A Christmas Story ( 10 of 10)

 

I’d never seen my mother stopped in her tracks or speechless. Then the tears came and she bent down and hugged me, lifting me off the checkered linoleum floor and twirled us in circles. My father was right about women, they were unpredictable and they could change their minds faster than a spinning top. She set me down and sprung into action or maybe reaction would better describe how fast she recovered and had the five new guests seated and served, and even blessed with an abbreviated prayer. Lucky Joe found the lutefisk; dried cod fillets brought to near life by a lye bath, and boiled to the consistency of Jell-O to be quite agreeable, even tastier than the netted sturgeon he routinely hauled from the muddy Missouri. The boys stuck to the Swedish menu. Conversations never lapsed as the ever-urbane Uncle Herman regaled the new ears with tales of his wife’s ancestor’s voyage on the Mayflower and a story filled with personal details about Teddy Roosevelt’s victorious charge up San Juan’s Hill. He paused only once to light a cigar that thereafter rested between his fingers but for an occasional puff at a point in a story where a semi colon might be appropriate. My mother surveyed the scene approvingly, although perhaps aided by Mr. David’s wine as evidenced by checks blushed like a Raggedy Anne doll. She opened the dining room curtains affording a delightful view of floating snow the size of cotton balls. There never was a Christmas Eve where time passed so unnoticed or pleasantly. Uncle Herman’s cigar was but a mere stub and he slowed in his speech when my father stood, a sure sign that a departure of someone would be eminent.

I hadn’t noticed when our guests had arrived that Lucky Joe had carried in a brown paper bag, soggy but intact. He lifted it to his lap and softly announced that they brought a few unworthy gifts for his hosts. His nephews delivered a small package wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper to our family members. No one spoke although O Little Town of Bethlehem played on the AM radio in the kitchen and Uncle Herman, head nodded to his chest, gave an occasional snort as a prelude to a symphony of snoring.

I accepted my small package, squeezed it, sniffed at the newspaper, and gave it a shake. It rattled. I wondered if Lucky Joe was savvy to my mother’s tricks. I tore into the paper and it revealed Lucky Joe’s snake tail, the lucky one with 13 rows of rattles.

Mike had completed his inspection, lift, view, sniff, squeeze, and open. Lucky Joe’s foot, the jackrabbit’s furry foot, that he claimed gave special powers to the owner. A charm Mike would later claim cast a magical spell over Valerie.

My father discovered a cigar packaged in a fine metal tube. He unscrewed the top and breathed in the aroma.

My mother was still assessing her gift, likely the only one she’d not had a sneak preview of in the last three decades. “Oh, good gravy, Joe, you shouldn’t have.” Her eyes lit with delight when she held a gold cross necklace that sparkled in the candlelight. I’d seen the same at Woolworth’s and knew it must have cost the entire Christmas budget.

“Well boys, can you help me with the gifts for our guests?” In an act of generosity that could have caused a coronary for my father who stood and led us to the broom closet where he’d secreted our gifts from the earlier shopping spree. He handed me the gift wrapped Mr. Potato Head and the fountain pen. Mike took my mother’s gift that would fit Rhonda and we both watched while my father plucked the bow from her package and attached it to grandma’s ivory handled cane that had rested in the closet since her death. He took the silver Zippo lighter with the U. S. Army insignia from his pants pocket, rolled it in some red sparkly gift-wrap and set out down the hall.

I believe the only disappointment was when little Lukey opened the fountain pen. I tried to ease the pain by slipping a platoon of green plastic army men into his coat pocket before they departed.

All great meals need to end with a sweet dessert. Every one of our Christmas Eve meals ends with a birthday cake with a single candle. A few years back, Mom explained to me that one thousand nine hundred and fifty-six candles would likely set the house on fire. She brought the chocolate cake with its candle and sang Happy Birthday as she set the pan on the dining room table. Lucky Joe stood and harmonized with her. Joe’s brother, Rhonda, the boys, Lukey and Jimmy, joined in the choir as soon we all did. Up until then I’d always viewed the Christmas holidays as a break from school and learning; this was the year that my mother taught me that Christmas was not a day in my life, Christmas is a way of life.

