Christmas Time Is Here

Friday, December 23, 2011

"L, wake up."

A hand gently shook my shoulder. It was cold to the touch. 

I had been dreaming that I was unwrapping the Mego Planet of the Apes Treehouse, which I had been pining for with a white-hot intensity unmatched since… well, since I had pined after the Coleco NHL Table Hockey game the previous year. I was a fickle child.

In the faint glow of my Charlie Brown night light I saw my father standing over me, dressed in his police patrolman's uniform. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, then lifted the shade and looked outside. The downtown city skyscrapers glistened in the frosty air. It was pitch black outside.

"What time is it?"

"4:00 AM," my father said. "We need to get you up."

"How come you're home so early?" I asked. His shift usually started at midnight and ended at 8:00 AM. "And how come I have to get up now? School isn't until 8:30."

A veteran insomniac at the tender age of nine, I'd learned to treasure any night when I wasn't listening to my younger brother F snore in his adjacent room.

My father smiled.

"I took the rest of the night off. And you aren't going to school today."

That got my attention.

"I'm not? But it's our last day before Christmas vacation. We're having the Christmas grab."

"Your mother dropped off your gift for the grab yesterday while she was lunch monitor. And she picked up your gift too. If you get up and brush your teeth, you can open it on the way."

Now I was really intrigued.

"On the way where?" 

"I guess you'll have to get up and find out, won't you?" he said. "C'mon; I have to go wake up your brother."

"I hope you brought your gun home with you," I said. Surly DMV workers and hibernating bears alike cowered in fear at the specter that was F when awoken before he was ready. Typically, that was at least twelve hours after his head hit the pillow. If you were lucky.

"I have my billy club, so I like my chances," he said, tapping his holster. "Wish me luck; I'm going in."

I fired off a crisp salute. He returned it, then opened the sliding door leading to my brother's room. He may have flinched, but it was difficult to tell in the pre-dawn light.

Yawning mightily, I stood, slipped on my giant fuzzy slippers, and padded off to the bathroom.


Moments later, teeth brushed and cowlicks momentarily wrestled to a standoff, I emerged from the bathroom. My sister C, still clad in her nightgown, stood wide awake, seemingly unperturbed by the freakishly early hour. Her beloved stuffed dog Brownie, was, per usual, clutched in her hand. 

C had been in and out of the hospital a number of times the past several years due to a recurring health issue. Brownie had accompanied her on each and every stay, to the point that he was as familiar a face to the hospital staff as my parents.

"Hi C," I said.

"Brownie wants to sing a song," she announced.

Oh, no, I thought. 

Brownie's muse typically struck when C wanted something she guessed, usually correctly, that my parents wouldn't approve. It was then that C pulled out her secret weapon: Her voice, an instrument that produced an atonal warbling that would have reduced Yoko Ono herself to tears. Out of jealousy or pain, one can only speculate. It was crude, but effective.

"C, it's too - "

"Canada Dry/Ginger ale/Canada Dry/Ginger a-a-a-ale…" C/Brownie mewled.

"For God's sake, C, would you please stop?"

My mother stepped from her bedroom, shaking her head as she adjusted her watch.

"Brownie's thirsty," C said, undeterred.

"Then Brownie can have some apple juice."

C held Brownie to her ear. She shook her head vigorously.

"Brownie says he wants tonic."

"Apple juice or Zarex. Your choice."

"But Brownie wants tonic!"

"Well, I guess Brownie will die of thirst, then," said my mother as she turned away.

Frowning, C consulted with Brownie, then sighed the weary sigh of the perpetually put-upon.

"Oh, all right. If it will make you happy, Brownie will have some Zarex."

My mother nodded and set off downstairs, Brownie and C in tow.

"Make way, L!"

I turned to see my father approach with F slung over his shoulder, arms and legs flopping and head bobbing with every step. F had apparently left his skeletal structure behind in his bed, so complete was his state of repose.

"Your brother's having a little trouble waking up," said my father, unnecessarily. "M!" he called to my mother. "How are we going to get F's teeth brushed?"

