WHAT I LEARNED AT CHRISTMAS

Let me make this clear at the outset; my birth family are the tribe of the Old Testament so my father’s association with the Christmas holiday was learned from coworkers, Nat ‘King’ Cole, the tree at Rockefeller Center and New York fragrant with good cheer – often lubricated with smoky liquids around the 25th. That is until he had grandchildren. This was of course the divine gift my wife and I delivered to him – most likely our lifetime’s crowning achievement.

My dad was a typographer, a craft job a composing lines of text in metal. His company on 45th Street in Manhattan set type for all the advertising agencies whose ads were designed in the day and required production overnight to be ready the next morning for inclusion in print publications. My father worked his way up from compositor to general manager owing not just to his skill on the stick, but with people especially. He was, in a word, a schmoozer. This made him the perfect guy to close sales over steaks and drinks at the Palm. In this he was, as always successful. It also provided him with, shall we say gifts, from very grateful vendors who enjoyed the contracts he would award.

During the year, often at odd times, I’d get a call, “Rich, do you need a new guitar, camera, slide projector, TV, frig, etc.” The same largesse extended to his wide coterie of childhood friends whose businesses did not offer such ‘perks.’ And to my wife, whom he called Red (Irish, as you may expect) anything she wanted. The point is he was disposed to spread his good fortune rather than scrooge all for himself.

Nowhere was this truer than at Christmas, an excuse for even his exceptional level of gift giving. And to whom better than my son and later my daughter. Not only his grandchildren for whom most share great love, my dad was excessive to the point of nuttiness. Perhaps his love had a psychological component. He was proud I had become a high school teacher after a short stint as an advertising creative, and owned a house (he always rented – how could such a busy man take on the responsibilities of drywall). He saw my talent in design and always had his employees set type for me in my little logo design/graphics business that added a bit to the family coffers – and said to my mother I was as talented as the art director’s whose work he ‘marked up’ from agencies like Young and Rubicam, BBD&O and Grey. In my gifted young son…his grandson, he saw what could be. Failing with my sister whose troubles he could not fix, he found a second chance with my daughter, who born with physical problems fought to live and thrive and at three was a both adorable and to his sentimental heart required the presence of a grand-champion.

Anyway, that’s the back-story.

The moral—and I’ll get it over with now—is that giving is an expression of not what you should offer—but all you must share no matter the cost in dollars, whether affordable or not. Time is fixed, but love expands. Memories become more powerful in the telling long after the actual events.

So Christmas at my house went like this—and I can assure you this is 100% true.

The week prior to the ‘day’ my wife, my son, maybe 8 years old at this telling (though this went on for 10 years) and my daughter 3, would bundle up and drive to the volunteer fire company lot and buy a tree. Though our living room had 12-foot ceilings, my wife whose love of the holiday exceeded her sense of geometry inevitably drove me to buy a 13-foot tree. Roped to the top of our station wagon (no SUVs yet) we trekked home where I proceeded to heft this coniferous beast (an enemy at the time) to the backyard where I could perform surgical machinations supervised by Mrs. Dr DeBakey. The tree had to be shaped just so but still touch the ceiling, always scratching off a coat of paint. And there had to be room for the angel. Decorating would begin. Jan, my wife, who has a way with home design things had very particular regulations, plus a host of antique ornaments handed down from generations past as well as our own rather eclectic (Surfing Santa) collection. Everyone participated but me, exhausted from cropping, schlepping, and balancing one hundred pounds of asymmetric tree that required guy wires to hold it steady. Music played and the job was happily concluded—always to spectacular results.

Then the event: Grandma and Grandpa arriving on the 24th. Grand kudos heaped on my wife for the spectacular house and tree. A wonderful meal, a little television, and then the ritual of putting the kids to bed. I always reserved this privilege. ‘The Night Before Christmas’ was our ritual.

The four of us adults would be tired. Dad, as always was planning to sleep with my son, no matter the size of the bed—both of them waiting for the sleigh bell. (I would do the honors with a real one later in the night). But before…

Mom:”Now Richard, we didn’t go crazy this year. It’s getting out of hand you know… The presents are on the back seat of the Buick so you might as well get them.”
Dad: Cornering me in the kitchen, sotto voce: “Everything is in the trunk; some of the toys have to be assembled.” (Thanks Pop. I never got to bed before 3am. Ever). You ever see the size of a 1977 Buick LeSabre trunk? Let’s keep in mind the Mafia found it useful in disposing the formerly alive. And I became, by default an expert in building Big Wheels, drum sets with missing parts, doll houses and furniture, Star Wars kits, hockey goals, miniature train sets, you get the picture. Dad had neither patience nor tool sense.He made up for it in the size of his heart.

Cut to the sound of jingling bells and my father and son giggling in bed—except for his rasp you wouldn’t know who the bigger kid was. Then finally, Christmas morning.

Picture this…A giant tree with lower branches completely pushed aside—a living room completely covered with gifts—virtually no floor space left.

Mom: Looking at my father. “Are you out of your mind? What is this…where did this come from. My God, Shad this is crazy. I swear you’ll spoil these kids. You’re ridiculous, crazy. I can’t believe you…blah, blah, blah.
Dad: A sheepish look for her, a twinkle in his blue eyes and devil set mouth. I’m sure he thought, ‘”Heh heh, beat you again. This is what grandchildren are about and you don’t get it—but look what I did. Hah!”

A staircase with a bend, pajama feet pounding down, and heads craning around the corner to see what Santa brought. And there he was. Santa standing back, arms akimbo, laughing more than the kids. Bursting with joy. Never said a word but how good the kids were and how Santa knew it. At that moment and for days after, that look and feeling sustained everyone reminding us the joy of the holiday was not just in the giving but in the love of the giving and the special sense that one person, imbued with goodness, wit and immaturity—could make every single Christmas special.

That was my Dad. He was, and will always be, Santa. Never to be replaced but for memories which grow stronger, and brighter every year. Though my kids are grown and have kids of their own—and our grandchildren, there is no contest to best the Olympian holidays my father choreographed. Though meant for my young children, his spirit continues to enrich us today. Which is why on this Christmas, this Jew, descended from another Jew tries to keep Christmas a special moment. It’s true I fail; there is some of my mother in me…and that made my Dad all the more special as the paragon of unfettered love. You know as well as I, the toys were for fun and laughs a temporary thing. The miracle was a great spirit touching one man who touched anyone else who could and would pay attention.

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