“You going to be all right while I’m gone?”
I glance at Lea. We’re standing in the living room, and she’s putting on her red wool, knee length coat, getting ready for her son Adam to pick her up. “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?
“Oh, I don’t know, Jack…for the last few days you’ve been in one of your moods again. Now you’ve got those old photograph albums of yours out and have been going through them all afternoon.”
Even though I think I detect a little weariness in her tone, Lea comes over and gives me a warm hug. “Sometimes I worry about you, is all I’m saying,” is what she tells me.
I guess I’m wrong about the weariness thing and maybe, just maybe, I’m being a little bit overly sensitive. I hug her back. I’m appreciative of her concern but, really, I’m a big boy. I can handle a little holiday nostalgia.
“Seriously, Lea, I’m fine. Really.”
She pats me on the back and breaks our embrace, but continues to stand close. She’s wearing a pleasant, light floral scent of some kind and has her long, auburn hair tied back in a red and green holiday ribbon. She’s even wearing just a hint of makeup. All in all she has a festive look about her which is appropriate since she’s on her way to spend Christmas Eve with her son and his wife and their four kids. Her parents as well as her daughter and her husband and their three kids are going to be there, too. It’ll be a nice, big, family gathering, something she’s been looking forward to since Thanksgiving when we had them all over to our place.
Our driveway runs past the side of the house to the detached garage in back. I glance out the window just as Adam’s car creeps past. (He’s an extremely careful driver.) He stops in front of the garage and beeps the horn.”Well, okay, then…” she says and hesitates, looking at me closely, judging whether or not she can believe me, and, I suppose, whether or not it’s safe to leave me to my own devices.
“Adam’s here,” I tell her. I smile my best smile and encourage her, “Go. Have fun with your family. I’ll be perfectly fine right here. I’m going to have a fire in the fireplace, read, hang out and…” I almost give it away, but recover in time to say, “Maybe even just do nothing at all.”
Lea decides to believe me. She relaxes a tiny bit, grins and then jokes, finishing my thought, “Just do nothing, eh? Something you’re really good at.”
We both chuckle. I really am a hard worker, have been my entire life. Right now, however, I’m sixty-five and thoroughly enjoying my third year of retirement from teaching eleventh and twelfth grade math at Long Lake High school, just two miles down the road from us. Maybe Lea’s right, I start thinking, maybe I’m not working as hard as I used to. Maybe I’m am getting a little lazy. Maybe I should…Oh, the hell with it. That’s a discussion for another day. Right now it’s the holiday season. Time to make merry and deck the halls and all that stuff.
“Just go, all ready,” I tell her, taking her by the arm, “Adam’s waiting.” Just at that moment her son lays on the horn a little longer than I feel is necessary. After all, it is Christmas Eve.
We walk through the kitchen to the back door. Lea wraps a magenta wool scarf around her neck and plops a lavender beret on her head. She looks great. She picks up two shopping bags full of gifts and gives me a hip check when I try to help her, independent as she is. She does, however, allow me to hold the door open for her and we kiss briefly on her way out. She breaths in my ear, “Take care. I’ll be back later.” Her scent lingers as she moves past, making me think I should have gone with her, but I’ve got other things to do. I watch as she makes her way down the sidewalk to the car where Adam gets out, waves at me and helps her put the two bags in the trunk. As he does so, the back door of his blue, four door Honda Fit opens and out pops his oldest daughter, Kaley, a skinny, whip of a nine year old with long auburn hair and big eyes, just like Lea. We all know grandparents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but hell, we can be honest here. Lea and Kaley formed a special bond early on. They’re like two peas in a pod when they are together and there’s nothing wrong with that. Lea’s gift for her granddaughter is something special and she can’t wait to give it to her when they open presents later. It’s “Anne of Green Gables” Lea’s favorite book when she was Kaley’s age.
I wave goodbye even though everyone’s talking a mile a minute and no one’s looking in my direction but that’s all right. They’re going to have a fun night together, I’m sure of that, and I’m glad for them.
I close the door before too much cold air gets inside. The temperature has been dropping all day long and now is hovering around fifteen degrees. The forecast is for snow flurries later on. It’s a good night for a fireplace fire. It’s also a good night to continue my conversation with my dad. I wonder to myself why Lea didn’t mention him when she was saying goodbye. Maybe she just forgot, what with the excitement of spending the evening with her kids and grandkids and parents and all. Well, I’m excited, too. I don’t often get a chance to see my father (well, hardly ever), so tonight is special for me as well.
I’ve lived with Lea for thirteen years. She bought the house nearly thirty five years ago from her parents when they decided to take early retirement and move to northern Minnesota. To say she dearly loves the nearly one hundred year old bungalow is putting it mildly. It hasn’t changed much since the year it was built and you can tell it’s been meticulously cared for, especially by Lea (and now by me, in my own way.) I do most of the yard work and try to stay out of Lea’s way when she’s doing the inside cleaning, a job she tells me, ‘Is not a job, but, something I enjoy doing.’ I get it. I feel the same way about working in the yard and the many flower gardens we’ve planted over the years. Anyway, the inside is charming. The wood floors are original and have been sanded and stained and polished so they look like the day they were installed. Even better. They have that soft, warm patina that wood develops over time when it’s been lovingly taken care of. There are windows everywhere so sunshine streams in during the day in abundance, giving us the feeling of being outdoors, a feeling we both love. The last time I counted there were sixteen hanging plants and seven potted plants in the living room and the enclosed front porch alone, adding to the outdoorsy feel when we’re inside. There are colorful throw rugs on the floors, Beatrix Potter figurines and other collectables arranged here and there in class cases and on wooden shelves. Wherever there’s space, a treasured painting or print is hung on walls painted soft, buttery yellow. It’s the homiest, most comfortable home I’ve ever been in. We were each previously married and I have grown to know and love the house like she does. Neither of us would ever think of leaving. It’s our emotional centering point.
I glance at the clock on the wall above the sink. It’s just after five in the afternoon and has already been dark outside for over half an hour. In Minnesota, these are the shortest days of the year, the ones with the least amount of daylight. I don’t have seasonal affective syndrome (SAD), but I do enjoy the light from a fire in the fireplace this time of year. It’s time to build one.
I walk from the kitchen into an open area (a combined dining and living room) where on the near side a sturdy dining room table sits, ready for family meals and lively discussion. In the center of the table, resting on a hundred and twenty year old doily embroidered by Lea’s great grandmother, there’s large wooden bowl made by a local craftsman from the burl of a maple tree. It’s filled with shiny sage green and amber metal balls about the size of large apples and accented with balsam pine boughs and orange sprigs of bittersweet. I run my hand over the back of a chair as I pass, picturing tomorrow when everyone who is at Adam’s will be descending on our place, and take a moment to enjoy the peace and quiet. (Even though, like past Christmas Day’s I’ll be making myself scarce and taking in a movie.) On the other side of the table in the corner our Christmas tree is set up. It’s covered with decorations, some handmade by Lea’s kids when they were little, the aforementioned Adam and his younger sister Emily, some handed down from Lea’s mother and grandmother, and some purchased by Lea and I hunting through local antique stores. Right now the room is dark. I go to the tree and plug it in. Tiny white twinkle lights cast a soft glow that fills the space with the kind of warmth that only can be found this time of year. It makes the room look like it was taken from a scene right out of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.
After taking moment to enjoy the tranquil feeling, I take a few steps into what we refer to as the living room, where my dad awaits. Along the right side of the interior wall is a red brick fireplace. On either side of it a lamp sits on a wooden end table. I turned them on earlier and they are the only illumination in the room. Their light is nice, but at this moment there is a gaping dark space between them definitely in need of some brightness. There’s a couch perpendicular to the fireplace, separating the living room from the dining room. It has two seat cushions covered in heavy weight burgundy cotton, and has seven pillows arranged on the back in various sizes, colors and patterns, primarily of the green, yellow and orange color scheme. Believe it me when I tell you it looks nicer than it sounds. That’s where I usually sit. Across from the couch there’s a comfortable wingback chair covered in light green corduroy. That’s where Lea usually sits. But not right now. That’s where my dad is.
