Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Favorite Christmas Memory

My sister, Melissa, and I had a tradition. On the first snow of the year, whenever it would come, we would could go out, make snowballs, play and make snow angels.   We did it when we were little kids and then we moved to Florida for awhile.  It was hard to make snow angels among the kumquats that filled our yard.  Those were the years when our mother sprayed something on the windows to make it look like frost.  It was very hard to buy into the whole Christmas concept when your Dad is on a ladder, hanging lights in Bermuda shorts.

When we moved back to Chicago Melissa and I started up again.  We stopped again when we became self-conscious teens, only to start up again when we were in college, didn’t care as much about things and realized our days like this together were numbered.  Those days are some of my favorite holiday memories.

When Melissa and I were kids, we would always spend the night together in the bunk beds I normally shared with my brother.  We would talk and look out the window with hopes so hard that we might see Santa.  I always thought I did. Melissa patiently would say, “No, Tom that is what is called an airplane. You have seen them before. I think you’re getting tired.”  

When we were older in our twenties, near graduation, my father started a tradition where he invited all of the neighbors in for some Christmas cheer after the late night service at church.  That continued even after some of us moved out, got married, and after my mother died. It was always very festive and looked forward to by all.  My father knew how to keep Christmas.

Always after everyone went home my brothers and I would sit up, drink beer and play Monopoly into the late hours while the girls drank wine in the kitchen and then gave up on us and went to bed.  Even on those crazy nights, at least until she was married, Melissa and I would a little find time to make snow angels or lie together for awhile on her old bed and talk like we used to as we all waited for Santa to come.

I am blessed to have a lot of great Christmas memories. Visits from grandparents…the Stan Makita slot hockey game, skates and stick I got on the year it was my turn to get the big gift…the look in my girlfriend’s, and future wife’s, eyes when she received from me a robe that she wanted. One that I could not afford, but that my grandmother could make, because she was an expert seamstress…the year in the city when I got frustrated and wrapped my first son in lights so he would know what a Christmas tree felt like.

My absolute favorite Christmas memory is this. I moved back to Chicago from Champaign in the spring after the grant that paid me expired and my mentor went off to Ireland without me.   I spent some time lying around at my parents’ house watching the Flintstones while I waited for the finest graduate schools in this nation to reject me. Then I got a job at Marshall Fields in Woodfield Mall, running their book department, until I could find another way of making a living.  In the area where I worked they ran old Christmas cartoons and classic animation like “Here Comes Suzy Snowflake.”  As much as I love those things, when you see them a hundred times a day, you are apt to lose your mind.

One night my girlfriend, Karen, came in and we had dinner and then did Christmas shopping for our families. On the way down a long escalator in the center, I said, “I think I could do this with you forever.”

We were about halfway down; she looked at me and said, “Do you want to get married?”

I said, “Yes. Yes, I do. I want to marry you.”

When we reached the lower level, she said, “Good. I want to marry you too. When?” 

I am not good with dates or times so I said the first one that came to my mind. “September 12th.”

She smiled a wicked smile. “How nice. You want to marry me on my birthday.” 

I rolled my eyes. “You know I’m clueless.”

We went and had a few drinks, she dropped me off at home, because I didn’t have a car, and then she went to her parents’ house for the night.  I didn’t think anything more about it.

The next morning my brother roused me and said, “Your girl is on the phone.”  My parents had taken my phone out of my room so I had to go to the dining room to answer the call. I groggily said, “Hey, honey.”

She said, “I can’t talk much but I wanted to let you know that the church and the place I would like us to have the reception are both open on September 12th.  We might have to move fast though, so let’s talk.”

I said, “OK, just do what you have to and let me know what I have to do.”

“I will, honey.  See you tonight.  I love you, Thomas.”

“Me too.” I hung up the phone and let out a huge sigh.

My brother was still standing nearby. “What is it?” he asked, genuinely concerned. 

 I looked at him, still a bit stunned, “Well, it looks like I’m getting married.”

He laughed. “That’s a good thing though, isn’t it. You love Karen.”

I paused a minute and thought. I said to him, “Yes. It’s a very good thing.”

He elatedly punched his fists in the air. “Awesome! I may have won the pool!”

The pool was this: One Christmas at my Grandmother’s house when my siblings were all sleeping on couches or in sleeping bags in her living room, we all took a dollar and wrote on it who we thought would be the first to be married.  As it turned out my brother did not win the pool, well at least not technically.  I wrote on my dollar “Melissa,” our oldest, because it made logical sense to me. Every one of my other siblings wrote the same thing “Tom,” so they all won a dollar back.  Regardless, I do know this… I lost that pool, but in the end I really won.

When Karen’s parents came back from their annual trip to visit her mother’s family in Louisiana for the holidays we told them.  Her father at first had a hundred questions and then he stopped himself. “Oh, shit, what am I saying?” You’re getting married. This is great!” Twenty-six years later…still the best in-laws ever.

When we went to my parents’ house to tell them, my mother was sitting at the kitchen table with her legs folded up underneath her on the chair and writing with her fountain pen in that left-handed way she did.  I said, “Chickadee, me and Karen have something we need to talk with you and Dad about.”  

She smiled so broadly and said, “He’s down in the office.  Let’s go see him.”  We went down to the lowest level of the house, where he kept his desk right outside what used to be my bedroom.  As we went into the room, my mother said, “Garl, the kids have something to talk to us about.”

He wheeled around, looking very preoccupied and serious as he often did when he worked. “What is it?”

I sat down on a stool and said, “Dad, I know it is not perfect but Karen and I have decided to get married.”  As soon as I said it my mother jumped up and wrapped Karen in her arms, crying. They went up to the kitchen. My father put his head down on the desk.  I tentatively put my hand on his back. I said, “Dad, are you OK?  Are you alright with this?”

He said, his face still pressed against his papers, “We need wine to celebrate…We need to call your grandmother…Oh, Christ, son, I thought you were just going to tell me she was pregnant.  This is so much a better thing to process.

 I said, laughing, “Dad, you are an idiot.”

“I like to think of myself as a good kind of idiot though.”

 Still laughing, "That you are. Come upstairs.”

He said, “Tom, I couldn’t be happier for you. My son, you have always made good choices.  You made a really good one here.”
I said, “Thank you, Dad.”

And that is my favorite Christmas memory.