Thursday, December 18, 2014

Keeping Christmas (A Carol For Garl)

When I was in my late teens and twenties I worked in a mall bookstore.  One December I was working at my charge desk in the art and paperback section with a girl named Marie when a woman came in looking for a coffee table book to give to a friend for Hanukkah.  I helped her pick out a nice book of Monet prints. As Marie was ringing her up, the woman said, “You know, I don’t really even know when Hanukkah starts. Do you?”  Marie said, “No, I don’t.” I shook my head. Marie looked over by the card section and saw a man picking out several Hanukkah cards.  She went over and asked, “Sir, do you know when Hanukah starts?” He looked up and said, “It’s this Thursday at sunset.”  She told the woman, who thanked us, and then left.  Marie turned to me and said, “It is lucky someone Jewish was here.” I smiled and said, “That man is not Jewish. He is of Anglo-Saxon descent, Protestant, Republican, and works in the corporate world.”  She screwed up her face. “What makes you think that?” I chuckled. “I am a master of observational detail, and besides that, he is my father.”   She asked, “Why is he buying so many Hanukkah cards?” I smiled and said, “He loves this time of year and he likes spreading cheer to all of his friends.”

When me and my siblings were young kids we didn’t see my dad a whole lot. He was trying to climb the corporate ladder and therefore worked late hours and traveled a lot. One thing he always did though was take two weeks off in the summer so we could have a long vacation trip and stay home the week of Christmas and New Years.  During the Christmas break he would go to great lengths to spend time with us. He wouldn’t get in the car to run an errand unless one or two of us was with him; he took us to movies, he pretend cooked with my  younger sister Stacia, and played in the snow with me and my older sister, Melissa. He would nap with my younger brother on his chest.

The other thing he would do is go absolutely mad in decorating the house. During Christmas most our places looked like a Hallmark store exploded in it. There were lights on the house, Christmas knick-knacks everywhere, trains running around trees, and snowflakes painted on all the windows. It would have been highly gaudy and tacky but my mother, who was a talented artist, always followed him around and made sure everything looked tasteful.  Over time he learned some lessons and got very good at it. Even when I was older, moved to Champaign and then later got married and moved to the Chicago, I loved visiting my parents’ house in December because it said Christmas all over it.  

My father also went to great lengths to make sure we believed in Santa as long as possible. He would make shoe prints in the snow and on the roof towards the chimney.  If we were traveling back to Florida where we once lived and did presents at my grandparents on the way, he would leave the front room in the dark, stomp on the back kitchen steps yelling “Ho, ho, ho!” and ring bells, only to reemerge in the front room after we retrieved our presents from the landing.

Church was a big part of our Christmas experience. Every year we would go to evening services on Christmas Eve.  When we were younger my father always held the role of a shepherd in the Nativity play because he could not sing but was good at herding fake sheep.  When Melissa and I went off to college we started going to the late night service and after that my father would host a big open house for the neighbors. He always wore some decorative sweater or vest he had purchased for the occasion.  During the season we would also go to the annual Bryson Christmas Party. The Brysons were like an extension of our family as they were to many. At those affairs my  Dad would stand beside the piano and try to sing carols along with everyone else.  He made a good choice of being a shepherd.

One of my dad’s other Christmas obsessions was watching every single version of “A Christmas Carol” ever made. And by that I mean every version.  I came home from work one time and he was in his big chair in the family room watching Mr. Magoo’s version of the Dickens classic. I said, “Dad, what the hell are you doing watching a cartoon? He did not move his eyes from the TV.  He said, “I really like this one. I think people undervalue Magoo. This really shows his amazing range as an actor.” I just rolled my eyes and went to my room.

Later on in life, after my mother died, I made it a point to get tickets every year to “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theater, so my wife and I could give my dad  a gift.  He loved it. One year I couldn’t get tickets so instead I took him to another Christmas-themed show. He liked being taken out to dinner, and seemed to enjoy the play. As I walked him out to his car, after a post-show drink, I said, “I’m sorry, Pop, that I couldn’t get tickets at the Goodman this year.”  He patted me lovingly on the cheek and said, “That’s OK, Bud, but try harder next year,” and he winked.  I made sure I had tickets to “A Christmas Carol” early every year after that.. up until he got sick.

My father was also an amazing gift giver.   The first Christmas my future wife, Karen, spent with us he bought her a fake poinsettia  because she loves them and he thought it would something to spruce up her room at her parents' house. We still have it. The next year, when it was apparent that we were serious, and probably going to get married, he bought her a beautiful dress that was just the right size. In subsequent years he bought her other clothes and pajamas that all always fit.  I was always kind of shy about buying women clothes, but my father never was. He always was good at shopping clothes for women. I asked him once how he did it. He said, “If you get to get to know a woman well enough, you learn her tastes. If you hug a woman enough, you learn her size." That was a lesson I really liked learning.  The next year I bought Karen a glen plaid suit that she really liked, and it fit just right.

As you can tell my dad was very good at keeping Christmas. His birthday is December 19th.  There were times that it got overshadowed with the holidays but he never seemed to mind.  When he turned seventy I started giving him money for his birthday equivalent to his age. He would always send me a note that said, “Thank you and I love you, Bud” and he would tell me what he spent it on. I spent the last Christmas with him sitting on my older sister's couch, holding his shaking hand, watching football on TV, and, of course portions of "A Christmas Carol."

He would have been 80 this year if he had lived, but sadly he didn’t.  He left us four years ago.   He died of complications from Parkinson’s and dementia.  It would be in the next year that I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. We don't know if there is a genetic link or it was just an amazing coincidence.  I jokingly like to say that my father gave me one last gift; "the gift that keeps on giving.” 

Although that sounds snarky, the reality is that getting Parkinson’s really ended up truly being a gift in some ways. It forced me to turn my head away from blind ambition and other things, and to focus on what is most important to me: my faith, my friends and family, my art and writing, and my community and the world.  I think I’m a better man than I was three years ago.

I try to do my best to keep Christmas like my dad did. Every day as I work and spend time decorating the house, I try taking time at lunch or at bedtime to watch some version of “A Christmas Carol.” I don’t have to shell out $80 this year, but I’ll you what. I would spend 1,000 times that if I could spend another Christmas with the lovely man, Garl Murdock Sharpe…my dad who loved the holiday.