Nothing screams “Christmas is coming, Christmas is coming” quite like those holiday songs that now start, seemingly, on Halloween. As Dean Martin croons “Let it Snow,” Bing is telling everyone who’ll listen that he wants a white Christmas while Elvis is convinced his will be blue, my mind is creating that list of dreaded things to do in preparation.
Despite those songs, despite the store displays that appear the day after Halloween (if not before), despite the numerous cars on the road with trees strapped to the roofs, Christmas always come as a surprise to my sister.
My mother went to her grave not understanding how her first born – an intelligent, wise and thoughtful person (most of the time) could, year-after-after, fall victim to a sneak attack by Santa.
“She does this every year,” said my mom, every year, about my sister Mary Beth. “How does she not realize Christmas is next week?”
Let’s be clear. The actual event of Christmas does not come as a surprise to Beth. The day the event falls on does. So, she knows that Christmas is Dec. 25, but each year, as the days in December fall away, she’s sadly unaware that Dec. 25 is just a week away. Or days away.
I’m quite the opposite. I guess that’s because I’m trained to adhere to deadlines of all kinds. So, when those songs start, I start the process of at least thinking about timelines and deadlines leading up to Dec. 25. So I’m never taken by surprise by the arrival Santa, his elves and his reindeer (OK, some years I did forget to buy carrot sticks, but we always had the cookies to leave out – and eat).
What has been taking me by surprise, though, is my daily drive down memory lane – when my mind is taken over by thoughts of Christmases past. And I’m on an express ride to my childhood Christmases — when the experience of Christmas was just that, an experience. It was something that happened to me, not because of me. No planning, no cleaning, cooking, writing out greeting cards or decorating. Christmas just happened for me. The only thing I was responsible for was paging through the coveted Sears’ Wish Book – the most sought-after reading material for kids 12 and under. That book got more hands-on time than even the sports record books in our house.
My most cherished Christmas presents, which I’ve written about — the Barbie camper, the Little Kittles’ house (with working elevator!!), my ABA basketball – are still front and center in my Christmas present Hall of Fame.
But lately I’ve been thinking about the one gift I didn’t ask for, but the one I hold most dear to my heart – a leather jacket.
When I was a junior in high school my mom decided we (the five kids) should have a Pollyanna style gift-exchange. I can’t remember whose name I pulled out of the hat, but I remember who got my name. We had a limit of $10-$20, which was a hefty price tag back then, but still reasonable for kids ranging in age from 16 (me) to 24. We exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve, and when it came to my turn, my brother Terry handed me a pretty big box. I was surprised by the size, and when I opened it – I was shocked by what I saw. A beautiful, very cool, leather jacket. I had never received such an extravagant gift. Did I mention it was really cool? And fashionable? I tried it on, and it fit great. I hugged my brother, who shrugged it off as not a big deal. But it was a huge deal to me – that someone, especially my brother, would do something so wonderful for me.
Later, my mom pulled me aside and asked if I really liked the jacket. Of course, I answered, it was a wonderful thing he did and I told her I still couldn’t believe it. My mom told me Terry wanted me to get me a leather jacket because all my friends had leather jackets, and he didn’t want me to be the only one without one.
A year later I wore that leather jacket to Terry’s funeral.
He was killed in a fire on Dec. 27, 1978 – and the temperature the day of his funeral was in the 20s. That leather jacket didn’t do much to keep me warm, but it was a comfort all the same.
It’s that jacket that led me to realize exactly why Christmases past hold such sway over me. It’s not the presents I received, or the fun I had, or the carefree days of toys and games that enchant me – it’s what those toys, games and presents gave me – memories, time spent with the people who meant the world to me.
That Barbie camper? Sure, it was a ton of fun to take Ken and Barbie on pretend trips to the mountain. That Barbie camper was the precursor to the Cabbage Patch Doll and Tickle Me Elmo. It was high in demand and low in supply. But my grandmother, who didn’t drive, hopped on bus after bus until she found one in King of Prussia. I was a bit older when my mom told me what Nana went through just so I’d get that camper, I thought about Nana – the woman who helped raise me, who protected me and cared for me and taught me and comforted me. How blessed I was to have a grandmother like Nana.
And once I got my hands on that camper my best friend Denise Vargo and I spent hours playing with it. Denise and I took Ke , Barbie and their friends to the mountains, to the beach (Denise did, after all, have Malibu Barbie) – anywhere we could set up camp.
That ABA basketball? Being the youngest in a family driven by the sport, basketballs were never hard to find. We had a huge box in the garage filled with them. But they were old, beat up and deflated and I never could find a stupid needle to inflate any of the basketballs. I longed for my own basketball – one I knew would have air in it and one I could hide in my room so I’d always know where to find it.
Santa delivered when I was in sixth grade – just as my love of the sport really took root. It was my constant companion – I took it every day to Rittenhouse to shoot around, challenged anyone who was near the courts to games of Around the World, and practiced my cross-over dribble. But then, I found a new use for that prized basketball.
Terry used that ABA basketball to teach me how to spin a ball on my finger (and that’s like riding a bike, you never forget). He was good enough to move the ball from finger to finger, but I just mastered the single-digit spin. Good enough impress my friends.
And that same ABA ball was the one Denise blocked while I was attempting a shot. I still have the crescent-shaped scar from when her fingernail pierced my palm. It was a clean block (we went by the philosophy the hand is part of the ball). I look at the scar often, and think of Denise often – another person gone from this world too young and too soon.
Score Four, Rebound, Stay Alive, Battleship, Connect Four – I don’t remember the exact rules of these games from my childhood but I remember squaring off against my brothers for competitions and even tournaments.
The leather jacket, the camper, the basketball, the games – they’re all just things. Really. Random gifts left under the Christmas tree that – by description – are really just normal, typical things that kids would wish for.
But now, well, those gifts are so much more than what they were when I first got them. They’re tributes to people I love — people who helped shaped me and helped me to grow, people who taught me how to live life the right way.
So, while I will always cherish the memories of the jacket (which I still have, actually, covered in plastic and safely stored away – but it does still fit!) – the ABA basketball and the Barbie camper and all the other whispers from Christmases past, I look forward to Christmas Present – because Christmas is no longer something that happens for me. It happens for my kids – it happens so my children will receive the same type of gifts, the same type of memories, that will stay with them a lot longer than a Furby, or remote control Barbie convertible or a doll house. The memories will be the true gifts.
And I pray that these words will serve as a reminder to my sister Mary Beth – Christmas is in 3 weeks.