My parents were indulgent at Christmas, like most parents who spent their salad days in the Depression and World War II. They wanted to give what they never had.
I was in fourth grade, still young enough for Christmas to weave that special magic. When I filed down the stairs with my brothers and sister on Christmas morning for the denouement of a month’s worth of anticipatory avarice, the first thing I spotted was the bike.
“Wow,” I said, “Somebody got a bike!”
The Old Man responded, “Go see who gets it.”
I ran over, scanned the Christmas label, and saw that it was mine. I nearly danced.
For the next 35 years of his life, the Old Man loved to tell that story at Christmas. It always ended with, “the kid was so excited, he got sick all over the floor.”
It’s a good punch line. But it never happened. I had actually gotten sick that Christmas Eve, no doubt from too much sugary glop shoveled into a stomach already geeked-up in anticipation of the Big Day.
But the Old Man’s version became the Christmas carol, and that’s OK, because it made people laugh and made for a better Christmas memory.
We all know what a trick memory can be. It fools us by telling the story differently as time goes by. The embellishments and the pace of the narrative become more important than the plain old story. The punch line becomes the highlight rather than an afterthought.
It’s not lying. It’s just telling stories around the campfire.
Around that campfire, the memory can be far deeper, richer and meaningful than what we actually experienced at that moment in time. The event may be pedestrian, but it’s what we bring to it in the remembering. An event is always a fleeting present. A memory brings past, present and future with it.
I remember the look on my older brother’s face when he unwrapped the basketball I got him for Christmas, the basketball I wanted. The joy, sadness, laughter and tears in that memory are not in those few seconds.
It’s in the memory of a little kid where unbridled greed won out, and a stubborn older brother who let that basketball deflate and gather dust in a closet rather than allow him to borrow it. How we would laugh ourselves silly telling that story over the years. And now he’s gone two Christmases past, so I hold that story even closer.
It’s ninth grade and I’m sitting in the upper loft of Christ the King Church at Midnight Mass. They called it the choir loft, even though the choir was in a side room off the sacristy.
I’m sitting with my friend Jack Morwick. He opens a small bag of chips and starts crunching on them. I tell him he’s making a racket. He shrugs and proceeds to squash them all up in the bag to make smaller pieces, which makes a bigger racket than before. I start to giggle and he starts to giggle and the elderly women in the pew in front turn to give us “the look.”
Morwick lived with his sister in a tiny apartment because his parents were both gone. A few more years after Christmas Eve Mass in 1963 and he disappeared into the Army, and I never saw him again.
It’s actual grace that makes the ordinary into miracles. It is the grace of God in our daily moments, the points of light that bring us closer to the Lord throughout the days and nights of our lives. It’s what wraps itself up in our memories.
“Does anyone ever realize life while they live it … every, every minute?” Emily asks the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
“No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some,” he answers.
Have a merry, peaceful and faithful Christmas. Enjoy your memories.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.