“Hi, Dad,” I say, as I walk up to the fireplace. I kneel down and start crumpling some newspaper to stuff under the grate. “Nice night for a fire, isn’t it?”
My father grins, shivers a mock shiver and says, “You can say that again. It sure is.”
On the coffee table between the couch and the chair are three photo albums. I gesture to them and then start putting twigs on the grate from my bucket of kindling. “Been looking at those old photos?” I ask, somewhat rhetorically, because I know that’s exactly what he’s been doing – what we’ve been doing, actually, all afternoon. Why Lea didn’t mention Dad when she brought up looking through my photo albums I don’t know.
“I certainly have, Jackie, my boy,” he tells me. He’s still using the name he used to call me all those years ago. Back when I was growing up with him and Mom and my younger sister, Julie, and my younger brother, Steve (well, Stevie is what Dad called him back then.)
“Find anything interesting?”
“Yes,” he says, turning an album toward me, “Yes, I sure did.”
I glance over as I carefully lay three logs over the kindling, two on the bottom, one on top. He’s showing me what looks like an old family photo of all of us taken in the early sixties. I roll up a sheet of paper from the Lakeshore Weekly news, light it and wave it above the logs near the chimney outlet to catch a draft. When I do, I stuff the burning torch under the grate along with the rest of the newspapers.
I close the screen, sit down on the couch and watch the paper and twigs catch. In a minute the flames are hot enough to get the bottom logs going. I relax a little and congratulate myself. Success. Getting a fire going is always an fifty-fifty proposition in my book, even though I’ve been doing it most of my life. Every home I’ve ever lived in has had a fireplace. Even back when I was a kid. Back when that photo was taken.
“Let’s take a look, Dad,” I say, turning the album partially toward me so we can both see. Yeah, it’s definitely one of the old ones of our family. “What year do you think this was taken?” I ask him.
“Check the back. Your mom usually put the date there.”
Well, I know that, of course. I’m just trying to buy time. I know precisely when the photo was taken: Christmas of 1961. The last Christmas Dad ever spent with us. I was nine, Julie was seven and Stevie was six. In a few weeks Dad would be gone, having left us for Jennifer somebody who would eventually become his second wife. Then his second divorce. He married and divorced two more times after that. Throughout his life, Dad never developed a sterling track record when it came to long term commitments in general and marriage specifically. Obviously.
I look at the back of the photo anyway, just to humor him. “It says Christmas of 1961,” I say, looking at him. Then I decide, right at that very moment that, to hell with pleasantries, I might as well get into it with him right now. “Do you know the significance of that Christmas?” I ask him. I keep my voice quiet and firm, but still feel the slightest bit of a tremor down low. I’m not an aggressive person by nature and typically shy away from confrontation of any kind, but this is different.
“No. Why should I?”
“The significance, Dad,” I say, looking him right in the eye to make my point, “Is that right after that photo was taken, fifteen days to be exact, you left home. Don’t you remember? It was the last Christmas you ever spent with us as a family.” I certainly remember that time well, right down to the number of days it took before he left us and left for good. I try to keep my voice level and void of any emotion. I’m not sure how successful I am. Inside, my heart is racing and I’m doing all I can to cope with the sudden burst of anger I feel.
Apparently, I’m successful. Dad hasn’t registered the tiniest little bit of awareness that he has a clue about my feelings, and more specifically, my anger. Oblivious, he scratches his face and looks again at the photograph, studying it as if he’s looking for something. I ignore the photo and, instead, look at him. He’s smooth shaven, has a flat-top haircut and deep set grey-green eyes that, in my memory, used to twinkle with merriment whenever he laughed. (Which he did a lot, now that I think about it.) He’s dressed casually in comfortable dark brown corduroy’s and cordovan dress shoes with little tassels on them. A light blue dress shirt, the collar of which peeks around the collar of a festive, red, holiday sweater completes his attire. I remember that Dad always liked to dress well and apparently still does. Natty is the word that comes to mind. Or spiffy. Me? I’m wearing blue jeans, my favorite red plaid flannel shirt and heavy wool socks. A snappy dresser like my dad, I’m not. When I was growing up, he was a physical education and history teacher and was an active, robust man, standing just over six feet tall, weighing close to two hundred pounds. Now, in his old age (he’s eighty-nine), he’s lost weight and I swear he’s a couple of inches shorter than he used to be. He still looks good, though, just somewhat frailer than I remember. Plus, a lot older.
Finally he says, “That was a long time ago, Jackie. I have a hard time remembering a lot of things that happened back then.”
Right, I think to myself. Sounds like a friggin’ cop out to me. I’m suddenly less inclined to hide my anger. I point again to the photo, challenging him, “So you’re telling me you don’t remember anything about being with me and Julie and Steve when we were young? Look closely, Dad.” I’m trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice with my use of the term ‘Dad’ but I’m probably not too successful. Well, tough shit. The adrenaline is really flowing. Suddenly, I’m more than a little pissed.
I stab my finger at the picture and say, “Take a close, hard look. It’s Steve, not Stevie. He and I are holding hockey sticks that you and Mom gave us that Christmas morning. I remember it like it was yesterday.” I snap my fingers, hoping to make my point perfectly clear.”We loved playing hockey. You used to take us to games. You even coached my team one year. I can’t believe you don’t remember.”
Man, where did that outburst come from? My emotions are starting to get away from me and I make myself shut up. I should be happy he’s here right now and that we’re talking. And, really, I am but, truth be told, my little explosion felt good. Maybe a little too good. I’m a nicer person that than, I tell myself. At least I think I am. I turn away from him and the photograph and take refuge in the fire. Flames of colorful blues and yellows and oranges are dancing along the logs, flickering brightly and giving off a pleasant warmth. It feels good to see how cheerful the fire is. Hopefully, it will help my mood. It does. After a minute of losing myself in the safe glow of the fire, I feel myself calming down.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I don’t know what came over me.” I turn to him. He’s looking into the fire, too. Is he escaping like I was? I want to say ‘I don’t believe you don’t remember those days,’ but decide to let it ride. What’s the point of arguing at this stage of the game?
Dad pulls his eyes away from the fire and looks right at me and says, “Look, Jackie, I know my leaving hurt you and your brother and sister. It wasn’t easy for me, either, you know.”
“So why did you? Leave, I mean?”
He takes a moment before saying, “Well, your mother and I had, I guess what today you’d call, issues.”
After Dad left home, my mom and I became very close and used to talk a lot about Dad’s issues, most of them having to do with other women (note the use of the plural.) Right now I didn’t need to hear his thoughts or excuses concerning his treatment of my mother, so I push the conversation in a different direction. One closer to home.
“You know, you could have at least tried to stay in touch with us kids.”
Dad sighs and sits back in his chair, but averts eye contact with me and takes refuge in the fire once again. He’s an old man and I shouldn’t be hammering away at him, should I? But…But what?
After he left in January of 1962 we only heard from him sporadically: an occasional phone call, an occasional card on our birthday, an occasional post card from somewhere. You get the point – only occasionally. By the time three years had passed, Dad was completely out of our lives. We heard through mutual friends of Mom’s that he’d moved to Portland, Oregon and was teaching at a junior college. We heard he was married. We heard he was happy. Then we heard he’d divorced and moved to Seattle. Then, by the late sixties, we didn’t hear anything more about him. Time as they say, marched on for my brother and sister and our mom, and we all moved forward with our lives.
