Category Archives: nostalgia

Looking Back At Me

img_5002When did those show up? Those points. My skin is falling, my face is aged and aging and now I have points. Hanging on either side, mid chin. They are not shocking, until you notice them. Staring blankly in your mirror shaving. You see them. They are just there.

I don’t remember how old I was when my dad told me that it was mildly haunting to look in the mirror one day and for a second see your father staring back at you. It sounded like it could certainly be freaky. To know that you are looking out of your own eyes, possessing your own body, studying a face that is yours, you know, but doesn’t look anymore like it feels. It feels like that face you had in high school. That young, narrow, strong, perfectly fitting face you had. The one you stared at and inspected for laughs when you were little. Searched for blemishes when you got older. Ignored entirely for what appears to have been 20 years now as you got on making a life.

It was a utilitarian face. One that was being used to see the world, eat the food, drink the drinks, make the jokes, scream the pains, howl with laughter, bare to the elements and wear through it all. You hadn’t considered it for years. And years. And there it was. A face wholly your own but weathered and worn by time.

The first reaction for me was to recoil a tad. How did this happen? Why did this happen? The answers are obvious but the reactions are cascading. Shock, worry, awareness, fear, love and wonder. Reflexively I recall my own father sharing this moment with me, a young boy unaware of how this must have felt. I’m aware now and the moment, the memory of that brief conversation in a room long ago left for others to live in is reformed. Some new meaning, some heavier weight.

I’d never noticed anyone other than me looking back at me in the mirror until recently. I’ve played with faces when I was little, trying to see if I could make myself laugh or be angry or scary or silly. I’ve tried to pull faces, to see what others saw as I came into my own and was desperate to figure out who I was and thought the answer might lay somewhere on my appearance. I tried to hide the emotions I felt that my face betrayed. I’m embarrassed by that now, but shouldn’t be. It was some strange form of embarrassment that compelled me to try so hard to not show anything but anger for some early man years there.

Now I see a hint of my father in that face, but just a hint. There’s some of my mother there to. It’s not what I want it to look like. I want it to have so much more left to find. At least that’s the first thought. I want it to look like me. Like the memory I’ll have of my face whenever I can’t see it. The one that had no cause for lines and no time for sag. The me that was stupid but pretty. The energetic, unknowing eyes. The vibrant and taut skin. The me that wondered what it would feel like to see the years looking back at me from the past.

‘Shake It, Shake It, Hillary…’, The Miseducation of an Impressionable Young Man

‘It’s because Donald Trump is Mayor!’

There’s some subtle humor in the phrasing, but it doesn’t overshadow his tone. Charlie is not a fan of our current President. We kept the election from the kids but we haven’t been able to control the fallout.

Charlie came home on November 8th having learned about the process of voting. Apparently they held a mock vote in his class. Kindergarten. Whatever. Best I can tell he heard the names of the candidates the first time that day. Being our child he felt a great deal of guilt when he found out that he voted for a candidate he wouldn’t have had he been better informed. Than a kindergartener. Again, whatever.

‘Now Charlie, we disagree with President Trump, but we don’t get angry.’ I say, obviously causing some confusion as I’m certain he has met me before this moment and is aware of my Tuck Frump t-shirt I wear on my demeanor at all moments of the day. That said, I’m here to teach. ‘We have a job to do. We have to be extra nice to people. We have to show people that we love them and care about them. Right?’

It’s not that often, but it’s a routine conversation by now and we are all familiar with our script. Some of the older kids at the Y dropoff informed him one day that his brown friends were going to be kicked out of America. Strange conversations are being had with kindergarteners these days. Lots changed since either of my turns in Kindergarten in pre-Reagan America.

Over the weeks following the election he became more militantly defensive of Hillary than I was. I certainly liked her enough, to paraphrase my favorite POTUS. But we fancy ourselves decent people and as such we believe in equality. Some people call this many things, one of them being feminist. I prefer to think of it as decent, but fine, feminist is a badge we men in this family will wear well if a woman so chooses to place it on us.

So you could imagine my shock when I heard Charlie dancing around the house singing…

‘Shake it, shake it, Hillary.’