"Is he still out?" she said in disbelief from the bottom of the stairs. "I wish I could sleep like that."

"But you do, Mom," I said.

"You'd be exhausted too if you had to clean up your room after you're finished playing every day," she said. "Which, now that I think about it…"

"Um, I think I'll go find my jacket," I said, slowly retreating.

"Try under your bed," she said as she climbed the steps. " If you dare. And tell your sister to get her coat too."

I headed back to my room.

"Let's just get him dressed, B,"  I heard her say. "He'll wake up in the car."

"You know," my father said, "If all fails we can swing by the fire station on the way and borrow a defibrillator..."


I was sitting in the back seat of our green Ford Gran Torino Squire station wagon. We sat a traffic light. Ours was the only vehicle on the road in all directions.

My sister and Brownie were riding shotgun all the way in the back. My brother F, semi-comatose for the first 20 minutes of our journey to an as yet unspecified destination, stirred beside me, eyes slowly gaining focus. I kept my distance; I had watched Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom enough to know that you wake a hibernating bear at your peril.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"If you'd woken up when L and I did you'd already know," snapped C from the back.

"I'm not talking to you!" he snarled.

"No, I'm not talking to you," she said.

"Nuh-huh! I said I'm not talking first!"

"Did not!"

"Did too!"

The tenuous detente that had prevailed for the past few days in the ongoing Cold War between F and C was in peril. While the origins of the latest dispute were known only to the two combatants and the impartial arbiter who had negotiated the latest cease-fire (i.e. Mom), tensions could be traced to the distant past - five years ago, when what became known as the Pudding Incident occurred. 

C and F had become dissatisfied with the decor of the bedroom the three of us shared in the first floor apartment we rented from our upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Kelly.  A kindly widow who always remembered our birthdays with a gift box of Fanny Farmer lollipops, Mrs. Kelly's sense of aesthetics apparently failed to pass muster with C and F one summer morning. Deciding that the beige wallpaper in our bedroom could stand some brightening, C and F searched for a suitable canvas upon which they might unleash their heretofore-untapped interior decorator skills. 

Showing formidable ingenuity, they were able to recognize the previously unseen artistic possibilities in the Hunts Snack Pack pudding they found in the refrigerator. Eschewing anything as mundane as viewing them simply as a tasty dessert, they instead saw the perfect medium with which to create a Mark Rothko-esque tableau on our bedroom walls, alternating rows of chocolate, vanilla, and, in one, much-disputed departure, butterscotch. (I had, alas, compromised their vision by eating the other can while they worked.)

As so often happens, our parents failed to grasp the significance of C and F's breakthrough, asserting that Mrs. Kelly would not, in fact, reward their ingenuity by becoming their patron. (In their case, that meant more lollipops.) Sadly, their creative partnership splintered in the wake of this drubbing. Rather than further exploring their vision, they made the fatal mistake of believing their reviews, holding each other responsible for sullying their original, purer intent. And thus began the off-and-on Cold War in our household.

(As an aside, in an early declaration of artistic independence, your narrator also chose that particular morning to follow his muse. Seeing the clash of egos that doomed the partnership of my siblings, I chose to strike out alone in search of new territory. I quickly settled upon a mixed media project that would recontextualize common household objects. For what I envisioned as the first in an ongoing series, I chose to work with the materials at hand by creating an ice cream sundae in a bed. Specifically, my brother F's bed. (No sense wasting my own on a mere draft, after all.) My efforts, alas, met with an even harsher critical response. Such is the lot of the visionary in contemporary society. But I digress.)

I heard a gentle thud from the front seat. Looking up from my Peanuts book, I peered over the front seat to see my father slumped forward, pressing his forehead against the steering wheel.

"Mom, why is Dad banging his head against the steering wheel?" I asked.

"Your father hasn't had his coffee yet," she said.

"There's a Mister Donut over there," said my brother.

"We're in a hurry," said my mother.

"Brownie wants hot chocolate," called out C.

"We're not stopping for hot chocolate for anyone," said my mother.

