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Keeping Christmas Memories Alive

Another Christmas is on its way, and the decorations are finally completed. I can relax now, write out my holiday cards by the glow of the tree and enjoy Miracle on 34th Street.  I am watching the second snowfall of the season, so perhaps we will have a white Christmas. As much as I love the holiday, and the postcard view from my window, this year is going to be difficult.

With all my decorations safely packed away in the storage room, I contemplated not creating my holiday display this year. “Let’s skip Christmas!” was ruminating in my mind. Christmas is such a time filled with wonderful childhood memories and family traditions. Could I enjoy the festive occasion this year with the passing of my mother this November?

Both my parents are gone now, and that childhood connection seems lost. The wonder and excitement is overshadowed by loss and loneliness. There will be no hugs and kisses to be shared with my parents. No gifts or the all-important Hallmark Cards to share. “What’s the use or purpose in celebrating at a time of grief?” I thought to myself. Many thoughts passed through my head about what seemed right and appropriate in the situation. Do you honor someone’s memory if you deny yourself something you really enjoy?

Also, my parents loved Christmas almost as much as me. I could pretend that December twenty-fifth is just another day. It does, at times, seem like a lot of preparation for a single holiday, but of course, it is the best single holiday ever! In our family, it was always the holiday season from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day. You immersed yourself in the excitement of the holidays. There was a continuous loop of Andy Williams singing, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in our heads.

There was family time, shopping, baking cookies, Christmas specials on TV, picking out the family Christmas tree and decorating.  Ever since I became “Little Vince”, I loved the sounds, the smells, and the activities of Christmas. It was as if the world was drab and colorless the rest of the year, and suddenly in December everything changed to bright and beautiful.

My mom loved to decorate and make the holidays festive, and that is a legacy she left with me. It wasn’t just about putting up a tree; it was decorating the entire house. There were wreaths, and garlands, and lights and candles, and holiday figurines.

My mom didn’t start the process until right before Christmas. In fact, when my sister and I were little, my parents would wait until Christmas Eve to put up the tree. I would go to bed with the pretense of sleeping, and while I lay in bed tossing and turning in anticipation, my parents would put up the tree and decorate it.

There is nothing as wondrous and magical as waking up on Christmas morning and creeping down the stairs with the smell of the fresh pine filling your nose. And then, seeing the tree decorated surrounding by colorful wrapped gifts from Santa.  It was an adrenaline rush I will never forget. It was like stepping into your own personal storybook.  When I was very young, my parents would already be up and dressed to greet my sister and I, as we gazed upon the Christmas morning beauty. I have a picture of my mom all dressed up wearing pearls, greeting me at the bottom of the stairs when I was a toddler. She looked so put together, like a TV mom of a 60’s show. I am sure looking back now, she must have been exhausted after being up half the night trimming the tree and wrapping presents, but it certainly didn’t show. Both my parents were there to greet us and experience the thrill of Christmas morning.

My dad loved the holidays just as much as my mom. His job was putting the tree into a handcrafted stand that my grandfather had made.  The stand was made of wood and looked like a red brick chimney. It was a Sparks’ family tradition to use the special tree stand every year. It was always a challenge for my dad to get the tree into the stand based on the circumference of the trunk.  The stand was not adjustable due to the fact that it was wooden, and the opening for the trunk couldn’t move to accommodate different shapes.

Over the years, the hole in the stand was enlarged several times to fit the latest Scotch pine tree we would pick out. My dad would secure it into the stand by wiring it from the trunk to the four corners of the chimney. This was no easy task, since he also had to make sure the tree was level in the stand so it wasn’t leaning too far in either direction.

My mom had a preference for Scotch pine and this made the process even more daunting, since the needles were long and quite sharp.  As a little kid, I remember the lights my dad used were GE string lights that had medium sized bulbs that screwed into individual sockets that clamped onto the tree branches. The lights got very hot. So hot, in fact, if tinsel on the tree touched a bulb it would start to smoke. Dad was very meticulous about the placement of the lights, so they were evenly spaced, and where they wouldn’t turn an ornament into a cinder.

It was always blue lights and silver balls for my mom. The angel on the top of the tree had a blue bulb up her skirt. That angels’ skirt had more heat than a hooker during Fleet Week in NYC.  My dad would place the angel perfectly, before my mom would take over with the ornaments and tinsel. When my father was done with the Christmas tree he looked like he was on the losing end of a catfight with scratches up and down his arms.  

His holiday battle scars were a product of love and wanting to make the holidays festive for our family. The decoration of the tree all occurred after I was tucked into bed on Christmas Eve. I would get to see the fresh pine in its stand; all ready to be decorated after little boys and girls went to bed. This routine lasted until I was in fifth grade, from my recollection. It was the year of the infamous “Holiday Bash At Work” that changed the decorating of the family tree on December twenty-fourth.

This fateful year, my mother, sister and I were all anxiously awaiting my father coming home from work on Christmas Eve. The Scotch pine was in a bucket of water on the back porch waiting to be brought inside the house and placed into the wooden chimney, that my dad still had to maneuver from storage. Our “Holiday Sing Along with Mitch Miller” album was playing on the stereo, and my mom was in the midst of decorating the house. I kept track of the clock, since we expected an early arrival time for my dad on the eve of a holiday.  The anticipation grew as we realized that time was passing and there was no car pulling into the driveway.

