A Christmas Memory

It is always a problem to decide what to write for a weekly post that goes live right at Christmas. I have taken various approaches over the years, and those have run the gamut from a simple “Merry Christmas” message to a more elaborate parody of the commercial use of Santa Claus to sell more stuff. Actually, that was a favorite of mine. This time my mind went a different direction – I don’t know why, but my brain has a wild and unmanageable streak and sometimes I just have to follow it.

This particular memory is less jolly and more poignant than most. But it is also a good reminder that many of us will not celebrate the holiday with the same happiness as is normal due to unpleasant changes that life throws our way from time to time.

I guess my thoughts germinated following two family deaths. These were not people in my most inner circles of family, but they are people who were loved and will be missed. The first holiday celebration after such a change brings a lot of sadness along with the joy.

My memory is a bit different, but also a little bit the same. I thought back to the Christmas of 1966. I began 2021 with a blog post that was a combination personal reflection and book review that dredged up lots of memories of growing up as the child of divorced parents. It was in early September of 1966 when my parents began the separation that would eventually concluded with a decree of divorce the following year. But Christmas of 1966 saw my father come back home on Christmas day, and for a few hours everything seemed like old times – kind of, at least to this 7 year old kid.

This particular Christmas is easy to remember because I got a camera. I still remember it – a Kodak 104 Instamatic. It also came with some flash cubes and a roll of black and white film – possibly the only roll of black and white I shot as a kid. These photos are from that day.

Looking back, it must have been a terrible day for my parents. Both of them, after all, knew that this was not real life, but an attempt to “do it for the children” so as to ease the pain they knew was barreling down the road towards us all. Or that was maybe already fully there.

My father always loved giving gifts, the bigger and splashier the better. This particular year I can only surmise that a bad case of “absent dad guilt” resulted in some truly spectacular presents that day. There was probably some “They deserve something extra this year” from Mom, too. In addition to the camera, I got my own personal record player and some really huge toy vehicles like a fire truck and a big convertible controlled by the plastic remote buttons at the other end of a long wire.

There was also the “Motorific Torture Track”. I remember this one very well and (unlike the other big splashy vehicular gifts) played with this one a lot. The cars each took a pair of AA batteries (or were they As?) that powered a little electric motor. There was no controlling it, you just switched it on, placed the removable guide under the front bumper into the slot in the track and watched them go.

My sister got the white “go-go boots” that every girl seemed to want in 1966. She did not, of course, do any actual go-go dancing with them, but she at least had the right picture of herself in her imagination. This photo also shows the big toy kitchen appliance – was it a stove? That would give my sister a laugh today, as a stove would certainly not be on her adult Christmas list. Wait, I just looked it up – it was the Suzy Homemaker Combination Washer-Dryer. Yes little girl, enjoy doing pretend laundry because you will never get enough of the real thing when you grow up to live on a farm with a farmer-husband and two kids. But I digress.

But there would be no family picture taken that day. A couple of shots up at least showed my parents’ legs as they stood near each other, but I imagine there was precious little happiness for either of them in that situation. This shot of my father sort of shows the mood of the day – among the cornucopia of objects, there was mighty little in the way of real Christmas joy in our house that Christmas. I don’t know why I didn’t take a picture of my mother that day – perhaps this was just a little boy so excited to see the return of his father, knowing that it was temporary, and wanting to preserve it somehow.

Would it have been better to have not celebrated Christmas morning this way? Ripping the band-aid off usually hurts less than the slow pull that drags out the unpleasantness. I don’t know the answer to this. We did not celebrate Christmas with everyone in the first edition of my family together ever again, so perhaps we kid of did rip off the band-aid the following year. That was the year that started the “Two Christmas” solution that replayed for as long as both of them were living.

I apologize if this is too much of a downer on a holiday that is supposed to bring joy and happiness. I have certainly experienced my share of holidays that provided the full picture post card version. Well, as long as the post card was not from the Norman Rockwell collection – did anyone actually experience any holidays that were so perfect? We are changing some traditions following two recent marriages of adult children, but those are minor dislocations compared to those some will endure this year.

We each will have our turn with a holiday weighed down by sadness – most likely several of them over a lifetime. It is my hope, though, that sharing this bittersweet memory reminds those who have suffered loss that most of us have been there ourselves, and to remind those who are having a wonderful celebration to be thankful for and relish it. I plan to do my very best this year to do just that. Please accept my wish that each of you has a merry Christmas that is full of peace and (hopefully) full of joy too.

All photos by the author.

COAL update: Was there ever a car that came into your family brand new and left after three generations had used it almost completely up? This was mine.

