14 December 2012

Time to Talk of Other Things

This winter season is beating the hell out of my friends and family. Disease, disaster and debt have come to a head for so many. If you are in the same boat, or know someone that is, my heart goes out to you. It's probably not more prevelant in the holiday season, just more acutely felt.... at least that's what I try to tell myself as yet another friend's relative dies or they themselves are ravaged by illness. I'd like to think that it's only because of the pressure of buying gifts that we feel the financial pinch at this time. What I really truly hope isn't just the season is your belief in and ability to be a caring and integral part of humanity. Today I'd like to share some short stories of my favorite childhood Christmas moments and a call to be the great memory for someone this year.

No Lips.

I was a small child of maybe 3 or 4. My dad had purchased a mechanical dog with a leash that had a remote to make the dog move, flip and bark. He thought I'd really get a kick out of this little marvel. Instead what he got was a child in tears because the dog had no lips! He had a tongue glued to the end of his muzzle, but the manufacturer had inexplicably decided to not draw or sew lines on his mouth. My grandfather had called to wish me a Merry Christmas and all I could do was cry and tell him how the dog couldn't really bark if he didn't have lips, so why did he bark? My dad took the toy back to the store. When asked for the reason of return, he shrugged and said, "He doesn't have any lips."

Santa IS Real...

Kindergarten is the year of burgeoning independence. It can also make or break the reputation of teachers for years to come. So this is probably the worst time to take it upon yourself to tell children Santa doesn't exist. But that's what my teacher decided was in my best interest. The problem was that my dad dressed as Santa every year for the Children's Hospital (complete with his boss as "Head Elf"). As far as this little 5 year old knew, he WAS Santa. I was angry at my teacher and ran straight home after school to tell my dad that she didn't believe in him. He was naturally upset that she was making a choice on how to handle Santa Claus that's ideally up to the parents. Other parents were also upset to find their kids crying and unwilling to participate in Christmas if there was really no Santa. So dad did what any parent would do. He dressed up as Santa and came to my school to hand out candy canes to all the kids. The teacher was upset that he was "filling the children's heads with lies", but a conversation with the principal after the visit changed her tune. Meanwhile, I was able to strut about the play yard for a week before our winter break with the reputation of being the kid with the direct line to Santa's Naughty and Nice List. As for my teachers, well....... let's just say my critical eye was developed quickly and I never accepted their assertions without proof.

But the Tree Is Not.

I was a sickly child. I was small for my age, ate like a bird and had the pale and hollow-eyed look of a kid with acute anemia. I forget at what age it happened, I was still very young, but I clearly remember finding out I was allergic to pine trees. We had just pulled a beautiful green pine into the house and mom had vacuumed the needles up from the move. Dad set down the skirt and wound out the lights. I was given my box of ornaments to put up on the tree. I went up and stroked the delicate branches in wonder at how big a tree dad was able to get this year..... and pulled back an already red and swelling hand. Soon enough my eyes were swollen and teary and I was wheezing. Mom freaked. Dad had to unwind the lights, take out the tree (I think he ended up giving it to a relative to use), vacuum the house twice and clean the ornaments. He went out and bought us an equally big and green artificial tree, but I was very distraught. It didn't smell like a real tree. It just didn't seem like a real Christmas without a real tree. So mom went out and bought pine smell fragrance and sprayed down the tree. Thankfully, I outgrew that particular allergy and was soon able to have the real smell back again.

Boys Are Disgusting.

My brother was 6 or 7 when there was this cartoon that had army men that fought mutant giants. I think there were good mutants and bad, but what he wanted for Christmas was the toy version of one of the bad guys. It was a Digestor or Destructor or something. What the character did was take the army men and place them in his ribcage and digest them. The toy had a chest with the exposed ribcage that opened when you pressed a button. He came with one army man and you could place the man in the chest, close the ribs and press a second button that released goo (a jar of slime that you poured into the doll and could replace at $10 a jar) to "digest" the army guy. Dad went to Toys R Us without exactly knowing what he was looking for. He asked the nearest clerk who screwed up her face and pointed down an aisle. Down that aisle were several empty shelves where the mutant dolls had been....... and several still filled with this Digestor. Apparently, he wasn't selling to well. Dad says he looked at it and said, "Good Lord...... ugh. No way......." Mom said, "It's all he asked for." With that they knew it had to get in the cart. Dad thought it a win to refuse to buy him extra goo. So he gets up to the register after shopping and is placing this thing on the belt when the woman behind him exclaims in disgust, "What the hell is that?!?" Sighing, he said, "It's a Destructor. It locks army men in it's open chest and pours slime on them to 'eat' them. My son said if I didn't get this for him, he didn't want anything at all..... you know how kids are." She took a long look at the doll and asked, "What aisle is it in?"

Beware the Tree Troll.

Because of a number of out of town relatives who would mail us our gifts early, as soon as the tree was up there was usually a present underneath it. But how to keep children from poking and prodding the boxes? Well, you tell them the Tree Troll will eat their presents if they try to touch them! I know what you're thinking, "The what?" My dad had a gargoyle that sat underneath the tree. He told us that was the Tree Troll and that he was the watchdog of Santa Claus. If we tried to mess with the presents before it was time, or fooled around with the tree, then the Tree Troll would eat our presents (and possibly us). He was also responsible for reporting our actions to Santa for the Naughty List, the little narc. On Christmas eve, we'd set out milk and cookies for Santa (ideally for mom as dad was not a huge milk drinker) and the Troll got a beer (what dad really wanted after a near month's worth of holiday shopping and hooplah). In the morning, the milk and cookies were gone, the beer was drank and the Tree Troll was asleep under the tree. It was now safe to get our presents. Years later, my dad would get a new gargoyle and deck it out with lights in the eyes that would be turned off Christmas morning (to indicate the Troll was asleep). Now dad hopes to sell copies of his Troll next Christmas (after many many many requests) so that children around the world can experience the joy and wonder of the Tree Troll who protects your presents, tells on you, and then snores drunkenly through Christmas dinner. I never said my childhood was normal.

