A Christmas Story


My dad and I circa 1967  - Bay at 50th Street in Avalon

My dad and I circa 1967 - Bay at 50th Street in Avalon

When I started to write this I had so many ideas of how to describe what Christmas means to me. I was ready to tell all of south Jersey and DelCo my great holiday experiences of growing up in my large Italian family and what it was like at our Christmas table.

When writing time arrives, though, it’s 3 a.m. and nothing about those particular memories is turning into words on the computer screen. I am blank. Writers block makes my eyes drift above my computer screen to a shelf where photographs are placed of a past holiday, now seven years ago when my dad was still alive. I realize that this is why I’m at a loss. I miss my dad and it’s been seven years. Holidays are hard on those that lost someone so dear, but I’d like to reflect on the gifts that were given to me instead of my loss. Not material gifts, but life lessons which I believe to be the best kind.

Father, daughter dance at my wedding, September 14, 1985, he was making me laugh and I think was telling me to Run Forrest Run!!!

Father, daughter dance at my wedding, September 14, 1985, he was making me laugh and I think was telling me to Run Forrest Run!!!

Our loss. My dad was like Santa; a larger-than-life kind of man who always had a warm, endearing grin, and loved to eat. He wore a uniform, too: a Marine Corps uniform that we were all so proud of. A good-natured man, he loved his country as much as he loved his family and animals and food.

Hmm, could this be a remote glimmer of a twinkling white Christmas light of a storyline? This is how the pattern starts for me, an idea, a writing of thoughts, a connection, and “bam,” as Emeril would say, a concept?

The world, or at least most of the people on the East coast, are fast asleep, and suddenly I am typing away about my own real life Santa. But how to convey all the contours?

In the quiet morning hours, I hear something outside. Is it my imagination, or was that the dog yawning, or, perhaps my nocturnal cat tearing through the house? The chatter of the computer keyboard clicking stops and for a moment more, I listen again. I think: Is someone breaking in? Could I be imagining all of this, is this the sound of fear, my heart pounding?
Listening harder now, ohhh nooo, what was that, crash, boom, what the heck is going on? Jack barks, Honey becomes alert to the sound and Rudy turns his head in wonder.

my canine family, Honey (forefront, Jack to my left, Rudy to my right)

my canine family, Honey (forefront, Jack to my left, Rudy to my right)

As I get up from my desk my dogs follow me. My dogs, what a gift, what wonderful companions they are to me in my sometimes lonely world. Thinking back on how they came to be, I remember my dad picking out two of the dogs. His reason – he didn’t like me living alone and more, he had a soft heart for helpless unwanted animals and children. As a child we had a collection of stray animals that my dad brought home; cats, dogs, ducks, a goat, why he even wanted to rescue a cow once, but that is when mom put her foot down. Many holidays came and went and we not only had a trove of animals, but also children from a local orphanage. To our family and mostly to my dad, that was what the Christmas season was all about. Sharing and love. Not the commercialization of today, but an honest to goodness love for all. He was a person that was always more worried about how you felt and typically placed his feelings to the sidelines. Although I must say, I don’t ever remember my dad in a bad mood. I even asked my mom if he was ever sad or moody and her recollection is the same as mine; “He always had a smile on his face even when times were tough.”

As the two dogs, Honey and Jack both Jack Russell Terriers slowly descend the staircase with me, following me as though we are in a parade, I believe they are probably anticipating a treat. They would follow me to the moon, those two. Rudy ops for the comfort of his warm bed as his little legs don’t work very well.

Dogs are intuitive and perceptive about human feelings and as we walk down the steps, slowly, one by one, eight paws behind two feet I think to myself, there’s something wrong with this picture: aren’t they supposed to go first, blocking the intruder and keeping him at arms distance from their beloved owner? They follow me into the living room, through the dining room. It is so dark; I only see shadows and silhouettes of furniture. The darkness creates images that look obscure, obtuse, out of whack and sync -not like their daytime look at all.

In the distance I hear the foghorn of a large fishing vessel departing in the early morning. The sound creates a feeling of loneliness, and my mind wanders back to my dad. It will be our seventh Christmas without him and he is missed, but remembered in the tiniest of things. “Love is in the details;” he once told me, and at this moment I couldn’t agree more.

In the kitchen the light becomes somewhat brighter with the help of the moon peaking through the garden window. As the blue white December light baths both Jack and Honey in an old lady blue rinse, I start laughing to myself for my 3 a.m. silliness. My sense of humor, yet another gift from my dad. Jack is wagging his tail (he is always happy) and Honey is standing tall and proud, with her head slightly turned, waiting for my next move. She’s the worrier of the family.

A Christmas tableaux: me, my Jack and Honey, all from my Dad and all about my Dad.
Jack was a tiny little guy that came from a puppy mill that was being closed down for health reasons in Lancaster County. I adopted him malnurished and full of fleas, worms, and other assorted parasites. Honey was a tiny scared dog that I found in the county shelter to keep Jack company after his beloved Lilli the greyhound died. There she sat cold in an outside pen (it was December,) alone and and hiding in the corner. She had been there for 8 weeks. Another discarded little soul that had the eyes of a human – we bonded immediately as her eyes had the same look as mine did so many years – vacant and abused. She stared at me, I back at her and then she gave Jack the once over. Jack stared back, tails wagged, no barking and suddenly they both came to life. An endearing moment. Dad said they’d be good company and would watch out for me.

Aha, my story is born.
Jack, Honey and Rudy, my three dogs. They can be categorized like this, Jack the runt of the litter, Honey the little sad sack and Rudy, the dog that laid by the side of a country road in the Pine Barrens for 3 days being thought as dead by the neighborhood until the county road crews went to scoop him up. They realized that alas Rudy was very much alive but had multiple injuries – broken pelvis bone, broken ribs, broken back legs and his genitals severed, who would ever want a dog that had this much going against him. Funny, how they are all very wanted now.

A Christmas Past circa 1993

A Christmas Past circa 1993 - my family

“Semper Fi Jack,” I say softly, Semper Fi, as my dad would say, “forever loyal.”
I slowly hum the song Blue Moon as the light of the December moon streams into the kitchen. It is a song my dad always sang. I sing it softly to my loyal friend, transposing the words to “Bluuuewe Jack, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own…Bluuueeewe Jack…”
Jack looks up at me adoringly, Honey smiles and I again let them follow, the eight paws behind me, as we muster to the deck. It is an unusually balmy December night, still and beautiful.

The noise I heard, I now know, was the dream in my heart of all of our family Christmases past. Jack, Honey and I are now taking in the earth and bay smells of early morning, the sand and the Atlantic Ocean, the slight breeze of fresh morning air. A few more minutes out here on my deck alone I stand, but I feel my dad next to me. I smile and say hello as a soft breeze glazes my forehead and touches my cheek. He is with me always in spirit.

We head back in for we are safe at last, the dogs return to the warm comforts of their beds as I am back to my desk and computer. In a few minutes, the puppies are asleep safe and sound and I, forever loyal, listen. I feel Jack laying next to my feet, unquestioning, unwavering. Honey gives a big doggie sigh of relief at her job well done.

Forever loyal, I say to myself. Jack looks up with eyes half open and gives me a wink, I can almost hear him say forever loyal, Rudy and Honey follow up with lazy sleepy looks, they are the gifts that my father gave me – to protect, and be loyal.

Semper Fi Jack, Honey and Rudy, Semper Fi Dad.

Merry Christmas.

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