On it’s face this may be the exact antithesis of what we hope for our boys. It sounds objectifying. It sounds dismissive. It sounds sexist. And it would be if, say, I were the one saying it. It wasn’t me. It was a six year old kindergartner.

I got one of those Google Home things for my birthday. It’s amazing and can change how everything in your home, née your life, works. It can apparently simplify everything from taxes to exercise, provide onsite security and clean your house at the mere utterance of ‘ok, google.’ This is what the commercial will have you believe. For our purposes however it’s mainly a voice operated speaker. It plays music. Still, a great value for such a magical thing.

One of the magical memories of our brief, though memorable courtship my wife and I share were our many weekend trips from the city up to our favorite hippy dippy slow food gourmet restaurant in Woodstock. We used to luxuriate on the rides upstate. After our meals we would drive home, not a care or pressure in the world. After having kids I’m pretty sure I remember life before as pressureless. One of the things we liked to do on these weekend trips was listen to cool radio. We dated in our 30’s so sometimes this meant NPR weekend entertainment. Other times it meant college radio. WFUV was a favorite. You could get it for about the last hour or so of our ride back to Astoria, Queens.

‘This is a Dead song. I don’t know who’s playing it, but the dead played it as well.’ I said.

‘Hmm. It’s good.’ She said.

We enjoyed after the song hearing the story of the song, what the meaning of the song was and all it’s somewhat obvious storytelling. The history of the song was fascinating as well. How different bands had come to it, earliest known playing of it and the songwriters story. I could have this all wrong. Whatever was said, we both kinda fell in love with the song. ‘Sugaree’ was the name and it was one I’d always known but never really heard. It was like we discovered it together that night.

So fast forward eight or nine years and it was nice to finally have our magical voice activated jukebox be able to whisk us back to that awesome time. It was a more than risqué song, but it was buried under melody and metaphor and adult knowledge, and none of the words in themselves were bad, so what harm could it do to have it playing while we raised two little boys. Besides, could do worse than the Grateful Dead.

Until your burgeoning little man starts singing a woman’s praises by imploring, ever so innocently, to ‘Shake it, shake it, Hillary.’

Do You Believe In Miracles

‘Do you believe in miracles!’

 Al Michaels iconic cry as time expired in the semi-final game of the Olympic Hockey tournament in 1980 in tiny little Lake Placid, NY. The feelings this can stir in me are notable. They run the gamut from patriotism to belief to hope to astonishment. There was no way we were going to win. They were the best of the best of the Evil Empire, men driven by personal and professional and patriotic duty of their own against our upstart group of ragamuffins. A team of college stars in a sport, Division 1 Mens Hockey, that didn’t make stars. We didn’t even have all the stars. Get me on the topic for too long and I might start to tell you we even had some high schoolers getting valuable minutes. While not technically accurate, as far as narrative goes it would be true enough. We were a nation ready to believe, looking for a miracle and this team, this makeshift team did it. They gave us our miracle.

It’s a thrilling and stirring tale. One capable of inspiring tears and long bouts of sentimental nostalgia. Which is shocking and possibly troubling as I didn’t watch the game. I didn’t even know it was happening. I doubt I learned about it until perhaps 8-10 years later. As best I can tell, we didn’t have it on our radar at my house. I learned of the story by learning about it.

Still the story is worthy of everything it gets and at times I think it’s worth so much more.

I grew up in the height of the Cold War. Russian equaled bad. They were the big bad wolf out to get us, I guess. I mean I remember fearing the idea of that nuclear weapons were in the mix, but that was the extent of my analysis. I was a kid. I saw War Games and I cheered when Rocky beat Ivan Drago (the sonofabitch who killed Apollo Creed). I knew that they were the enemy. My mind and sights were clear, but really I was just a kid. As much as I’ve heard about the tensions of the time I have to say, they didn’t filter down to me.

