Basically, posting this story has become a tradition of its own. I feel it is one I need to tell every year, if for no other reason, but to remind ourselves that life is so fragile, and we have this sliver of a window in time with those we love.
Back when I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, we spent every Christmas Eve at my aunt’s place. Grandma and Grandpa Spado lived upstairs in a flat and my aunt lived on the first floor. We also went over there every Sunday afternoon to visit the Grandparents. Funny how similar it is here in my own home with my own daughters and Grandkids. In fact, the kids were here all day yesterday while their folks were doing some Christmas shopping. They ended up eating dinner with us. Today, they are all coming back and I’m making the traditional spaghetti and meatballs dinner. A Sunday afternoon just like I spent many a Sunday afternoon.
Christmas Eve at my Aunt’s was a lot of food and laughter. The family getting together. All my cousins were there. We played and nagged the adults until Uncle Tom was drunk enough to don the Santa suit and hand out gifts. We each had a gift to open.
Funny, I knew the celebration of Christmas was about the birth of Jesus Christ. I also knew about Jesus Christ only from the teachings of the Catholic Church. These teachings are quite different than the Lutherans and Methodists and other Protestant religions. They even have a different Bible! I know this now, but I didn’t back when I was a youngster.
There was a Christmas tree and a nativity scene was set up under the tree. Joseph and Mary with the babe in swaddling clothes in the manger, whatever that is. Three wise men, a few sheep, a donkey, a shepherd or two, and of course, an angel. They used words like manger and swaddling clothes. I slept in a bed and the clothes we wore were called, well, er, clothes. Funny how you learn as kids, then find out the truth later in life
The big Christmas came after we got home and went to sleep for a few hours and woke up the morning of Christmas Day, December 25th. Sometimes, we stayed out way late and had Christmas morning when we got home. Then we slept from exhaustion.
Santa Clause had come and placed stacks of gifts under the tree we had at our house. That tree also complete with nativity scene in place. I never did understand the connection between Santa Clause, Jesus Christ, the gifts and the celebration. It all seemed so strange to me when I was a small boy.
When I got older and left home and started my own family, we wanted a tradition of our own. We started a simple one.
Usually, Christmas Eve was spent at home with Barb, the kids and me. Our third daughter, Jayne, had been born in September of 1977. This was her first Christmas. Our routine would be to go to the lot where they had been selling trees for the past couple of months. We’d go there after it got dark and the tree sales were over for the year. We’d grab a leftover tree, ala Charlie Brown Christmas, and bring it home. Practicing good sound ecological foundations even back then. Why cut down another tree? These had been cut and were not going to be used by anyone.
It didn’t cost anything to get a tree this way. We’d get it and bring it home and did the decorating on Christmas Eve. Barb would make homemade pizza from scratch. We would have a large table of snacks like cheese and crackers, pickled herring, little sandwiches made from Genoa salami and cream cheese. There were cookies and candies and pickle wraps and shrimp, if we could afford them, those little smokies wrapped in crescent rolls and olives, both black and green.
As we grazed on the food and ate hot slices of Sicilian style deep pan pizza, we put the ornaments and the lights on the tree. Tinsel, and sometimes we’d string popcorn. The plastic lighted angel sat on top. We called him Harold, as in Hark, The Herald Angels. Remember Harold? We always laughed. The children wondered if Santa would bring them presents. When we put up the tree and decorated it, there were no presents there at all.
Santa would be left a plate and a glass of milk and the children would go to bed. I always rolled up a big fatty and put it next to the plate with the cookies. I tell you, those cookies and that milk was gone by Christmas morning, every time.
After the children were all snug in their beds, or bed as financial decree would have it some years, we’d place gifts under the tree. Wrapped in comics from the Sunday paper. Foil wrapped for those that came from Grandma and Grandpa. Tons of stuff. Some years saw bicycles and guitars, some years there were just cheap toys. Like everyday life, Christmas was a feast or famine from one year to the next. I don’t think the kids knew it any different from year to year. We did when we didn’t have the shrimp.
It was 1977, around Christmastime. Barb flew to Chicago. Our youngest daughter was only a little over two months old and nursing. Barb took her with on the plane. I stayed at home with the other girls, Maggie was four and Alyssa was close to two years old.
Barb’s Dad, Ed, was in the hospital. The doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer in May of 1977. Now it was December and he was dying. The doctors said there is nothing further that they could do for him.