"But - "

"That includes Brownie."

"Now you've hurt Brownie's feelings," said C, pouting.

"He'll get over it," said my mother.

I heard C clear her throat. Uh oh. I quickly ducked my head and covered my ears.

"Feelings/Nothing more than feelings/Trying to forget my/Feelings of - "

Suddenly, all was silence. Sweet, blessed silence. I uncovered my ears and opened my eyes, trying to ascertain what had wrought this miracle. I shuddered.

My mother was turned all the way around in her seat. And she was giving C The Look.

The Look was the ultimate arrow in my mother's quiver. Seldom seen, and accordingly feared all the more when it was deployed, it's power was not limited to the likes of myself and my siblings. Neighborhood children, tardy delivery men, and even my father's fellow police officers cowered in fear before The Look. 

Satisfied order had been restored, my mother turned forward. The light had, finally, turned green. Such was the power of The Look.



I looked up, engrossed in my book. My mother was looking at me, not unkindly.

"Sorry, Mom. I didn't hear you."

"Good book?"

"Yeah. Snoopy's redecorating the inside of his doghouse."

I studied the page again. 

"What's a Van Gogh?"

My father spoke.

"He was an artist. Snoopy has a Van Gogh?"


My father considered this.

"Interesting dog."

"Yeah, he's cool."

My mother pointed to the large bag at my feet. She had carried it out to the car without comment when we left.

"Is that too heavy for you to lift?"

I eyed it dubiously. 

"I'll bet F can."

Despite being two years younger, F was much bigger than I was. Most people, relatives included, assumed I was the youngest and he was the oldest. F lifted the bag without effort.

"Do you need it up there?" I asked.

"No, I just wanted to see if one of you could carry it when we get to the airport."

Airport? I thought. 

"Why are we…" I stopped.

"Are we picking someone up at the airport?" I asked.

My mother and father both nodded.

"Who?" F asked. My building excitement was mirrored in his voice. Even C was listening now.

"Why don't you look in the bag and see if you can guess?" asked my father, trying, and failing, to suppress a smile.

F unzipped the canvas bag, reached in, and pulled out two pairs of identically sized boys Toughskin jeans. Next came two pairs of work boots, also the same size. Then two Mighty Mac winter coats… suddenly it all made sense.

"They're home!" I cried. I looked at F, nearly bouncing out of my seat. "J and K are coming here for Christmas!!!"

F's looked back, uncomprehending. Then, after a moment, he, too, began to shout.

"J and J are home!" He turned to the back seat, feud forgotten. "C, J and J are home!"

C's large blue eyes were open wide. For perhaps the first time ever, she was speechless.

I turned to the front seat.

"Are Aunt M and Uncle A home too?"

My mother's face lit up.

"They are."

"Will they be here for Christmas?"

She nodded. I'd never seen her happier.

"They will."

I leaned forward and banged the back of the front seat.

"Hurry, Dad! Hurry!"

"I'm guessing they won't turn around and go back if we're late," he said. "Not after a 24 hour flight, at least."

Twenty-four hours on a plane. I had never flown; in fact, I'd never gone anywhere in a car that took longer than five hours. 

"They were a long way away," weren't they, Mom?" I asked.

Her eyes clouded.

"Yes. They were a long way away," she said.

Her expression brightened, and she smiled again, content.

"But now they're here."

They're here, I thought. They're finally, finally here.


Aunt M is my mother's identical twin sister, the youngest of eight children. Like most twins, they are extraordinarily close; saying they are each other's best friend doesn't do justice to the depth of their relationship. They can communicate without speaking, and, in fact, seem to know exactly what the other is thinking or feeling at all times. It can be a bit eerie to witness this.

My Aunt M and Uncle A married several years after my parents and, remarkably, had identical twins, J and K, who were the same age as my brother F. (While it's a myth that identical twins skip a generation, it's still unusual.) As you might imagine, our families were extremely close. Our other cousins (I have well over 30 first cousins, some of whom are as old as my parents) could never tell J and K apart, but my family had no trouble. 

