Thursday, December 29, 2011

Welcome to Holiday Inn

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.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A love story

She was going to be married.
Things were probably going along as they generally do in the weeks and months before a wedding. She was a little nervous. Her mother was probably excited. Maybe her father was wondering just how he would pay for everything.
Then something happened.
Something kind of strange.
Something kind of confusing.
She didn't know what to think at first.
Then she did.
And she waited.
He was a nice guy.
A hard worker. A good provider.
Everybody thought he would be a good husband, and a good father, too.
But the news she had really shook him up.
She was going to have a baby.
Not his.
He didn't know what to think.
He didn't know what to do.
But he was kind. He could have made a real fuss over what had happened, but he decided to keep quiet, even though he didn't think he could marry her anymore.
Then he had a strange dream.
And his act of kindness became an even greater act of faith.
He married her.
He would raise the child as his own.
But just before the baby was due, they had to go on a long journey together.
It was a hard trip. And once they got there, they had no place to stay, even though it was almost time for the child to come.
It seemed like nothing was going right for the young couple.
Then everything did.
Their baby boy was born.
Our baby boy was born.
Two thousand years later, here we are.
We hustle and buy and cook and clean just to celebrate his birthday.
We string lights and sing songs and give each other gifts.
And we tell the story. The love story.
And we still believe.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

In search of the snowy house

My North Carolina grandsons, aged five and three, have a great name for our home in Galva.
They call it "the Snowy House," based on last Christmastime, the one visit to Illinois they both remember. They have vivid memories of arriving the week before the holiday, just in time for a hearty helping of piles and abundant piles of wintertime weather, something they had only seen before in picture books and movies.
Now, Coastal Carolina does have seasons. Sort of.
It gets cold in the winter. Kind of.
And last year, it even snowed. A little.
But nothing could have prepared them for a sensational series of snow-dazzled days filled with snow balls, snow forts and snowmen, plus sledding, ice skating and more. It was like a wonderful winter carnival, just for them.
Trouble is, now there's nothing much we can say that can convince them that Galva isn't always just a slightly balmier, year-round version of the North Pole. We're heading that way (Galva, not the N.P.) this week, with a travel plan that proves, once and for all, that grandma and I are not exactly destined to be known as Christmas wise men. While Cyrus and John's mom and dad are leaving as soon as Paddy's school vacation begins, we have opted to pack up the two tykes earlier on and embark on a thousand-mile jaunt that will test whether I am still able to cajole, entreat or threaten two active boys into some semblance of reasonable behavior on a two-day car trip. Once we're back in Illinois, they're gonna expect me to produce a goodly amount of the white stuff, along with all the fun stuff that goes with it...or explain why not.
So, let's pray for snow. Please.
The task of preparing our big old Galva home (you know, the Snowy House) for Christmas is one that normally begins the day after Thanksgiving, accelerates into a veritable blitzkrieg of red, green, silver and gold in the first couple of weeks of December, then settles into a steady, busy process somewhat akin to what goes on in Santa's workshop right up until about eleven o'clock on Christmas Eve.
But not this year.
Arriving home, as we are, just a week and a couple days before zero hour, something probably ought to give.
But what's it going to be?
Certainly not the ten-foot tree in the front room, though there's going to have to be some serious furniture moving before it gets placed in its normal spot. And I can't imagine we're planning on doing without the other full-sized models that normally grace our front hall and the family room out back. I suppose it wouldn't seem like Christmas without the beloved bins and boxes full of greenery, figurines, candles and other yuletide flotsam that usually adorn just about every table, counter, sill and mantle throughout the season, and I know the neighbors would be disappointed if they didn't get to watch me clinging to the front-porch pillars like a rickety middle-aged monkey as I hang some sort of outdoor decor, as well. I firmly draw the line at any thought of a cutback in Christmas-cookie production or Swedish meatball-making, and since all our kids and grandkids will be attendance, the food-fest will need to be ongoing and bountiful.
But here's the thing.
We are, once again, lucky enough to have all those kids and grandkids together for another family holiday. And that, along with the real reason for the season, is all that really matters.
So, ho, ho, ho.
I can't wait.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