I got married in 1974 to Janice when both of us were twenty-two. (We got divorced in 2002.) I got a job right out of college at the University of Minnesota, teaching math at a Minneapolis high school. Janice and I had and still have three wonderful kids: Ethan, Sara and Lucy. I even have a little granddaughter. Through all those years I was able to learn to live without any contact with my father. That’s the way is goes, I told myself back then. Suck it up, move on and forget about him.
Two years ago I started doing some research into my family’s history, mainly focusing on my mom’s side. I thought it’d be something my kids would be interested in. They have been good natured enough to play along, showing just enough interest to make me feeI like I wasn’t completely wasting my time. I had fun with it, though, learned a lot, and have kept at it. For the heck of it, I thought I’d start to do work on Dad’s side. I was surprised as well as pleased to have some success. In addition to going back four generations on his line, I was also able to track him down. He was still alive and living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in a senior living complex near Lake Michigan called Shoreline Trails. After thinking about it for a few months and having a number of conversations with Lea, I decided to take a chance. I called Shoreline Trails and got in touch with him the summer before last. I had no plan other than to just break the ice. Surprisingly, it went alright. Our conversation was short, but friendly enough. To say he was surprised to hear from me was putting it mildly. I got the feeling he didn’t mind that I called, though, and we agreed to stay in touch.(Which turned out to be me staying in touch with him. He never once has contacted me.) I started calling and talking to him once a month or so and toward the end of this year I decided it might be…What? Fun? Interesting? I don’t know. He told me he was all alone and that tugged at me a little. I guess I thought it’d be nice to get together. He surprised me by agreeing. No date was set but he surprised me by showing up just after lunch today and we’ve been looking at old photo albums and chatting ever since. It turns out looking at pictures of my past has been a good way to prompt his memory (as well as mine.)
I lean forward now and watch him, wondering how he will respond to my question about staying in touch with the children he and mom had together – me and Julie and Steve. Finally he pulls his eyes away from the fire and says, “To be honest, I just wanted to move on. I thought it’d be easier all the way around if I just stayed away.”
“And you felt just ignoring and eventually forgetting about your kids was a good thing to do? The right thing to do?”
He sighs some more, “I know, I know.” Then he looks at me and says, “Look, I’m sorry Ok? I don’t know what you want me to say. I made a mistake, obviously. Believe me, I’ve made plenty in my life. Do we really have to talk about that now?”
“So you say you’re sorry?” I ask, grabbing a hold of the one word out of what he was telling me that actually meant something to me. “Really?”
He puffs out his cheeks (his face really is gaunt, the more I look at it) and sighs some more, blowing out a long stream of air. “I am,” he says. “Like I said before, I did what I thought I had to do at the time. I didn’t take into account how much it would hurt you and Julie and Stevie.”
I ask the million dollar question, “If you’d had known how much pain you were going to cause all of us, would you still have left?”
Dad looks at me closely and doesn’t try to hide the sad truth in his eyes. He says, “Well, Jackie, my boy, I’ll tell you this: Even though I now know how much it hurt you kids and your mother, I have to be honest with you. I would have still done the same thing. I would still have left.”
God, what a jerk.
I get to my feet abruptly and stand up tall. I’m a hundred and ninety pounds and a full six feet one inch, so I tower over him, sitting shrunken like he is in his chair. Am I happy that he flinches a little like he thinks I’m going to attack him? No, of course not. Hold on. Now that I think about it…actually, yeah. I have to admit, I kind of am.
But, honestly, I don’t intend to do him any physical harm. I just need to get away and cool off. I hurry around the couch, through the dining room and back into the kitchen, thinking what a bastard he is. I end up staring out the kitchen window into the back yard. There are no lights on out there, just a corner street lamp the next block over. It’s as dark and my thoughts. No, wait a minute, my thoughts are darker. So much for a nice, happy friggin’ reunion with my long lost father. Maybe I made a mistake inviting him to be with me.
As I stare into the night, feeling the cold seep in through the window, I start thinking about Lea. I hope she’s having a better night than I am. Well, of course she is. She’s with people she cares about and who care about her. Shit, now I’m starting to feel sorry for myself. I smack my hand against my head to knock the feeling away. Get a grip, I tell myself. I take a deep breath and exhale, trying to calm down. My breath fogs the window. I make a circle and draw a smiley face in it. ”I’ll get through this,” I say out loud, giving myself a little pep talk. “Just get your damn act together.”
I start to relax a little, but I still stay looking into the darkness. I need a break from talking to Dad and reliving those old painful memories that have started to surface. I know that I’m eventually going to go back in and talk to him, but not right now. I need a few moments to myself. Well, maybe more than a few. I decide to stay by the window for a while and take refuge in my jumbled thoughts. It doesn’t help much. I lose track of the number of smiley faces I draw on the steamed up window.
In the car on the way to her son’s home, Lea is turned in the passenger seat talking a mile a minute back and forth with Kaley about a dance class the young girl is taking. They are still about fifteen minutes from where Adam and Sally live when her son interrupts, “So, Mom, how’s Jack doing? Retirement still going alright?”
Lea says to Kaley, “Just a second, honey. Let me talk to your dad for a minute.”
Kaley agreeably says, “Ok,” and turns her attention a couple of dolls she’s brought with her to play with: Wonder Women and Bat Girl.
Lea smiles at her granddaughter and then turns to her son. Her smile vanishes as she becomes sober, taking a moment before answering, “He’s fine. It’s just that this is a tough time of year for him.” She appreciates Adam’s ongoing interest in Jack. He doesn’t have to be and Lea certainly doesn’t expect it of him. After all, he has a father. But her oldest son knows how much Jack means to his mom.
“Didn’t you tell me he doesn’t really have much of a family? His parents are both dead and his kids aren’t around? No brothers or sisters, either? You know he’s welcome to come along with you and join us anytime.”
“I know that,” Lea looks at her son and, for about the millionth time in her life, marvels at what a kind and thoughtful person he’s turned out to be. “I really do appreciate your willingness to include him when we all get together. It means a lot to me, but he’s Ok being home. He’ll probably hang out, maybe call his kids.” Then she smiles, “One thing’s for sure. He’ll build a fire. He loves having a fire in the fireplace and just relaxing by it. Especially this time of year. We have one every night.”
She’s only ever given Adam the barest outline of Jack’s life, not bothering to go into the details. She’s not told him about Jack being left without a father when he was nine years old. She’s never told him that a few years after his father left he was never heard from again. She’s never told Adam that Jack’s wife left him for a man who made far more money as some sort of an investment banker than Jack would ever make as a math teacher. She’s never told her son that Jack’s three kids all moved out west for various reasons after high school, and they continue to stay out there to be closer to their mother in California. She’s never told him that though each of his kids and Jack have a good, though distant relationship, they only see each other every other year or so. She’s never told Adam any of those things because Jack wants to, as he’s always said, ‘Keep my business with my family private.’ So she has respected his wishes and never told anyone, even though she doesn’t agree one-hundred percent with his reasoning and has told him so many times.
Adam flips the turn signal on and says, putting an end to the conversation, “Whatever. But you really should bring him sometime. He might have fun.” He pulls into the driveway of he and his wife’s older style, two story, white stucco home. It’s in a charming neighborhood of mature oak and maple trees and well maintained 1920’s homes a few blocks east of Lake Harriet and just off Minnehaha Parkway in southwest Minneapolis. The drive from Long Lake has taken forty minutes and it’s now nearly a quarter to six. Lea takes a moment to appreciate the white Christmas lights Adam’s put up along the gutter of the first level. He’s wrapped the trunks of three oak trees with them as well. The steps leading up to the porch are brightly lit with white lights woven into evergreen garlands wrapped around the stairway banisters and the posts supporting the porch overhang. His home has a wonderfully festive look to it, especially with the snow piled high around the foundation of house and the sides of the sidewalk and the driveway.
