Christmas 1977, for Jon Solomon


(A shorter version of this was kindly aired by Jon Solomon on WPRB for the 24 Hour Holiday X-Mas Show)

Snow was filling the street in front of our house, fat, bulbous chunks of white flakes, peppering the trees and asphalt as if it were being shaken from a flour shifter from God. Small eyes became as large as headlights, aglow in the mystery of snowfall, staring out the window, my small hands pressed against the moist window. I drew a picture of Santa Claus with my pointer finger where my breath had left a watery-canvas on the glass, the sun was lowering itself by degrees behind the Cutant’s bevy of Maple trees, the sun appeared to be controlled by a pulley, one moment it sat just above the tree tops and in the next it was ten feet below the dark branches that spider-webbed pointy silhouettes against the orange sun, above it all, the dark curtain of the December evening closed in like a gray cape. All the while, the snowflakes danced in the chill air, flipping and curling with the soft wind, a celebration of change. “Hey Zee?!! Come look, it’s snowing out! Like crazy. No way we are having school tomorrow!” My brother yelled from the kitchen, “I know it is moron, we have a window in the kitchen. Come here, I need help carrying my food in” he commanded from the other room. Pulling away from the window, I turned and scampered into the kitchen, there my brother was smashing a steaming chicken-pot pie into a bowl, he had a glass of chocolate milk next to him with a half empty jar of Nestlé’s Quick on the counter, the other half was in his milky-brown glass and on the counter. He grabbed a bag of Owl’s potato chips and commanded, “grab my milk and wipe up the Quick, hurry up!” Being the little brother had its disadvantages to be sure, I dutifully carried his milk in, making haste to hurry back to the kitchen and wipe up his mess and plopped down next to him on the white vinyl sofa. It was cold to the touch.

“hey, did you put a pot pie in for me?” I asked.

“nope, you didn’t ask.” He crammed a forkful of gravy encrusted crust into his mouth.

“yes, I did, those things take forever to cook, I asked you when you started.”

“well, I didn’t hear you. This is delicious by-the way. Oh and there isn’t any more milk left, if you               want chocolate milk you’ll have to make it with water.” He managed to get a two inch piece of              pot pie onto the end of his fork and shoved into his face.

“Look at that snow!” for a moment, the ache in my belly was gone, transfixed on the heavenly                 flakes. “Will we get a Christmas tree?” It was already the second week of December, the year before we didn’t get one, my father had forgotten or was too poor to get us one.

“Yeah, dad said we would, we have to remind him. I don’t even think we have hardly any Christmas ornaments” now he was slurping the last of his chocolate concoction.

We were poor, even though our father was an architect he was terrible with money, even worse with getting paid. My brother had been living with him for a few years now, while I was in the midst of my first year with him since my parents’ divorce five years prior. I no longer believed in Santa Claus but wholeheartedly had allegiance to the power of Christmas, my faith in Jesus Christ and the Catholic church was strong, and the magic of the Holiday fermented and grew with the mystery of the birth of Christ. At my mother’s house, we always had a tree although we usually travelled back to Columbus to spend Christmas with both sets of Grandparents, it was here in the small college town of Athens that I now considered my home. We had nothing in the house to signify the coming of Jesus’ birthday except for the decorated box of Cap’n Crunch on top of the refrigerator and a box of Little Debbie Christmas Tree brownies.

The Holidays were always magical, with the soft glow of mystery, anticipation and the good nature the season brings the most innocent part of us, pining for not just presents but for the songs, the stories and the magnificent wonderment of magic. Perusing memories from forty years on, is akin to looking at the world through a rain-drop, it is small, muddled and yet aglow with the fuzziness of the incandescent rainbow of remembrance, perhaps it is the emotion that holds such a strong pull. When living with my mother, we had glorious holidays, when living in Springs, NY the tree was decorated with sea shells, popcorn and ribbons of construction paper that folded around the tree like a multi-colored merry-go-round chain, looped together with small careful hands and concentrated tongues jutting from pursed lips. In Youngstown, Zoltan and I wore matching Batman and Robin pajamas (of course he got Batman) while we peeled open silver shiny wrapping paper and drank hot chocolate from extra-thick clay mugs stuffed to the rim with miniature marshmallows. In Virginia, just a shadow away from Colonial Williamsburg on the eve of the United States Bicentennial, I got my first records, Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” and K-Tel’s “Hit Machine” and as I listened to “Sir Duke” over and over, I jabbed a sharpened #2 pencil into the rubber belly of my new Stretch-Armstrong, and secretly licked the red juice that oozed out.

The next two Christmas’s I was in Athens, with my father and brother. Our sister Erica was visiting from Virginia, she was in 8th grade–which felt as old as Kristy McNichol or John Travolta, she was visiting over the break, plopping down in the couch beside us, “so why hasn’t dad gotten you guys a tree yet? Christmas is just days away, wow, those snowflakes are huge!” They were falling down in a thick curtain of white, almost as large as milky-white oil canisters, our saucer eyes beholden to the charm of nature, we had fallen into a trance of wonderment. Zoltan had disappeared, suddenly he was out the door, his blue and yellow Webelo hat scrunched over his head, his long-seventies (ala Matt Dillon in “Over the Edge”) hair sticking out the back, wearing his Pittsburgh Steelers coat and juggling a nerf football. Within minutes we were all outside, galloping in the thick snow, tackling and jumping into one another. Soon, the other kids on the block joined in, we were alive, the fertile energy of childhood being fueled by the holiday and the wintery mix of snow and the fading sun.

