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Fixing Christmas

James Warren December 15, 2014
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“Christmas is not about presents.” How many times have you heard that before? I have heard it my whole life, especially growing up the son of a minister. And I have disregarded it for almost as long. See, for me, Christmas has almost always about presents – giving them, not getting them. Trust me, this is less noble than it sounds. I’ve judged the success of Christmas by how many presents I was able to give to my family since I was a young boy. It’s really all I’ve known, and it is less of a blessing than you might think. That’s probably because I’ve been making up for my father’s Christmases for a long time. Which is another way of saying, I have tried to make up for a lot of broken Christmases.

One of my earliest Christmas memories involved my father making me the happiest and saddest little boy imaginable in Brooklyn, New York, within the span of just a few hours. I think I was five years old, a kindergartner at P.S. 104 in Brooklyn New York. My father served in the U.S. Army as a doctor, and therefore we were stationed at Fort Hamilton, right by the Verrazano Bridge. Our backyard butted up on the Belt Parkway and I could see the water from my bedroom. That Christmas, my parents bought my sister and me so many presents that it is not an exaggeration to say they could not wrap them all. They quickly tired of wrapping dozens of gifts and decided instead to wrap huge moving boxes and just put the toys in there. Waking up on Christmas Day, my sister and I rushed downstairs to the smell of ham, eggs and coffee. No doubt, we must have stopped in our tracks, our mouths agape at this glorious living room scene: toys upon toys upon toys! What child wouldn’t swear eternal obedience as they thrust their arms around their parents’ necks, overcome with joy? I know I certainly did. But I had no idea just how happy I would become.

As I appraised my presents, something behind the tree caught my eye. I had already developed a strong affinity for trains, so it was easy for me to recognize the shape of a locomotive, the outline of a caboose. It was a train set! Every boy’s fantasy come true!

Most of that day was a blur but I remember certain pieces of it. Unfortunately for me, I remember some parts more than others. I remember putting the train set together with my father. I remember hearing the whistle as it ran along the track. I remember smelling the liquid smoke and watching the dim yellow light on the front of the model locomotive. I vaguely remember the increasing aroma of my dad’s cocktails as the day progressed. And finally I remember hearing a low growl, turning into a full-on shouting match, followed by the crunch of his shoes on the tracks. In his drunken rage, my dad stomped all over my train set, smashing it to bits and bits. And then I remember trying to put it back together by myself, as my mom cried, my sister watched sympathetically and my father muttered, “I’m sorry, Jimmy,” over and over again.

In the first of many, many separations and reunions, my mother, sister and I left Fort Hamilton and lived with family members in New York and New Jersey for the next couple of years. My memories of those years lack detail, but I know that eventually, Mom and Dad reconciled and the promise of brighter days took us to Michigan, where my father would open his first private practice as a family medicine practitioner. The two or so years we spent in Michigan hold some of the most painful and joyous memories of my life. Naturally, my father made entries on both sides of that ledger. Within months of moving into an enormous house on acres of land in Napoleon, Michigan, my parents separated again, and Mom, my sister and I moved into a cozy place with a white picket fence on a quiet block in Jackson, Michigan.

Still, one of the better Christmases I remember took place in that little house in Jackson. By the time Christmas came around, my parents’ marriage was improving again, however temporary it might be, and we were getting ready to move once more, this time to Tulsa, Oklahoma. So when Christmas morning arrived, not only did I get the Star Wars Millennium Falcon toy I coveted, along with Han Solo, Chewbacca and several other figures, I could look around that living room and see three faces looking back, instead of two. Christmas included my father that year, and that made me happy.

Well, as you might suspect, a pattern began to emerge, and it wasn’t long before Tulsa ceased to be home. Mom, my sister and I began the long drive from Tulsa back to the metropolitan New York area. We drove through blizzard after blizzard in a 1967 blue Plymouth Valiant that smelled faintly of motor oil, old plastic and stale potato chips. Miraculously, the car didn’t break down, and sometime in late December, we arrived at the house of our family friends in Piscataway, New Jersey. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, we spent the holiday largely on Interstate 95, shuttling between Richmond, Virginia, rural Burkeville, Virginia and Piscataway. Oh sure, it was a great opportunity to visit family; it’s just that I can hardly understand how we made it up and down the highway in that old car. I don’t remember much about that Christmas, on account of the blur known as I-95. I do, however, remember there weren’t really any presents to speak of before Christmas, but afterwards, we were able to use some of the Christmas money we received from relatives and go shopping at the flea market on Route 1 in New Jersey.

