A Christmas Story

On my eleventh Christmas morning the siren sound rose above the carols which had been playing for days on the big Zenith in the living room.  The train was still running around the base of the tree, past the presents laid out in their assigned places.  The first rush had passed and though hardly bored, we were beginning to think of the family gift exchange that  took place in the evening after dinner.

That was the year my cousin Kirk joined the adults at the big table.  There was no hard and fast rule about this but he had the respect of the adults and was adored by the kids.  While I was proud of his elevation and only a little envious, this was  hard for me.  Kirk was my hero.  I spent every moment I could near him when he visited.  He and his parents lived nearly two hundred miles away but came for all family gatherings making these even more special to me.  I was already thinking hard about how to accelerate my own ascension.  I was the next oldest but there was a six year gap so I needed a plan to get older faster.  There would be a way.

After the sixteen of us put paid to a thirty pound turkey the women, who  worked all day to put dinner on the table cleaned up. The men briefly continued conversations begun at table until they fell asleep in the living room.   Only many years later did it occur to me to question the division of labor.  Naps were anathema to us but we knew better than to make enough noise to wake the sleepers in hopes of hurrying the onset of the last major event of Christmas.  So we played in my cousin’s upstairs bedroom or outside while we waited.

The evening gift exchange was a wonderful tradition for children.  It kept the spirit of Christmas, receiving gifts, alive a few more hours. We were not expected to buy and wrap presents but we still cleaned up. The adults had some system that never interested us for distributing gifts but each family brought gifts for every child.  Aunt Ruth could be counted on to provide at least two.  After the gift exchange there was nothing to keep Christmas from winding down but our ultimately vain efforts to stay awake and hold on to it as best we could.

Christmas had begun, as it always did in my childhood, after Thanksgiving. Fueled by memory and imagination it ground slowly on through December;  the days marked by the appearance in the Herald-Star of the episodes of the Christmas story.  No, this was a kid’s story, new each year.  We eagerly read an episode each day except Sunday until Christmas Eve when everything was brought to a happy conclusion.  In spite of the way it had dominated our attention for weeks, we quickly put aside the last episode with far less discussion than the others had generated.  By then it had performed its prime mission of bringing us to Christmas.

We were downstairs by six as usual.  We had been awake much earlier but six was the negotiated hour when my mom and dad could be waken to go downstairs, make any last minute arrangements and turn on the tree lights.  As soon as we saw the lights we tumbled down the stairs.

Dad laid on the couch that morning as we opened our presents under the tree.  He hadn’t been feeling well but we were too young to know that sometimes you didn’t just get over sickness or to diagnose his problem.  In fact in the waning days of 1949 both his local doctor and the big city doctors failed to do that.

We, fortunately as I now recognize, had few opportunities to hear sirens coming close to our home.  We had never heard a police siren in our neighborhood so we guessed it was an ambulance and raced to kneel on the couch by the big window in the front room to see if we could find it.  We could.  It stopped in front of our house.

I have little confidence in my memory of the rest of that day.  Some events I experienced, some I was told about and I don’t always know the difference. I’m not sure it matters.  There are facts and there are feelings and of the two the feelings are most real.  Whether accurate or not they are what remains; what made the difference in my life.

Christmas day from the time the strangers came in, bundled up my father and ripped him from our lives was a time of fear.  Fear of what we knew and more of what we didn’t know.  My mother was clearly upset though she covered as well as she could  and my dad told us not to worry, that he would be back soon.  Before she left for the hospital mom took me aside and told me she would be with my dad and my grandmother would stay with us.  She said she needed me to help look after my younger sister, nine and brother, five.  The years of my childhood were fast coming to an end.

We still had Christmas dinner and the gift exchange but nothing was the same.  Someone was always at the hospital with my mom and we noticed that adults paid a great deal more attention to where we were when talking to each other.  I don’t know what we were told during the day.  I was not told anything I perceived as true. The long day finally ended and we went to bed without knowing how my dad was.

By then I had given up on Santa Claus and the Easter bunny.  I still believed in God and that persisted for some years.  Eventually I became a scientist and a rationalist.  I don’t believe in the supernatural, but this memory is as strong as any I have.  I awoke sometime after midnight with the certain knowledge that my father had died.  Somehow I eventually got back to sleep.

All our bedrooms were on the second floor.  My grandmother was already downstairs the next morning and my brother and sister had not yet awakened.   The phone in my parents’ bedroom, rang and I ran to quietly pick it up.  My grandmother had picked up downstairs and with characteristic bluntness said “Roger, get off the line”.  I didn’t need to hear the rest; I already knew my father was dead.