27 thoughts on “A Christmas Memory

  1. J. P. Very poignant…and an interesting read. Christmas seems to be a time to reflect, and I find my own feelings to be most accurately described as “maudlin”. Maybe one of the reasons s I really like to listen to those Jackie Gleason Christmas albums that are so low key and down beat…

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  2. My first wife and I had one last Christmas, too, after I was told I was no longer welcome at home. I regret it.

    Thanks for reminding us all that sometimes Christmas is great, and sometimes it’s not, and we just need to learn to roll with it.

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    • I am sure that there would be a huge difference in perspective between the adults and the kids in both of our experiences.

      If not for the pictures I took (certainly neither of my parents considered the day as a Kodak moment) I doubt I would have remembered any of the toys either of us got that year. But I absolutely remember how Dad’s presence felt both normal and weird at the same time.

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      • That roll of film was almost certainly good old Verichrome Pan, by the way. That’s just the film Kodak would have packed with an Instamatic. That or whatever version of Kodacolor was out then.

        I’m sure my sons had some of the same feelings during the separation. My first wife was in school to become an EMT at that time and I went back to the house to sit with the kids until she got home. My living situation was not settled, so it didn’t make sense for the boys to come to me. I’m sure it felt normal and weird to them, too.

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      • Not to mention, Jim and J.P.,who doesn’t love when the processing lab used to put the month and year on the border of the pic! Can’t tell you how many times that info corrected a mind-slip for me!

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      • Yes!! I remember when Kodak (or was it someone else) started promoting the borderless prints with the rounded corners and the slightly pebbly paper finish. I have always wondered if it was coincidence that photos after that changed aged much more poorly than the older ones, or if they were two separate issues. These older ones have held up quite well, even the color ones (and I am quite sure my parents never bought Kodachrome for my cheap little 104).

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  3. Hum… this was definitely not an uplifting cheery post. You can take comfort in knowing that we ALL suffer during the holidays for past hurts in one way or another. Family’s are not perfect, they just aren’t. The key is how we choose to focus our attentions. Keep playing the old tape recording of sadnesses or CLOSE that door – we choose every day what our mind focuses on. A few years ago, I sat with old letters/old photos with the paper shedder at my feet. I wanted to make peace with different things. So, I took each one, read/looked at it. If it brought me JOY, I kept it. If it brought me sadness, I shredded it. Doing this was very liberating. I did not want to leave sadness in boxes for my children to go through. NO, if I were to pass away, I wanted them to see HAPPY things in the box from my life. Anyhow, we ALL must deal with things in our way. I have an Uncle who passed last year. He was a bitter man, who was angry and depressed that his mother passed when he was 4 years old. He could never be happy and blamed his father for many things. So to CONSTANTLY hear at EVERY OUTING about “POOR HIM, his sad childhood,” well… we were all fed up of it. So, think about what you want your children to remember about YOU, I would say, focus on the memories you can create for them, the joy you want them to have. A post on THAT would be nice, since you had two children get married this year. There is a lot ot be happy about and celebrate… I would think. Although, if you are not seeing them, MAYBE that’s what is stirring up SAD childhood memories. I wish you peace for Christmas.

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    • Maybe I should clarify that I am not sad for myself this year, but have empathy for others who are going through a difficult year. Just last night I became aware of an obit from a 59 year old father of 7 kids who died two days ago. I am not sure why I was reminded of this topic, other than a couple of recent deaths of more distant family members and maybe looking through old photo albums in search of car pictures for my Curbside Classic project.

      We all know those bitter, angry people who cannot let go of any old slight or hurt. I tend to be the opposite – I am the guy who is pretty good at putting the past in the past and closing the door on it. I guess that is another reason I wrote this – I find happy and fun topics easy to address (and I think that’s what most of mine are). The heavy lift for me is to open up and share less pleasant parts of my experience. I am pretty sure that I have never shared about this even with close family members. I think writing about things like this help me to understand them better – to actually think about them (as my adult self) rather than to occasionally just experience the old childlike emotions on the rare occasions when I remember things in the distant past.

      Marianne and I will have everyone here (a few days late) and are looking forward to a happy Christmas holiday. Thank you for your good wishes and I offer you mine as well!

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      • Thank you for your kind and uplifting message. You are absolutely right. We are in strange times with COVID these past three years. People passing, life plans changing due to quarantine, our children becoming adults, moving on, etc. We are all getting older too. Our world is going through difficult challenges. All of this creates a somber mood this holiday season. My daughter was complaining about a flight change. Then she was at the airport standing in line and a woman behind her just fell to the ground, blood coming out of her mouth (sorry to be gory). People rushed to her, they weren’t sure, a heart attack or a seizure. Anyhow, she said this put everything back into perspective. Be patient, be appreciative, if we are healthy life is good. Now we move on to New Year’s. I almost feel like this cold weather came on purpose. Gave us all time to stay home, be with family, slow down, reflect on the year, find happiness in the small things, right. I wish you a HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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      • I love a good blast of harsh winter weather for just that reason – everything slows down and we get to burrow in place for some quiet time. And a happy new year to you too!

