Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Laying Bricks

As we quietly stitch the fresh beginning of 2018 to the tired end of 2017, we are presented with an opportunity to reflect, not just on the year gone by, but on the arc of a life lived so far.

I think of my own life, as it currently is, so far removed from anything I could have envisioned when I started out. And my son and his wife, juggling mortgages, jobs, three wonderful children and all the activities they are entwined in. Their life is hectic to the point that they must struggle just to get to the end of the day. I’m sure, if asked, they could reflect on how fortunate they are, but like most of us, joy is often smothered by simple daily necessities.

It’s like the old joke:
Short term goal: make it through the day.
Long term goal: String a bunch of short-term goals together.

It is, therefore, important, from time to time, to sit and reflect on what it is all about, and what we are actually doing. Because what we are doing is lying bricks.

Another day, another brick. Keep it straight.
Every day we get though is another chunk in the wall of whatever structure you are creating from your life. You don’t need to be retired to reflect on what you have accomplished so far, but you do need to have attained a certain number of years, because in the early days, when you are still close to ground level, you don’t have a very good view. But as the years slip by, and the building you are working on rises, you get a more encompassing view, and it would be a mistake to not have a look behind you to see what sort of edifice you are laboring on.

It might be a beautiful mansion, or a quirky cottage, or a soaring cathedral, or a bit of a shamble. But it will be something, because everyone is building something with their life, whether they know it or not.

And so, as we slip into 2018, I wish you exciting days ahead. Days where the joy and thrill of life are apparent. But during those days that make up the bulk of year, when getting that single brick into place feels like a battle, I hope you can remember this:

Everyone is battling with their own brick, so be kind to one another, show patience, embrace tolerance and, when necessary have courage.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Christmases Past

(Another blast from my past. Sorry to keep posting my Patriarch Diaries essays, but there really isn't much else going on.)

In my memory, like in most peoples, it always snows on Christmas. I know this is not true, however, for I do recall several Christmases where the ground was soggy with mud and mist hung in the night air.

Other times, it did snow, like the year I had to pour transmission fluid into my car, which came out like molasses because it was twenty-below zero, and lying in the snow banging on the starter with a hammer to make it work. I would have liked some mud and mist on that day, but on Christmas, you took the weather you were given.

Generally, the Christmases of my childhood blend together, and as such, the ones I will be describing are not in chronological order, but are simply the memories that surface. It’s as if all my Christmases past have been put into a bottle and shaken up to give an overall flavor of Christmas. Still, they do tend to settle out, like the layers of Jell-o 1-2-3, into when I was very young, when I was a child, and when I was a teenager.

Jell-O 1-2-3, quite the treat when I was young. Tasted as good as it looks.
The Christmases when I was an adult, well, they aren’t the same, are they? And they don’t count here.

The earliest Christmas I remember, my mom fed me the usual story about how Santa comes down the chimney and puts up the tree and leaves the presents, but I knew better. The chimney was connected to the kerosene heater beneath the hall, and the pipe leading to it, as well as the opening to the heater itself, was way too small for a man to fit through. And if he could get down it, he would just burn to death, anyway.

Mom, Melinda and Me getting our first sight of the tree.
Christmas morning 1957
So, I knew it was my parents who did all of that, but I also knew that, when a parent lies to you, you are supposed to pretend that you believed the lie, so I did. For a while, anyway.

Christmas, at my house, went like this. On the 22nd or 23rd, Dad would bring a tree home. I never questioned why we got the tree so late. It was just tradition, but in retrospect, I suspect it was because he got them cheap, because they were mostly sold out.

On Christmas Eve, he would bring the tree inside and stand it up in a big can of water. Then we would anchor the tree to the walls (we always stood it in a corner) with big upholstery pins and twine. And that was how it remained until I went to bed.

The Tree. This was the most amazing thing we saw all year.
It was 1956, we didn't have satellite TV back then, remember.
On Christmas morning we would wake up and the tree would be festively decorated, with a village under it—complete with houses, a church, a pond made out of a mirror with ice skaters on it, and roads made from coffee grounds featuring road signs and cars and trucks. And, of course, there would be presents, in big piles, all around the living room. (There would be more and more piles as the number of children increased from two to five).