When you wish upon a...catalog

In a recent column I wrote for Western Illinois Family, a Gatehouse-owned magazine distributed in this area, I mentioned a few of the anxious pre-Christmas activities that took place around my house when I was a kid.
There was, of course, the vital letter to Santa Claus, a supremely important missive that attempted to express, in mere words, the infinite goodness that had been my personal hallmark throughout the year. Of course, I knew full well that a man who "sees you when you're sleeping" and "knows when you're awake" was probably entirely hip to that incident involving the garage window, too. But the fifth amendment was certainly intended for such situations, so I rolled blithely along the thin line between right and wrong, hoping Santa would cast a kindly blind eye at my misdeeds.
"But where did all those toys come from?" asked my spouse the other day. She knows, as all parents do, that sometimes Santa needs a little help. Back in the day, when I was a kid and dinosaurs walked the earth, there were no shopping malls or "big box" stores or big stores at all around smaller towns like Kewanee and Galva, or even in her hometown of Chicago Heights. There were plenty of wonderful retailers of all different kinds in those days, and a few larger department-type stores if you were willing to make a longer trek. But nobody had the aisles and aisles of toys and gadgets you see today.
Nobody except the Christmas catalogs, filled with page after page of all kinds of grand and glorious stuff to warm hearts of good little boys and girls, and kids like me, too.
Sears, JC Penney, Montgomery Ward and Spiegel all sent the free books through the mail. And while we anxiously looked at each and every one of them, it was the Sears catalog that was the one we really waited for. No big surprise there, as Sears kind of invented the whole concept of catalogs, starting in 1888, when the R.W. Sears watch company began sending out flyers by mail. By the 1890s, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog had expanded to include items like sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and even eyeglasses, including a self-test for "old sight, near sight and astigmatism."
The very first Sears Christmas catalog, came out in 1933, and included the “Miss Pigtails” doll, a battery powered toy automobile, a Mickey Mouse watch, Lionel electric trains, and--wait for it--live singing canaries. Eventually, the Christmas edition became known as the "Wish Book."
All I knew was that it--and all those heavyweight books of the time--contained everything I ever wished for, plus quite a few things I never even knew I wanted until I saw them among the hundreds of pages of toys and other good stuff each catalog featured.
My brother and I (my sister was mostly above such goings-on) would wait in high anticipation for each catalog, then pounce, pouring through each page, and even marking items and turning down pages in the hopes that our mom or dad might happen upon them.
My dad: "Why, look at this, Alice. Did you know that Johnny wanted a motorcycle, a .22 rifle and a coon skin cap for Christmas?"
My mom: "Why, no, Keith. But it's not too late if you order them today."
Hope springs eternal.
I was also fascinated by the child models shown playing with the toys in each book.
Neat and well-combed and uniformly blond, blue-eyed and aryan-looking, they were like no real kids I had ever known. I wondered where they came from. I wondered how they got so clean.
I still do.
Eventually, I grew up and kind of forgot about the thrill of Christmas catalogs a little. By the time I got married and we had kids of our own, I was more accustomed to a steady barrage of Christmas ads on the tube and almost-nightly shopping trips in the days before Christmas Eve. We still got the catalogs, but my use of them was for fast-flipping comparison shopping, not the leisurely dreamfest I had enjoyed as a kid.
Catalogs, I thought, were becoming a thing of the past.
It was not until I went into my youngest son's room to tuck him in one night that that I discovered otherwise. He was an active, restless sleeper, who often dumped his covers on the floor, so I was pulling them back into place around his sleeping form. As I tucked him in, I felt a hard lump next to his pillow. I pulled it free and carried it to the lighted hallway to see what eight-year-old Patrick was stashing.
It was a well-worn 1989 Sears Christmas catalog.
Because some things never change.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

All I want for Christmas

From Western Illinois Family Magazine

It's been a long time since I put together a real Christmas list. Back in the day, my siblings and I would scour the Christmas catalogs and wander the aisles at the local five and dime, looking anxiously at all the great and glorious things we hoped we'd find under the tree or jammed into the beautiful handmade stockings our mother made for us. We knew that Santa Claus had a distinctly practical side, so underwear and socks were a given, but hope sprang eternal in our needy, greedy hearts as we gazed longly at the really good stuff we hoped we'd get.
My older brother and I would compare notes, judging the odds.
Me: Do you thing he'll bring me a pony?
He: Naaa. You probably haven't been good enough for something like that. But maybe if you make me a peanut butter sandwich and give me the football you got for your birthday, the elves will see you and tell Santa.
That was the ultimate catch around my house. We were, you see, true believers in the musical promise that goes like this:
"He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake."
We (or at least I) knew that Santa was keeping track of us (me) via his relentless gangs of elves that kept an eye on us (me) all year long.
I knew I was doomed.
In a desperate attempt to even things out, the most critical part of the pre-Christmas process for me was the all-important letter that would be placed in an antique jar to be delivered, via elf-mail, to the North Pole.
I've spent my entire adult career as a writer of one kind or another, with a lot of the work I've done intended to cajole and convince in one way or another. But while I managed to promote everything from baked beans to beard trimmers to microchips to tractors in my days as an advertising agency copywriter, it was all pure drivel compared to the selling job I attempted to put over on that jolly old elf. That yearly letter-writing task was a veritable training ground for what I'd do for the rest of my life.
I would write a cheery, cordial note to St. Nick. "How are the reindeer?" I'd ask. And "how about Mrs. Claus?"
Finally, I'd get down to business.
I'd start slow, asking for the kinds of things I needed anyway, thinking Santa would admire my thrifty attitude. So I'd list the aforementioned socks and underwear. Then I'd step it up a bit, mentioning that I really could use a new baseball glove and that I had generously given my brother my new football.
Then came the pièce de résistance.
"You know, Santa, some people think that owning a pony teaches kids a lot about responsibility," I wrote. "I think I'm up to the challenge."
Now I knew the elves knew that even my goldfish was only hanging on through the daily efforts of my mother, but, hey, it couldn't hurt to try, could it?
And finally, in one last do-or-die attempt to show just how good I really was, I'd mention a few items I thought my brother would like, thinking Santa would appreciate my altruistic spirit, while keeping in mind that I'd probably end up with most of the stuff he got after he outgrew it, wore it out or got bored with it.
My sister, being a girl, and irritatingly good, to boot, was strictly on her own.
Santa, along with being jolly and generous, is, apparently a sensible sort of guy, so I never got that pony.
In fact, I don't really remember much about what he did bring me from year to year, as important as it seemed at the time. But I do remember that Christmas in my house was always filled with laughter and warmth and love.
It was a wonderful day.
I hope yours is, too.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Living through turkey time