A Christmas Story (9 of 10)

Scenes Five and Six – I just stood there flushed and stunned without any recollection of what occurred although I suspect it concluded with a visit from an angel suspended from the ceiling and announcing “Peace on earth and good will to all men.”

 

 

………………..

“… and may there finally be peace on earth,” my mother finished her dinner prayer using less time than it took to burn the two long candles illuminating the dinner table. My father added a brief Norwegian prayer in his native language. Then there was a moment of silence serenaded by the crackling wood fire that my father lit in the fireplace only once each year. Too much heat goes up the chimney.

The seating arrangement was non-negotiable, Uncle Herman at the head of the table, his wife, Cora, sat to his right, then Aunt Tillie, her brother, Bill, then my father at the other end and to his left my mother and completing the family, us boys. The Christmas Eve meal reflected some ethnic competition. For the sole Norwegian and his offspring, Lutefisk, kulb, a block of cow’s blood mixed in flour and cream, and oysters. For the Swedes, which was everyone else, I guess, mashed potatoes, and Swedish meatballs. Before we passed a platter, my father raised a glass of dark red Mogen David wine and toasted his wife and the ladies who’d prepared the feast. I took the opportunity to steal a glance at the tree, still without a single gift beneath it.  I resisted the urge to add a salute of my own to my mother’s cooking for fear it would be too transparent as an attempt to remind her about the part of Christmas still missing, but at least we had the gifts we’d bought earlier in the day and the aunts were always good for a silver dollar and some black socks. Those gifts had to be delivered personally and were always attached to a kiss leaving a year’s worth of red lipstick on my cheeks and the lingering smell of Woolworth’s finest perfume, Ode to Joy, in which the older ladies never failed to bath prior to dinner.

The platters had all made the first pass when a meek, barely audible, knock summoned our black dog, Duchess, from under the table and to the front door. I almost beat her there having deluded myself into believing it was the postman making an emergency delivery from Monkey Wards with an entire division of U. S. Army soldiers that I’d circled in the catalog with my mother’s red lipstick. It had to be, or maybe the real Army Jeep and the live monkey I’d found advertised in the back of the Superman comic, required a special courier. God Bless America, a damn Jeep and a monkey, ain’t America great!

I hardly recognized Lucky Joe, his face, head, and shoulders so covered by fresh snow. And I’d never seen his brother without a beard and with his hair slicked back and a broad smile. The two boys peering between their uncles, I recognized from our morning shopping trip. My mother appeared behind me. There was, in adult parlance, what could only be described as an awkward moment. Lucky Joe seemed to sense this and offered, “Little Moose, he invited us to dinner tonight, Christmas Eve Dinner.”

“Of course, yes, sure, please all of you, come in. Dad come here and take their coats.”

The four guests came slowly through the old oak door, stomping snow from their feet and followed by a tall dark skinned woman with hair as black and glossy as a raven. Rhonda was her name and her relationship to the others was left unspoken. She had soft eyes, large and the color of a tanned deer hide. They stood in the living room taking in the strange smells and shifting uncomfortably. “Dad, you and Bill move the kitchen table into the dining room, I’ll get the dishes. Little Moose, YOU, help me in the kitchen.”

Blissfully unaware of the tumult I’d initiated, I followed along with Duchess, who misunderstood our move as a change in venue to get table scraps. In the kitchen, my mother pivoted on me faster than a NBA point guard. “What is this about? You never told me about this. Did you ask your father? Did he know?” She continued firing questions at me. My thoughts moved to formulate a response that would be required as soon as she ran out of steam. A short-term solution would have been to blame my father. He was famous for ignoring such information, and had I truly told him, he truly would have forgotten. But by golly it was Christmas, I was under a lot of stress what with memorizing my lines, Butchie farting in my face, and a very conspicuous dearth of Christmas presents.

“I invited Mister Joe and his family when I saw them in front of Greenbergs this morning.”