J, K, and my aunt and uncle lived near my family for several years. Then myUncle A, an up-and-coming engineer with a large defense contractor, was assigned to work on a cutting-edge project. Unfortunately, the project meant that he, my aunt, and my cousins would have to move to a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for several years. I remember little about their departure; I was no more than six years old, if that. The one firm memory is playing with my cousins at their all but empty house on Thanksgiving Day while my Aunt M finished packing all of their family's belongings for shipping. I don't remember saying goodbye at all.


For the next three years our only direct contact with our closest relatives in those pre-Internet times was an occasional trans-oceanic phone call. Because they were seven hours behind us, coordinating a time when pre-K schoolchildren were all awake was difficult, if not impossible. All the more reason we treasured them.

The more common form of communication came from cassettes that my Aunt M and, on the rare occasions he wasn't working or traveling to Japan, Australia, or New Zealand, Uncle A would record with J & K and mail to my mother. I remember my father picking up my grandmother from her retirement community so we could all listen to the first side of the tape together as a family. At the end of that side - which always came much too quickly - my Aunt would instruct my cousins to said goodbye to us, then tell my mother she could listen to the rest of the tape after we went to bed.

I never thought too much about this until years later. I had received a boom box for my 14th birthday and was constantly filling up tape after tape. When I wasn't recording directly off the radio (a local station played a classic album every night at midnight, which fueled my love for The Byrds, The Band, The Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, and, most of all, The Beatles), I was goofing around with friends, spending hours pretending we were DJs on our own radio station.

One afternoon, my friend T was over, and we wanted to record our latest magnum opus. Scrounging around in my closet, T spotted a dusty box tucked behind some old blankets. We pulled it down and, upon opening it, discovered a box of cassettes with unfamiliar handwriting. After a moment, I realized what we had found. Excited, we grabbed the tapes and my boom box and raced downstairs to the kitchen where my mother was cooking dinner.

"Mom! Mom! Look what I found!"

She turned around and glanced at the cassette I held in my hand.

"What are those?" she asked.

"They're the tapes Aunt M and Uncle A sent us!  I brought down my boom box; let's listen! It'll be a riot!"

"Throw those out," she said. Her voice was flat.

"Huh?" I stammered. "Throw them out? You're joking, right?"

"Throw. Them. Out." After a moment, her voice softened. "Please."

T and I glanced at each other. I shrugged and said sure.

"Do not listen to those," she said, staring at me.

"Okay, we won't listen to them," I said.

We won't listen to them, I thought. But I will.


Late that night, long after everyone had gone to sleep, I sat in my room, the box of tapes at my side. I picked one up, opened the case, and flipped it over to Side B. The other side, as it were. Headphones on, I held the boom box remote in my hand. 

I paused, and wondered again why my mother, typically restrained in most matters, was so adamant in this case.

I thought of my Aunt at the time she recorded those tapes. A young mother, only in her mid-twenties, living with a frequently absent husband and two small children, literally in the middle of nowhere. Thousands of miles from everyone she knew and loved, most especially her beloved twin sister.

My thoughts then jumped ahead several years. Back from their island stay, finally getting ready to settle down, my aunt, uncle, and cousins were building their dream home about half an hour north of where my family lived. One snowy winter weekend, my aunt invited myself and my siblings to spend a weekend with her and my cousins in the chalet they owned. Because C and F were sick, I was the only one well enough to make the trip.

We spent the entire day cavorting in the snow, racing our sleds down the nearby hills and staging massive snowball fights. Finally succumbing to the cold, I went inside for a moment to warm up before venturing back out. My aunt stood at the kitchen sink, an empty glass in one hand and dish towel in the other.

"I just came in for a sec to warm up," I said, unzipping my coat.

Glancing over, my aunt gave me a quick once-over, then stopped and looked again.

"Why don't you run upstairs and change?" she said, not unkindly.

"I'll be ready to go back out in a sec," I said. "No sense getting more clothes wet, right?"

"No, I think you need to go upstairs, hon." She pointed to my pants.