I grew up in the heartland, really. It’s New York State, but it’s the Great Lakes part of the state. I loved and hated where I grew up. Had nothing to do with where I grew up, I’d have felt that way anywhere. But it was a GREAT place to be a kid. A stupid, oblivious kid. A great place to get your first real kiss while playing truth or dare. A place to get caught by kindly neighbors telling on you that they saw you buying cigarettes at the diner cigarette machine. A great place to fall in love for the first time and to lose your mind when you saw that girl making out with the cool guy who you could never compete with because he was two years older than you and he had not only a license but a car. It was a great place to play basketball, sun up to sundown in playgrounds where other kids were playing. It was a great place to ride your bikes uptown and get pizza or tacos or see a movie or just hang out with all the other kids that lived near, ‘uptown.’ It was a great place to walk to the neighborhood doctor who knew you since you were new. Or to catch crayfish walking barefoot through the crick. It was a great place. Still is.

It wasn’t a place for me to process the Cold War, despite all of it happening, apparently, the whole time I was doing all that other stuff. It wasn’t a place that was nervous or palpably anxious. It wasn’t a place that was out of step and it wasn’t a place that was in line. It was my American experience. I suppose the seeds of what has happened since were around. Factories closed. Our local economy had for generations been underpinned by Kodak and I did see that diminish a ton while I was growing up. Hard not to notice as it was kids parents you went to school with. Other things popped up, but nothing, no amount of things popping up could make up for losing jobs by the tens of thousands, seemingly every year for a couple decades there. Good jobs too. Union jobs for a labor force that often had only needed a high school degree. Just gone. I saw that. Didn’t know it would be such a harbinger of things to come for a pretty big stretch of the country. I imagine my elders did see it coming. Imagine those that stayed saw it coming and to some degree perhaps even got caught standing on the path.

I don’t know what my kids lives will be 30 years from now. My parents weren’t locals to where I’m from and their parents aren’t local to where they’re from. I suspect that trend will continue, but who’s to say. Perhaps my kids will love it here so much that they stay. I would be happy. I would be happy to know that they not only loved where we raised them and found a community of kind and caring friends and neighbors here, but also if they were inclined to stay because the opportunities look like staying was a good decision. I’d like them to have options.

I’m anxious. I’m scared about the direction of so many things. The economy. The hostility that seems to be so prevalent in so many. The rising social issues, some we considered if not resolved, heading inevitably in that direction in the America I grew up in. The role of America in a world in upheaval, without the terrifying order the Cold War provided. I’m hoping this anxiety that seems to be floating free in the world is resolved and my children grow up as I did. Happily oblivious to all that they will one day read about and wonder how they didn’t see it all. Nostalgic for that miracle that is awaiting us just around the corner.

My Sister

img_2847

The family she arrived to

My earliest memory of my sister was of a man coming to our house to speak with my parents. He was there to see if our home was a stable one. One where my sister would be welcomed and provided for. One where she would not only be safe, but hopefully nurtured and loved. I remember my mom essentially asking me to be on my best behavior before they arrived, but who’s to say whether or not that actually happened. I was, after all, just 6 years old.

I didn’t really understand why we were getting another sister. I had 2 already. There were 3 of us boys. I don’t think much of an effort was made to explain it, but that said, I have a six year old now and it’s remarkable the things he doesn’t hear us saying and the things he does. Maybe there was a giant family meeting. Maybe it was just the few words of encouragement to act normal when the interviewer came over to meet us.

Maya Lin (this is the name of the designer of the Vietnam Memorial and I will be using it in place of my sisters name in this post) was a teenage girl from Vietnam and we were a very big and ever growing family of white, suburban, Great Lakes style americans. We must have been quite a shock to her. Tall, pale and rembunctiously carefree. We were loud and curious, bold and kind. We were a station wagon with wood paneling kind of family who couldn’t have been more American. I can’t for the life of me, now, imagine what it was like for her to be dropped into this story as a young girl. At the time it never ocurred to me to wonder.

I was not all that welcoming. It’s just not a strength of little boys. I argued with her over the TV. A lot. To my memory my mom always sided with Maya. I was always cordial in screaming about how unfair it was and storming out of the room. I was a real charmer back then. Before long she acclimated. Never has more been swept aside in so short a time as me brushing past the acclimation process. But what can I know. She was plopped down into a new home and made a member of a new family in an instant. It was never questioned, never fretted on. Not from our side, my side at least.

