Dec. 25, 2015
For me, the Christmas season doesn’t begin on Black Friday. It begins on December 1st, the anniversary of Mr. J.’s death in 1960. The J. family lived across the street from us. Mr. J. was in his early thirties, a botanist at the university, and he left behind a wife and three children, ages eight, six, and four. Apparently he had a weak heart; his wife woke up the morning of December 1 to find that he had unexpectedly “Returned to Sender.” Mr. J. was the first person of my brother's and my limited acquaintance to die and it affected us deeply. "If only he could have waited," we lamented, "until after Christmas."
Christmas was magical when I was a kid. Heck, electricity was magical. For me it still is. The Sears and Roebucks Christmas Catalogue sat on a shelf beside the toilet, where I would sit for hours, mesmerized by the myriad possibilities, while my brother pounded plaintively on the door. The other bathroom—the Stinky Potty—was downstairs. Nobody wanted to use the Stinky Potty. There was clearly something wrong with it.
My mother and father made many of our toys. Once Dad made Peter a kind of battlefield for his toy soldiers—it featured a river and hills and a frontier fort. Peter was obsessed with soldiers, which is odd when you consider that he managed to avoid going to the Vietnam War by obtaining Conscientious Objector status—not an easy task.
One Christmas Mom made us Feedy and Sheedy, two pajama bags in the form of rabbits with zippers down their middle. These were two fictional characters of my mother's creation, only Feedy and Sheedy in her stories were house flies. It's hard to know what she was thinking. Last year when I was cleaning out my parents’ apartment prior to my Dad going to a nursing home, I came across Feedy and Sheedy, crumpled and stained, at the bottom of a chest. "Oh!" I cried. "Here's Feedy and Sheedy!" Then I thought, What the Hell am I going to do with Feedy and Sheedy? So I chucked them.
We had to keep the door closed to the living room during Christmas because Lovey, the Great Dane, would eat the glass ornaments. Once he ran off with Sue Doll, a handmade doll given to my mother by her aunt on a Christmas 30 years earlier. "Lovey's got Sue Doll!" my mother cried as she chased him through the house. When I was packing up my Dad's place, I unearthed Sue Doll. I didn’t chuck her. I brought her back to Port Stanley and set her on the rocking chair in our guest room. My children find her sinister and put her in the wardrobe whenever they come to visit. They're also scared of clowns. Did I mention that they’re adults?
Over several Christmases my parents took me and my brother Peter to London, England to sightsee by day and attend theatre at night. As a teenager, Peter was not keen on England. The Coke was warm and he made himself sick eating British chocolate, which had a lower percentage of wax to chocolate than American chocolate.
The following year, I spent the entire trip ceaselessly pining for a new boyfriend, whom I dropped shortly after returning home, cognitive dissonance having worked its magic. Nevertheless I had managed to render the family’s holiday less than festive with my moony lamentations.
Fast forward 40-odd years.
In a few weeks my husband and I are boarding Nellie, our beautiful Golden, with Tim and Wendy at the Tail Waggin’ Ranch and driving down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina with Poppet, my father’s blind, thirteen year old cockapoo. The hardest thing about going to the nursing home for my father was giving up his dog; we try to make sure they get to see each other as often as we can manage. So Christmas this year will be in Dad’s small semi-private room at the Dubose Center and I can’t think of a place I’d rather be.
Terrible things happened to the J. family in the wake of Mr. J.’s death. Mrs. J., who had a history of mental illness, tried to commit suicide by swallowing lye and was hauled off to a psychiatric ward where she was given electroshock therapy. Grandparents swooped down on the kids and carried them off, never to be seen again—by us, at any rate. If only Mr. J. could have waited 25 days, they would have had at least one more Happy Christmas under their belts before all hell broke loose. Wouldn’t that have been something? Wouldn’t that have been better?
I don’t know. What I do know is that, every December 1, I remember Mr. J. and his kids and his wife and I feel grateful to have been granted all these many Christmases—some happier than others, but still and all, Christmas. Or, as my mother, who always got depressed at Christmas, used to call it: “Chritma.”
Merry Chritma, everyone! Or maybe just, “Chritma!”