I glanced down. My pants were soaked. I had been out in the cold so long I had wet myself and hadn't even realized it.

Before I could say anything, J burst in the back door behind my aunt. Without hesitation, my aunt reached over with the dish cloth and began scrubbing my pants.

"Your aunt M is such a klutz sometimes, L! An entire glass of water all over you!" She turned to J. "Would you run upstairs and get a pair of jeans and underwear for L from his suitcase?"

J rolled his eyes. 

"Nice work, Mom. At least you didn't  dump hot chocolate all over him." He bounded up the steps, two at a time.

My aunt leaned over and whispered in my ear.

"Don't worry, L. This will be our secret. Okay?" She squeezed my shoulder and smiled.

I looked again at the boom box. After a moment, I reached down and pressed Erase.


We stood waiting, watching as the last of the passengers slowly trudged past us at the gate. My mother had been given special permission to board the airplane with the winter clothes in the bag we had carried in. Unsurprisingly, J and K had little need for overcoats when the average year-round temperature was 82 degrees.

"Are they staying at our house with us?" asked C.

"They are," replied my father. "We'll set up cots for them in the living room."

"I want to sleep downstairs!" cried F.

"Me too!" said C.

I remained silent. I doubted we could all fit in the living room. Let the little kids have their fun, I thought, a veteran at nine years old. Also, I secretly worried that If we all were downstairs, it might be too crowded for Santa to get to the Christmas tree. But I kept my own counsel.

"We'll see," said my father.

And then they were here.

Uncle A emerged first, his usual five o'clock shadow even more pronounced than usual after a day-long flight. C raced over and leapt into his arms.

"Well, hello there," he said, smiling. "You must be the welcoming committee."

Aunt M was next, her arms laden with the summer clothes J and T had shed moments before. J and T followed, peering cautiously at the door of the shutlte gate before entering the terminal. railed by J and T. F, suddenly shy, stood behind my father. Not wanting to appear unduly excited, I nodded briefly to J and T, who nodded back. Brothers in cool. Last but not least came my mother, clutching the remaining clothes and assorted detritus accumulated during the long flight.

We all stood for a moment, no one sure quite what to do.

Aunt M turned to my father.

"How are you, W-?" she asked, using her favorite nickname for him. He pretended it annoyed him, but he secretly delighted in the barbed give and take between he and M.

"It's a long walk back to my house, M," he said with mock gravity. "I'd treat your chauffeur with a bit more respect."

"Oh, piss on your respect," she said. Then she strode over. They exchanged a long embrace as she whispered in his ear. He nodded, smiling.

"Aunt M, my mother says you don't like to cook," C said, as my mother blanched.

"Nonsense," said Aunt M. "I'll make my favorite breakfast when we get back to your house."

"What's that?" I asked.

"S*** on a shingle," she said immediately.

Uncle A rolled his eyes.

"For God's sake, M, he's nine years old!" he said, laughing.

"Oh, L knows I'm just teasing, right hon?"

I nodded. Better play along, I thought. This could go south in a hurry.

J finally spoke.

"Where's the snow?"

My father shook his head.

"Doesn't look good, guys, I'm afraid. This is what they're predicting for the next few days," he said, gesturing to the slowly brightening, slate gray skies outside.

K sighed. 

"I really wanted to make a snowman," he said sadly.

"Me, too," said J.

"Don't worry, gents," Uncle A said. "I'm sure we'll get plenty of snow."

"Whenever your next trip is scheduled, I'm guessing," added my father.

Uncle A laughed again.

"If the past is any guide, then yes, that would a logical assumption. But," he said, putting my sister down, "I'm happy to say that that won't be for quite a while."

"But then we won't have a white Christmas!" exclaimed F, suddenly finding his voice.

"We're all together again," said my mother, eyes moist. "And that's all that matters."

Somehow I knew she was right. This was going to be one of the best Christmases ever.


"L! Wake up!"

I groaned and rolled over. I had been dreaming that J, K, and myself were busy staging a raid of the newly-constructed Planet of the Apes treehouse.