One year later, we were back in Brooklyn, living at my Aunt Doris’ house. We were broker than broke that Christmas. Things were so tight, my mother had a total of $100 to buy presents and make Christmas dinner for the three of us. In order to buy us each a pair of jeans, my mother opted to make turkey wings instead of the whole turkey! Ever the problem-solver, she was.

If my memory serves me, Mom had recently started working with a small church that held its services at the Doral Hotel in midtown Manhattan, and I loved Manhattan. I had already begun reading New York magazine and The Magazine of the Sunday New York Times regularly and they gave me a cultural appreciation beyond my age. They also led me to fantasize about a future in which my family would want for nothing. Against that backdrop, I found myself one evening after service playing the piano (jokingly, of course) with my friends in the lobby of the hotel, singing in our best imitations of Nat King Cole, Perry Como and Johnny Mathis, “Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas!” over and over again, giving campy renditions of a bygone era of holiday crooners. Guests surrounded us, laughed and clapped, my sister encouraged us, and we tried to get my friend’s little brother to collect tips by walking around the edge of the crowd with an upside-down Kangol hat. He was too shy to do this effectively, so we netted only a couple of dollars before the hotel manager came to shoo us off the piano, in favor of his hired professional; hardly enough for me do any Christmas shopping on my own.

By this point, I had begun to resent my father for not doing his job to make Christmas what it should have been in my eyes. I grew angry thinking of the trials my mother had to go through to shelter us – literally and figuratively – from the cold side of Christmas. I thought things were taking a positive turn when the pastor of this church invited all of us over to his house for a Christmas party. For some reason, I expected he was coming to the rescue. Perhaps he would become my surrogate father, and given the season, show up as a real-life Saint Nick.

Not. So. Much.

No lie, I watched him give presents to everyone on his staff that evening, except my mother. I knew enough to keep my mouth shut, but I was internally flabbergasted at the blatant humiliation and disrespect he put my mother through. And I felt helpless because I could not give her any presents myself. Suffice it to say, we didn’t stay long – at that house or at that church.

Despite the traumatic re-entry into New York, we were back for good, and there is nothing better than New York at Christmas-time. The entire City is awash in seasonal lights. Even when things were rough on our family, I found it easier to get into the spirit because so many other people were in such festive moods.

The next couple of years progressed like the prior few: back and forth between having our own place and living with family and friends as my mother struggled to gain footing, without the help or presence of my father. Months would pass without us knowing where he was, whether he was alive or dead. Birthday cards were the only indicator that he remained in the land of the living. Those were hard, hard years, and Christmas was usually conflicted.

Things would change soon enough, however. My mother continued to grow in the ministry and before long she joined the pastoral staff of a large church in New York. With the church’s help, we moved to an apartment on the Upper West Side, on 106th Street and Broadway in the spring of 1987. That summer, I went to a church camp in North Carolina. I broke my front tooth jumping down from a tree branch. This turned out to be fortuitous, because it resulted in an insurance check, made out directly to me, which arrived in late November of that year. For the first time, I was able to buy Christmas presents for my mother and sister. I felt so proud, and they were genuinely surprised and delighted when they unwrapped their gift baskets from Crabtree and Evelyn, the aromas of body oils and scented soaps filling our living room. Their joy was nothing compared to mine, for I had finally managed to do what my father had not done in many years: fix Christmas.

The next couple of years contained mostly positive memories. One of the best memories stems from my student exchange trip to Moscow, which took place within a day, I think, of Christmas during my junior year of high school. I remember all of us gathering at the gate for our TWA flight out of JFK, suitcases loaded with nonperishable foods in case we did not like the local cuisine, and also packed with pairs of Levi’s 501 jeans to give our host families, because we knew the value they represented in both financial and cultural terms. I really enjoyed Christmas that year.