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  4. Thank you for sharing these thoughts JP. Yours is not an experience I ever had to face, thankfully, but reading yours and trying to gain some understanding of it is important to me, for perspective. I think there may be a message there that you photographed your Dad that day.
    I think my saddest Christmas was they year my Mom was in palliative care, that being the first year of my life she was not at the Christmas table with me and my family. I brought her some dinner to enjoy, it may have been one of the few meals she had until she passed a month or so later.
    Let me take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas, and make it a special one for you and yours!
    Lee

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  5. An interesting and reflective post JP. (Did you know your parents were divorcing that Christmas, or would a 7 year old then even know what divorce was/meant?)

    My mother (96 now) and I were talking about this very topic this morning – how some Christmases are/were better than others. When we get older and look back we tend to only remember the good ones, but not every Christmas was perfect, and some were just plain to be endured. Surprisingly, the Christmas after my dad died (cancer) was one of our happiest ones as it was a distraction for my mother to have the young grandkids home and the day passed pleasantly enough except for a few tears at the meal for the empty place at the head of the table, where I had to sit as my brother refused, which still annoys me to this day. I know several people who spend Christmas alone (they have no family or they live too far away) and decline all invitations to be “merry” someplace else. There’s too much pressure for many people who are struggling to be happy this time of year, so a quiet day at home with a good book is sometimes preferable. And yes, there’s always someone whose situation is worse. I was just on Facebook and noticed the live streaming of a funeral for a guy I used to work with who I didn’t even know had died. He was always such a cheerful guy, but how awful for his family, especially in this storm. Wishing you and Marianne and your family a peaceful and blessed Christmas.

    Re car post – the walnuts – oh my – and the cataracts on the headlights – what a good description. I was tired of doing cataract surgery on my old Honda every six months so I took it to an indie garage on a recommendation from someone and whatever he did to polish them was a permanent solution!

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    • Thanks for contributing these memories. It is true that everyone does holidays differently, and the kinds of Christmas celebrations found in advertising and Hallmark movies are probably found nowhere but in the imaginations of the writers/artists. But our own holiday celebrations have been good ones. I guess when they are not, that is when people find other ways to spend the day.

      Yeah, those plastic headlights have been a problem. There is a guy over on the CC website who is a automotive lighting expert and he says that the American manufacturers worked hard to keep the standards low for cost savings, and that there are more expensive materials that would age much better than what we get. I believe him.

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  6. Thank you for this. It’s been my experience that difficult holiday experiences take quite a while to be able to come to terms with.

    I’d mentioned in your Generational Thanksgiving post that I now prefer low-key holidays. Part of the reason stems from a difficult December about 10 years ago.

    One of my daughters got seriously ill that December and spent a week in the hospital. She finally pulled through, but the doctors advised it would be better not to travel over Christmas. So for the first time, Margaret and I spent Christmas at home; just the four of us.

    Though we all felt whiplashed by one of life’s unexpected challenges, in some ways I found it pleasant to simply celebrate a holiday with immediate family, rather than trying to fruitlessly replicate a Rockwell scene. I know it can sound heartless, but I still feel that way.

    (Now, to add some humor to this story, my daughter had been asking for a banjo for Christmas that year, which I considered ridiculous. She asked again when she got out of the hospital, and at that point we just couldn’t say no… so we’ll never forget that was the year our 4-year-old got a banjo for Christmas. Oh, and she still hasn’t learned to play it…)

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    • A seriously ill child would make for a really bad Christmas – I am fortunate that we never had to deal with that kind of holiday. We have managed to schedule family health crises at other times of the year. 🙂

      The banjo thing might have been great for responding to later requests that a parent would prefer to resist. “You can absolutely have one of those – after you can play that banjo.”

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  7. JP – I’m sorry for your recent losses, especially as we near the holiday season when most people are all aglow in the holiday spirit. This was a poignant post which took you from a carefree little boy to a little boy wise beyond his years due to the break-up and impending divorce of your parents. I write this comment on Christmas evening, a day spent alone, not even a trip to the Park to walk and feed the squirrels and birds due to the lousy weather. I did not speak to a soul today, but it has been a day of peace and quiet; I fear I like my own company far too much these days.

    I, too, remember vibes that tainted Christmas Day and no matter how much I would like to erase those memories from my mind I cannot. On Christmas Day 1983 my parents and I were opening our presents and my father announced he was moving on, wanting to have a new life. He did NOT say he had gone to the bank a few days before and withdrawn all the money from the account, nor did he say he closed out a long-term annuity fund by pleading a medical hardship out of the country so that my mom’s signature could not be obtained to withdraw those funds. Those two items he was not forthcoming about – just that he wanted freedom.