I'm always up for an adventure.
In my head, at least.
Like, I've always thought it would be cool to hike the length of the Grand Canyon with nothing but a sleeping bag and a handful of dried prunes. Or raft down the intracoastal waterway with a fish line, a lawn chair and a few good books. In other words, I like to think about interesting ways to rough it that I'll most likely never experience.
Until now.
Because we've just battled our way through a happenstance so challenging that I'm surprised we actually lived through it.
Thanksgiving in a beach house.
It's not like our North Carolina beachfront duplex isn't a lovely place to share a meal or, for that matter, any get-together. It's not gigantic, but we were only expecting son Patrick, his wife, Susan and our two youngest grandsons. The kitchen is small, but well laid-out, with enough counter space to allow us both to chop, stir, mix and measure without any excessive kitchen collisions. In other circumstances, Paddy and Susan might have hosted the meal in their "real" house in the countryside, near the town where he teaches, but her restaurant work schedule made it more sensible for them to come our way this time.
Besides, everything is more fun at the beach.
In the almost 40 years we've been married, we've only missed a couple of chances to prepare and host the annual November eat-fest, so we pretty much know the drill. She does stuffing, I do potatoes. She does dessert, I do bread. And anybody willing to get up early enough can do a turkey.
No big deal, as long as you've got all the stuff you need.
The first sign that it might be otherwise started ominously, like the distant rumbling of a far-off thunderstorm.
"Do we actually own a real potato peeler?" I muttered.
Not to be a snob, but as one of the leading purveyors of hand-mashed spuds in the whole wide world, I require something more than the dull, flimsy, faux-peeler I had just plucked from a drawer.
"No," she said. "But that one might kind of work."
Kind of?
Suddenly, my mind's eye was transported to Yankee Stadium in 1927. A stocky ballplayer wearing the number three walks to the plate, where a batboy hands him a skinny, rickety piece of balsam.
"Here, Babe. This might kind of work."
I think you get the picture.
With a big bag of tubers to peel and process, I resumed my digging through the mishmash that lined the drawer, while realizing that most of the contents were from our "camp box," a mixed and fancy collection of stuff we use when we're sleeping and cooking under the stars. It suddenly dawned on us both that we were attempting to put on a full-scale Thanksgiving dinner with the tools normally used to prepare a hearty meal of weenies and beans.
This, of course, was our own fault, as we've intentionally avoided overstocking this place with an excess of anything, whether it be furniture, decorative items, clothing or cooking accoutrements. It's in direct contrast to our long-time home in Galva, which absolutely abounds with all of the above. Normally, it works pretty well, as the meals we prepare here are generally simple and always casual.
But we suddenly realized we had no platters, no heirloom silver or china, no serving dishes other than a couple of plastic bowls, no water goblets and no holiday decor beyond a front-door fall wreath we cobbled together out of some sweet annie and bittersweet we brought from Illinois, plus a few local weeds. Our cooking vessels were limited to a single large pot, one saucepan, some muffin tins and a cookie sheet, and the cast iron skillet that we've used over campfires for years, plus an electric roaster we broke down and bought on sale for the turkey, so we'd have a little available space in our teeny-tiny beach house oven.
Martha Stewart would have died.
Not us, though.
Despite the fact that my spouse truly is an artful, hard-working hostess, who enjoys setting a lovely table in a tastefully decorated home, we managed with those aforementioned tools, plus a couple of disposable foil roasting pans and a largish plastic platter shaped and decorated like a freshly barbecued hamburger. While we intentionally kept it all pretty basic, menu-wise, son Patrick perked things up a bit with a historically accurate dish he created himself that featured both fresh venison and oysters harvested in the inlet behind our house the afternoon before.
So really, it was a good meal. It was a good day.
And while we missed having all of our family around our table, we're happy in the fact that everyone is healthy and happy. And we're happier still that we will gather them all together at Christmastime in Galva.
Because the meal most certainly is not the message.
We've got a lot to be thankful for.
And we know it.
 Many thanks for the prayers, thoughts and notes of encouragement that came my way before and after my eye surgery last week. They say it all went well. Recovery is underway.