Pulling in front of our house, the maroon Chevy Malibu spewing billowing black exhaust into the street, my father climbed out of the car. His black moustache hiding his rosy cheeks, his thick head of black hair was mused, an arching Hungarian forehead that provided a glimmer of wisdom, he yelled out in his heavy accent, “let us go get a Christmas tree children” his r’s rolling out of his mouth as if on a watermill, his throat rotating them out in static dollops. “yeah!!!” we yelled in unison. Our father appeared to live in his head a great deal of the time, humming to himself while he drove, at times he would smile to a joke only he could hear and while he loved to laugh, there were times we had no idea what he was giggling about. We started driving, the slushy roads were narrow as small hills of snow collected on the sides of the brick streets, we were driving through a tunnel of white as the back tires slipped on the ice. “Be careful dad!” “hummmm,” he turned on the am radio, Gene Autry sang about Rudolph. “dad, there it is!” my brother yelled, as we came upon a lot of Christmas trees, a sad looking Santa, holding a bell in one hand and a cigarette in another. Above him a thin weary line of Christmas lights blew in the wind, shivering beacons of the season, he appeared frozen in the ground as the snow grew up around his ankles and dark brown hair peeked below his Santa hat, a peculiar contrast to his fake white beard. We drove past, faces plastered to the windows, for a moment our eyes met, his eyebrows arched as he took a long drag off his Marlboro.

Stretch Armstrong with only moments to live.

Stretch Armstrong with only moments to live.

This was typical of our father, he had started singing along with the “Little Drummer Boy” his deep baritone carving out the rumpa-bum-bums in the freezing car. “Dad, you missed it! I thought we were going to get a tree?” Erica shook her head and gazed out the window, by now we were in the foothills of Appalachia, and the dark trees that stood firm in the wave of snow felt the collective disappointment that was as thick as butter in our car. We drove for miles, my father continuing to hum and bellow with his Dracula-like voice to various carols, occasionally one of us would complain about how he seemed to suck as a father. Soon he turned up a dirt road, hollowed out of a series of bushes and spindly trees, “uh, dad where are you going?” We were spooked, it was bad enough to have a Dracula-like daddy but now we were in the middle of nowhere with walls of snow stacking up around us. He hummed some more, “Oh Holyyyyyy Niii-ghtttttt”croaking from his throat, “that’s great, we are going to get slaughtered right before Christmas, Dad, mom is going to be pissed” Erica spoke into the darkness. As the car curled around the top of the hill, trees sticking long thin arms of black branches above us, we saw a small wooden cabin, a fire flickered in the window as smoke rose out of the chimney to really announce that St. Nick was certainly here.

Batman and Robin

Batman and Robin

We pulled up and my dad smiled broadly, “we are here children! We are going to get a real Christmas tree, not one of these gas-station wannabees.” I had no idea what he was talking about. The door opened, a large older man greeted us, his gray beard stretched to his chest, wearing blue suspenders over a checkered flannel shirt he waved us in, a black German Shepard licked my cold hands, “hello Laszlo! These must be your children, come in, come in! I have hot chocolate, plus we can make s’mores after we cut the tree, but we must hurry as it’s already dark. I’m afraid we can’t go too far into the field but there are good trees to be had by the road.” The cabin appeared to have sprung out of a television show, there was a homemade wooden table made from slabs of hand-cut oak, with wooden benches lining both sides of the table, shelves lined the kitchen area, with plates, glasses and mugs displayed without any doors, in front of the fire place was a white lamb-skin rug where we sat and drank our coco. The man, whose name has fallen into the swirling cauldron of history, spoke to my father about the cabin and work. Apparently my father had designed the cabin for him it was small just, three rooms, and he told us what a nice man our father was, how he guided the construction of the house and made suggestions. “your dad is a very good architect, I could not have made this house without him.” “Did you make this yourself?” I asked eyes steadfast on the flickering fingers of flames. “Yes, mostly, I cut most of the wood but had help, it is new but it looks old doesn’t it?” “Yeah, it’s pretty neat.” as I slurped the chocolate mixture.

The fields of trees stretched into the night, row after row after row that fell into one another in the darkness. “I grow Christmas trees,” he explained, “it’s not all I do but I own all this land you can see, this little hill and the hill behind it.” We traipsed through the weeds, careful not to fall onto the small hacksaw, soon we fell upon the perfect tree and we all took turns sawing, tying the rope to the base and dragging the tree up the muddy lane where my father strapped the tree to the roof of his car. Inside we melted Hershey’s chocolate on graham crackers and marshmallows, our first introduction to S’mores. The radio played The Mormon Tabernacle Choir as we huddled under a knitted quilt and listed to the two men talk about their own past Christmas’s, I drifted off as I heard my father talk about Christmas in Budapest where angels visited on Christmas Eve and I woke up as his long arms slowly placed me in my bed a belly and mind stuffed with the magic of Christmas.

 

faded (at seven)

faded (at seven)

IMG_1300

 

wprb.com

and

http://keepingscoreathome.com/

 

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