In the east this morning a sliver of light. I stood at the bay and remembered:
More than five decades ago on Christmas morning before our parents were awake (or so we supposed), my siblings and I would gather before we headed down for the beginning of Christmas Day, usually in my sister’s room, to exchange gifts we had bought for each other. It would inevitably still be dark out, and I know the three of us would lay awake waiting to hear each other also awake in the other room. A tap on the door. A “come in.” And we’d sit on the floor and open our presents.
At some point (like clockwork, as much an annual tradition as the turkey or the pies), our mother would wake our father and he would exclaim, “I thought I said no one up before nine am!” and he couldn’t hide his smile to our laughter at the ludicrous suggestion we’d be up any later than five. It was always cold out during those Long Island years, and often snowy, but we weren’t going outside so it just added to the magic. Dad would be in his robe and slippers, and he’d head to the living room as we gathered on the stairs and waited for him to plug in the multi-colored lights on the tree, and those on the rail, bringing to life the otherwise dark room. Mom had, of course, already organized whatever presents we would get into separate piles, and Dad would stand back as she directed us to the right area under the branches, though sometimes it was obvious if an unwrapped toy appeared, clearly already wished for by one of us. Dad would sit on the couch and watch in joy right through the stream of “Wow, thank you Mom!” wishes.
It wouldn’t be long before the aromas of breakfast mixed with the onions and bell seasoning already underway for the stuffing, and eventually we’d need to get dressed, if not for church since we might have attended midnight mass, certainly for the droves of family who would soon fill the rooms. It was a beautiful way to grow up. I do not know the possible stresses, fears, and sacrifices that went on behind the scenes—that’s how good they were at it. Then, much later in the day, after everyone else had left and we had all settled into the routine of looking at our gifts again, Dad would emerge from some closet with his gifts for each of us—books he had personally picked out, bought, and wrapped. It remains one of my favorite memories of all of my memories of my father.
It was in the sixties here today along the Chesapeake, and sunny, and to be honest I’m just tired. This is one of those days each year where I’ve been up so long and have done so much that it feels like it should be six hours later than it is. My mother and sister and brother and nieces and nephew and their spouses and offspring are all off in various parts of the country preparing to celebrate their Christmases, all of us with some common traditions, each of us with our individual more recent touches to the holiday. Certainly, in times of such tumultuous anxiety throughout the world, all of us remain fortunate enough to be celebrating Christmas at all, laughing and telling stories, enjoying the food, the drinks, the sounds of football or Christmas music. We are, to be sure, at peace. Anyone with family is engulfed in traditions which help balance our lives; they bring peace to our soul while providing some shared space not only with each other but with memory, the idea of ancestry, the hope for posterity.
My father used to sit to the side for most of the holiday and enjoy being surrounded by his family. He’d carve the turkey, and of course disappear toward evening to get the books to give to us, but these days I picture him most in his chair, watching a game, sipping scotch or wine or a beer, laughing with us, waiting for Mom to call him to duty in the kitchen. He has moved on, and whatever there might be to know after this life of ours, well, he now knows, and that too brings me great peace.
It’s so quiet out tonight. Absolute peace stretched out like canvas in all directions. On the water some buffleheads ease by. Still, there are moments I wish I was somewhere else; or maybe simply some “when” else. I miss the days before society took “nearby” and “not far away” and tossed them to the strong breezes of technology and zoom. In that small house around that small table when I was a child were so many relatives it is crazy to conceive how we pulled it off. But no one cared—we were together. Everyone lived close enough to “drive over,” and by the time the turkey came out of the oven, a small crowd was sitting and standing and outside and in, laughing as well as sharing serious moments, because it was Christmas and we were together, and it was going to be like that forever.
For the day anyway.
The sun is getting low and it’s getting chilly. I’m going inside again. I bought Michael a book at a local nautical shop and I need to wrap it and “surprise” him with it later in the day tomorrow after the lift of Christmas has settled down. And he will be gracious enough to act surprised, just as I did with my father when he would predictably surprise the three of us with books half a century ago.
Geez, fifty years. More.
Hold tight to those around the table tomorrow. And when you have to let go, make sure they know you didn’t want to.
Merry Christmas my friends.