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.