    My mother calmly told me to remove my father’s presents from under the tree and put them in my room and we’d return them to the store and get our money back. Nothing more was said. Dinner wasn’t prepared and served. No tears were shed by my mother nor me. He left. It was not the stuff of Hallmark movies nor Norman Rockwell “Saturday Evening Post” covers. Who does this on Christmas Day? My mother was 57 years old, too young to collect Social Security and she had not worked since she had me 27 years before. We returned the items to the store, receiving a small satisfaction in snubbing his horrific announcement on what is usually a joyful day.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family.

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  8. How nice all your kids got to all drive the Vic and learn some of the responsibilities of driving a car. When I was learning to drive in 1973, my father had his ’72 Impala, (which he left behind at his sudden departure in Christmas 1983), but that was his Sunday car, so I was allowed to practice driving in order to get my license, however, he hooted and hollered if I got anywhere near the curb where I might scuff his whitewalls. He bought curb feelers for each tire. He was a Nervous Nellie about this Sunday car and he made me more nervous and the car he drove the rest of the time was a VW Fastback and we didn’t learn how to drive a stick in driver’s ed.

    You mentioned your mom’s 2006 Buick to me when I posted the pic of my car’s instrument panel in January to show the temperature on a bitter cold day. You recognized the instrument panel and identified my car. How exciting to win that car! How funny your law partner bought the Vic for $500.00, drove it a year without incident, then sold it for same amount. Did you have oil leaking like the Exxon Valdez so you knew you had to replenish the oil all the time? As I mentioned in an earlier comment, my car is leaking again – not oil this time, so hopefully the mechanic can take me. I’m a little exasperated with all the car woes this year.

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    • My car didn’t leak the oil, it just burned it. There was always a little blue-ish cloud that chuffed out of the exhaust. The early versions of this new design engine had some internal oil seals that would become hard and brittle and oil would get sucked into the cylinders. Later versions fixed that. I always expected that it might eventually cause problems, but it really didn’t, and never got worse. We just poured a quart in every several hundred miles and all was well. Fortunately, I have developed enough experience to tell when something wrong will get worse and damage other things, or whether it is something that won’t spread. Ours was the second kind, and not worth paying to tear into an otherwise functional engine to fix it.

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      • I see, I must have missed that part about the oil or didn’t understand exactly what happened. That is why I have stuck to this small mechanic shop since they opened 20+ years ago. I went for the mushy horn pad (that I mentioned to you a few COAL posts ago) – they told me that ripping out the dashboard to find the problem would be costly and may not guarantee it would correct it, so they suggested the button. Same thing as your situation – incurring expenses for something minor, but fixable. I forgot to comment on the hiding place for the walnuts. I remember you told me about the Black Walnut tree in a comment on one of my squirrel posts awhile back. You sure did deplete his “savings”. He lost all his bragging rights as to his hunting and gathering prowess. 🙂

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  9. As for Christmas, there are some losses that definitely take away from the joy of it all. It’s never been quite the same since my grandparents died, even 10 years later, but at least we have the memories. Right?
    As for the car…
    That would be my grandfather’s blue 1980 Ford Escort 1.6GL (British Mk2). Bought new as his last car before retirement, it carried us all for many many kilometres for about 25 years. It was the car I got used to driving in, driving my grandparents around after I got my license. After he gave up driving in his 70’s it became the family loaner car. My aunt used it after he car was stolen, I used it when I wrecked my car, my sister used it once and never again – by that time it was definitely a certified beater, complete with very loose gearchange and holes in the floor. My cousin, notorious for being hard on cars, managed to set it on fire! My dad and a friend managed to replace the burnt out tubes and wiring in the forever after charcoal-y engine bay, and it became my mothers commuter. We lived close to her place of work so it was good enough for that, even though you could take the key out the ignition while the car was on, there was almost no carpet left, and smelled of sunburnt plastic and decomposing vinyl. And that was the old cars job for a couple of years till, while ferrying my mother home one afternoon, a rotten out tree just metres from our home fell over, landing on the the car as she was driving past. And that was that. Good bye faithful old Ford.
    Much like your car, it was more than just the metal and plastic it was made of, it was a box of memories. Beach trips in summer, ice creams in the back seat, holidays and day trips, learning to be a driver, the familiar chug chug of the Kent engine a soundtrack to my childhood and youth. I’ve subsequently found out that a good restorer could have saved it, but it’s 20 years too late, and maybe the “age’ on it was part of it’s charm anyway. Much like Christmas, an old car can be a bittersweet reminder of happier times, and perhaps the memories are rosier than the reality of it all, but at least we have them to look back on.

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