As the late afternoon sun crept its way to dusk, we began to get concerned about where he could be. This was the pre-cellphone 60’s; so calling Dad was not an option. We were left with the task of checking the driveway every few minutes for a sign of him, or sending up a smoke signal. My mother tried not to show concern, but I could sense uneasiness in the air.  It was getting dark and the dutiful husband was not home to help prepare for the pending holiday.  Something was awry in Penns Grove, and my mother was starting to steam.

My concern for my dad’s whereabouts was twisting into a concern for Christmas. Where would Santa put the gifts if a tree wasn’t up and ready for decoration? We were counting on dad, and he was not following the schedule.  I sent good thoughts to the holiday spirits and asked them to bring my dad home safe and sound, and of course SOON!

Evening arrived, and my mom fumed around the house. I checked out the decorations and smelled the Lemon Pledge, as my mother prepared the house for Santa’s arrival. I knew the man in red was supposed to be coming; it was my dad I wasn’t too sure about. My sister turned on the outside back porch light now that it was completely dark, and reported that dad’s car was parked in the yard.

When had he arrived? Where was he? We all peered out the back door window at the black AMC Rambler and didn’t see movement. My mom advised that my sister and I remain in the house while she went to investigate. We huddled at the door while my mom stealthily approached the car. “This was a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys mystery of The Case of the Disappearing Dad,” I thought to myself.  Perhaps, he had been kidnapped by Santa’s preflight elves, because he had seen them lurking in the yard, or he was on a secret government mission and someone had dropped off his car. My dad worked as a Jet Engine Mechanic in the Civil Service Department of the Air Force, so anything was possible in my mind.

All too soon the intrigue of the moment was over, and my mom began rapping on the driver’s side window. I believe that mom did utter a few expletives, as she asked for assistance from my sister.  I was right behind my sister like a little brother shadow, while my mom yelled at me to stay in the house. I peered around my sister’s arm to see my dad sleeping in the driver’s seat.

My mom flung open the door, and the spirits of Christmas that heavily surrounded my dad wafted from the car and greeted us. It seemed that my father had begun celebrating the holiday with a few co-workers, and he was overcome with the gift of vodka – From Russia with Love.  I don’t know how he managed to drive all the way home from McGuire Air Force Base, in what appeared to be full inebriation, but my prayers had been answered. Dad was home!!

My mother had no tolerance or patience for the drinking of alcohol. She had grown up with an Irish father who had a drinking problem, and it brought back too many bad memories.  My father stumbled from the car as my mom dragged him by the ear into the house. I remember a lot of yelling from my mom. My dad was sent to bed to sober up, so he could get to work on the required task. Yes, there was no question, there would be a decorated Scotch pine tree in our living room by morning. That particular year my dad happened to be lit brighter than the tree.

My sister relayed the rest of the story to me, as I was in bed by the time the tree was brought into the house. All I know is that it was a rough Christmas Eve for my dad. He struggled with the tree and my mom, while running into the yard to hurl his holiday cheer into a trashcan.  The goodwill and peace on earth were waiting for the twenty-fifth, definitely not on the twenty-fourth of December. There were no silver bells, just the sounds of my dad moaning in the darkness.

Later, my mom would recall the incident too. There was no sympathy for my dad’s holiday cheer, only a strong assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. That was when the tradition of a Christmas Eve tree trimming ended for the Sparks’ family. The excitement of the brightly wrapped presents still awaited us on Christmas morning, but the tree was now safely in its stand and decorated several days before Santa was leaving the North Pole. I don’t think my dad ever went to another Christmas Eve party after that year. My mom had a way of making offers you couldn’t refuse.

These are the memories of Christmas that populate my mind. These are the holidays that I cling to, with all of their imperfections and special moments. My red plaid robes for Christmas morning and my dad helping me put batteries in the new toy Santa had left. It was joyful and miraculous, and it was all instilled with the love that my parents provided to my sister and me.

Many times finances were not the best for my parents, but they never skimped on a Christmas for us. We always had presents under the tree, and one always signed “From Santa.” Each year, I anxiously awaited December the 25th, when the world became a wonderland of decorations, gifts, food, family and love.

It is a struggle to feel the same sentiments now that I am grieving over my mom’s death. How can I not carry on the traditions that were so important to her? Although there will be tears and a pain in my heart, my Christmas lights will shine as bright as any other year. They will shine in celebration of the spirit of the season, and to highlight the love my parents always shared. 

Although they are not physically here, they will never leave me. Their love and their traditions of celebrating the holidays will move me forward. While I have my own ornaments now, I do have a special place for decorations that belonged to my parents. I cherish these things as part of my childhood and my heritage. No matter how old I get, and the years do seem to pass by quickly, I will always be a child at heart. A child who still believes in the wonder of Christmas, and holds tightly to the love his parents gave him unconditionally.

Merry Christmas Forever, Mom & Dad.


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