Sunday, September 27, 2015

Once Upon a Christmas

"Hey goofballs, wake up!" yelled my oldest brother, Jackie. "You remember what today is, don't ya?" Tumbling out of bed, the stampede began. After thawing over coal furnace vents, we kids bolted breakfast then started dressing for what was, for my family, the second most exciting day of our year.

It was the late 50’s and life was difficult back then. Dad, an alcoholic, was a tormented man who seemed to forever fight within himself over the kind of man he wanted to be and the man he usually was.

The alcohol had been such a part of him for so long that another way of life seemed elusive.

Even after a horrific drunk on Saturday night with Dad holding a pistol to his temple in front of his children, swearing he was going to blow his brains out, by Sunday morning he was up, sober and helping Mom do whatever he could to make sure those same kids made it on the church bus in time.

Dad’s sense of how to teach his children important lessons on morality was skewed by his alcohol dementia. The first time one of his kids stole a two cent piece of candy from a tiny store near our home, he lined all four of us up and, with his thick leather strap, whipped all of us until we had welts that lasted for days. He did the same thing if one of us told a lie. Or cheated. Or said a bad word. He meted out his punishment to all without regard to who the offender was.

I am not endorsing this means of discipline by any stretch of the imagine but I would not be honest with you if I did not tell you that, as far as I can remember, I never stole anything as a child as a result of those beatings. I can never remember telling a lie either. That I promise.

I can never remember cheating, and my cussing as a youth was relegated to, when very angry, saying under my breath, “Shooty, farty, monkey!” Now where in the world I came up with that expression, I will never know. But if you ever needed to be cussed out by me, that was what would be fired at you…unfortunately, you would never hear it.

The huge event that morning was the Raytheon Company's annual Christmas party set to begin at 10 a.m. at the Paramount Theatre downtown Bristol. I was seven years old, the forth of five children with Baby Sandy being fourteen months.  I do remember that exciting morning of the Christmas party was overcast, bitter cold.

After laying out Sunday's best, Mama and Daddy loaded their five kids into our run-down station wagon and off we rushed, our old wagon belching black smoke all the way.

As we drove Daddy began dampening our childish enthusiasm by reminding us it is always better to give than receive. Ignoring him, visions of sugarplums and other such goodies danced in my head. I hoped to get enough toys, candy, fruit and nuts to rival our Christmas morning at home.

While circling Woolworth's parking lot, Daddy started preaching his threadbare sermon. Though we were poor, he and Mama were proud. In his gruff voice he said, "Don't forget now, we have little but enough. When you get your treat bags, don't forget to say 'Thank ya' ".

After being seated in the huge, opulent theater with tens of dozens of other Raytheon employees and their children, the morning started off with a B-grade Western, hot buttered popcorn and icy Cokes. Excitement mounted; still, the kids in the audience squirmed, anxious to see the star of the show. When the curtain finally fell, Santa bounded out with white beard askew, bellowing, "HO! HO! HO! MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!"

After reciting T'was the Night before Christmas and leading all in singing carols, Santa Claus admonished all to remember Jesus was the reason for the season. He then instructed us to march out single file and pick up gift bags prepared by management, reassuring us they were glad we were part of the Raytheon family.

As expected, the morning offered the familiarity of the prior parties.
It was the trip home that left an indelible impression on my young life.
Our family of seven settled back into the car and we kids dove into our treasures. The toy exchange began but the candy, popcorn balls and other edibles were stashed until we could gather 'round the prickly cedar Christmas tree we had chopped down along the railroad tracks.

Sandy lay sprawled on Mama's lap in the front seat. She had received treats as well but was too small to understand the wonder of it all. As I eyed her bag, I finally blurted, "Daddy, who's gonna get Sandy's toys and stuff?"  After a moments hesitation he said, "Hey, I betcha I know who could probably use it".

Daddy soon pulled into the dirt driveway of a dilapidated shack not far from our place. I often walked past this house on my way home from school, always feeling sad the yard had no grass. The kids who lived there were either playing in mud or dust at the mercy of rain or shine.

Without a word Daddy got out and motioned for us to follow. He carried Sandy's bag as tenderly as he cradled her. After knocking on the door we waited for what seemed an eternity. Slowly the door cracked open and I gazed into a dark, haggard face. As the door swung wider, I saw a baby clinging to this woman then four other scantily clad children scurried to the mother, peeking nervously from behind her skirt.

As they stared at us, Daddy introduced himself. He told the woman where we'd been and we had an extra gift bag we didn't need. Could she possibly use it?

Without a word the mother began to silently cry, tears slipping down a face that was no stranger to hurt and need. Whispering a shy "thank you", she reached for the package with her free arm and clutched it to her breast.  Somehow, Dad’s kids seemed to all realize at once what Dad must have already known. This would be all there would be for this family come Christmas morning.

I don't remember which kid slipped away first but I'm ashamed to admit... it wasn't me. Slowly, I followed my three older siblings out to gather our sacrificial gifts. One by one we delivered them into the outstretched arms of four shy but overwhelmed children.

Then we turned and without fanfare, headed home. I remember the hushed silence except for an occasional sniffle.  Daddy never again mentioned what happened that cold winter day. But...that was his way.

That wasn't the last time my Dad made me cry. I remember another day a few years later when my father said to his demons…it is finished. And again when he gave his life to Christ.

Dad's been gone for quite some time now but his living lessons are deeply rooted within me. In the still, wee hours of Christmas morn I can hear his gentle reminder, "Christmas givin' sure does feel a whole lot better than Christmas gettin', Linda."

I still miss you terribly, Dad, and will see you in Heaven.
As the Holy Season approaches, I wish you God's Blessings and
His Salvation Through Christ, our Greatest Gift of all.

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