“What were you thinking? What …”

“You’re the one who cancelled Christmas. You’re the one who said I was greedy and that Christmas is about giving not taking.”

A Christmas Story (8/10)

My recollection of pageants and plays, recitals and rehearsals is that they dragged time out as if someone had laid the hourglass on its side. Consequently, I never retained much of a recollection of detail, just the highlights:

 

Scene One – three shepherds spy the bright star and deliver that observation in a single sentence, delivered in three parts to allow each student a speaking part. Four years ago, several mothers complained that their aspiring actor/actress just stood next to the manger looking stupid. My mother told the women that she couldn’t change how they looked but agreed to give each a speaking part. “Hark, there in …” “… the sky, it’s …” “a new star.”

Scene Two – three wise men, myself included, entered stage right, opposite the lowly shepherds. The tallest wise guy pointed to the yellow star hanging from the church ceiling. “Behold, a star in the East.” The next tallest guy came up with the bright idea to follow the star. “It’s as the prophets promised, let us follow the star.”   The three of us strolled off towards the star.

Scene Three – a battery-operated lantern is turned on by Joseph. My mother forbids any form of flame. The small switchman’s light illuminated Joseph and the blessed virgin played so splendidly and appropriately by Valerie, the parson’s daughter who’d captured my brother’s eye last year. My mother observed they were a handsome pair and that such a coupling might move Mike a step closer to the seminary she’d longed for him to attend despite his insistence that he intended to make a career out of throwing a baseball. The blessed couple delivered their lines among two live sheep, a white goat, and the donkey starring Butchie. He’d gotten into the role even swishing his tail in my brother’s face.   Butchie could be counted on to breathe life into the deadest of scenes.

Scene Four – the three wise men arrive at the manager joining the shepherds and the animals in the little barn, all admiring the holy family. The tall wise man announced, “We, three Kings from Orient Far come bringing …” Now here we were given equal time for each of the kings. I’d moved into the number two slot and was set to continue the royal pronouncement. I pulled my robe sleeve up a bit to reveal the seven or so words I was responsible for. Unfortunately, the scalding bath with soap and scrub brush had faded my crib sheet tattoo. Memorization was the backup and I’d about mastered the verbiage and was about to spew it forth when Butchie swung the donkey’s hind end towards me and emitted a nasty hissing fart that made my eyes water and the donkey’s tail appear to wither. In an act of self-preservation, I tried to hold my breath to avoid the fetid fumes that seemed to absorb increasing amounts of available oxygen. My stomach began to churn, my lunch was backing into my throat and it required strength previously unknown to me just to stand still until the noxious cloud began to thin. This was no ordinary fart from a child; this was a game-changing contender in the arms race. A hard act to follow and whatever I’d recalled was floating alongside Butchie’s gas stirred by the single fan hanging above the congregation. Decades later, I’d watched memory experts with amazing recall of people names using association. “That man has large rough hands like a farmer … Mr. Fields.” Without knowing the method, I was saved by Eddie Goldberg seated uncomfortably in the front pew. Gold! “Gold …” I shouted and stalled. Mrs. Hildebrand, in her thick Germanic accent, gave me a hint loud enough to rustle the two sleeping ushers in the back pew to jump to their feet collection plates in hand. “… Frankenstein and Meryl,” I said in my best theatrical voice. It seemed like there was more so I shouted what my mother later told me was last year’s line for the Easter pageant, “Hallelujah, he’s risen.” I’d finished strong despite the soapy water and unpleasant flatulence.

Scenes Five and Six – I just stood there flushed and stunned without any recollection of what occurred although I suspect it concluded with a visit from an angel suspended from the ceiling and announcing “Peace on earth and good will to all men.”