From the back seat Kaley exclaims, “Look, Grandma, look. Great Grandma and great Grandpa are here.”
Lea grins. She’s already spotted her parent’s sage green Prius parked in the street. Her mom called at noon to say they were just leaving on their drive down from their home in Lake George, Minnesota. It’s a four hour trip and it looks like they’ve only recently arrived. She truly loves her parents and enjoys spending time with them. At eighty-six, they are as healthy as can be expected. They live on their own and can drive their car and Lea is grateful that they are still in her life. The plan is that later they will drive her back to Long Lake and spend the night and Christmas Day with her and Jack.
“I see that, sweetheart,” Lea says as Adam slows to a stop. “Let’s go inside and wish them Merry Christmas, Ok?”
Kaley is out of the car in a flash, pulling on her grandmother’s door handle. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” Lea says, laughing, stepping out into a fresh coating of snow. Light flurries have just started falling, adding to the holiday feel of the evening. “Let’s get my presents and bring them in. Will you help me?”
Kaley readily agrees. Adam opens the trunk and they take out the two shopping bags. Together the three of them make their way along the shoveled brick pathway to the steps leading up to the porch and then to the front door. Through a balsam wreath decorated with tiny red berries and small pine cones, Lea peers inside. In the living room she can see the brightly decorated Christmas tree and her mother and father seated around a roaring fire in the fireplace talking to Adam’s wife, Sally. Kaley’s younger siblings, Stephan, Emma and baby Luke, are gathered around as well. Her father’s obviously told one of his goofy jokes because as she watches, everyone suddenly bursts out laughing.
Smiling, Lea glances at Adam, “Where’s your sister?” Lea’s daughter Emily and her husband Randy and their young boys, Logan, Jacob and Seth live in St. Paul, about forty-five minutes away.
Adam is checking his phone, “I just got a text. They’ll be here in about ten minutes.”
“Come on, Grandma, let’s go,” Kaley is literally jumping out of her snow boots she’s so excited. “Let’s go see the great grandparents.”
“I’m coming, Sweetie,” Lea says. Kaley opens the door and she and her father enter to a cacophony of greetings and glad tidings. Before going inside, though, Lea quietly closes the door and takes a moment to stop, step back and look up and down the block. She enjoys seeing the houses decorated for the season, some with colored lights, some with white twinkling lights. They look so pretty and seasonally merry. December has been a cold, snowy month but Adam is a dedicated snow shoveler. There are piles of snow outlining the driveway, the entryway and the sidewalk out by the street. It looks like a scene from a Hallmark Christmas card.
“Grandma, come on…” Kaley opens the door, scampers back out and begins tugging on her grandma’s coat sleeve.
Lea laughs, “Okay, okay. I’m coming.”
She is looking forward to spending time with her family. She thinks for a moment about Jack back home and silently wishes him well. Maybe one day he’ll join them. Like Adam said in the car, he’s certainly welcome anytime. A blast of cold air sends snowflakes swirling though the air and the image of Jack passes from her mind. Kaley is gesturing excitedly, holding the door open. Lea smiles and pats her granddaughter lovingly on her head as she moves past her and steps inside to a scent of roast turkey and something cinnamon. A room full of happy faces turn toward her calling out ‘Happy Holidays’ and ‘Merry Christmas’ and any lingering thoughts of Jack vanish under an avalanche of jovial greetings and holiday good cheer. Her heart fills with gladness. It’s good to be with my family, Lea thinks to herself, and raises her voice, “Hi there, everyone. Merry Christmas!”
I walk from the kitchen back into the living room to face my father. I’ve calmed down and have decided that since he’s here, I might as well accept the situation for what it is and try to make the best of it. I notice that the fire has burned low and so I throw another log on the it. I’m just about to sit down when…
“While you’re up,” Dad says, “How about a drink? A cocktail? I could sure use one.”
Yeah, I’ll bet you could, I think to myself, remembering all the times growing up when the end of any holiday celebration was marked by my father falling asleep in whatever chair he happened to be in. Well, passed out drunk was what he was, is what my mother pointed out to me once during a conversation we had a few years after he’d moved out. “Drunk as a skunk, Jack. Every holiday: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. You name it. He’d be passed out inebriated before you kids went to bed. Without fail.” She’d finally come clean when I was around eleven or so. “He’d usually start drinking around noon and wouldn’t stop until he was out like a light.”
Being naive back then, I was more than little confused, “Why’d he do that, Mom?” I’d always thought he was just tired out from…From…Well, I guess I didn’t know what he’d be tired out from.
To this day I still remember my mother taking a long drag of her cigarette, exhaling a stream of smoke away from us, shaking her head sadly and saying, “I wish I knew, Jack. But, really, I have no idea.”
In the spirit of full disclosure here, I have to say that I was no saint when I got older. I went through a phase as an adult when I used to have the occasional weekend drink myself; sometimes way too much. In fact, truth be told, I might have gone down the same path as my father if something hadn’t stopped me. Well, check that, three things stopped me: my three kids Ethan, Sara and Lucy. The last thing I wanted to do was to set a bad example for them. More to the point, I wanted to be as good a father as I could be, not some guy worried every minute of the day about where his next drink was coming from. So I quit drinking thirty-five years ago when my oldest Ethan was five, and I haven’t touched so much as a beer since then.
I take a deep breath and exhale and then close and open and close and open my hands. I’m trying to settle myself. I avoid eye contact by looking into the fire (once again.) I watch as the new log catches and starts burning before I turn to him and say, “No, Dad. I don’t have anything to drink. Not like you’re getting at, anyway. I haven’t touched a drop for thirty-five years. How about you? You still have the (finger quote time) occasional drink?”
Across from me dad puts up his hands in self defense, “Whoa there partner, hold your horses. I’m only asking. If you don’t have any booze, don’t worry about. That’s fine with me.”
“Good, because we don’t. Neither Lea or I can stand the stuff.”
“Understandable.” I can’t help but notice how conciliatory he’s being. “If that’s the case, how about some tea or coffee or something? Even water. Can you stand that? I’m getting a little parched with all this reminiscing,” he says, mimicking me with his own use of finger quotes around reminiscing.
Suddenly, I’m really embarrassed. God, where are my manners? In spite of everything going on this evening, at least I could be a decent host, “Oh, man, I’m sorry Dad. I’ll get something for us right now. Give me a minute, Ok? Coffee or tea?”
“Tea would be fine.”
I quickly stand up and toss another log on the fire before going into the kitchen to put together some refreshments for us. I fill the tea pot and get it heating on the stove. I open the cupboard and look inside. Lea and I like tea, so we have boxes of Constant Comment, Chamomile, Licorice Spice and English Breakfast. I make my choice. I take down a mug for each of us, put in a tea bag and set them on a tray. I open another cupboard and take out something for us to munch on, shortbread cookies from Scotland.
It’s nice right now to have the time to go through a known ritual like I’m doing, preparing an evening tea. It’s helping to get me centered. In my imagination, talking with my father wasn’t supposed to be so trying. It was supposed to be just the two of us chatting about old times, looking at old photos, reminiscing and getting to know each other after over fifty years of being apart. We were supposed to be having a good time. Whew. It certainly hasn’t been going quite like that. We’ve had a few blow ups…but, now that I think about it, I suppose that’s only to be expected. I guess I’m still harboring some resentment over issues that needed to be brought out and dealt with, even though, in my own mind, I thought I had. It’s obvious that for all those past years I’ve been deceiving myself. However, In spite of some tension between us, it occurs to me that I’m actually glad some of the stuff has come out, emotionally trying as it’s been.
