also problems with handlebar-versus-doorframe width to consider. I know, because we sneaked and measured when no one was looking. It looked to us kids like an impossible task, and since we were at that stage where we had long since figured the whole Santa thing out but our folks were still having fun trying to maintain the fiction, we were pretty interested to see how it would all shake out.

And then came the fire. Yep, about a week before Christmas, Bill Beattie’s Cycle Town burned completely to the ground, and Mark and Jeff’s Hodaka Dirt Squirts with it, and my dad’s and older cousin Steve’s Combat Wombats too. Mark said he saw it on the 11 o’clock news and literally wept quietly while trying to act uninterested. The phone lines between our house and Mark’s were burning up that night, let me tell you.

And you know what? To this day I don’t remember or even know all the details, nor do I really want to, but somehow my dad and Uncle Gene managed to not only secure replacement bikes, but actually get them into their respective living rooms, through some no-doubt OSHA-unapproved system of planks, ropes, and sheer grunt. When my brother and I came in and saw a bike we thought had burned to cinders shining like new money under the tree, well, I’ll just say that it was the biggest Christmas suprise either of us had had since…well, the first one.

I could go on and on with stories like this one, but you all have stories of your own to tell today, and new ones to make too, so I’ll just stop here. I was just thinking of my dear old dad, and how we’ll all miss him in the morning; and how lucky we all were to have ever had him at all, and how lucky I am to still have my mom, my aunts and uncles and all the kinfolk, and how glad I’ll be to be with them all tomorrow. May all your Christmases be even half as merry as mine will be.

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