Oh, no, not THAT story again. You have to admit it is a good one. My father and Buckminster Fuller conspired to make Christmas magical for thousands with the Ford Rotunda. And Christmas should be a magical time for children and it is, of course, a miracle time for Christians. It’s a great holiday even if you’re not because it’s about getting a GREAT BIG GIFT for nothing and the very thought of it can make you feel special. For ME??? That’s for me?? Whether it’s Emmanuel or a new Wii Fit Plus, it’s big.
The Christmas season when I was 6, maybe a year or so after Buckminster Fuller passed ever so briefly through my life, was another time in my childhood that left a big impression on my life. In Detroit, where I was growing up, there were two major Christmas events. The Ford Rotunda Christmas Show was one and the other was the Hudson’s Thanksgiving Day parade. At that time, in the fifties, there was the Macy’s Parade in New York and the Hudson’s Parade in Detroit. The J.L Hudson Co. was the tallest and second largest (after Macy”s) department store in the country. Preparations for the parade began each year in the warehouse on Brush Street and it was from there that the floats and the giant paper mache heads that predated balloons would begin the parade route, ending in front of the main entrance to the store on Woodward Avenue. There, Santa would climb out of his sleigh and mount the steps up to the podium where he would be given the keys to the city and tell all the girls and boys everywhere to be good, because he was on his way. The night before the parade, the floats would be fitted onto and over the tractors that would drive them through the streets of Detroit. Long time readers will recall that my father worked in sales and marketing in the Ford tractor division and in the same way that his position got us access to the best of the Ford Rotunda, it also got us within arm’s reach of Santa’s sleigh being readied for the big parade. That year when I was six my father took my brother and me down to the warehouse the night before to watch the parade preparations and the next morning, Thanksgiving, we had front row seats to watch Santa arrive. I don’t remember my mother in this scene; perhaps it is just my memory or perhaps it is that they were dividing and conquering the holiday since there was still a baby at home or perhaps it was that they were already beginning to drift apart, even in their care of us children.
That year I also clearly remember the gift that I got and the gift that we did not get. I got a bride doll, almost as tall as I was. She was quite stunning, in a cheap plastic sort of way. The gift we didn’t get was the giant coffee table book (just coming into vogue back then) called The UnderSea World. Sometime between the parade and Christmas my brother- two years older and far, far wiser- had us snooping around under my parent’s bed looking for hidden presents and we found the book. What a magnificent book! We were so lost in looking at the amazing photographs of jellyfish and octopus that we didn’t even hear my mother come in to discover us with the goods in hand. Lord, was she angry. That is my first memory of my mother losing her temper with us in a crazy irrational way. She raged and raged and ended her tirade with, “And don’t think that book is a Christmas gift for you!” I’m not sure what was fueling her anger but now I realize that married life was beginning to sour for her so it’s likely that we were just collateral damage. In any case, we never did see that book again and even now I am amazed and dismayed by that. Aren’t all things forgiven when Christmas day finally arrives? Isn’t there peace on earth and goodwill towards all?
Apparently not. Family life can be brutal and nothing brings it out quite like the holidays. Christmas stirs up memories and swells expectations and involves a lot of hard work. From that year on, until almost the time that my mother died, I remember mostly the stress of getting ready for Christmas. She never stopped wanting it to be perfect and she never stopped trying to make it so and always, inevitably, something went wrong. Marriages failed, finances plummeted, moves created distances too great. The roast burned, the tree dried up too soon, the scotch tape ran out. And damn the half-burned out strings of lights.
This year, even as I quite ironically miss my mother right now, I am flooded with the memory of that time when innocence went poof! and I saw the downside of family life at Christmas. And I see, in my life, some of the same hopes and expectations and disappointments that my mother experienced. I suspect they are universal.
This year, after I made my grandmother’s chocolate cookie press cookies I wrapped up the cookie press and the recipe card that my mother had written out for me some 30 years ago-“Grandma Moe’s cookie press cookies”- and gave it to Abby. I also gave her a big beautiful book, National Geographic Great Migrations. Every year I give a giant glossy book to the kids. Our family that will visit has come and gone and that’s sort of sad and sort of a relief. In other years I would be, right this minute, living out my mother’s Christmas aspirations, still wrapping gifts, matching paper to ribbon to tags and trying to compose just the right message, because, you know it’s not enough to just write “Merry Christmas.” It has to be erudite and memorable. But I’m already done with all that. The packages are mailed, some will arrive late. The cards are sitting on my desk, not yet written; maybe tomorrow I’ll do that. We had our Christmas dinner tonight and the roast was perfectly rare, perfectly tender. I’m not in a kerchief, but I am under warm flannel sheets with Rich and two cats on the bed and everything is easy. Tomorrow we’ll call the children and then we might go to the movies or just sit by the fire and read and eat leftovers. Peace and goodwill will prevail because we are not soured on marriage and in fact, we’re quite in love with one another. It will probably snow. And since there will be only the two of us and it will sort of be just another day, we’ll have that much more time to consider that it’s Christmas.
I hope your Christmas has all the magic and delight of your earliest childhood memories. If it falls short, well, maybe there’s still the possibility of peace on earth and goodwill toward all. Merry Christmas!