Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tis the season

I was supposed to head off to a Christmas party on Friday night—the December meeting of my writers group becomes an opportunity to exchange gifts, desserts, and great stories. Alas, the instability of the weather required that I simply come on up the mountain after work. In anticipation of the party, I’d ordered a huge tray of Christmas cookies from the catering class at the high school, so I ended up bringing it home. Nothing to do but eat them up—oh, and share them with my neighbors, of course.

After dinner on Friday night, I pulled some of the plastic wrap off the cookie tray and wiggled my fingers inside to retrieve one of those small round cookies covered with powdered sugar. When we were kids, we called them butter balls. (If you put rum in them, they’re butter rum balls.) The first bite took me back fifty years.

When I was a kid, Grandma would catch the train in Los Angeles and ride out to Lakewood where we lived on a beautiful suburban tree-lined street. Dad would pick her up at the train station, and she always bustled in carrying bags filled with coloring books, crayons, and cinnamon raisin bread. She and Mom would spend days getting ready for Christmas, baking mincemeat pies, pumpkin pies, apple pies (all from scratch), cooking yams for candied yams, making cranberry sauce (from scratch as well). Grandma made a special Christmas treat by stuffing dates with half a walnut and rolling them in powdered sugar. Such a simple thing… yet I was reminded of how much I loved them when my daughter made something similar—but far more fancy—for Thanksgiving.

We had a real tree every year, and every year Dad would send one of the boys up the ladder in the garage to the rafters to bring down the large box of ornaments, decorations and our nativity. The only thing we bought new each year were several boxes of tinsel to cover the tree with. Oh, and glass wax. Most folks in our neighborhood would use multi-colored glass wax and a sponge to decorate their picture windows, much as the retail stores do now, with snowy scenes and holly berries. Of course, we had a long string of outdoor lights that Dad would dutifully hang around the eaves of the house every year.

Both my parents were veterans of WWII, and Dad was involved in his local VFW. One year, a few days before Christmas, we loaded up the station wagon and headed off to the VFW hall for an opportunity to meet Santa and be given a gift. I was pretty nervous about this, and truth be known would have preferred to forego the gift just so I could avoid sitting on a stranger’s knee. I was painfully shy and having to be asked by someone I didn’t know what I wanted for Christmas was torture for me. As the time approached for Santa’s arrival, I started looking around for my dad in order to seek out his protective arms. He was nowhere to be found. I finally asked Mom, who said first that Dad had gone to the bathroom, and a long time later, when I bugged her again, that I should stop asking so many questions. As soon as she said that, I knew. It was Mom’s catch phrase: “Stop being so nosy.” It always meant she was trying to hide something, and I knew right away what that meant in this case. Ha! My dad was Santa! A moment later he walked through the door and at his first “Ho Ho Ho!” I recognized his voice. When my turn came, I readily climbed into his lap and looked him straight in the eye, smiling. I didn’t give away his secret, and I never told my parents that I knew, but I was really proud that it was my dad who had the honor to be chosen for such an important job.

Yesterday when I was chatting with Mom, she mentioned that my brother had played Santa on Friday. I called him today.
“Yep,” he said, “a hundred and twenty kindergarteners.” His wife is their teacher. What a grand tradition.
“Hey Kev,” I asked, “Did you know Dad played Santa when we went to the VFW hall?”
“Was that Dad?” he replied. He never knew. Guess the secret’s out of Santa’s bag now. Sorry, Dad. But you did a great job with all those kids. Bet my brother did, too.

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