Sunday, December 12, 2010
Ghosts of seasons past...
We were a young family of four --my petty officer sailor husband, my 5 year old son and my 2 year old daughter. We lived in a small community in a townhome that once served as officer’s family quarters during WWII. It was a quiet narrow street that only allowed one car to traverse down its pavement at a time. A car in one direction was always pulling over for another car coming in the opposite direction. For the most part, our neighbors were carbon copies of us—young families who were just trying to make ends meet and have a good life.
We didn’t have a car. We were within walking distance to the business circle where there was a grocery and drug store. There was also a soda shop, hardware store and post office. Riley commuted with a shipmate to the nearby naval base where his ship was home ported. Everything we needed was right there. It was our very own
Although Riley may have been vertically challenged, he was strong and brilliant. He was set in his ways and routine. Getting him to be spontaneous was impossible. If he switched coffee brands – well that was spontaneous enough for him. He was a planner.
When arriving home after work he removed his jacket, took off his shoes, put on his slippers and then he would wait. He would stand in the hallway and wait. I would come out of the kitchen and give him a kiss, ask about his day. He responded, but he didn’t leave the entryway. He was waiting.
Brian would get up and come over to his father and give him a hug while being a little irritated because it meant he would have to stop whatever was holding his attention at the time. But, Alea… well... she would bounce through the room and almost literally climb her father’s frame to get into his arms. Once there, her little arms would wrap around his neck. Then, as though it were choreographed, she would trill his handlebar moustache between her tiny fingers. The wait was over. Riley could now head upstairs to get out of his sailor suit and into his real clothes.
There wasn’t a lot of bad weather, but when it hit us – it hit us hard. This particular holiday season we were dodging snowflakes on an almost daily basis. Walking to the grocery store was nearly impossible. And, it was almost Christmas and Santa had not done much shopping. We were spending quite a bit on taxi cabs to run our necessary errands. So, Santa’s budget was dwindling.
We were down to our last $50 when we finally made it to the drug store on Christmas Eve. They didn’t have a lot, but we spent the entire $50 on cheap plastic toys that parents now-a-days would ban from their homes -- A plastic dump truck, a few little cars, some pop-beads, a little doll, some coloring books and crayons, socks and two hats. We still had some left for candy, a couple of oranges and apples for the stockings. We’re talking about nearly 40 years ago – so a little $$ went much farther then.
On our way home, we passed the Christmas tree lot. The lot was closing down and to keep from having to burn the left over trees, they were giving them away. We dragged one home along with our other goodies. It was still early and Brian and Alea were delighted with the short bushy tree. It was given a place of honor in the corner next to the big boxy black and white TV.
We drank hot chocolate, ate caramel apples, cookies and carrot sticks. We strung popcorn and made paper chains and hung them on the tree. Then we decided to put out a snack for Santa. Riley insisted that Santa was trying to trim a few pounds so we set out carrot and celery sticks instead of cookies.
Once the kids were tucked into bed, I started to work on wrapping the gifts. I wanted to have a large “Santa” toy unwrapped under the tree, but we didn’t have one. Thank goodness I saved the previous year’s wrapping paper. So I meticulously wrapped each gift and placed it under the tree in a way that made it look like there was a lot more than there was.
I had a glass of wine (a gift from the neighbors) and Riley had the rest of the bottle. We stared at the tree in awe over how festive it looked. We ate Santa’s snack as a reward for having done a good job. We were exhausted and no doubt the kids would be up early in the morning – at least Brian would be – Alea not so much. Even at two years old, she liked her beauty sleep. The true test of our success would be determined in the morning.
We were up early on Christmas morning. We were preparing our coffee when we realized we were out of milk. We absolutely could not be out of milk. Alea would surely have a terrible temper tantrum if she did not have her milk with breakfast. We thought maybe would could say it was a holiday so everyone would drink apple juice, but we knew that really wasn’t going to fly.
So… in the middle of a snow storm… on what had to be the coldest day in the history of the world… Riley bundled up his body and walked the three blocks to the store. I watched him disappear into the swirls of little white clouds.
Just as he was returning both the kids were making their way down the stairs. He looked awful – cold and frozen. Bits of the hair that had been exposed looked frosty. Riley stood in the entryway, removed his jacket and he waited. Brian passed Riley by with a “Hi Dad” and as he turned the corner, he yelled “Whoaaaa!” when he saw the gifts under the tree. Alea, climbed up to her father’s face and started to twirl his moustache. Instead of a giggle, I heard her cry.
