It was a couple of nights before Christmas, and we had just settled down for a long winter's nap.
Though we were both pretty beat from the shopping, cooking, decorating and cleaning folderol that always goes on in the days right before the holiday, we had flipped on the TV that sits across the bedroom on top of a high cabinet. It's an old, tiny, 13-incher, with a picture so small that I really can't see much of what's going on. But it provides sound and semi-seeable pictures to doze by on nights when we're not quite ready to drop off, plus a chance to hear some local news and weather in the morning while we're getting ready for the day.
I kind of missed out on the roster of December TV specials this year, so I was glad to hear the opening strains of one of my favorite Christmastime classics.
"Holiday Inn" is a 1942 Irving Berlin musical featuring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire that introduced the song, "White Christmas."
For those who have somehow dodged the chance to view this festive standard, it goes something like this:
An unlucky-in-love crooner, Crosby, leaves show business with a plan to move to a farm in Connecticut. After discovering that farmwork is a little more than he bargained for, he decides to turn the place into an entertainment venue that's only open on holidays, called Holiday Inn.
"Hey, that's me." I said.
"No, that's us," she muttered sleepily before drifting into the deep, righteous sleep of a woman who has spent an entire day baking and decorating Christmas cookies with a sugar-charged band of grandkids and friends.
And she was right, in a way, because it's only at major holidays that this big barn of a place on Galva's Wiley Park truly fills up to its proper capacity. The contingency this year included the Fargo crew, with a pair of adults, two teenagers and a girlfriend, who probably wondered why the heck she agreed to leave the relative quiet of the great white North for our own special brand of noise and confusion. The North Carolinians were mom and dad, plus five and three year olds, whose major focus has been the proper communication with and cultivation of a certain chubby gentleman from above the Arctic Circle. Also present were one lively visiting dog and Max, the surly, homeboy cat who hated both him for being here, and us for allowing it.
Of course, it's just what we want, and something we look forward to all year. And if it means a little extra effort from time to time to make it all come together, it's easily balanced by the memorable moments that occur the whole time its going on.
Like the first Sunday we were back in town, a week before Christmas. As word was out that we were present and available for duty, we were both enlisted for some last-minute assistance at church. She would be the lector that morning, while I was to provide the music for Mass. We were also in charge of the youngest grandsons while their parents were in Peoria for the aftermath of a joyful wedding reception we had all attended earlier.
I conveniently forgot that fact and left for the church early to prepare the music, while she dealt with the old/new task of getting a pair of lively boys scrubbed and ready for pubic viewing. Things were about ready to roll at 10 a.m. Mass, with the always-prompt Father John Burns poised for action, when grandma rushed in with her charges.
"Whew," I thought. "She made it."
Meanwhile, in the distance, I heard a sudden clamor.
I knew that noise.
It was a car alarm.
And it sounded familiar.
A fellow parishioner hustled up to me and whispered in my ear, just as I was about to play the first few notes of the processional.
FP: Hey, Megan's car is going nuts out there. I think she hit the wrong button.
Me: Help. Please. Quick.
He leapt to the task, grabbing the keys and quelling the din just in time. We're used to being lead characters in our own sort of "I Love Lucy" episodes, so we deal humorously, if not gracefully, with situations that might be embarrassing to others.
Me: Nice entrance, Lucy.
She: Right-o, Ricky.
We had a great time with everyone home, despite a total lack of winter weather that had my younger grandsons and I calling heavy frost, "snow" just to keep our spirits bright. There have been abundant meals and wonderful visits with many of our hometown friends and family members, with a plethora of activities ranging from heavily hectic to really relaxing.
Most of all, It was fun.
But things turned serious for at least two of us as the big day finally approached.
Despite son Patrick's efforts to keep the real reason for the season uppermost in his young sons' minds, there comes an inevitable time when Santa Claus, reindeer and presents under a tree overwhelm any other thoughts and beliefs.
It was finally Christmas Eve.
He was finally coming.
A couple of days before, I had introduced the boys to the NORAD Santa Tracker, an online service provided by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (!) that lets interested watchers know how the Jolly One is progressing on his yearly trip around the world. On December 23rd, they were mildly interested and amused. By the time we had been to Christmas Eve Mass and they had picked at a couple of meatballs, they were staring at the computer screen as ardently as if they were watching for an enemy invasion, rather than a friendly visit from St. Nick.
"He's in Nova Scotia," exclaimed five-year-old Cyrus. "He's almost here!"
A good grandfather would have rightfully explained that the Maritime Provinces are actually quite a ways off, but I chose to capitalize on his sudden angst by reminding him that Santa only comes when little boys are in bed. Problem is, he had just heard the same admonishment from every adult in the house, plus even the cat, I think.
Suddenly, he had a mission.
Get to sleep. Quick.
But before the little ones were trundled off to bed, Paddy gave it one more try. As we all sat in our darkened living room in front of a flickering fire, he read the Christmas Story, the real one, to all of us.
The boys seemed engrossed, absorbing the beautiful tale and its meaning.
"Play the Mary song," whispered grandma to me. And I did, launching into a rendition of "Mary, Did You Know?" a contemporary Christmas song with great meaning and considerable beauty.
All was calm. All was quiet.
It was a magic moment, filled with the faith and love that truly defines the Christmas season.
Well, kind of.
Little John Patrick gave me a look that seemed to say, "Who does grandpa think he is, Andy Williams?"
"I'm going to bed," fumed Cyrus, who had finally endured all the delaying tactics he could take.
But we weren't through tormenting the young lads with our unconscionable ways.
They were still snug in their beds when we, along with older son, Colin and his wife, arose at five in the morning for our annual trip to Julotta, the traditional Swedish worship service held in the Old Colony Church at Bishop Hill.
The youngest boys sleep in the sitting room just off our bedroom, so Cyrus, who was, no doubt dozing with one ear cocked for the sound of sleigh bells, was awakened when grandma made her way through in search of coffee.
"Where are you going?" he exclaimed in horror. He had been firmly warned that Santa needed the entire night to do his work, and knew that little boys--or grandmas--who got up before dawn were in danger of spoiling everything.
She patiently explained that we always go to early church and that Santa always understood.
He mulled it over until she returned.
"What were you doing down there?" he said, obviously fearing the worst.
It was O.K., she explained. Santa would still come.
And he did.
They're all gone now, on their respective ways to Fargo and North Carolina. The house--and we--are slowly recovering from the kind of happy onslaught we are truly made for. Another family Christmas is something we'll remember, as we hope to see it happen again and again.
Happy New Year.