"L! L! Wake up!"

Do these people have something against me sleeping? I thought bitterly. I'm on vacation, for crying out loud.

A hand shook me vigorously.

"L! Would you wake up! Look!"

That wasn't an adult voice. I sat up and forced my eyes open. J, K, and F were bouncing from one cot to the other. C stood next to me, a look of awe on her face.

"What's got into you?" I asked, puzzled.

Eyes wide, she pointed to the window.

Shaking my head, I emerged from my sleeping bag, pulled on my slippers, and padded over the window. I lifted the shade. Then I gasped.


It was snowing. 

And not just flurries, but a good old-fashioned Nor'Easter. The entire neighborhood was blanketed in at least a half-foot of the white stuff, and more was falling.

My father and Uncle A entered the living room, nursing a cup of coffee.

"Uncle A!  Dad! Look! It's snowing!" I shouted.

They looked out the window.

"Well, so it is," Uncle A said. He set his coffee cup on the fireplace mantle next to the ceramic Christmas tree my grandmother had painted and given my parents for their first Christmas together. (Every year my grandmother asked if they had set it up; every year my father replied that he had thrown it in the trash. And every year she fell for it. Or at least pretended she did while we were around.)

"This is perfect. You'll all have plenty of time to finish your homework now."

"HOMEWORK?!?!" screamed C, F, and I simultaneously.

"Oh, didn't your Mom tell you?" my father asked. "Your teachers sent home all the work you missed yesterday. Plus extra, because you got out early and all."

"EXTRA?!?!" we shrieked, our voices approaching sonic boom levels.

"But don't worry," he continued. "With J and K helping, you should have it all finished by the end of tomorrow."

J and K joined the howls of protest.

"But tomorrow is Christmas!" shouted F.

Uncle A shook his head sadly.

"Do you really think Santa will look kindly on you slacking off on Christmas Eve?"

Aunt M called from the kitchen.

"W, A, what the hell are you telling those children?"

"We were simply explaining that they needed to finish their homework this morning," Uncle A said. "Otherwise Santa would be ups-"

He stopped mid-sentence. Aunt M and my mother stood at the door. 

I gasped. 

They were giving Uncle A and my father… The Look.

Wow, I thought, awed. They really are identical!

"Well, I suppose it can wait 'til this afternoon," he said, picking up his coffee cup.

"Looks like someone will be getting coal in his stocking this year," observed my father.

"Why should this year be any different?" Uncle A replied. He clapped his hands.

"Last one outside has to make the hot chocolate afterwards!" he exclaimed. "That includes you too, B," he said to my father as he headed for his suitcase.

"I figured," said my father. "That's why I left your clothes at the airport yesterday."

I scrambled up the stairs to my bedroom, hoping my boots weren't under my bed. (I never did around to cleaning it the day before.) I stopped on the stairs for a moment, surveying the chaotic scene below. 

This isn't one of the best Christmases ever, I thought. It is THE best Christmas.


To this day, that long-ago Christmas is still the best Christmas ever. Later this morning, I'll be packing my car and headed north. I'll be busy shuttling back and forth between my brother's house, where he and his family will be hosting their annual Christmas Eve party, and my parents, who will, as always, be hosting Christmas Day. 

Everyone will be in attendance: my mother and father, my sister C, my brother F, my Uncle Al and Aunt M, and my cousins J and K. We'll be joined by assorted nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles and loved ones. My pal M (my mother refers to him as her adopted Jewish son), who attends when work commitments keep him in town, will be in Florida with his family this year, but he'll be there in spirit.

Only my sister C knows my secret so far; I plan to tell the rest of my family in the New Year. While I can't predict the future, thinking back on the warm memories of that best of Christmases makes me think I have pretty good odds. 

I hope that wherever this holiday season finds you that you are with those you love and those who love you back. We all deserve no less.

Merry Christmas, everyone!


P.S. Santa did bring me the Planet of the Apes Treehouse that year. I told you it was the best Christmas ever!


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