I walk to the back window and look out into the safety of the dark back yard again. I can just make out the shadow of snow flurries from the light of the kitchen. It’s a nice Christmas Eve kind of snowfall, soft and fluffy. Watching the gentle snow calms me down. I guess when all is said and done, our visit together isn’t going too badly. I’m glad to have Dad with me, even if we don’t agree on things like him leaving the family and being out of touch for our entire lives. Back then it was what it was and mom and my siblings and I all learned to how cope. He had left us. He’d moved on with his life. So did me and my mother and my brother and sister. I’m getting the distinct feeling that, at the end of the day, when I look back on the time spent with Dad tonight, I’ll realize that it will have been better to be able to talk to him than not, even if some of the subjects have been painful.
The tea pot begins whistling, interrupting my thoughts. I turn off the stove, wait a minute and then pour the water, a mug of English Breakfast for each of us. I put them on the tray, add a small plate of shortbread cookies, two paper napkins and check it out. Everything looks good. I let the tea steep for three minutes, remove the tea bags and toss them in the trash. Then I take a deep breath and exhale, pick up the tray and go back to the living room. On the way in, I glance at the pretty Christmas tree in the corner of the dining room. I make a vow to be nicer to Dad, thinking that I should just let bygones be bygones and make the most of our time together.
I set the tray on the coffee table to the side of the albums saying, “Ok, Dad, I’ve got a nice little treat for us.” I set the mug down I’d selected for him, a white one with the saying, ‘Teachers Rule’, on it in red, block letters. I point to it and say, “Go ahead.”
My father gratefully reaches for the mug and makes it a point of reading the inscription. He chuckles (for the first time tonight, if my memory serves) and says, “Thanks, son. This looks great.” (I notice he called me ‘son’ but don’t bother to say anything. I have to say, though, that I liked hearing him say it.) He breathes in deeply from the aroma of the tea and adds, “Smells wonderful.” Then he takes a cookie and munches on it thoughtfully. He blows on the surface of the tea and then takes a sip before setting his mug down. Then he sits back in his chair with a napkin in his hand, holding it under the cookie to catch any stray crumbs as he munches away. It’s a move on his part that I notice, thinking that it’s thoughtful of him to be so conscientious in someone’s home. I find myself relaxing some more. I’m actually starting to enjoy his company.
We eat a couple of cookies and sip our tea in companionable silence for a few minutes. I’m thinking that maybe Dad is waiting to see what kind of mood I’m in before he says anything. I can’t blame him. After all, I’d challenged the old man on more than one occasion already tonight, not to mention getting mad once or twice. It probably wasn’t the nicest thing for me to do. I remember my vow and decide to be more congenial, if that’s the right word, given the situation.
I notice that Dad had continued looking at the photo albums while I’d been in the kitchen. He’d closed the first one, the one that had the old pictures from back when our family was still together; back before our lives had all changed forever. Thinking back to those times, I feel my anger start bubbling up again and try to stop it. Hold on now, I tell myself, remembering my vow, I’m going to be more congenial, remember? Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, my anger subsides. Maybe I’m finally getting past my father’s abandonment and starting to let things go. That would be a good thing, wouldn’t it, I ask myself? That’s what all the self help books would encourage me to do, right? Well, it’s easier said than done is what I’m finding, and a bit of a rollercoaster ride to boot. I buckle up for some more of the ride.
With the first album closed and the second one open, I lean forward and point, “What are you looking at, Dad?” I ask, taking a sip of tea before setting the mug down. I’m looking at the page upside down and can’t quite make out the photo.
“It’s this next album of yours. What are these pictures of?”
“I put together a bunch of photos I had of Mom and Julie and Steve that were taken throughout the years after you’d left home. I thought you’d like to see them.”
He becomes quiet, slowly looking through the first few pages, stopping occasionally, peering at the photos closely. He seems to be having trouble seeing them. Finally, he reaches under his sweater to the breast pocket of his shirt and takes out a pair of reading glasses. He puts them on, messing with them, trying to get them set on his nose correctly. Finally he gives up and holds them in position with one finger.
I’m about to ask if I can help with the glasses situation, when he jokes, “These damn things. These readers. I’ve never gotten used to them.”
I don’t know why I found the statement humorous but it did, probably because I’d run into the same problem myself on occasion. “I’ve got some readers around here somewhere. Do you want me to try to find them for you? They might fit better.” There, I tell myself, I’m being nice and congenial, just like I said I would be.
“No, that’s Ok,” he says, looking up, distracted, and barely acknowledging my statement. It dawns on me that he wasn’t paying any attention to me at all because he was so engrossed in the pictures. He turns back to them. I follow his gaze. It appears he’s especially interested in the ones of Julie and Steve.
I point to a photo of my brother and sister taken when they were in their early twenties. They’re sitting next to each other at a picnic table at Lake Independence, a forested park near Maple Plain, the small town where we’d grown up. (Which, ironically, is only five miles west from where Lea and I now live.) “Do you know anything about them, Dad? Do you know anything about what Julie and Steve did with their lives?”
He looks up. Is that a degree of sadness I’m seeing, or am I just misreading his expression and dear old dad is only pretending that he at one time cared, or even now cares, about the family he left behind?
“I know you want me to say that I really did think about Julie and Stevie off and on over all these years, Jackie, but, honestly, like I said earlier, once I left you all and moved on with my life, I really didn’t think about any of you all that much.” He sighs and adds, “Even less as the years went by.” Then he goes back to looking at the photos, putting an end to the discussion. He seems intrigued by them, like he’d rather just look at pictures and not talk to me. I feel that I should give him the time to do that, but…
But, shit. I can’t help it. To hell with being congenial. A flaming red lava flow appears in my vision and my heart rate jumps into overdrive. I know I was going to try to be nice to the old man, but Jesus Christ. What a jerk. What a complete bastard. It’s clear he didn’t give a shit about any of us back then and doesn’t give a shit now. Why did I even bother contacting him and inviting him for a visit in the first place?
I’m about to say something and slam into him, slam into him good and verbally put him in his place, but then I remember my vow: Be nice. Don’t be a jerk like him. Calm down. Suddenly, an image of my kids pops into my mind. What would I expect them to do, given, god forbid, them being in a similar situation? Well, I know the answer. I’d want my kids to be to be civil, that’s what I’d want from them. I’d want them to rise to the occasion and at least try to be pleasant. Especially, I’d want them to accept the past for what it was and try to move on. Me? I need to quit grinding over events that are over and done with. Those things are in the past and can’t be changed anyway. Time for me to take a deep breath. Time to get my act together. Time to move on. Time to be a good son to my long lost father, no matter how hard it is.
I pick up my mug of tea and silently sip from it, giving myself a moment. It takes a few of them but in a minute or two I’m finally able to calm down.
Dad hasn’t’ a clue about the emotional tornado that has just roared through my mind. I watch as he takes his time going over the pages of the album, one by one. He sips his tea. He carefully eats another cookie and then sips some more from his mug. I watch him. He seems to be enjoying looking at the pictures and doesn’t appear to need me to answer any questions he might have, so I let him look. I have to say that I kind of enjoy watching him. I do a quick calculation. It’s been fifty-six years since I last saw him and it’s good to have him with me. After a while I turn to watching the fire. The tranquility between us right now is pleasantly satisfying. In fact, it feels really good.
After a few minutes, I notice that the plate of shortbread cookies is empty. So are our mugs. I put them all on the tray, stand up and go back into the kitchen. I fill the tea pot and set it on the stove. I add a fresh tea bag of English Breakfast to each mug. In the lower cupboard to the left of the sink are four holiday themed containers, each filled with a different batch of cookies Lea has made over the past few days. I open each of them and carefully arrange a nice selection – Russian tea cakes, ginger spice, sugar cutouts and spritz – on a large holiday plate I find that’s decorated with a Christmas scene of a family in a horse drawn sleigh being pulled through snowy fields at sunset. It’s quite a bit bigger than the one we’ve been using. Lea is going to use it tomorrow when everyone comes over but I don’t think she’ll mind if I borrow it just for tonight. I close the containers, put them away, wash the first plate and set it in the drying rack of the sink. The tea pot boils and I fix our tea and put our mugs on the tray along with our cookie laden holiday plate. Then I take it all back to the living room.
