Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Ghost of Christmas Past

It's Christmas tomorrow. In a few minutes, really, as it's almost midnight. I should be asleep. I wish I were asleep. I'm sick (I think Santa misread my letter because I know I didn't ask for sinusitis) and the urgent care doctor said I should get plenty of rest.

He also said I had tonsilitis, despite the fact that I don't have tonsils, but I've decided to believe that he knows what he's talking about anyway. Hey, maybe my tonsils grew back. Can tonsils grow back? I need to ask Google.

But I can't sleep, and not just because my head is a mucus factory (that mental picture is my Christmas gift to you). I keep thinking about Christmas. Not tomorrow, but last year, the year before, the year before that, and twenty-some-odd years of Christmases past.

(This post isn't going to be about adoption, in case you were wondering. This post is about my dad.)

Some families have stars, but we put an angel on top of our tree.

(Please excuse the inadequacies of my mobile-phone photography)

My mom bought it from the Avon catalog probably before I was born. It was always the last decoration to go up, and although my dad didn't make a big deal of many things at Christmas, he made a big deal of this. The tree wasn't complete without the angel. If I close my eyes it seems like just a few years ago that I was holding the angel carefully in my little hands while my dad picked me up to reach the top of the tree, telling me, "Hold on tight, okay? Don't drop it." My brother Chris and I would fight over who got to put it on. There were a few years where my dad would lift Chris to put it on, then he'd take it off and give it to me so I could put it on. I suspect that in those years, after I'd been put to bed (always first, since I'm the youngest) the angel was removed again so Chris could have the satisfaction of putting the angel on last.

That angel is on top of the tree in my living room. Every time I see it, I remember being a kid, excited about little things like that. I remember my dad, who lifted me up to put the angel on for years after Chris lost interest, even when I was probably much too heavy. It wasn't until I turned 10 or 11 and lost interest too that my dad started putting the angel up by himself.

I wonder if he ever grieved that - the loss of that simple tradition, the young children we once were. I know that Roo seems taller every time I see her and I think, she's growing up faster than seems fair. I'm sure my parents felt the same way. I'm sure my mother looks at me now sometimes and thinks, how is Jill an adult already? It was just a few years ago she started kindergarten. I think that, too.

I didn't think much about my dad being the one to put the angel up until three years ago, the first Christmas after he died. My mom and I put up our little tree - four feet tall, pre-lit - and the last box I opened had the angel in it. There was this moment when I put this last decoration on the tree, and it hit me - the last time I put the angel up, I had help. My father was lifting me up. The last time my hands were on this piece of nostalgia, my father was alive and I was young and I thought he would live forever because he was my daddy.

I always miss him more at Christmas, and I don't know why. My father wasn't a big fan of Christmas. I know that his faith in God was strong. But he had little patience for the commercial side of things - for the flash and the expense and the hassle. I think he saw the modern Christmas celebration as something for the wealthy or the unwise with money. He hated that the birth of Jesus Christ was, for most people, a secondary part of Christmas.

I know that Christmas was hard when he was a kid. His family never had money. One year finances were so tight that my uncle Danny stole a Christmas tree because they weren't going to have one otherwise. Up until I was probably 8 or 9, we bought a fresh tree every year, and there was always a moment when my dad took his wallet out to pay that he sort of stopped, and I know he was thinking of the year Danny stole a tree.

We didn't have any of the kind of traditions that were a given - there were things we'd do for a year or two, or once every few years, depending on circumstances. But there were several years when we'd all sit together and my dad would read Luke 2. He had a very distinct way of reading aloud - sometimes he'd run words together and sometimes he'd pronounce them each more slowly and distinctly - but I found it comforting. I miss the cadence of his voice, his speech patterns. I miss the sound of him speaking, and as the years roll on it gets harder and harder to remember the exact pitch and I think, I heard that voice nearly every single day for 24 years. How can I forget it in only three?

But it's slipping away, and I've no choice but to let it. I'll add it to the list of things I don't remember about my dad anymore. I cry every time I add to the list, and I cling more tightly to the things I do remember about him. How has it been three years already? It seems like yesterday.

I miss him. I miss him every day, but I miss him especially at Christmas. I think it's because enough of what I still do remember about him has to do with Christmas. Probably because my brain has pushed aside memories of school and friends and Girl Scouts and piano lessons and made room only for memories that it thinks are important and valuable, like Christmas.

There are very few Christmas decorations and songs and other things that don't remind me of my dad in some way. I hear "White Christmas" on the radio and I can remember my dad singing along with it, doing his best Bing Crosby impression. There are ornaments from my childhood that I broke more than once and each time it was my father who patiently repaired them with Super Glue. My mom bakes homemade cinnamon rolls every December and when I eat one I think, Dad loved these. Even the act of fluffing my artificial tree's branches reminds me of him, because he was allergic to pine trees and the year we bought a fake tree was probably the happiest Christmas he'd had in ages.

When we opened presents on Christmas morning, it was always my dad who got the camera and took pictures. He never told us to say cheese. He'd just say to my brothers, "Hey, boys," and when they looked up, he took their picture. He was funny that way. We never believed in Santa - my parents didn't feel comfortable lying to us - so I knew, the year I pulled the funnies off a brand-new dollhouse, that it was my dad who had stayed up late putting everything together. He installed batteries, he assembled bikes and inflated their tires, he put stickers on little toys and games. As soon as a toy was unwrapped, my dad would make sure it was ready to be played with.

He was always putting things together, fixing things, finding things, improving things. It wasn't until he was gone that I really appreciated how many things he did, how his mind was always working, how he was always figuring out how things worked and what he could do with them.

But he was most of all a good father, the very best in the world. I always knew that he loved me. He told me so every night before I went to bed, so that when I fell asleep his words were still in my ears. On Christmas, at bedtime, he told me he loved me, and he always said, "Merry Christmas, Jilly Bee" and smiled at me, that smile that I can see traces of in my own face sometimes in the mirror if I turn my head just so and crinkle my eyes like he did.

He's been gone for three years, and I still don't know what I'm going to do without him.

Merry Christmas, Daddy.


Havi Andersen said...

This is a beautiful post.

Monika said...

And now I'm crying. What a beautiful memorial to your dad. Merry Christmas, Jill, and Merry Christmas to your dad too.

Mother of the Wild Boys said...

Daddy's are such special people, I'm glad you have these lovely memories of him. <3