Reposting a story I wrote last December on Facebook about (in part) what Christmas was like when I was a child….for some reason this -is all on my mind today, and more than anything else I can think of to write, this encapsulates where my head is at today.
Ghosts of Christmas Past
December 16, 2012
Most children, I think, would be thrilled to realize they were getting two Christmases. Tell most any child ‘There will be two trees, two meals, and twice the presents’….where can there possibly be a flaw in this bargain?
In the fall and winter of 1976 the holidays changed for me very drastically. Dad had moved out that summer, he and Mom not able to reconcile their differences. Mom had loaded us up in the car, hitched the Starcraft pop up camper to it, and we’d gone camping while Dad packed his things and moved out. He left the day before my eighth birthday. I’d been saving allowance and ‘occasion’ money in a lidded glass Dunkin Donuts munchkins decanter that sat on the buffet in the dining room. He’d taken the money out of it, which was earmarked by me for a new bike. He left me a note, more of an I.O.U., in the jar. I never got the money back, and my bike had to wait. I came to the conclusion that his leaving was my fault. All the evidence pointed to it…I’d never seen or heard him fighting with Mom…or my siblings…he left just before my birthday, and took my money….it had to be me. I did learn better later, but it took some time.
Mom and Dad had, apparently, struck a deal about the holidays at some point. Dad had us for Thanksgiving, and Christmas Eve, and Mom had us for Christmas. Ironic that the woman who hated (and to this day still is no fan of) all things Yuletide made sure that out of these three occasions that’s the one she wanted us for the most. In some ways one would think she’d be happy to have the day to herself to writhe in the anguish that is her Christmas. But, for better or for worse, we spent each December 25th with her, and the other occasions with Dad.
Thanksgiving was, unlike the present day, not really a big deal to me…..it was a big meal, one of the few times of the year that I got to eat stuffing (one of my favorites), …and came and went like most of the Sundays we spent with Dad as part of their separation and eventual divorce.
Christmas was a different story.
Dad is nothing if not resourceful. Rather than go buy a tree, he went into his own back yard (really the woods surrounding the small ‘camp’ he’d moved into, belonging to my Nana and Grampa, in nearby South Windham, and procured a Christmas tree for his house. I recall looking at the base of it, the jagged wooden trunk nailed, as usual, to a wood cross base, and pictured Dad out in the woods, under the cover of dusk, kicking the tree down rather than cutting it. In my memory, it was such that Charlie Brown himself would have looked at it and said, ‘Dude, that’s one sad friggin’ tree.’ It wasn’t as short as Charlie’s, but nearly as Spartan…at least he tried.
There were no ornaments on the tree, and few lights. We kids had decorated it as best we could with some tinsel that Dad had bought, and some pine cones, cranberries, and strings of popcorn. It was a sad affair, at best, but at least it was there, a week before Christmas Eve. Come that night there were some presents under the tree for us, and I opened mine a bit stoically. I watched Dad’s eyes well up with tears, though they never spilled over and ran down his cheek, and he said, ‘Dad wishes it was more’. I said nothing in response. I was still, at that time, convinced he was gone because of me, and something I’d done, and no one was telling me what it was, except my sister who was enjoying reinforcing the mistaken belief that I had confided in her one night and now exploited for my discomfort by reminding me, at least once a week, how it was my fault Dad wasn’t at home any more. I probably should have said something to him and cleared the air about it, but I didn’t. I was eight. I didn’t know any better, and so I believed it, for a long time. I opened my small assortment of packages quietly and compliantly. I figured I was lucky to get anything at all after all the problems I’d caused and what I had done in breaking up the family. No one corrected that belief for me for some time. I just kept trying, every Friday night and every Sunday, to make up for it somehow with Dad.
Christmas Eve fell on a Friday night that first year that the family was no longer together. As we did every Friday night we piled into Dad’s station wagon, one of the few things he’d taken from home with him, and off we went to the small asphalt shingled ‘house’ set back off Albion Road. We had the typical type of meal that Dad could prepare, which really wasn’t a whole lot, but usually filled us enough to get by. After dinner we went into the living room, a which was really just a long narrow section of the house that had been partitioned off and was, like the remainder of the camp, ‘unfinished’ at best, and had our first Christmas with just Dad.
A lot of realizations came to me that night…about my parents not getting back together…about no matter how nice you tried to make the tree look, it still didn’t cheer you up, nor Dad, and about, no matter how much or how little there was under the tree, I’d sacrifice everything to wake up the next day with Dad perched in his armchair in white t-shirt and blue Dickies work pants sipping instant coffee while we opened gifts….and how that was never, ever going to be the case again.
I realized, in whatever way an eight year old mind can wrap around and process it, that every Christmas, every holiday, every event, or milestone, or achievement, or disappointment, every upset and hurt and triumph and failure, was split between two homes, and having two Christmases, no matter how much or how little there was under the tree, no matter how brightly or how dim the lights we managed to procure eventually for the annual tree were, no matter how cheery or melancholy the Christmas music was that played on Dad’s record player…everything that happened in our lives, now that I had, as I believed, broken up my family, was a Tale of Two Cities….Gorham, where we lived with Mom, and South Windham, where Dad had been exiled to. It was the worst of times. There was no best.