My dad worked shift work at a paper mill, so each Christmas was a little bit different. When he worked 4pm to midnight, we would get up, open our gifts and have breakfast. When he worked 8am to 4pm (yeah, he worked on Christmas) we had to get up early (no hardship there) and open all our gifts, and then, after he left for work, we would have a leisurely breakfast. That was the good year. The worst was when he worked midnight to 8am. On those years, we were allowed to open one gift, then we had to wait for him to come home. Then we would have breakfast, and only then could we open our gifts. Waiting was torture.

Dad amid the Christmas wreckage, 1955.
Overall, however, it was, as it should be, a magical time, when the day seemed brighter and everything was perfect, and we would go to our grandmother’s house for a big Christmas dinner (either early or late, depending on Dad's shift) and then play with our new treasures late into the evening.

But that was just Christmas Day, the magic started well before that.

Early in December, we would make our Santas. Mom would help us construct a Santa Claus face out of a paper plate and construction paper. Then we would make a paper chain with a link for each day. We would hang these on our doors, and every morning from then on, we would tear off a link and the chain would get shorter, letting us know how close to Christmas we were getting. The chain, as I recall, shrank at a maddeningly slow pace, unlike now, when Christ seems to rush at me with the speed of a runaway locomotive.

My mother would make pies and cakes and candies, and the house always smelled heavenly. (My mother was a great baker, but a lousy cook.) We would tramp the woods in search of ground pine and bring home big bags stuffed with it, and mom would help us wind it around bent coat hangers to make wreaths and we would decorate the front and back doors with them. We would also put up our single string of outdoor lights, surrounding our front door with them, and when the cards began to arrive, mom would decorate the house with them.

What she did was tape them to the door frames. First along the top, and then down the sides. When I was in bed, the night-light cast a shadow of them against my bedroom wall and it looked like the teeth of a great monster. But this was a comfort, for it was the yearly appearance of this monster that signified that Christmas was approaching.

Christmas Eve was also magical, and in a way that was unique, but it was normal to me, so I never realize how fortunate I was until much later.

My grandmother lived in the town of Valatie, the first town in the US to have a Santa Claus club, and she always signed us up.

Here is an excerpt from a news clip dated 8 December 2017:

“The Santa Claus Club was founded in Valatie in 1946 following the end of WWII. This Club was formed by a small group of veterans who were motivated to give a young girl stricken with leukemia a special Christmas. Bill Farrell, one of the Club’s founders, dressed up as Santa Claus that year to deliver a present to her from the Club. Little did they know that their act of kindness would create the foundation of a program that would spread to many communities in the US and worldwide.

“The Santa Claus Club continues on to this day thanks to dedicated family members who have preserved this tradition. The program is made possible thanks to donations from people in our community, with gift stockings delivered to kids up to 10 years of age, often reaching 600 children. This Club is the first of its kind in our Nation and it’s something that has never been disputed.

“Children from the area are encouraged to write a letter to Santa and drop it in the special mailbox at the Valatie Post Office. To this day, Santa reads each and every one of these letters. The Club goes door to door in early December and takes a census of children on the route who wish to be visited Christmas Eve, that way they know the approximate age to tailor the gift. Each year on December 23rd, Club members and other Community volunteers gather to prepare everything for Santa. They help organize the gifts and fill the stockings to be given out on Christmas Eve to local children. Santa and his elves have eight routes to take and he is a very busy guy on Christmas Eve.”

But I didn’t know any of this as a child. All I knew was that every Christmas Eve, we would go to our Grandparent’s house, and Santa would visit and give us a stocking.

The evening was always filled with good food and lots of anticipation as we watched through the window. The first glimpse we got was of Santa riding through the town in his sleigh. He didn’t stop then, however, that was jus for show. We had to wait an indeterminant amount of time after that for him to show up, chauffeured in a station wagon, to deliver the stockings.
My sister Michele getting her stocking from Santa in 1965.
Santa was always jolly and boisterous and often smelled of beer and whiskey. He was always known to my aunts, uncles and grandparents, so the visits were always convivial, and the stockings were amazing. They were filled with fruit and candy and a gift, and not some cheap thing, but a real nice gift, sometimes one of the best I received that Christmas. The stockings, too, were amazing, and we kept them for months until we finally wore them out.

