Sunday, December 7, 2014

Christmas Memories

When we were kids 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 angels on the ground.  We did it always when we were small ones 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 snow.  It was very hard to buy into the whole winter concept when your Dad is on a ladder, hanging lights in his Bermuda shorts.

When we moved back to Chicago Melissa and I started up again. We didn’t stop until 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 probably numbered.  Those days we had are some of my favorite holiday memories.

On Christmas Eve when we were kids we would always spend the night together in the bunk bed I shared with my younger brother.  We would talk late and look out the window with hopes so hard that we might see Santa.  I always thought I did. Melissa would patiently say, “No, Tom that is what is called an airplane. You have seen them before.  I think you’re getting tired.”   When we were much older and did the same thing, she would say, “No, T.S., that's not Santa. I think you drank too much beer. That's a Plymouth.” 

When we were 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.  This continued even after some of us moved out, got married, and even after my mother died, Dad remarried, and we gained some awesome new siblings in the clan.  We would all still come home for Christmas and stay for a few days.  It was always a very festive event and looked forward to by all.  One thing you can say about my father is that he really knew how to keep Christmas.  It was his absolute favorite holiday. 

Always, on those nights after the block friends 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, finally gave up on us, and went to bed.  And yet even on those crazy days and nights, even after we were both married, Melissa and I would always a find a little time to maybe make some snow angels or just 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 and future wife’s eyes when she received from me a robe that she wanted. It was one that I could not afford, but my grandmother could make, because she was an expert seamstress, and that made it even more valuable to Karen…the year in the city when I was decorating and wrapped my first son in lights and hung ornaments on him so he would know what a Christmas tree felt like…so many memories.

My absolute favorite Christmas memory though is this. I moved back to Chicago from Champaign in the spring of 1986 after the Navy grant that paid me to be a psychology research associate expired, and the professor/editor of the journal I worked on went off to Ireland without me.  Initially, I spent a fair amount of time on the family room floor at my parents’ house watching the Flintstones, while I waited for the finest graduate schools in this nation to reject me. Then out of boredom and desperation I got a job at Marshall Fields in Woodfield Mall running their book department part-time. It was something to do until I could figure out another way of making a living.  In the store area where I worked during the holidays they ran old Christmas cartoons and classic animations 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.  I became highly motivated to start a real career in publishing.

One night Karen came in, we had dinner and then did Christmas shopping for our families. On the way down a long escalator, I said to her, “You know, I think I could do this with you forever.” We were about halfway down; she looked at me and said, “Are you saying that you want to get married?” We had been together as best friends for many years and dating for a year plus, much of it a distance relationship. I thought for a minute, wrapped up in the atmosphere, and said, “Yes. Yes, I do. I want to marry you.”

When we reached the bottom she said, “Good. I want to marry you too. When?”   I am not good with dates or times so I blurted out the first one that came into my mind. “September 12th,” I said, confidently.  She smiled a wicked smile. “Oh, 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 because I thought it had been just a kind of exploratory, larky kind of conversation.

The next morning my brother roused me from my bed and said, “Your girl is on the phone.”  My parents had taken the phone out of my room when I moved away so I had to go to the dining room to answer the call. I groggily said, “Hey, honey.”  She said, “I’m at work so I can’t talk much but I wanted to let you know that I made some calls, and both the church and the place I would like us to have the reception at are available on September 12th.  We might have to move fast though, so let’s talk before we put down deposits.” I said, as if in a trance, “Um…OK. What do I need to do?”… “Nothing right now.  I put holds on them…  I’ll see you tonight.  I love you, Thomas.”  “Uh…yeah, me too, baby.” 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, I said, “I have done something.”  He got up and shook me, “What have you done, Tom?!”  I wasn’t quite sure how to get the words out of my mouth. “Well, pal, it looks like I’m getting married.”  He burst out laughing. “That’s not so bad; it’s a good thing, right? You love Karen.”  I paused a minute and thought.  I said to him, “Yes. It is a very good thing. It’s just a little scary given my current circumstances.  I don’t have a real job, I don’t have a place to live, I don’t have a car, and don’t even a ring for this girl.”  He looked at me seriously and said, “Listen, you’ll figure all of that out. I know you and know you will, and you know what else I know?”  I shook my head. He stepped back and put his hands up in the air. “I know I won three bucks!”

Here’s the story behind that. One Thanksgiving my family went to visit my grandmother in Indiana.  She had a small house so all of us kids, me and my three siblings at the time, had to sleep on couches or in sleeping bags in her living room. We got to talking about who was most likely to get married first. We ultimately each took a dollar and wrote on it who we thought and then, without sharing, hid those dollars in a book on Grandma’s shelves.  The rule was that whoever lost had to pay the correct winner two dollars on top of their entry fee.  When my brother did his victory dance that Christmas, I punched him.  I said, “I wonder what Melissa and Stacia wrote.”  He started to laugh again. “I peeked a long time ago. You’re out nine bucks total, T.S.”  Another sigh. I walked out and headed back to my old room.  Two things were on my mind. The first was, “How am I going to tell Mom and Dad. They’re going to think I’m crazy.” The other was that even though I was out nearly a sawbuck, all things considered, I had really won. I was engaged to the girl I loved, and the future, while uncertain, looked a whole lot brighter.

Karen’s parents were out-of-town on their annual visit to her Mom’s family in Louisiana so we decided not to tell until they returned after New Year’s.  After work one night we both went to my parents’ house for supper to tell them. When we walked in my mother was sitting at the kitchen table with her legs folded up underneath her on the chair and writing a list with her fountain pen in that left-handed way she did.  I said, “Um, Chickadee, before dinner, Karen and I have something we need to talk with you and Dad about.”  

She got a look in her eye and then smiled very broadly. She said, “He’s down in the office.  Let’s go see him.”  We went down to the lowest level of the house, where my dad kept his desk in a space right outside my old bedroom.  As we entered, my mother said, “Garl, the kids have something they want to talk to us about.”  He wheeled around in his chair, looking very preoccupied and serious, as he often did when he worked. “Ok, what is it?”

I sat down on a stool and said, “Dad, I know this is a not perfect situation but Karen and I have decided to get married.”  As soon as I said this my mother jumped up and wrapped Karen in her arms, crying. They went up to the kitchen. My father put his head down on his desk.  I didn’t know what to say.  I tentatively reached out my hand my hand and put it on his back. I said, “Dad, are you OK?  Are you alright with this?”  Without looking up from where his face was pressed against his papers, he said, “Oh,..I’m completely fine. I’m just relieved. I really thought you going to tell me she was pregnant. This is so much a better thing to process.”  I said, laughing, “Dad, you are an idiot.”  He finally sat up. “I like to think of myself as a good kind of idiot though.” Me still laughing, "That you are. Come upstairs.” He came over to me and hugged me, which was rare for him at time. He said, “Tom, I couldn’t be happier for you.  Son, you have always made good choices.  This decision is a particularly good one.” I said, “Thank you, Dad. I do love her so much.”  He gently patted my face. “That’s all that matters. Let’s get your brother and sisters, and call your grandmother. Wine is in order.” 

Not more than two months later, I got my first job in publishing, an apartment in the city, where me and Karen would first live together, and eventually enough money to buy her a real nice ring.  I never looked back. 28 years and three kids later I still don't. Best thing I ever did, even if was a bit sloppy.

That time when I got a wonderful gift and brought one home to my family. It will always be my favorite Christmas memory.