What? This Is a Christmas Movie!

We all have the list of Must See Christmas Movies. Dad watches "It's a Wonderful Life", but mainly because he takes joy knowing it was a hot and miserable shoot and it wasn't a well received movie when it debuted (he has issues). And in our house there is no "Christmas Carol" other than the 1950's version with Alistair Sim. Bill Murray's "Scrooged" is also topping our list of favorites. But the big tradition in our house is the Christmas Eve Action Fest. We watch "Dirty Harry", "Leathal Weapon", "Die Hard" and "Die Hard 2". Honestly, after all the sugary fair we are subjected to around Thanksgiving and leading up to Christmas, don't we all want to watch someone get beat up and die?

White Castles Make the Holiday Glow... Just Don't Light A Match.

The tradition of Christmas Eve dinner being White Castle started when my father was a small boy. His family would go to pick out the Christmas tree at a lot across the street from the White Castle restaurant. His mother would drag the younger kids around the lot looking for just the right tree. Since my dad was the oldest, he had to help load whatever tree they picked. My grandfather would take him, and only him, over to the White Castle where they would have a couple of burgers and talk. This became a yearly bonding moment for a father and son that often felt like the other came from a different planet and certainly couldn't be blood related. Of course, grandpa believed in fairness and, while he relished the quiet moment alone with his eldest boy, he didn't feel right about not getting the other kids a treat. So he'd buy a case of burgers for Christmas Eve dinner. It was a good plan. There's so much baking going into the Christmas Day meals and snacks that the last thing you want to do is halt progress to make something for dinner the night before. Soon the neighborhood had heard of this tradition and was on board. They'd see Grandpa getting ready to go to White Castle and ask if he'd bring them back some if they paid. He had no problem doing so (and sometimes didn't accept payment from a neighbor that didn't really have it to give). The neighbors would come to the house to pick up their cases and usually just bring the family to eat there. They'd trade small gifts, tell stories and admire the decorations before shuffling their brood to their beds and finishing their own Christmas preparations. While it has been a long time since the whole neighborhood was involved, and dad's health no longer allows him to eat those delicious devils, we still get a case of White Castles for Christmas Eve dinner and listen to the story of how it all got started. I may not let my own future children indulge as much as I have in those little belly bombs, and my fiance will probably never love them as I do, but I will carry this tradition on as long as there is a White Castle in existence.

Family Is Who You Say It Is.

One of the truest things about my family is that if we know you, you are family. Especially during the holidays. The door is open, the hearth is warm and the fridge is stocked. No one asks if they can have a drink, they just grab what works for them. Want an ice cream? Freezer downstairs. Hungry? Christmas dinner is finished at 10 a.m. and replenished throughout the day. Laid out buffet style, you just grab a plate and load up. Stay 10 minutes or all day, we don't care. And for God's sake, don't forget your take home package of food. My uncle Bert isn't my uncle by blood or marriage. He was a neighborhood kid that my grandparents unofficially adopted as one of their own. I have always known him as my uncle. I couldn't consider him in any other way. And he doesn't consider himself in any other way, which I think is fantastic. I love when I invite a friend to my house for the first time and they stare in wonder at the nonchalance of the guests who just open the fridge and grab a soda or bottle of water (and maybe a bit of the crab dip kept cool). I laugh out loud as my uncle Bert pokes at them and says, " You're family here! Stop standing on ceremony and grab a plate!" It is such a joy to watch as they relax, kick off their shoes and fight over the "good seat" with my brother as if they'd grown up with us in this house and had all the rights to comfort that we have. And they do.

A year or so ago, a car broke down on the road outside my dad's house. He lives on the highway, so when the man came up to the first house he saw and asked to use the phone, he was pleasantly surprised by my dad's smiling face. Dad let him use the phone, asked my cousin the mechanic if he'd take a look and then asked the man to bring his wife and kids up to the house to stay warm while all was taken care of. The children were small and, as small children do, were quick to make themselves at home. The mother tried to calm them and tell them not to touch that and ask for things and to say "thank you" and "please." Dad was sneaking them cookies and candies for every piece of broccoli they ate. The husband eventually had a beer or two and shot the breeze with dad. Mom and the wife were exchanging baking tips. The kids were playing a board game with the other children. Thankfully the problem with their car was minor and my cousin was able to fix it relatively quickly. While we never saw those folks again, they both thanked us for making them feel so welcome. Dad assured them that the door was always open should they be back our way again. The youngest child looked sternly at my dad, an elderly fat man with a snowy white beard, and beckoned him closer. Dad knelt down and the child said, "Are you Santa?" Dad winked and said, "What do you think?"

Family is who you say it is. And this is the time of year when we are most reminded of the care that our family deserves and often needs. Cherish and love all that you have known this year and show them in any small way that you are thinking of them. But I ask you to go farther than that and make someone your family. Help a veteran too proud to ask for help by insisting they come for dinner. Offer a cup of hot coffee or chocolate to a volunteer ringing a bell outside of your shopping mall. Talk more to the neighbor across the street. Ask after the family of the teller who cashes your paycheck. Invite your kids' best friend to participate in a family tradition. Do it now, but continue it on where ever and when ever you can. Remember these people on more than this one occassion. Make them feel like part of the family. Make them truly part of your family. Weave the bonds of life tighter among those you see most often.

Become their Santa,