Sure, my mother will tell you, if you ask, about that time, about her incredulous reaction to seeing snow fall, a thing she’d come accustomed to in no time as we lived in the 3rd snowiest city in America according to the video I watched on Facebook yesterday. It was from The Weather Channel and it meshes with my memory and the common understanding of where I’m from. She’ll tell you about how she had to have the TV to watch Soap Operas, a thing that was banned in my house for the wild disregard for moral behavior, to learn the language. My mom, and I don’t know how she figured this out, showed her these shows because all the characters spoke slowly, they over emoted, they spoke directly to the camera in close up and they repeated themselves over and over. Minus the horrid personal behavior, they were ideal for teaching the language. The other favorite was West Side Story. Musical theater courses through both sides of my family and while the appeal of this was lost on six year old me, the effect for language acquisition was also helpful. And she flat loved West Side Story. Mom would also tell you of her struggles acclimating to school and the challenge it was for her in that short time before she got the language down and made a friend or two.

I’d tell you about the new smells that as a 6 year old I thought were horrifying. This shouldn’t shock anyone who’s ever had a little boy. I had to leave the room the other day because I was eating a banana and this was just too much for Teddy to handle. In my case it was the smells of the food that I now realize I really missed out on. My palate has grown in sophistication since then and at this time when half my calories comes from cough drops and the other half comes from cold, discarded, nuggeted meats it feels like a real missed opportunity. Then there was the smell of bad overboiled hot dogs coming from the bathroom when her friend came over. It was just a home perm, a thing a thousand teenage girls that year did in my town, but none lived with us. My older brothers were yet to pull the trigger on the home perm.

Whatever her experience I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that it was a fully family version of growing up. It was sadly not the ideal version of family that was taken from her. But it was a very loving one she made her way to and became a part of. And because she did I learned of the small but thriving Vietnamese community where we went to shop with her. I saw the food from all over the world I had never imagined existed so close to me. I learned the look of government issued, self enveloping, light blue international letter paper that allowed her to get what I think were censored letters from her family in Vietnam. It taught me that I could love her in all the same complicated ways we all love our individual family members. I remember being sad when we dropped her off at college and happy when she could and would come home for holidays. I remember missing her way of eating, a thing you don’t think can be different, so different before you see it. I remember feeling like something was missing when she wasn’t there and feeling like we were all home when she was.

Our whole family was growing as this all took place. We were adding new members and each of us growing as well. By the time she was done with college she had a boyfriend. A Vietnamese boyfriend. I was 16(ish) and we were now 6 Medler’s (My youngest brother was born in 84) and everyone that would be a part of our family had arrived, to one degree or another, by this point. Whether it was right after college or a few years later her boyfriend eventually asked her to marry him. She said yes.

The wedding was to be in King Of Prussia, just outside of Philadelphia. I don’t know why, but I think they were living there at the time. She worked at a bank, I know that much, but honestly, she could have been president or a part time teller. Regardless I now look back on her asking me to be in her wedding with immense pride. It’s a real honor that she thought of me. I’m afraid at the time I was not so gracious. I said no. Yeah. I was also from a family where they respected my right to do such a thing. I’m sorry I did that. I’m incredibly thankful that they also asked my older brothers, both of whom have been and remain far more gracious in such matters.

Well, shortly before the wedding, and I mean very shortly, one of those government issued, self enveloping, light blue international letters arrived to alert Maya that her whole family was being released (had been granted visa’s.) I can’t begin to imagine how this felt for her. She hadn’t seen her mother and father and sisters and brothers since leaving. They hadn’t seen her since she was taken away. I can’t get into details I don’t know, but I know that what happened in the time between her leaving home and arriving to us was scary. She was made to leave in a moments notice and she was in a camp for some period of time. There were long periods when she was cargo on boats with no place to go, having no idea what life would hold if there was a future. She experienced and endured, as a teenage girl, innocent and surely terrified, things I know I never would have endured. But now she was here. My big sister. Annoying and loving. My honest to god sister. All the while waiting and hoping she could see her family again.

