This Christmas story has been begging to get onto the page, but I’ve only just now had the time to get it down.
Are there certain things in your life – situations – that leave your breath shallow? Stop your prana flowing? Tighten your gut?
“[insert state here] Native” bumper stickers and anti-newcomer attitudes have this effect on me. (As I write this post, by number of years I am a quarter each Californian, Vermonter, New Yorker and Coloradan.) I am native to nowhere.
For a colleague at work, Christmas has this same effect. She grew up in a Jewish household, observing the world going crazy for this holiday year after year – parties, green, white and red everything, singing, Christmas trees, endless carols, ads – left out.
Then there are the people whose health is failing, who have experienced so much trauma, so much loss, are lonely, whose parents couldn’t afford to give them gifts, or who believe their lives aren’t nearly as perfect as the rest of their Facebook friends’ appear to be. Holidays – specifically Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s and Father’s Day – are loaded days.
When I was little, Christmas was all about family. It was about sitting on one of Dad’s knees, while my brother occupied the other. Mom stood at the stove stirring a bubbling pot of spaghetti sauce, sipping a Scotch and soda now and again, half listening, interjecting comments. Dad, Miller Lite on his breath, told the Rated G version of his survival on the ocean. He was cold and alone in the life raft, hands tucked in his armpits for warmth. Waves swamped the raft, he bailed. All he could think of was us. For much of the second day, he sang Silent Night.
For this part of the story, Dad sang/bellowed – strong, deep, off key.
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon vir—r-gin mother and child…
Here, Dad paused. “Mom was the mother, you,” he tilted his head toward my brother, “the child.”
My brother’s eyes glowed.
Holy infant so tender and mild.
“You were the infant, tender and mild,” he told me.
Our family has never been Christian by any stretch. Growing up, when Dad asserted that he was Christian because he followed the Golden Rule, Mom laughed. “You are no Christian.” It wasn’t until we were on vacation – Mom, my brother and me (Dad was working) – in Downeast Maine, that I first darkened the door of a church. We didn’t love Silent Night because we were Christian, we loved it because it was the story that had kept hope in Dad’s heart and ultimately kept our family together. It was a song about us.
Over the years, Christmas came to mean different things to me. In third grade, Christmas was about being in a new environment, New York, 3,000 miles from the only place I had known, Dad still in California in the days leading up to the holiday. In fourth and fifth grade, the Bologna and Hamburger Helper Years, when Mom and Dad frequently needed money from one grandmother or the other to pay the utility bill, Christmas was about Dad working double and triple overtime to give us Christmases to make most of my classmates jealous, then on Christmas Day, passing out exhausted in his recliner, not awake to see us open our presents. (It was the Gift of the Magi – he didn’t realize that him watching us open the presents, us being together as a family, was more important than the presents themselves.
Over the years, Christmas was also about making sugar cookies with Gramma, turkey dinners, Gramma’s bizarre-tasting eggnog, her glittery gold bell that played Christmas music when I pulled the string on the pine cone clapper and making gifts for my family. Christmas was holiday traditionals sung in the school choir.
In my early twenties, one Christmas was about spending the day in the residential behavioral treatment house where I worked, standing in for parents of those children, watching them open their stockings and gifts, making cookies with them, watching movies and sledding.
Today, Christmas is about my children’s excitement as we speed through the darkest days of the year toward vacation,days spent in pajamas, baking, not leaving the house except to walk our dog.
In 1977, to a congregation in San Francisco, Christmas was a sermon about faith, my mother’s faith, that my dad was alive and he would return to us, about her, against all odds, never doubting.
In the lead up to this past Christmas, Christmas 2018, I learned of the meaning of my family’s ordeal to a man I have never, to my knowledge, met. On December 9th, I accepted a Facebook friend request from a man I didn’t know. I had done the usual check to determine if this man was in fact a weird fake account. He wasn’t. Minutes later, I received a message.
I’m an old friend of your dad. I helped him during the search for him in the seventies. Please let me know what happened to him. [His first mate] was also a friend.
Dad’s first mate, EL, we’ll call him, was Dad’s friend. EL didn’t survive beyond the first day. In the middle of this story, I must interrupt and note that for EL’s family, Christmas probably holds a different meaning. I don’t know for sure. Out of shame, survivor’s guilt or who-knows-what impulse, Dad never to this day connected with EL’s family. From Dad’s telling, Thanksgiving of 1977, just a month earlier, EL hugged his son and daughter when they passed, kissed the tops of their heads, he kept his arm wrapped around his girlfriend’s waist as he cooked. Does his family still honor him at Christmas? Is Christmas a time of loss and sorrow? Is he just a dim memory? I don’t know.
Other messages followed. That this man had met my Dad in prayer out on the ocean. And this:
Can you please tell him I decided we could do a movie on the experience?
Over the years growing up, I overhead Dad on the phone giving a polite, but firm no thank you to an author who wanted to tell his story. Without permission (not that it is needed), a chapter in one of the Chicken Soup books is about Dad’s story. Another collection of sea tales from the Northern California coast barely disguises our story. Soon after Dad’s rescue, the life raft manufacturer asked him if he would make a commercial. Dad tole me he “nearly clocked” the company’s representative who spoke to him.
I shrank inward. Why did I accept this friend request? What have I gotten myself into?
Then these words from this man:
I am now in very poor health, but I will give the okay for my part.
Was he delusional? What movie? I let what to do toss around in my mind – unfriend him and forget about it or talk to Dad. There was no harm, I decided, in me talking to Dad, and my heart had softened some reading he was in poor health. This had to be of importance to him to reach out after all these years. I called Dad.
From there, in conversations with Dad and messages from this man, I learned his life was a mess on December 20, 1977. He was a Vietnam vet, a drunk, on welfare, unable to earn a living. When he learned of Dad’s boat sinking, he made a promise to God to stop drinking if Dad was found. This man spent the last of his money calling the Coast Guard, begging them not to give up on the search. He put out a jar in a local restaurant, raising money he later brought to us.
The first thing your dad did outside of reconnecting with family was to come to my trailer with a poinsettia. I cried. God helped me to stop drinking. My life turned around. I learned computing and went into business. The whole event – Christmas, Blessed Redeemer, my miracle, your Dad’s miracle – we all changed in a big way.
In the year or two after the boat sank and the house burned, Dad built a pontoon boat for making movies and commercials. The movie company was talking to my dad about making a movie about his experience. Dad told them they should include this man’s story, too. Dad had approached him, asked if he would share his story. At the time, the man said no. His experience with God was personal.
I was just answering a 40-year-old question in a different way.
As for my Jewish friend so alienated by the annual onslaught of Christmas nonsense, this year we served together on a four-woman party planning committee for our work group’s End of Year Celebration. Because she influenced the party planning, because our committee discussed our radically different orientation’s to the holidays – family, Yule, meh, Jewish – I saw something in her soften. She could set the terms of that holiday party, so at risk of being influenced by its near neighbor Christmas. She suggested the White Elephant gift exchange and the Ugly holiday apparel contest. (She showed up in an “ugly” lighted Hogwarts sweater.) Day of the party, whenever I saw her, she was smiling.