A Christmas Story (Part 7 of 10)

Our baseball team sponsor’s store was where a guy would go if he had a pocket full of paper instead of coin. Mike and I never had occasion to make a purchase at the store although we walked in heads held high knowing we were a part of the team and expecting to be recognized by the lanky Mr. Greenberg himself. In a three-piece suit befitting of Mister Monopoly or a Memphis pimp, he approached my father, with hand extended, and a Yuletide grin for the shopping season. An act my father took as the prelude to a rear assault on a wallet that seldom saw the light of day. Mr. Greenberg patted our heads, something we’d outgrown with cloth diapers, and acknowledged our team’s outstanding season record, a pretense my father would later explain was an amateur’s effort to soften him up. My father recoiled a step and the salesman moved in for a pin, gripping his elbow and dragging him towards the women’s dresses. Mike and I settled into the stiff wooden chairs to trade outrageous guesses at what we’d bought each other, each of us carefully avoiding what we’d strongly suspected to be the right answer by giving misleading clues the likes of which would have led me to conclude that Woolworth sold ponies out of the back door.

The wrestling match featuring my father and the slick salesman took longer than regulation, into overtime. At about halftime, I spotted Lucky Joe and ran out to talk to him. He was walking with his brother, the one who had a wooden leg replacing the one he’d lost in the war, and two boys, my age, who he’d introduced as his sister’s sons. He was taking them shopping, down to the dime store. The boys with long ponytails and impatient faces tugged at their uncle’s sleeves to go. I identified with the urgency, wished them all another Merry Christmas and returned to my brother’s side.

At the end of the match, it was a draw. Mr. Greenberg made the sale and Dad got the floral print dress at a price that the storeowner cried would cause him to lock the doors and move to the poor farm. Both wore a winning grin as they marched to the front of the store. “Let’s go boys, we’ve got presents to wrap and you two have to get ready for the church pageant.”

Getting ready included a bath that required cleanser and shampoo instead of the usual dip in tepid water and a brush with a bar of the gritty Lava soap favored by my father. And water so hot my skin turned red under the bubbles that floated to my chin offering the opportunity to form a beard the likes of Santa Claus himself sported. Wrapped in two towels and still wearing the white bubble beard, I made a dash up the steps to our bedroom and slipped into the clothes my mother had laid on the bed. There was still no mention of the missing presents, although she seemed more her old cheerful self even singing along with a tinny version of “Silent Night” playing through the kitchen radio. Even though everything she ever sang quavered so far off key that it caused Coffey, the neighbor’s Chesapeake retriever, to howl in the summer, I was glad to have a reason to think Christmas was back on.

The bell in the church steeple rang four times which meant we were on time as we ambled through the vestibule carrying our costumes and wrapped gifts, usually mittens or socks, to be laid under the spindly tree and later distributed to the less fortunate as my mother referred to them. I believed they were less fortunate because they got mittens and socks for Christmas. The church basement was alive with excited kids and fussing mothers. The fathers huddled back near the kitchen drinking coffee sharing jokes, smokes, and old war stories. I found my class by listening for Butch’s high-pitched laughter that sounded like a chicken being plucked alive. The pageant director, a large stern woman of German descent revealed by an accent that bordered on incomprehensible to our young ears, hit on a bit of genius this year. She found the perfect part for Butchie. A role that was unlikely to allow him the freedom to bring the unexpected disasters we’d come to expect from the towhead little monster as my father referred to him after he’d wet my new mattress in a moment of nocturnal incontinence during a sleepover.

Every pageant, the boy outdid himself. The previous year, the mischief-maker played a shepherd. Dressed in a long brown robe, he strode forward, toward the manger where Mrs. Berger had put her own living infant in a wooden crib – an arrangement my mother, the Sunday school superintendent, later banned as being unnecessarily realistic. Butchie, the moniker for Melvin that his mother used endearingly and we used mockingly, closed on the infant with the intent to deliver his one line and retreat. It would have been uneventful except someone had furnished Butchie with a staff, presumably to herd his nonexistent sheep. Butchie began his six words and in an expansive move to emphasize those lines, he swung the staff across the stage, snagging Joseph’s beard and continuing the wide swing with the fuzzy beard now on the tip into the three candles, representing the completion of the trinity. The cheap beard caught fire and Butchie dropped his staff onto the bales of straw.