“Here you go, Dad,” I say, making it a point to pass the tray under his nose, “I’ve got a special treat. Have some Christmas cookies.” I set the tray on the table, put the plate of cookies near Dad and place his mug in front of him.
Absentmindedly, Dad takes a ginger spice and starts munching on it, still perusing the photos. Then he stops, obviously impressed with its flavor, and says, “Um, um. Say, these are really good.” He holds the cookie up and looks at it reverently. Then he pops the rest of it in his mouth before reaching for a Russian Tea Cake, saying, “These are fabulous. I can’t tell you when the last time was that I had a fresh Christmas cookie. Mind if I have another?”
I laugh and motion him to go ahead, “Lea made them. Take as many as you want. We’ve got hundreds.”
Savoring his second cookie, Dad says, “She’s a good baker.”His voice is muffled, what with his mouth full and all.
“She’s a great cook, all the way around.” I momentarily think back on the variety of homemade meals Lea has fixed for us. The most recent of them being: scrumptious vegetable soup, thick black bean chili, and more than a few creative rice dishes built around chick peas, wild rice, vegetables and savory herbs and spices. My mouth starts watering just thinking about them.
Dad ponders my statement about Lea’s cooking, takes a sip of tea and says, “Your mother was a good cook.”
“She was, Dad. Really good,” I concur. I’m just about to add something pithy, like ‘So why’d you leave?’ or something like that, but realize I’d only be coming across as a jerk myself. I don’t want to do that so I pump the brakes. After all, I’m the one who invited him for a visit. Deep breathing time, again, I remind myself. Deep breaths, in and out, in and out. After a minute or so I finally calm down.
Just then Dad surprises me by asking, “When did Ann die again?”
“Mom died five years ago. 2012. Congestive heart failure. Fortunately we were by her side.”
Dad points to the album he’s paging through, “Stevie and Julie? Were they there?”
“Well, no they weren’t, Dad. It’s a long story about them. But I was there, with Lea. Mom passed away under hospice care as peacefully as she could have.”
I’m silent for a moment as I turn to watch the flames in the fire, thinking about Mom. After she and I became close after Dad left, we remained close our entire lives. What would she have thought about me and Dad sitting together tonight after all these years, talking like we were? Well, I didn’t have to think too long or too hard. What she would say was this, “Jack, remember how I raised you to treat other people the way you would want to be treated? Well, that’s what you need to do now. Don’t harbor resentments. You need to show your father that you turned out to be a fine person and a fine human being, in spite of the fact that he left you and me and your brother and sister; in spite of all the pain he caused. You need to show him that you’ve put the past behind you and risen above it. You need to show him you turned out to be a good person.”
Does that sound weird? Too much like some sappy Hallmark Channel movie? Well, too, bad if it does. I’m glad Mom’s words came back to me just then. Especially given the situation. Sometimes what you really need a little kick in the ass from your mother. Especially when she’s right.
“Here, Dad,” I say, symbolically edging closer to show him I’m willing to set my hard feelings aside, “let’s take a look at these photos together. By the way, we began calling Stevie Steve after you left. Ok? And I’m Jack, not Jackie. Do you want me to fill you in on Julie and Steve and what happened in their lives? Would you like that?” I’m trying to be pleasant.
Is that a look of relief I see on the old man’s face? Or gratefulness? Whatever it is, I can literally feel the tension dissipate, sucked out of the room and up the chimney flue like the smoke from our fire.
He looks at me with a grateful expression and says, “Yes, son, I’d like that. I’d like that very much.”
So I fill him in on the lives of my brother and sister while Dad sips his tea, eats Christmas cookies and listens. It takes a couple more logs being added to the fire to get my brother and sister’s stories told, but that was all right; he was really interested and asked a lot of questions.
The nutshell version is this:
Steve and I were close as brothers and stayed close our entire lives. After he graduated from high school he and a buddy moved three hours north to Duluth, a thriving city of the shore of Lake Superior. He tried college there for a few years, found it didn’t suit him and eventually began working for a small owner owned construction company specializing in solar panel installation. Using the sun’s energy for home electrical needs is a growing business these days, but back then in the early 80’s it was just starting to take off. Even though the years were lean, Steve liked the work and liked the owner, a stoic Fin named Juri Niskanin. Juri, in turn, liked Steve, especially his work ethic, and offered my brother part ownership in the company roughly ten years later. Steve readily accepted. By then he was married to Eileen, a nurse at St. Mary’s, a three hundred and fifty bed hospital in downtown Duluth. In 1998, when Steve was forty-three, their son was born, Gary, who is now a student at the University of Minnesota at Duluth and works part time at a well known canal park hotel on the shore of Lake Superior.
Steve enjoyed the out-of-doors. He taught himself to hunt and fish after Dad left but gave it up in his late twenties for, as he put it, ‘The adventure of rock climbing,’ a sport he dearly loved. Unfortunately, it also killed him. He died during a climb in Colorado in 2003. Eileen still makes her home in Duluth and I continue to stay in touch with both her and her son. They are good people.
Julie, unfortunately, had a rough life. She got with the wrong crowd in high school and none of us, neither Mom, nor me, or Steve, could steer her clear of what eventually became a ten year tail spin into the world of drugs. She eventually hit rock bottom, living the life of a meth-addict in a dump of a trailer house off a rural county road twenty five miles north of Minneapolis. A late night call from a friend of hers to Mom saved her in the fall of 1982. Mom called me and we drove to Anoka County, found the single wide and rescued her. She was comatose and barely breathing. We were able to get her to the emergency room at Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis just in time. The doctors told us later that she would have been dead in an hour if we hadn’t shown up. Fortunately we did. She was twenty-eight at the time.
Julie went into treatment. Then she relapsed. She went into treatment again and stayed with it, getting clean in 1985. She began attending Metropolitan Junior College in downtown Minneapolis and two years later, in 1987, earned a hard fought degree in counseling; drug abuse counseling to be specific, which stood to reason given her track record. And, given that track record, she was really good at it. She became a counselor for the Hennepin County Drug Task Force, focusing on women and the unique challenges they faced in the fight to stay clean and sober. She dated off and on but nothing serious until 1990 when she met Kyle, a level headed northeast Minneapolis beat cop. Life was on the upswing for her. She had a job she was good at; one that she truly loved. She had met someone she was happy with. And, most importantly, she continued to stay drug free. She and Kyle moved in together and even talked about starting a family. Unfortunately, her life ended tragically when she was killed in a head on collision with a drunk driver on a snowy winters night in 1992. She had been driving home on Interstate 94 after visiting Kyle at the local precinct station. She died instantly. She was thirty-eight.
We buried Julie that January in Lakewood Cemetery on the shore of beautiful Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. Steve was laid to rest next to her in 2003. Finally Mom joined her son and daughter in 2012.
“So, out of the family you left behind, Dad, I’m the only one still living,” I tell him by way of wrapping up the story of his son and daughter. I look at him wondering what he can possibly be thinking. He’d outlived his first wife and two out of his three children. I’m surprised to see that his eyes are glistening. Are those tears I see? He reaches into his pocket, takes out a handkerchief and wipes them away. Yes, I believe they are.
“Were Steve and Julie happy with their lives?” he asks softly. I lean forward so I can hear him. He twists the handkerchief into a knot. Untwists it and then twists it again. I fight the urge to put out my hand to stop him.