By the time we got home, we were on a high, and then we had to go to bed, and to sleep, so Santa could visit us. But Christmas Eve is the longest night in the year, and it would seem an age before I fell asleep. I must have done so more quickly than I remember, however, as I never heard my parents decorating the tree or putting out the presents.

The magic, and the tradition, remained, even as we got older, and even as we became ineligible for the stocking because our younger siblings still got one, and we could still, vicariously, experience the thrill.
Me, Melinda, Marc, Michele and Matt on Christmas in 1964.
The trumpet was my gift from Santa's visit on Christmas Eve.
As we got older, things began to change. We stayed home on Christmas Eve and were allowed to stay up and help with the tree decorating. I, of course, knew that my parents always did it, but I didn’t know how, and it was a revelation to see how my father constructed the village, stacking the boxes the ornaments came in around the base of the tree to form a hill, then covering it with a layer of cotton to make the snow. Then there was the village planning. Where should the roads go, the church, the houses, the mirror lake? He planned it meticulously, then set everything out, pulling the light bulbs through the cotton and into the cardboard buildings, laying out the road using a teaspoon and coffee grounds, tearing a hole for the lake and setting out the metal figures. He took great pride in it, and drank many beers while planning it out. And it always looked splendid.

Individual memories of Christmases include:

The year I got a mechanize tank. My dad spent weeks before hand putting it together. It moved forward and back, the turret turned, and it shot plastic shells from the cannon. It was wonderful, for about ten minutes. On its first trip across the living room floor, my brother Marc sat on it hoping to get a ride. Instead, he squashed it flat.

Similarly, in my teen years, I got a remote-control airplane. This was before advances in electronics, so the remote control was attached to the plane by wires. Still, the idea was the same, you taxied, took off and flew around—your distance limited by the wire—and, hopefully, landed. The plane itself was made of stiff plastic, which was made brittle by the cold air when my sister and I took it outside to try it.

My dad was there to show us how it worked. I don’t recall handling it myself, even though it was mine. What I do recall is my sister attempting a takeoff, inadvertently steering it directly at me, and the plane going right between my legs, sheering off both wings.

Those were anomalies, however, and I don’t recall either of those events ruining our Christmas. It was more a matter of, oh well, let’s find something else to play with.

I bet my dad was disappointed, however.

As an adult, Christmases became less vivid. I like to think that my boys hold special memories of those days, but I can’t even recall if we continued the tradition of putting the tree up on Christmas Eve or not. I do recall that I made a unique Christmas ornament that I used to decorate the house with, but not much else.
I made that. Pretty cool, eh?
My boys and their cousins getting a visit from Santa in 1986
This was not a Santa Claus club thing, Santa was a family friend.
When I became single again (sounds so much better than, “After I got divorced.”) Christmas become a more solemn affair. I never had a tree when I was single (one year, I drew a picture of a tree and hung it on the wall) and the day mostly consisted of visiting my children to give them whatever gifts I could afford that year. (Yeah, feel sorry for me, it really sucked.)

The only memorable thing that I recall that remotely concerns Christmas happened during the years I was with SWMNBN (She Who Must Not Be Named).

One year, while I was single, I happened to be at a friend of a friend’s house during the festive season and I was really taken with their tree. It was stunning, and I couldn’t imagine how they did it. I never asked then, and then I forgot about it, until Christmas with SWMNBN.

She had a vaulted ceiling in her living room, so she always got a big, live tree. Then we decorated it in her prescribed manner. This involved putting on an unimaginable number of lights. The stings of lights, joined one after the other, were carefully wrapped around each branch, starting from the tree trunk out. They went from the top to the very bottom. This took a full day.

The second day, we put on the ornaments. It was a grueling process, often filed with arguments, but when it was over, and the tree was turned on, it was spectacular. The tree glowed from the inside out, like a multi-colored star. As much as I hated putting it up, I never got tired of looking at it.

I was glad to learn the trick of making a tree look so amazing, but after escaping from her, I have never been tempted to do it myself. It is simply too much work.

Pretty spectacular, but it took two days to put up and a full day to take down.
And, frankly, I don’t have the room to store all those lights.