In a heroic act, Pastor Tuttle, the church’s senior and elderly minister, sprang to his feet, grabbed the water from the baptismal font, rushed to the straw bales and doused the fire like Smokey with his tail ablaze. It was Easter before folks stopped talking about that, but my mother clung to the memory and insisted that the pageant director, Mrs. Hildebrand, find a role that would assure no repeats of last year’s spectacle. That’s how Butchie landed the role as the south end of the northbound donkey. I’m not certain who won the coveted lead role as the student refused to remove the donkey’s head.

A Christmas Story (6/8)

The day before Christmas Eve my trip down the steps from the bedroom was filled with anticipation that the gifts would be under the tree like every other year. Mike, seemingly blessed with deductive powers just short of the great Holmes himself informed me he had concluded that Mom had simply moved her Christmas headquarters to Aunt Tillie’s home. After all he argued, the gift-wrap, the scissors, the tape, all normally stored in the hall closet with the Hoover vacuum, were missing.

Mike passed his theory on to my father later that morning.

I studied my father’s reaction and detected a hint of panic, an emotion I’d seen only once when he’d reached to pick a tomato from his garden and came back with a rattlesnake attached to his loose shirtsleeve. That was panic, and I saw just a glimpse of that in his eyes.

“I tried talking to her …”

“Did you give her a hug?” I asked.

“Ah, she was in no mood for that. She gave me the lecture you boys should have heard, how Christmas is a celebration of the birth of God’s son and it’s become a celebration of greed and gluttony. I guess I can’t disagree with her …”

“… but what about the presents? And the gift of giving, and it’s better to give than receive? That’s Christmas too.” I fired off my entire arsenal hoping something I said actually made sense to my father.

“I know – the tree bottom is as bare as yours the day you were born. Look, boys, tomorrow is Christmas Eve and the church program, and when we always open the gifts. If there’s nothing under the tree by tomorrow morning, I’ll take you boys shopping.”

………………..

I’d never before been shopping with my father. He avoided the stores like Pastor Tuttle avoided walking past Snowball’s bar out of concern a parishioner might assume he’d just been tipping one with the fellas. The pastor would toddle a block out of his way to preserve his image. Sometimes, it created quite a maze for the parson, because every block had at least one tavern and going from the parsonage to the Rexall Drug store could result in a three-mile hike.

Shopping was limited in Mandan. Greenbergs, our baseball sponsor, for clothes, the hardware store for the things that were of no interest to boys, and W. W. Woolworths, where we could linger for hours ogling each toy imaging how it could enhance our lives and reputations and dreaming of adding it to our small menagerie of playthings. The dreaming was more pleasurable by ten-fold than the acquisition, which was at best unlikely.   So it was to Woolworths we first ventured. My father pressed a bill bearing Mr. Lincoln’s likeness into our hands, moist with excitement. That would be plenty for the few gifts we needed – one each for our mother and brother. We split at the doorway and unexpectedly met at the perfume counter. My father claimed rights to the Evening in Paris cologne and shooed us away. We separated again and again Mike and I met at the costume jewelry. Mike claimed the rights to a ten-carat fake diamond ring and sent me scurrying to what was left, the colorful scarves in the front of the store. My mind raced with the packaging potential of this gift. This year, I’d add a box with loose rice for shaking and spray some perfume on the wrapper for some added sensory deception. Mom would love it and she’d feel even worse for calling off our Christmas.

The gift for my brother was an easy selection. I’d been hearing Mr. Potato Head’s siren call for months whenever I had occasion to stroll through the Woolworth aisles. Now, I have to recognize that my mother’s judgment concerning our greed was accurate. By my reckoning, Mike would look upon the toy as being a mismatch for his polished tastes and for his age. Consequently, Mr. Potato Head would be abandoned quickly and after a proper time of grieving over my brother’s loss, the head would be mine. Lest I assume all the guilt for this, I must add that I’d come by this trick via my brother who, by my count, was about five gifts ahead of me through clever gift selection and by having lived for two more years. In fact, I’d guessed that he was at that very moment buying that fountain pen that sucked up black ink from a glass bottle. He’d been admiring that since the start of school, somehow fancying that such a pen would create stories that Shakespeare would have plagiarized.

