Tuesday, December 5, 2017

That one Christmas they were together

As Christmas nears I know that I am not alone in feeling that Christmas is frought with mixed emotions, bringing back memories that are both bittersweet and precious. One of my favorite writers, Lewis Grizzard, wrote a story in 1981 about a memorable Christmas of his. I can relate. Maybe you can too. (My illustration is from my friend's family, not Grizzard's.)

That one Christmas they were together
by Lewis Grizzard

We had only one real Christmas together, my mother, my father and me. We had only one Christmas when we were actually in our own house with a tree, with coffee and cake left out for Santa, with an excited 5-year-old awakening to a pair of plastic cowboy pistols, a straw cowboy hat and an autographed picture of Hopalong Cassidy.
I was heavy into cowboys when I was 5. A man never forgets when he scores big at a Western Christmas.
My first Christmas I was barely 2 months old. That doesn’t count as a real Christmas. Then, we were traveling around for a couple of years. The Army does that to you.
Then, there was Korea. My father went off to Korea and was captured, but then he escaped, and then we had that one Christmas together before whatever demons he brought back from Korea sent him roaming for good.
We were living in Columbus, Ga. My father was stationed at Fort Benning, which had been my birthplace. Army brat. War baby. That’s me.
We lived in a tiny frame house with a screen door that had a flamingo, or some sort of large bird, in the middle of it. You remember those doors. They were big in the ‘50s.
My father, despite what was going on inside him, was a man who found laughter easy, who provoked it from others at every chance, a man easily moved to sentimental tears.
The year after he came back from Korea, I used to climb in his lap and feel the back of his head. There were always lumps on the back of his head.
“What’s these lumps, Daddy?” I would ask.
“Shrapnel,” he would answer.
“What’s this shrapnel?”
He would attempt to explain. It all sounded rather exciting and heroic to a 5-year-old boy. He, my father, never complained about the pain but my mother said he used to get awful headaches, and maybe that’s why he couldn’t get off the booze.
But that one and only Christmas, my father had duty until noon on Christmas Eve. I waited for him at that screen door, peering out from behind that godawful bird.
Finally, he drove up. We had a blue Hudson, the ugliest car ever made. My father called our car “the Blue Goose.”
I ran out and I jumped into his arms. “Ready for Santa?” he asked me.
“I’ve been ready since August.”
My father, whatever else he was, was a giving man. He couldn’t stand to have when others didn’t.
He’d found this family. I forget their name. It doesn’t matter. The old man was out of work and in need of a shave and a haircut. The woman was crying because her babies were hungry.
“They’re flat on their butts and it’s Christmas,” I heard my daddy say to my mother. “Nobody deserves that.”
My father could work miracles when a miracle was needed. He found a barber willing to leave his home on Christmas Eve and open his shop and give the old man a shave and a haircut. He bought the family groceries. Sacks and sacks of groceries.
He bought toys for the babies. There was a house full of them. The poor, they are usually fruitful.
We didn’t leave them until dusk and the old man and the woman thanked us and the babies looked at us with sad, wondering eyes. As we drove away in the Blue Goose, my father broke down and cried. My mother cried, too. I cried because they were crying. We all slept together that night and cried ourselves to sleep.
Next morning, I had my pistols and my hat and my picture of Hopalong Cassidy and maybe the three of us only had that one real Christmas together – the old man had split by the time the next one rolled around – but it was a Christmas a man can carry around for a lifetime.
On the occasion of my 35th Christmas, my father long in his grave, I thank God it’s mine to remember.

The Register and Tribune Syndicate