He got the cancer from asbestos. Ed was a pipe fitter and worked around the asbestos wrappings on heating and cooling pipes for all of his adult life. What are they calling it now? Mesothelioma? The lawyers are having a field day advertising on TV. Ed was only 54 in 1977 and dying from the poisons of the workplace. The hazard of working in his trade.
Barb was at her Father’s bedside and told him it was all right to let go. It is all right not to want to be in pain any longer. She understood and wouldn’t blame him for leaving this world as she knew he had to.
He passed, peacefully as possible given the circumstances, and Barb made arrangements to get home and be with the rest of her family for Christmas. We were waiting for her. We couldn’t afford to fly down with her, and the added burden of her husband and other children who needed her attention would have been a distraction she didn’t need as she attended to her Father’s bedside as he was leaving this world.
Her Mother didn’t want her to go home. Ed had died and now there was the wake and funeral. All the arrangements and the visits of friends and family. I guess they still do funerals the same way. A night or two “visiting” the body, then a funeral procession from the undertaker to the cemetery. We didn’t do it that way when Maggie died in that car accident. I’ll tell you about it sometime. This is a Christmas story.
Barb had to go home. Her family was waiting for her. It was Christmas Eve. The plane landed in Minneapolis and we were waiting at the gate. We all hugged and walked to the car. There were some tears. Tears shed for Ed, a dear man. We miss him so much. But we had tears of joy as we managed, under extreme circumstances, to be together when it looked like we were going to have this Christmas apart. We stopped off at an open convenience store and bought a frozen pizza on the way home. It was around 9:00 p.m., Christmas Eve.
That year, 1977, we came home and there was no tree. The decorations hadn’t even been brought up from the dusty shelves in the basement. There were no snacks. And even though we didn’t have one of Barb’s delicious thick crusted pan pizzas from scratch, we did have the frozen pizza. We had a large potted plant in the living room. It was a a schefflera, or was it the Norfolk Island Pine? Something like that, a big plant in a big pot in the living room. It was pretty good size. We got the stuff up out of the basement and decorated that house plant as we ate the pizza.
We were together. The children had lost one of their Grandpas, but they didn’t know it in their consciousness. Maybe their spirits new that something was different. But we did what we do at Christmas and decorated the tree and had some food to eat. Santa came that night and put gifts around the terra cotta planter. I’m sure I got stoned. Back in the 70’s I did a lot of that.
We sat together, a tear or two flowed now and then. The kids went to bed and we gathered up a few gifts that we had accumulated and placed them under the tree. When the girls woke up on Christmas morning, the tradition was alive and well with just a few differences. Some you could see and some you just knew about.
I know this isn’t the happiest ending to a Christmas story. And I risk getting a reputation of being an unhappy old codger as many Christmases since Maggie left this world have not been celebrated with the usual gusto we exhibited before 1991. But this was Christmas that year. And over the years, this seems to have been the theme here at Spadoville. I felt the need to tell this story.
Yes, Christmas of 1977 was painful. I read other blogsites and find out there are people who do nothing for themselves and go out and try to put cheer and joy in the lives of others. I know of a blog friend who suffers from her daughter’s illness and cancer. I know someone who had a son that was killed in Iraq, and wishes he could be home, but wishes more that he be alive. All of us have had a sad time of it somewhere along the line.
Our own daughter, lost to us in 1991, ended the tradition we started long ago when we spent our first Christmas together with our own child. It took a long time to make the decision to put up a Christmas Tree again. But I made that decision and put one up this year. I invited the family and my closest friends and plan on having things around here be like they were at Auntie Angie’s house when I was a kid. Not exactly the same, but the spirit of family together, breaking bread, showing love and kindness.
We miss you Maggie.
I guess I want my readers to know I have felt pain and I wish no pain for you this season or anytime. The joy you are to glean is that which tells you I understand and wish you the best. For thirty two years later than that sad Christmas in 1977, this one is just as much a blessing. We have six healthy happy Grandchildren. We have a warm home and a plentiful bounty of food. We have gotten through cancer and other health issues intact. And although the years since we lost Ed have taken Barb’s Mom and my Dad, and then Maggie, my Mom is still here and we can still share with her. I'll be leaving Monday the 21st for a visit to Chicago to be with my Mom, brother and sister for a few days. I'll return the day before Christmas Eve.
As usual, may Peace bless every one of you. My prayers are for the health and happiness of the people.