“Yeah, they were,” I tell him and watch as he stuffs the knotted mess back in his pants pocket. I can’t help but notice the use of Steve’s given name. His grown up name. He wasn’t Stevie any more. Dad is finally getting the point that the children he’d fathered (and abandoned) had grown up to be responsible, caring adults. Two wonderful people who had each tragically died too young and who had each, in their own way, made the world a little better place to live in during their abbreviated lives. (That’s my own opinion. Unbiased, of course.) “They were both happy,” Dad, I reiterated, “Very.”
“That’ good,” he says, “That’s really good.” His voice cracks. I can see that he’s not prepared to have to process the kind of information I’d just given him. I don’t feel any compunction to help him so I let him process.
He takes a sip of his tea before sitting back and staring into the fire. I sit back, too, thinking my own privates thoughts about my brother and sister, reliving my own unique memories of the times I’d spent with them. I’m happy I’d had a life with them. My siblings and I were as close as I could ever have hoped for us to be. I can only imagine what is going through Dad’s mind. Even though each of my three kids, Ethan, Sara and Lucy, live out west and I don’t see them very often, at least I do see them. Plus, we are in touch via Skype, email, texting and the occasional phone call. I can’t foresee ever having one of them dead and no longer in my life. Not at all. My mind just can’t wrap itself around the concept. Now, here’s my father sitting across from me after I’ve just delivered the news that two of his children are dead and gone. He’d given up the opportunity to see them grow up and now he’ll never get the chance to get to know them as adults. That sobering fact seems to have gotten to him. Shaken him. Was he sad they were gone and he never had a chance to get to have an adult relationship with them? Or was he sad because it only pointed to his own mortality, and the fact that soon he too would be dying and leaving this world forever?
I decide to let him think about it. I stand up, grab my wood carrier and go outside to the garage where I’ve stored my winter supply of firewood. I take my time loading up. It’s nice to have an emotional break, even though it is freezing cold outside.
When I get back inside, Dad’s not in his chair. I look down the short hallway off the living room and see a light on underneath the bathroom door. Then I hear the toilet flush and then water running in the sink. I busy myself filling the wood box next to the fireplace. After a minute he comes out, slowly makes his way to his chair and sits down. I study his face. He looks worn, his skin is gray and sagging. He looks older, but strangely enough, he also looks contrite. Apologetic.
He coughs and says, “You know, looking at those pictures and talking about Steve and Julie, I don’t know what to say.” He pauses for about a minute, while I wonder if he’s going to say anything or if we’re going to sit there forever in silence. Finally, when he does speak, he lowers his voice so I can barely make out what he’s saying. But I can. He says, “I guess I missed out on a lot.”
Well, no shit, Sherlock. I jump into it, “Did you even think to contact either of them? They were only a phone call away, you know. Didn’t you ever wonder what was going on with them and what they were doing with their lives?”
“I should have. I know I should have. But, honestly, no. I really didn’t think about them at all. ” He pauses and then adds, “Or you, Jack.” He looks at me, hoping that I recognize that he called me Jack instead of Jackie. I do and I nod my thanks, but don’t say anything. I can’t recall ever seeing someone looking so sad. He pauses again and picks up a cookie, looks at it and then sets it down, without taking a bite. “Like I said earlier, I just put you all out of my mind. I guess I did it to survive. I just got on with my life. It was easier that way.”
“Pretty selfish, Dad,” I toss out my opinion (for what it’s worth.) “Pretty damn selfish.” An image comes into my mind. It’s like a collage of all the traits one should have to be a parent. Selflessness, the act of thinking of others (like your kids and your wife) before yourself, would be high on the list. It’s becoming apparent to me, the more we talk, that the truth of the matter regarding my father is that he just wasn’t cut out to be a parent. What’s interesting is that right now, at this very moment, I finally realize that we were all, me, Steve and Julie, better off without him. (I can’t speak for Mom, but my guess is that she was, too.) It’s a sobering thought. It’s also real. I’m ready to accept that, in the long run, it was better for all of us that he left.
He looks at me for a long moment and then says, “Yeah, I guess I was selfish.” Then adds, “I guess I missed a lot.”
I don’t have to guess and tell him with as much certainty as I can muster, “Yeah, you did.” I have nothing more to add, so I don’t.
I put another log on the fire. How many was that now? Seven or eight? I look at one of the old Baby Ben clocks on the mantel that Lea collects. This one was made in the ’50’s and is a soft orange color. It reads seven-thirty five. I wonder how her evening is going. She and her mom and dad and her kids and grandkids would have all had a nice meal by now and are probably getting ready to open presents. I can picture them gathered around the Christmas tree at Nate and Sally’s. I like that Lea’s family doesn’t make a big deal out of giving tons of gifts. The rule is that each person gives and receives only one gift and giving books is highly encouraged. Even the kids are required to give one gift to everyone in attendance. (The youngest ones get help from their parents.) For Lea and her family the importance of their Christmas Eve celebration is that they can share a meal and a festive evening with each other. Togetherness and family appreciation are the unspoken themes of the evening. Right now I’m thinking that I probably should have taken Lea up on her offer and gone with her. It would have been fun, at least more fun than sitting in my living room talking to an old man who obviously couldn’t have cared less about the family he’d left behind fifty-six years ago. I should have left well enough alone and never even invited him to see me. Next time, if I’m asked, I think I’ll accept. It might be fun go with her and be with a family who all want to spend time with each other. It’d be different, anyway.
I grimace and look into the fire, suddenly hating my ‘poor me’ thoughts. Here I am feeling sorry for myself again. At a time like this I wonder if I’m ever going to get beyond the anger I feel at Dad having left us so long ago. I know that the healthy thing to do is to let it go. I’m trying, but obviously not doing a very good job of it. I sigh for the hundredth time tonight and think: well, at least I’ve finally accepted that my siblings and I were better off without him. That must count for something. Doesn’t it?
My thoughts are interrupted when Dad asks, “So what’s this you’ve got here? What’s in this album?”
He’s voice sounds kind of upbeat. Enthusiastic. I look. He’s closed the second album and is starting to page through the third and final collection of photos I’d put together. It’s the one of me and my wife (well, ex-wife) and my kids. I appreciate that he’s at least pretending to be interested. I lean over the table, ridding myself of my self-centered thoughts, eager to show him my family. There are collections of holiday pictures, photos taken on vacations and photos taken off the cuff, just goofing around. In spite of all the pondering I’m doing tonight, and maybe because of it, I’m suddenly excited to show them to him.
While Dad looks at the photos, I give him a brief overview of my life:
“Janice and I met at the U and we married in June right after we graduated. That was in 1974. The first job I got after college was teaching tenth grade advanced algebra and trigonometry in Minneapolis at Washburn High School. Janice and I lived in a small one bedroom apartment just a couple of blocks away for a few years until we had saved enough to buy a medium sized home in south Minneapolis.” I flip through the photos, find what I’m looking for and point, “Here it is from the outside.”
Dad looks at it for a long time and then says, “Looks nice.”
Our home was a story and a half bungalow that had tongue and groove wood siding which we painted golden yellow. We painted the trim around the windows white. We planted shrubs around the fountain and filled pots in the summer so they were overflowing with colorful geraniums, petunias and impatiens. Even though the house and yard were small, we had a couple of good sized trees that gave us shade in the summer. It was a good place to raised a family. Ethan, Sara and Lucy were all born there.
“It was a really nice place to live, Dad. We were only a few blocks from Minnehaha Falls and a huge park. We went there a lot.” I turn a few pages, point and say, “There were lots of grassy areas and trees and tons of room for the kids to run around and play. They’ve all told me that they have great memories of growing up in that neighborhood.”
Dad scans the pictures on the page, taking his time looking. He seems to be enjoying the experience of seeing his eldest son’s family. As least that’s what I tell myself. In looking back on the evening, I’m pretty sure I was right.