We reunited at the drug store where my father had promised root beer floats. I sensed the agony as he dug three quarters from his pocket and placed them one at a time on the counter. Each slap of the coin on the polished wood top triggered an involuntary grimace on the Old Man’s chiseled face. We finished the last slurp as my father declared that we’d now be on to Greenbergs for one last purchase.

A Christmas Story from Where the Best Began (5 of 8)

So we came by what some may view as a sly nature through a legitimate family tradition – one that even my normally stoic father joined with some unintended consequences. It pained my father to open the coin purse and while he was a loving and generous man, it was contrary to his nature to buy expensive gifts. Two years earlier, he had found a housedress at Woolworths, on sale, half-price. He snatched it up, wrapped it up, and placed it under the tree. My mother had done her usual detective work and knew it was a cotton print dress three days before Christmas.

The price tags were always left on the gifts in case they needed to be returned. We typically scribbled over the price on the tag leaving just enough visible for store clerks and for recipients who didn’t subscribe to the maxim that it was the thought that counted (and here I would include every bipedal primate I’ve known except my mother). In his enthusiasm for a bargain, my father had purchased a size 16, enough material for a four-man tent. Two days after Christmas, my mother walked to Woolworth, dress in hand to find a suitable replacement. She brought two blouses, a skirt, and some delicates to the front counter to make an even exchange for the price on the dress tag, which listed as $49.95. The Old Man had added the 4 as a joke, a kind of Norwegian satire on his thrifty nature. My mother explained her way out of a fraud charge and when she recovered from the embarrassment, used it as a sterling example why the Swedes should have never given the Norse their independence. They simply couldn’t be counted on to know when it was a time for levity or seriousness (which I always thought was the automatic default of the stoic Norwegian).

We finished the second floor, moved to the first, then to the basement. We always searched that dank cave last. It was not a hospitable part of the home. I ventured down the creaking planks that passed for steps. I felt the cold damp air hug me like a ghoul in a tomb. The light bulb waited at the bottom of the steps. I waved my hands trying to find the dirty string to pull. It wasn’t where it should have been. In my stocking feet, I creped to the cold concrete floor feeling for the next light by the coal bin. The thin string felt as comforting as a lifeline thrown to a third-class passenger on the Titanic.

Once we mastered the lighting our fears abated and avarice drove us on. Strike two – except for the few boxes of junk that no one had the heart or ambition to haul to the dump and the black bear with the glass eyes and missing canine tooth that used to serve as a rug, all that remained were a few forbidding shadows not worth entering for a gift within my parents’ price range. In fact, we’d never found a single gift down below, however when there is the threat of a cancelled Christmas, extreme measures are necessary to find any reason to hope it was all a mistake or a very bad joke and mother rarely made either.

A Christmas Story (#4 of 8)

My mother should have been able to change her mind by the following morning. There was after all only two days before Christmas. That was the thought I carried in my hopeful young mind as I raced barefoot down the wooden steps from our bedroom to the hallway and then on to the living room to the tree where all of my dreams of toys and treats would be realized. Bare, bare as a monk’s cell.

I searched the house for my mother. All I found of her was a terse note that she’d gone across the street to her Aunt Tillie’s house to help her get food ready for Christmas Eve.

My mother’s absence, and my father’s departure to work, afforded my brother and me an opportunity to search the house. We’d perfected our tactics and were as skilled as detectives executing a search warrant looking for the murder weapon. Start at the top, work down, each room worked in a circle, I clockwise and Mike counterclockwise. We began in the spare bedroom taking care to leave no evidence of our intrusion. Nothing, but not unexpected, this was the room she’d used last year and I’d made the mistake of disturbing the wrapping in my enthusiasm to discover the contents. She never cast an accusation, still I felt her stare when I opened that gift, a toy gas station. I knew she was assessing my reaction and showed an exaggerated expression of glee and surprise. “Too much … you overdid it,” my brother later explained.

