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.

L. D. Bergsgaard: From Agent to Author

L. D. Bergsgaard is now scheduling public speaking appearances for 2015.  L. D. Bergsgaard has a fascinating story to share.  After over thirty years as a Special Agent he retired and has authored seven novels in as many years.

An experienced public speaker with a unique story told in a humorous manner.

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