They would be arriving in a short time and once there the wedding would be in a matter of days. I remember us all, now in a minivan, making our way from Brockport New York down to Philly and checking into as few rooms as were reasonable for our large family, and getting dressed in our fancy duds. Mike and Eric in their tuxes and I in my Don Johnson whites (it was the 80’s) and my sisters in their best. My parents were old pros. They left enough time for us to woof down some happy meals and such in the parking ot of the McDonalds before heading over to the wedding, where all the food would be stuff our sensibilities hadn’t yet caught up to. I’m sure they were traditional Vietnamese wedding foods, but we weren’t really the traditional Vietnamese wedding goers. Not by a long shot. My Abraham Lincoln looking father matched old Abe in every detail, even height and frame. 6’4″ and slender, of Irish and Finnish descent. Still, we were there, her family. We weren’t in the front row, as that was for her Vietnamese family, but we were ushers and pasrticipants, those of us wise enough to recognize and accept that honor. Again, very sorry.

Anyway, there I sat, a foreigner in my homeland at a joyous celebration for my sister and her new husband. The ceremony was in Vietnamese and we knew to follow along. Our little league of nations pew at the church each weekend was one that taught us how to be attuned to ritual and cermony and this was no different. Just a different language. I remember looking back as the music started. My father and sister emerged, arm in arm. They walked down the aisle, she a bride and he her dad. It was beautiful. When they got to the first pew my father stopped, removed his arm and kissed her cheek and handed her hand to her fathers arm who took her the rest of the way and ceremonially gave her away.

I can’t imagine what this was like for her Vietnamese family. I can say that a lot of what I now see as extraordinarily meaningful was not so profound in the moment. I didn’t realize it all, what it all meant at the time. I’m discovering layers even as I write it here.

Our lives take on different meanings as they beat ever forward. Contexts and understandings change as we do. I know that my sister was meant to be a part of my family. It may not have been predestined, it may have come as the result of wretched circumstance. But in the end the love that we had, that persists to this days as we are all flung far and wide is something I’m so thankful for.

The Lodge, Part V: Figuring it Out

‘I really love it. It’s crazy. I’m here with people from all over the world, we work around the clock and we get one day off per 13. It’s perfect.’ I said. I meant it.

‘Joey, I’m so happy for you. I’m so excited.’

‘Thanks. It’s just a lot, but I think I really like it.’

This was my first call home after the guests had arrived. After the week long, 9AM-9PM trainings we were all ready to get to it, whatever it was. Even with that much time spent learning, with that many people who’d done it before there was no amount of preparation that was going to give me so much as a clue as to what that first day would entail.

‘I got picked to be on the bus that went into the city to pick up the guests. It was crazy. Unbelievable how much could happen in so short a time.’

This is not the staff picture from my 1st year. 3rd year, maybe?

About half of us staff were selected to ride the bus down to the city that first day. It really was a good omen, even if I didn’t know it yet. I’d be prepping the busses and coordinating the drop offs and pick ups within a couple of years and would continue to do them for many years after. You really had to trust the people on that crew. Any number of issues could arise, between the guests and their anxiety or separation or some other totally unexpected thing having to do with their diagnosis to random cars breaking down in front of you in the Lincoln Tunnel, car accidents, staff walking off never to be seen again (this happened more than once, place could drive you mad), incidents between guests on the bus, anxious, angry or just plain mean parents (as a rule they were ALL lovely. As a rule. Rules are ocassionally broken), mixed up medication, short fuses, insane heat, torrential rain. Whatever we ran into, whatever ran into us, we were there to check in 60 or so individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, process their personal effects and account for them, ensure they were fully stocked with meds, check in money get them on the bus and start to entertain them and continue to do so, and to be entertained by them for two weeks, sun up to well past sundown. It really was the most amazing thing I’ll ever do. Having and raising kids will mean more, but we can relate to so many others who’ve done it. But this, this was a singular experience.

‘Guests?’

‘Oh, yeah. Thing is they aren’t campers really. They’re grown ups and face it, grown ups don’t go to camps. They go on vacation. So they aren’t campers, they’re guests.’

‘That’s interesting.’ Mom said.

‘Yeah. Not so much, it’s just what it is. You forget about the word after a day of using it. Not even when you hear it so much during training. Truth is I was ready to see some guests by Sunday. They got here, Sunday.’

