We lived in New Jersey surrounded by trees in what my father referred to as, “a curious old house.” On Christmas Eve, we had a family tradition. Actually, we had many, but my favorite one was when my father read, Twas the Night before Christmas to the family.
It wasn’t so much the way he read the story, wherein he placed the same comforting emphasis on the same reliable sentences each year. Nor was it how we snuggled up in our pajamas, smiling and excited. These elements were important, but it had more to do with the fact that my father was sober.
I didn’t know why I loved him so much that night every year. I didn’t realize it was because, for some reason, he decided not to drink. I just knew he was present. He was really there: warm, caring, enchanting.
He would read aloud with great theatrical flair, “And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.” I didn’t want it to end. I knew in the morning he’d be distant again, disappearing to “check the garage” or get something out of the basement. Soon, he would act strange and not pay any attention to me. The next thing I knew, he’d be asleep in front of the television and my mother would be sad.
Another tradition was to make sandwiches for Santa Claus. Surely, he would appreciate the nourishment after such a long trip. My two older brothers knew that Santa was actually Dad, but I had not yet discovered this basic fact. You can imagine my horror when one Christmas Eve they told me of their prank: pouring Tabasco sauce on Santa’s snacks. I assumed the red-suited man, nice though he was, would be upset and hurt. Who could blame him? A definitely naughty act had been committed – which I was unable to prevent – and Christmas would be canceled!
Miraculously, the next morning everything proceeded beautifully. I learned years later that Dad thought it was all very funny. He had a great sense of humor, never getting upset about anything – even if there was a need for concern. “No problem” was one of his favorite sayings.
One year, when I was a teenager, he gave me a big hardcover book called, The Synonym Finder, and on it he wrote, “To my favorite daughter, who loves words and things, who is Xmas.” I was his favorite daughter because I was his only daughter. An old joke that never got old for us.
I often search for synonyms in the book he gave me, just for the fun of it, and when I read his inscription to me again, I remember the holidays and how much love and vitality were within him. He wouldn’t always speak the words in depth or at length, but he could write them, and he could communicate with his sparkling eyes.
“We have to have a Yule Log for Christmas!” he’d proclaim excitedly, with the wide-eyed wonder of a kid. This announcement was followed by stomping around outside to locate the biggest piece of wood on the property.
“How about this one, Dad?” I would finally ask.
“No,” he’d whisper, “I have a special one all picked out.”
Eager to see the log he had already picked out, I walked behind him into the woods where the perfect log was finally revealed. This outing was even more adventurous when punctuated by a snowstorm, which we both loved profoundly. In later years, whenever it snowed, we called each other on the phone and said the same thing: “Have you looked outside?” and “Think snow!”
His enthusiasm for snow and life never faltered. Still, I wished for longer talks.
On winter nights, an enormous fireplace lit up our living room with warmth and light and crackling wood. We sat quietly mesmerized by the dancing flames. One holiday, we began talking about a friend of ours who hadn’t had a drink in a very long time. Dad looked deeply into my eyes and said, “I admire him. I just can’t…” Instead of finishing his sentence, his eyes continued to talk to me. I replied – without words and holding his gaze – that it was okay. I understood and loved him very much. At that moment, my stepmother walked in announcing dinner and the subject was never broached again.
A few years later, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Fortunately, he was able to stay at home with his family by his side. His bed was moved next to a big picture window where he could watch the February snow falling softly on bare trees.
He had always predicted he would die quickly, “Like a one-horse open shay!” When I asked what he meant by that, he explained that for years the horse was strong and pulling the weight of a cart, and then one day it would just drop dead unexpectedly. True to his word, he was chopping wood and painting the porch with great gusto right up until his illness struck. Once it hit, he made his transition within a couple of weeks; no long, drawn-out illness for him.
I see him clearly now, sitting on the couch with the classic Christmas book in his lap and his kids gathered around him. The pop and crackle from the fireplace and the colorful tree lights twinkling remind me that everything is okay. I see Dad tip his head to one side – as if listening – then, pointing his finger up to the sky he announces in his most awe-filled voice, “And so, he exclaimed, as he rode out of sight, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”