I believe that Christmas is just as merry as you make it. Christmas Day 2005 marked the beginning of this lesson for me. When I returned from France that year, I had to hide what I saw: a jaundiced shadow of my superman – the guy who could fix an itchy bug-bite, a report eaten by the hard drive or your first lemon of a car. The last coherent thing my Dad said was: “In my dreams, you’re the hero.” He paused, “because you always get things done.”
Christmases were strangely special to my father, the son of Jewish immigrants. We couldn’t purchase our tree at the firehouse. We had to drive to West Virginia the day after Thanksgiving to chop it down. Tree-trimming aside a crackling fireplace to old Crosby and Sinatra broadcasts constitute my best memories of my father. Only later did I appreciate the late nights setting up doll houses, cooking sets or baby strollers to colossal effect on Christmas morning. Santa always eluded our attempts at capture, but never failed to leave a kind note, a milk-rimmed glass and a very convincing trail of crumbs. The holidays also constitute some my worst memories of my father. And yet, at Christmas time and year-round, while the follow-through wasn’t exactly right, his underlying intentions were perceptibly good.
Since his passing and my return to my hometown, the holiday has grown bittersweet, in this city that reminds me of him at this time of year more than any other. I think of patent leather Mary Janes and velvet dresses donned at White House parties past. But the mistletoe and merriment also recall that Christmas morning I spent measuring liquid morphine.
The good news about losing my Dad on Christmas, I tell people, is that it can only go up from there. “So this is Christmas…” I wonder if my ironic smile doesn’t reflect one of his old irreverent grins. And I return to what he said that Christmas, the attribution with which I struggled for years. How many times had my father begged me to return state-side or asked how could I turn down yet another scholarship to graduate school? For my part, I wanted to know how I might make a practical, principled contribution – one that didn’t contradict my most deeply-held convictions about our role in the world – in short, where I could really get things done.
Four years later and back in the town where I least expected to return, I have come to understand his constant urging for better and higher, not as criticism, but as an unwavering faith in a daughter who was, in his eyes, already “getting things done.” For while I may have stopped believing in the Man in Red, my Dad never stopped believing in me. Thanks to that horrific and beautiful Christmas that we spent together, and the four intervening ones, I’ve come to believe that I’m the one who determines just how merry Christmas Day – and every day — is.
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