Neither of us came by this sneaky notion of an early peek at our presents on our own. It was genetic or learned. Either way, it came from my mother.   It was impossible for her to hold a wrapped gift in her hands without scratching at the tape or giving it a shake. Of course, like all great pleasures, it was the process that enhanced the enjoyment as much as the end result. This one began with considering the wrapped gift from a distance. She was able to eliminate many possibilities with this initial assessment – too big for a toaster, too small for a vacuum. She even worked her keen understanding of present misdirection into the gifts she wrapped for others. A baseball glove would appear under the tree in a box large enough for a bike. A pair of boxing gloves would appear deceptively under the tree in two separate boxes. Once my brother threw out two silver dollars when he didn’t consider carefully enough his new Christmas socks — I think he still expects to find them some day if he just keeps checking.

Eying the gift led to lifting, weighing, shaking, and squeezing, sometimes played out over several days. As we grew older and wrapped our gifts to her, we incorporated a variety of countermeasures. A ring would be placed in a small box filled with a few marbles to increase weight and provide some action when shook. Next we would take an old t-shirt and wrap it tightly around the box to provide some texture and confusing bulk. And so the game would go, each year we increased our ingenuity and added immensely to her delight. The gift became anti-climatic which was just as well since by the time we were adolescents she still hadn’t exhausted her collection of cheap perfume and had more fake jewelry than most community theaters.

A Christmas Story Part 3

“What did you two do?” My father balanced the cookie in his hand as if weighing the chances he might soon have any chance to enjoy it in peace.

Mike turned the page of the catalog. He’d missed the entire circus. My father removed the red transistor from his ear and stopped Bing Crosby in mid verse of White Christmas. That got Mike’s attention. He dropped the catalog to the floor and sat up stiffly. “I don’t know, Larry, what’d you do to get her so upset?” He’d developed an enviable ability to deflect responsibility.

My father put his rough hand on my head, which was filling with excuses and explanations all anxious to spill out. “I don’t know,” was all that came out. I’d have to do better than that old standby which always resulted in a predictable follow-up question.

“Well, you must have done something to bring all of that on…”

I felt his hand squeeze my head as if he knew there was an explanation in there that would be forthcoming if the right amount of pressure was applied.

“Dad, you know how women are,” Mike offered a universal male reply that in this instance, resulted in my father’s hand being removed from my bushy, black hair. For centuries, men have stood in circles, kicking the dust or sat on bar stools tipping a mug and uttered those six simple words that every human with more testosterone than estrogen understood without further explanation.

I made a note to remember that remark that had a ring of usefulness when there arose a riddle inside an enigma inside a woman. “Yeah, Dad, you know how women are.” I practiced the line and it felt good on the tongue.

It must have been pleasant to the ear also, because my father smiled and agreed. It was a magic moment when despite our age and family standing, we could have a meeting of our hormonally linked minds and come to a collective cosmic conclusion. “Sometimes, you just have to give them a hug. Sometimes that’s all they want and it solves the problem.”

I focused on the bare floor under the pine tree – it was empty – as barren as a vegetarian’s hamburger bun. “But, Dad, she’s cancelling Christmas, there won’t be any presents, no church pageant … no more carols … no more cards or company…no Christmas lutefisk …” It was the possible loss of the lutefisk that seemed to convey the gravity of the matter. Up to that point, I believe he was beginning to see the benefits of a cancelled Christmas. Before my mother’s proclamation, the Old Man might have thought there was a law against such a prohibition or he would have called off a few festive holidays himself. As it was by my reckoning, the gaily-wrapped gifts should have already been gathering dust beneath the evergreen.

“Yeah, and after almost a whole year of being on our best behavior,” added my brother in an absurdly charitable review of our conduct.