She had this little whimpering cry as she looked down and saw she had broken the frozen handlebar off Daddy’s face!! She looked at Riley with tears in her eyes and she looked at me as though I should try to glue it back on. Riley told her, “It’s OK. Daddy can grow another one. You can help me cut the other side off. Let’s go see what Santa has brought.” My love for Riley swelled at that moment. I could love no man more than I loved him. He was my life, my love and the father of my children.
The gifts were opened and there were smiles all around. It didn’t seem to matter that they didn’t cost very much. Brian drove his truck from one end of the house to the other. He loaded the cars into the back of the truck and unloaded them at some imagined dumping ground. Alea immediately undressed her doll and re-dressed her. They both colored and played. Riley sat in his overstuffed chair and worked in his crossword puzzle book, looking up occasionally to check on the kids. I cooked Christmas dinner and enjoyed my sense of secure happiness.
Riley left his moustache just the way it was for the entire day. Then, just before bed, he and Alea went to the bathroom armed with a small pair of scissors and they ceremoniously trimmed the other side of his hairy lip.
Both Brian and Alea have become adults and have moved into their own homes to start their own lives. That year, Brian was off in
Hong Kong working for a company that sent him around the world. His current assignment would last five years. He wasn’t crazy about the country, but he met a young lady that he was hoping would return to the with him. United States
Alea was now a single mom. She worked hard and barely made ends meet. She shared an apartment with a childhood friend and it seemed to be working as well as most roommate relationships went. She received no child support from Ryan’s father. She was stubborn, independent and determined to do it all on her own. That is – unless her independence meant Ryan would not have something important.
Christmas was important. Alea had money for the necessities, but that didn’t include big Santa gifts or even a Christmas tree. Much like her parents in 1972, she was a young family on a very strict budget.
Riley had moved out of our home and was sharing a house with another couple who drank as actively and alcoholicly as he did. It was a bad environment and Alea would not allow Ryan to be a part of that particular home scene. That didn’t seem to matter much to Riley. He didn’t have time for his family. He had a girlfriend – who was married to someone else – and he had his roommates. They shared common interests – alcohol and sex. It was no place for a 3 year old.
Alea invited Riley to her home often. She still wanted that Daddy with the handlebar moustache, but he was long gone. Whenever Riley knew there would be young female friends visiting Alea, he always showed up. He would focus his attention on the young women. They teased him and tolerated him. When his passes were turned down often enough, he would be off again to someplace else that held more sexual possibilities.
I didn’t have a lot of money. I was barely making ends meet and that was even working two jobs. Riley was retired and had his retirement pay – and he made it clear it was his. We had lost our home to foreclosure and our two new cars had been repo’d. I had a small apartment and was trying to keep my head above water.
I had managed to get a new car and gave the older one to Alea. It was to be part of her Christmas present. I bought the Christmas tree, stocking stuffers and the food for Christmas dinner – which was to be held at Alea’s. I also managed to buy Ryan some clothes to be used as gifts. And I had a heart to heart talk with Riley. I asked him what he planned to give Ryan. He said he would get whatever I thought was best. I told him toys. We needed to get him a Santa gift and some other toys. I told him to plan to spend about $100. I told him not to worry about Alea, all she wanted for Christmas was for Ryan to have a great day.
Two days before Christmas, I called Riley and asked if he wanted me to wrap any of Ryan’s gifts. He said he would bring them over. When asked what he got for him, he rattled off different toys. I thought, oh, that’s nice. He really listened to me. But, the next day – Christmas Eve – when I called again about the gifts, he told me he didn’t have any. He said someone had taken them out of the truck. And he didn’t have any money to buy any gifts.
His past behavior was always to present the image that he was thoughtful, caring, responsible and the rest of the world was all ridiculous. In my heart, I know there had never been any gifts bought. I knew he had other plans for his money. I knew he needed to buy gifts for his girlfriend and roommates and their families. His real family didn’t stand a chance.
But, Ryan had a wonderful Christmas morning because Alea’s friends pulled together and they bought him several great gifts. Several of my friends also chipped in. The little guy was happy. He played and played and Alea and I watched him with tears in our eyes. We had the best gift ever. We had Ryan.
Riley showed up for dinner and Alea was cordial. He brought with him a box of candy for me and a box for Alea. He had nothing for Ryan. He left very early – right after dinner – because he said he had other gifts to deliver.
I don’t know what happened to the man I spent Christmas with in 1972. The alcohol pod people must have taken him while he was passed out after a stupor. As much as I had loved him in 1972, I hated him in 1992.
at 4:38 AM