I was already spewing my person first language, practicing my committment to treating people respectfully and in line with their life experience and not the way I had before those trainings, which would have still been sensitive, but wouldn’t have been mindful of age appropriate language. In real terms I have learned a hand full of things in the 22 years since that week of training, some real valuable things, but none of it will ever come close to what I learned in those two weeks. Two because the training really didn’t end until after the first week that you were putting it into practice with the guys.

The training wea almost all centered around the arts and crafts room that was off the kitchen, the dining hall and the administrative/infirmary hallway. It was painted grey cement floors with knee to ceiling roller windows lining the walls to either side of our rows of chairs we lugged back and forth to and from the dining hall between meals to reset our classroom all day every day. I was given basic, sanctioned safety trainings, by the book and repeated yearly or near yearly since. I was given first hand trainings on what it meant to work in a field that was still populated with residents and former workers at Willowbrook State School. I met some of those who transformed our entire service system, from the inside, from one fraught and underfunded, filled with systemic abuse into one that was so truly person centered that we busted our asses to ensure that every person was given every ability to choose every single activity on their own and we would modify everything to ensure they could do it regardless of ability. I learned what it was like to be a sibling or a parent of a person with a disability from one of those parents. I met some of the heroic figures who said no to Doctors in the fifties who told them to put their child with a disability in the institutions and forget them. I met many of those children who found their way, through decades of darkness, both literally and in every other way and emerged on the other side heroic and still in touch with their tender and delicate humanity which had been so forsaken. They taught me. And I soaked it up. I loved it.

img_0191And I wasn’t alone. There was a core of us who made it through and reaped endless rewards because of it. There were at root about 30 or so of us who worked in cabins, lived with the guys. We were on call all through the night and working every waking minute (save the one hour break you lived for in order to shower and make a ten minute call to whoever to say how amazing the whole thing was or to cry because it was breaking you). Of those thirty about 16 or so made it through the summer. My cabin started with the full allotment of 6 staff. We lost Ausberto and Jim the Marine and I can’t remember who else, but one more. We made it through 3, two week sessions with just me, Mike and Tony. A suburban, an urban and a comrade. We cared for and loved 16 guys in that cabin every day. Two in wheelchairs? No problem, everyone will have what they need cause anyone of us would push ourselves miles past our limits to make sure of it. Truth is we did it to gut busting laughter much of the time. There were moments of discord and hot tempers, but they were over fast. Still love those guys and dozens more and would have the time of my life sitting around a fire all night reminiscing on those days. I can say confidently we all would. I met real family there.

‘Joey. I’m really proud of you.’

It’s still the most important thing I ever hear them say. Whenever they do I just eat it up.

‘Thanks mom. I think you would love it here more than anyone.’

And I’m sure I was right. It was a utopian society experimentation lab built on the ideals I learned from her. Love, compassion, understanding, committment, service and tireless giving that results in you getting so much after giving all of yourself.

Snowy Old Christmas Eve’s at Home

Brockport is a charming Victorian village that straddles the western Erie Canal and it is made only more beautiful for its near constant snow cover for much of the year. We are natives of the snow belt and there was endless pleasure to be derived from its copious bounty. As kids that first snow fall was something approaching magical. We would watch the weather reports, sometimes as early as the beginning of the school year, but usually just before Halloween or shortly thereafter, waiting to see those snowflakes. If it was going to come in the night we’d stay up as late as we could (we were and remain a family of night owls) in hopes of seeing those first flakes fall. If we didn’t make it we were rewarded with the fresh, bright, clean sheet of dazzling white when we woke and it really did make a kids heart skip a beat.

In hindsight I have a great deal of love and respect for how my parents dealt with it. We moved to Brockport, well, Hamlin initially, but to the area when I was a month or two from arriving in the world. Myself and my brothers and sisters are natives and we saw endless delight in skating the ice and digging tunnels in the snow, making a web of undersnow crawl spaces that were so much fun to explore and play in. We couldn’t wait to go sledding down the hill next to the high bridge at the back of the park across the street. We’d be there for hours on end when the snow was good. All day. For my parents winters were a challenge. I see that now as a parent myself. But I’ve moved away from those winters. Sure, New Jersey has winter and the cold can be even worse down here, but the snow, there’s no getting around that.

