Every year Bernard tried to recreate the feelings he had as a child at Christmas for his own children. He would work overtime and earn every extra bit of money possible to put into gifts and food and decorations for the house. Sometimes he wondered if he exhausted Mabel with all of his plans and shopping and baking escapades. She was always ready to do anything to make him and the children happy…but she often times said she thought they were going overboard.
Bernard didn’t believe that was possible. He wanted everything for his family. Everything, and more, that he could possibly provide.
He had such fond memories of Christmas with his parents and two siblings. In addition to giving that magical feeling of memories for the children, he wanted to relive them and feel them again himself.
Every year his own children, Cora and Oscar, would make lists of things they would like to have. Often times their lists were too practical for Bernard. Most years the gifts he talked Mabel into buying were beyond anything the children would have asked for.
Every year Bernard felt like everyone enjoyed everything but he noticed it took them time to recover from the holidays. They would all be tired, sometimes cranky, and often times…he knows he just missed capturing what he wanted from all that he did. It’s like it was just right…there…and he couldn’t quite grab it.
After last year he spent a lot of time packing up decorations and putting the house back in order. He sent Mabel and the kids out to lunch and the movies. He wanted them to relax and enjoy themselves. He could get it done quicker without everyone tripping around each other. It was only mid-January as he packed and sorted and carried things to the attic but he was already thinking about next Christmas.
What was he going to do. To make it better. More memorable.
He carried the last of the storage boxes up to the attic and on his way down he sat on the steps, his elbows on his knees, his hands folded between his knees, and reminisced. If anyone had seen him they would have wondered about the soft look of joy on his face. He could easily get lost in memories of his youth. Joyful as it was. He constantly referenced his childhood in his thoughts and wanted his children to remember theirs as fondly as he recalled his. He was still sitting there when he heard his family coming in downstairs. He went to join them. Everyone was excited (and relieved) that the house was clean and they had a fun day. As thanks the children made he and Mabel dinner. Grilled cheese sandwiches, tater tots and cottage cheese. The kids picked the menu, they all enjoyed it.
He knew he was lucky. He would go to sleep most nights while in the middle of listing the things he was thankful for. The list always seemed to get longer.
They headed into a new year.
Mid year he had a chance to return to his home town. They lived too far away to make it something to do. Mabel and the children had never even been here. It had been many years since he had been there. A business trip took him ‘home’. After business was done for the day he drove to his childhood home. He was surprised at how small the street felt. The road seemed to have narrowed. The houses seemed to have shrunk. He anticipated that feeling…home. He was anxious to see his old house. He pulled up and parked across the street. He stared at the house from his car. He stared at the past.
‘Shocked’ may have been too strong a definition for how he felt. Surprised? The house he saw in his memories was comfortable, loving and perfect. This house was small, in an aging (not very well) neighborhood. He looked up and down the street for something, someone? familiar. He wanted to visit his childhood.
Bernard leaned his head back and watched the house. He saw life as it had once been. He, his siblings and the other kids in the neighborhood dragging themselves to school and some how finding the energy to bound back home after. Playing outside was the reward and they couldn’t wait. He looked at the houses and envisioned his friends from each house. He could see them all, playing football, basketball, racing, hiding, or even just laying around on the ground throwing balls in the air mindlessly as they talked about the wonders of childhood and their imagined futures.
He brought forward an image of his father walking out of the back door, crossing over to the garage and backing the station wagon out. They would all pile in and go pick out the Christmas tree together. Mom would come up with brilliant ideas to decorate with the pine cones they found lying around the ground at the tree lot. They loved stringing popcorn and baking gingerbread cookies. They went to local schools and churches for the plays and the concerts. Often times walking and joining others from the neighborhood also walking to the events. There was a small ice rink in his friend Zeke’s backyard. Zeke’s dad had grown up ice skating and every year he created a rink in their back yard out of old two by fours, layers of plastic and water from the hose. Bernard couldn’t skate with skates on, he never could manage it. But he would slide around on the ice with everyone else. Sometimes the moms and dads would come out and hang out with them ‘at the rink’.
Bernard smiled at the memory of the neighbors standing in the street on Christmas Eve singing songs, everyone in front of their house with thermos’ of hot chocolate. He is pretty sure the adults had something a little stronger than hot chocolate in their mugs.
As everyone started to get cold families would go in, one by one, each to their own homes. Yelling “Merry Christmas” as they disappeared into their homes. Bernard and his siblings would go in, put on flannel pajamas, they might watch an old Christmas movie on tv. Eat the cookies they had made with mom. They were too excited to go to bed but knew Christmas wouldn’t happen if they didn’t.
On Christmas morning whoever woke up first did not hesitate to wake everyone else. Out to the living room they would run, yelling for mom and dad if mom and dad didn’t get there first. They would stare at the lights bouncing off of the presents under the tree. There was anywhere between two and four presents for each of them. And they each opened a gift, one at a time, to enjoy everything everyone was receiving.
This always took awhile because no one wanted it to end.
But when the gift opening did end, Christmas wasn’t over. They would all go to the kitchen. The kids sat at the table while mom and dad made a big breakfast. Everyone talking about everything and anything. Smiles were plentiful. Love was solid.
Bernard sat in the car, but it was as if he was in that kitchen. He turned his head to look back into time, into the living room. The modest living room of the modest little house. And under the beautiful tree would be scattered modest gifts of a family that celebrated receiving what they needed, what they could afford. And being together.
Christmas day, when it became dark again, the Dunkins family that lived on the corner, always had a bonfire. The only time they didn’t was the year that Christmas had a downpour and the fire wouldn’t stay lit. There were bales of hay to sit on and everyone gathered and talked about the holiday. Sometimes there was more singing. Sometimes the whole neighborhood showed up, sometimes just a few families.
After spending enough time in the past Bernard drove back to his present and planned on his future.
Mabel was surprised, but pleasantly, when Bernard didn’t start working all of the overtime he could, months before Christmas. He seemed more present with her and the children. Though he worked very hard for them he had not ever seemed to be enjoying the holidays. He was constantly trying to work something into their lives that she couldn’t understand. They baked cookies twice, not five times, freezing some for Christmas, eating some as they baked. And Bernard told the children about his Christmas’ with his mom and dad and how much he missed them. They went to the children’s Christmas programs. They went to the niece’s and nephew’s Christmas programs. They walked their neighborhood to see the Christmas lights.
One night Mabel and the children saw Bernard sitting outside on the front steps of their front porch. He was bundled up for the cold. There was a thermos next to him. Mable and the kids put coats on to see what he was doing. They were surprised to hear him softly singing “O Christmas Tree”. They sat on the steps and sang with him, he poured hot chocolate from the thermos into mugs and passed them around. They sat outside for almost an hour singing songs together.
One night Bernard was popping massive quantities of popcorn. The children had no idea what he meant by “we’re going to string popcorn”. He showed them how. By the time they went to bed the tree was covered in popcorn strings. Haphazardly beautiful.
When Christmas morning broke cold and frozen the children were yelling “mom” and “dad” because they beat Bernard and Mable to the tree. There were a few presents for each of them. Not a room full like in years past. It did not seem to strike the children as odd, or bad. Their excitement was true. They each opened a present one at a time. Everyone appreciating the thoughtfulness that went into each gift.
After the gift opening ended they all went to the kitchen. Mabel and Oscar made breakfast while Bernard and Cora sat at the table. They all talked about everything and anything. Happily. Easily. Joyfully.
Bernard briefly closed his eyes and felt Christmas had returned. Mabel and the children each had their moments of knowing this was the best Christmas they ever had. And all of them hoped to know it again. Just like this.