The old man did a double take then seemed to think better of taking the time and energy that a comprehensive rebuttal to my brother’s exaggeration would require. He rubbed his head as if to conjure up an answer that would ease the anxiety he must have seen in our faces, “Well, boys, that’s another thing you have to understand about women, they always change their minds.”

A Christmas Story: Day 2

Unlike Halloween, Christmas wasn’t a single day, an evening, it was a season that lasted from the time the first catalog arrived in the mail until the last present was unwrapped, played with then abandoned to the point where by New Year’s it looked like an unwanted house guest. The season seemed to get longer each year. My father complained about this. Every year, he claimed, Sears sent the catalog a week earlier.   Montgomery Ward took it a step further and sent its catalog out days ahead of Sears. And every year the books got bigger causing my father to wonder how much better his childhood would have been if catalogs of this length had been available to supplement the newspapers in the farmstead outhouse.

As it turned out, however, it was this enormous “Monkey” Ward catalog that tipped the scales of my mother’s patience. Having finished with my nativity wardrobe, she called to my brother, Mike, for his first fitting and measurement taking. Mike was curled up with Katten, the black and white cat, and the Wards catalog. His red transistor radio rested next to his ear pressed into the embroidered pillow, the kind you’d expect to see on an octogenarian’s loveseat. My mother never raised her voice, at least not until that morning. Mike ignored her calls although her voice stirred Katten to leap from the couch and attack a glittering silver ball hanging midway down the busily decorated Christmas tree. The tree tilted against the window crashing a dozen balls into the glass panes and bouncing on the hardwood floor. I never have understood how fragile glass balls could take such a beating.

The cat’s misstep might have been the proverbial straw that pushed my mother to scream, “That’s it, Christmas is cancelled. There will be no gifts this year. No presents!”

She didn’t sit still to hear objection or argument, or even for us to make a plea at her feet. She stood, threw Joseph’s brown robe on the maple floor and stomped off past my father who’d had the misfortune to amble out of the kitchen with a green spritz cookie shaped like a Christmas tree held in his hand inches from his mouth. With mistletoe over the doorway, he mistook her intentions and opened his arms to welcome her advance. She drove past him so quickly she spun him in circles.

A Christmas Story to Remember

 

A Way of Life

Christmas Story

 

“For the last time, Larry, get your nose out of that catalog and come here,” my mother said as though she had already decided on a penalty if ignored once more. I had not been paying much attention. My face and fingertips were smudged with ink from the Sears catalog. There were still a few days before Christmas – ample time to correct any oversights or bad choices like the Popeye punching bag that didn’t last a round or the walkie-talkies that were no different than whispering from room to room except that making them squawk required batteries. My brother and I had been abusing the catalog for weeks. We’d bent so many pages over to mark what we wanted that there were now more pages bent than not, at least in the toy section. We agreed that next year we’d have to invent a new system to avoid confusion. The option of curbing our greed never occurred to us.

I stumbled over to my mother, my nose still pressed to the pages offering metal soldiers and tanks, gas stations with cars, and ranches complete with cattle and horses. She was bent over her sewing machine, the one with the foot pedal that she pumped to turn the spindle. “Put that down and try this on. Good Lord, you boys are getting greedy. Look how many pages you’ve bent over. Christmas isn’t about presents … it’s about Jesus. It’s his birthday!” I dropped the thick book at my feet and put my arms in the air. Now was not the time to be disagreeable or misbehave. There was too much at stake. My mother pulled the white linen gown over my out stretched arms and my head. “Perfect, now put this on your head.” She handed me a bundle of cloth.

While it wasn’t a towel, it wasn’t exactly a hat either. Somehow, she’d taken a bath towel, attached more safety pins than a porcupine has quills, and made it into headwear more suitable for the Queen of England or a Las Vegas showgirl.

“There, you look like one of the wise men. You need a staff. Everyone back in those days had a staff.” She pushed back her chrome-plated chair and went to the hall closet where she rummaged around until she found what she envisioned as my staff – the broom handle. I’d used the same handle the last three years for my Halloween costume. It was the stick to which I attached my handkerchief as the piece de resistance for the hobo outfit.