Having the fairly safe assumption that we would have a White Christmas was pretty great. Our family traveled on Thanksgiving, but Christmas always was at home. When we were lucky it wasn’t just the sitting snow, it was the big fluffy fluttering of a beautiful snow dancing in the floodlights out the front window as we headed out on Christmas eve. We were going to the barn mass usually around 7pm the night before at Martin Farms. It was so cool to see all the folks and more from our weekly mass out and standing, excited and cold. Styrofoam cups of coffee steaming in hand. The kids in the Nativity scene dressed in period and regionally appropriate clothing for Jerusalem, draped over the heavy coats and winter hats. There was livestock present and lights dim.

After mass we got pizza. That was our tradition. We’d all mill around, wondering what the small gifts around the tree in the smolderingly hot living room were. We had a cast iron stove that kept the far reaches of the house warm enough to be sure but made the living room, the secondary hub of our home (kitchen is always primary, no?) at a resting temp of roughly 90 degrees. You think that I’m exaggerating. You do. You have to. The reality is I’m being conservative. I can still feel it and not in some sentimental way. I mean my core temp is still cooling. It was geologically hot.

1017044_10202956744025782_526539434_nSometime between the pizza and the wondering and the heat of the fire and the lights around everything dad would disappear. You wouldn’t notice. He’s like that. As central a figure as he is in all his life, he’s remarkably subtle and he can slip away without notice at any time. Some time after he was gone a strange rollicking would be heard from upstairs. It wasn’t quite from the roof and he didn’t enter through the chimney. Rather, Santa himself would come down the stairs. We would come to discover that he had made his way into the house through the drains. Why else would we catch him emerging from the upstairs bathroom. It started as a joke and was always received that way, but still, in our house the tradition is a tad askew, as we all prefer it. Sounds like something my older brother Mike would have come up with. It was already orthodoxy by the time I became aware.

Besides his penchant for coming in through the pipes there were other signs that our Santa was different. He wore the traditional red with white trim. His beard, though a bit cottony, was never the less white and long. The hat was a match. But there was something about that belly. It didn’t quite fit what you imagined was holding him up in those baggy pant legs. Nor was it really a belly that fit the spindly, long arms. One time I distinctly remember making out the points of a square, roughly the size of that throw pillow from the couch that seemed to have gone missing just then. Regardless, Santa was here and my extraordinarily tall, lean, and incredibly subtle dad was missing it. Again! Oh well…

Santa made it every year I remember while growing up. He would come and sit in Dad’s chair and read us all Twas the Night Before Christmas. We would all sit rapt with attention, trying to suss out how exactly we might be able to catch him this year. We all wanted to see him. We had been told quite early that he was just a story, not real, but we weren’t dummies. We knew better. We’d spend weeks planning our middle of the night espionage in hopes of capturing sight of the midnight, more ‘jolly’ version of this tall Santa with the familiar voice and lap. We never caught him, but we kept planning and trying and we always thought we might get a better chance if we could figure out from this story how he operated in the wee hours. It never happened and slowly the kids that sat at his foot transitioned to younger kids as older kids began to take in the story with mom, a bit behind the younger ones who didn’t want any distractions.

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I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus. Seriously.

Santa then took time out of his busiest of nights to let everyone sit on his lap. Even Mom! We even have picture evidence of her kissing Santa. He would tell us all how we were on the nice list and that we should expect some presents in the morning. He would let us choose one gift from under the tree to open that night. At that point the only gifts were from siblings and Aunt’s and Uncle’s and Grandparent’s. It was agony choosing and you started days in advance. Picking up, shaking, maybe even peeling tape slowly and peeking. I mean, I’ve heard that some people did that. I didn’t, but I’m pretty sure some of the others did.

Before long Pop would return from wherever he had disappeared to so mom could get ready for the midnight mass. We would all be wound up on candy canes and hot chocolate and native excitement for getting gifts that was so close you could taste it. It was all too much and eventually we would go to bed. One by one, falling off and forgetting all our plans to catch the Ho Ho Ho man in the act as the snow flied outside our windows, dreaming of Christmas in our own perfect snow globe.