And then, there was the first Christmas after my dad died. This was another one of those crazy situations, where joy and pain coexisted in a delicate and uncomfortable balance. A lot of my memory from those first few days, weeks and months escapes me. One thing I do remember, however, is receiving the social security check as a result of his death, and once again, I was able to use that money to surprise my mom and sister with presents. Another memory that sticks out is the three of us walking around Rockefeller Center, taking in the sights and sounds of the holiday season once again. I think we may have even taken a carriage ride in the Park. Christmas felt strangely peaceful then, even though we missed Dad.

The years flew by. Before long, I had my own family to care for and my own Christmases to try to make magical. After the birth of my first son, Christian, it became critical to me that we give him as much as we possibly could, even though he could not appreciate it as the tender age of ten months. Still, I loved the feeling of giving presents to everyone in the family, because it seemed to me that was what a father was supposed to do. And two years later, we celebrated Christmas in Princeton, New Jersey while waiting for baby boy #2, Jordan. Cozied in our new home, I tried to pretend that fixing Christmas would fix my marriage, but it seemed like I was destined to follow in my father’s footsteps.

Just one year later in December 2000, I experienced the loneliest Christmas and holiday season of my life. I no longer lived with my children in New Jersey and spent the holidays between Princeton (where the boys were), Queens (where my mother and sister lived) and Manhattan (where I stayed in a closet-sized walk-up studio apartment). I’ll never forget going to bed one evening in that desperately lonely apartment, several of days after Christmas, and halfway to New Year’s, crying myself to sleep. Lord have mercy, I’d never felt so alone before in my entire life. Now, I realize that was probably a situation my father had experienced more than once.

As they say, life doesn’t wait for the wounded. Eventually, I was back on my own two feet and then things really changed, when I met Darcy in New York. I’ll spare you the details, but the topline goes something like this: we started dating, and then we were talking about the future, and then I moved to Richmond, and then she was moving to Richmond, and we dated some more, and then we got married, five days after Christmas. Over the years, through thick and thin, good times and bad, our marriage grew stronger. And at virtually the exact same time that we said goodbye to my mother, we found out that Darcy was expecting. After her first doctor’s visit, it was official: our first child together was to be a Christmas baby. I mean, I could not have scripted it any better.

That was last Christmas. We waited for Evan to arrive, much as I had waited years before for Jordan to arrive at just about the same time. It was also the first Christmas I had ever experienced without my mother. Boy, was it hard. I made a playlist that had a mix of hymns my mother loved, tons of Christmas songs (it was always her favorite time of year), and a few chillout songs to listen to in the hospital when Darcy went into labor. The entire time, my thoughts were held in a suspension liquid of joy and sadness, as I anticipated the birth of my third son, and also reflected on the loss of my mother.

And that brings us to this Christmas. 2014. What a year this has been! It’s been 12 months of challenge and growth, of tough decisions and new beginnings. There have been smiles just as there have been tears, but through it all, we are grateful. Years like this one tend to provide an awful lot of perspective on what matters, and what does not. For example, just a few days ago, my son was involved in a car accident. The phone rang, I knew immediately that something was wrong, since he would not be calling while driving and I knew there was no way he had already reached his destination. Cautiously, I answered and let the instant anxiety slowly dissipate slowly as he told me what happened. “But are you okay?” That was all I wanted to know. Can you imagine what a holiday story that would have been? Just like that, this becomes a very different Christmas story, and there’s no fixing it.

And yet, for so many families, that is their reality. This year, they celebrate their first holiday season without their loved ones. Even worse, some can never untangle the holidays from tragedy too great for the rest of us to bear. In Newtown, Connecticut, right now, 26 families prepare for these holidays with holes in their hearts and in their homes, and those kinds of wounds don’t get fixed.

When I think about them, I reflect on the rest of the families who go without this Christmas. And “without” can mean a lot of things. It can mean being without Mom or Dad, without husband or wife, without son or daughter, brother or sister. It can mean being without a home, or health or even food. When I reflect on those things, I am grateful for everything I have. I am grateful for my family and my home. Our littlest one approaches his first Christmas and Hanukkah, the very embodiment of love, joy and peace in our house and in our lives.

And I realize, I already have everything I need for Christmas, and so does my family.

So this Christmas, I give remembrance and I give thanks. I give joy and I give peace. This Christmas, more than anything else, I give the greatest gift I can give. I give love.

When I give love, there’s nothing left for me to fix.

Photo credit: Dan Tentler

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