He turns the page and I say, “Here’s all of us on a vacation we took in 1987 to Montana. Ethan was eleven, Sara was nine and Lucy was seven. We drove to the Woodbine Campground thirty miles north of Yellowstone and camped out for a couple of days on the Stillwater river. It runs out of the Beartooth Mountains, part of the Rocky Mountain chain.” I point out a photo of a mountain with snow on the summit, even in the summer. “That’s Granite Peak. It’s the highest point in Montana.”
Dad doesn’t say anything, he just looks. Then he takes out his twisted handkerchief and dabs at his eyes again. He doesn’t say anything, but this is obviously an emotional experience for him. I’m touched by response. I didn’t know he had it in him to care so much.
We spend a few minutes looking over more than a few pages of photos of white water rapids raging through a rocky gorge with cliffs at least fifty feet high (something you don’t see in Minnesota.) I show him a number of shots of the kids playing on the rocks in the calm backwaters of the Stillwater, Janice looking on. She’s dressed in a white tank top and light blue hiking shorts. She is looking tan and fit, and is wearing a madras headband that sets off her long, honey blond hair.
I tell Dad that one of the highlights of the vacation was a Dude Ranch we found that rented us horses to ride for an afternoon, under the strict supervision of a guide, of course. There are numerous photos of the kids in their cowboy hats astride, Paint and Scout and Dolly Parton. After our trail ride, we were saddle sore, but happy. There’s a great photo of all three of the kids standing with our trail guide, Arnie, who told us he was part Native American from the Blackfoot (or Kootenai) tribe in northern Montana. It was a great day.
Along with all the pictures we took on that trip, there is the obligatory one of me asleep in the middle of the day. I’m lying in a quiet spot next to the Stillwater in the shade of a pine tree with my Twins baseball hat pulled down over my eyes, completely conked out. I remember awaking to find the kids had carefully placed about fifty small stones on my chest. I remember Janice wrote of the back of that one, ‘Sound sleeper’. Finally, there’s a nice photo of Janice and the kids sitting around a roaring campfire roasting marshmallows, everyone smiling and happy.
I have to admit that even now after all these years, looking at those pictures is quite moving. They are bringing back really good memories. It’s nice to remember Janice and I and the kids really did have some good times as a family. Good times, that is, before the shit hit the fan and Janice left me for that damn rich guy.
Whoops. Here I am starting to get pissed again. I need to calm down. Like Dad did earlier, now I’m the one who sits back and contemplatively sips his tea. Finally my heart rate slows to normal and a feel my anger abate. Then disappear. Good.
While I’m going through my own personal mini-meltdown, Dad calmly keeps looking through the album. I watch him. Emotionally, right now he’s doing good. He seems to be enjoying seeing all the pictures of me and my kids and my ex-wife. I have a thought. In a sense, my family photos are like the ones I’d shown him earlier – the old ones of he and Mom and Steve and Julie. Maybe right now he’s living a little vicariously through my own family pictures; putting himself in my spot as the father who was with his family and never left. Maybe?
I decide to take a chance and ask, “Thinking about what it would have been like if you’d stuck around, Dad?” I ask, indicating another photo, this one of a birthday party, Lucy’s I think, taken when she turned eight. “You know, are you thinking about all the good times you missed?”
He looks up, startled. He takes a split second to settle himself before responding, “Why, no,” he says, “No, I’m not. I mean, I’m enjoying seeing these shots of you and your family. A lot. Right now, though, to be honest, I was just wondering what kind of camera you were using. These are some awfully nice photographs you’ve got here, son.”
Oh. So I apparently I miss read the situation big time, and Dad was not taking a walk down an imaginary memory lane of his past. Well, that’s Ok. I’d forgotten that he was, and apparently still is, a man interested in technology. At least he called me ‘Son’ when he responded to my question. There was something to be said for that; something to be grateful for.
I chuckle and say, “I used a Cannon Sure Shot back then, Dad. And you’re, right, it really was a good camera. I had it for a number of years. I must have taken a thousand pictures with it. At least. Probably way more.”
“You still have it? I’d like to see it.”
“No, I don’t. I dropped it in a lake when I was taking a photo of a loon. It was probably twenty years ago. I just use the camera in my phone now.” I hold up my Samsung Galaxy and show it to him.
“That’s a nice phone,” he says, taking it from me and looking it over before handing it back. Then he reaches into his pants pocket and takes out his own phone, “I’ve got the latest Apple iphone.”
He hands it lovingly to me. I take it from him, look it over and give him the necessary compliment, “That’s nice, Dad. I’ve heard it’s a really good one.”
“Yeah, it is,” he says, taking his phone back from me, “I like it a lot.”
It’s a little thing, but it gets us off talking about smartphones for a while. For a long time, actually. While we are talking it comes back to me that Dad always did like the latest in technology: the fanciest camera, the newest model television, and best, top of the line audio system with the most expensive receiver, tape deck, equalizer, speakers and so forth. In looking back at the conversation, I have to say, it was the first time we were actually comfortably talking together, sharing a nice little back and forth kind of banter about a common interest. A guy thing. More specifically, we were at ease with each other. I had to give each of us credit for that. It was actually kind of fun.
While Jack and his father are talking about the pros and cons of various smartphones, Lea and her family are just finishing up opening gifts. Kaley is jammed next to her grandmother in a comfortable easy chair with her new book, Anne of Green Gables. Lea is thrilled that her granddaughter loved her gift and now is enjoying the closeness of the little girl. She smiles as Kaley begins reading the story out loud in her soft voice. Her granddaughter is dressed for the holiday in red tights, a green skirt with two white pockets in front in the shape of snowmen, and a green and red stripped top. She is also wearing a red elf hat, trimmed in white, the tip of which curls down and has a white pompom on the end.
Lea glances around, totally at peace. The center piece of the living room is the fireplace, now pleasantly lit with burning logs. To the right of it is a tree decorated with a mixture of old-time ornaments Nate has begged off his mom, and new ones comprised of all of the colors of the rainbow which Lea is sure Nate’s kids have had a hand in selecting. Sally has a pair of candles burning on the mantel scented with a pleasant pine fragrance, and she’s set up an 1880’s English village winter scene on a table along the wall opposite from the fireplace where little lights shine through the windows of the old time shops and cottages and there’s a skating rink (made from a mirror) with young boys and girls skating on it. A family is pulling a freshly cut tree on a sled through the snow (soft cotton) and vendors with their wooden carts are selling hot apple cider and other holiday goodies. It reminds her of a quaint scene Charles Dickens might write about.
Her dad and Adam are playing Chinese Checkers with Kaley’s two younger siblings, Stephan and Emma. Sally is cradling six month old baby Luke in her arms. Lea’s daughter Emily is talking to Sally and playing with the baby. Emily’s husband Randy is showing their three young sons, Logan, Jacob and Seth, ages six to three, how to construct a cabin out of Lincoln Logs; something the boys are putting up with good naturedly, it seems to Lea. Her mom is in a comfortable corner chair, quietly paging through a book of photos taken of rural England, a place her mom and dad have traveled to at least three times in their life, if Lea’s memory is correct.
The living room is warm and cozy and is like a homey scene right out of a twenty-first century Christmas story. It makes her glad that her parents and her son and daughter and their spouses and her seven grandchildren all get along so well together. She glances at her watch. It’s just about eight. She’ll have to leave soon and get her parents home to her place at a decent hour. Suddenly, a burst of laughter makes her look up. Her son-in-law Randy has just told a joke and her dad, Edward “Ed” is laughing hysterically. So is her mother, Barb. It feels so good to be here, Lea thinks to herself, and glances at her watch again. Maybe she can wait a little longer. Maybe until eight-thirty or so. She goes back to listening to Kaley read, thinking how lucky she is to have her family with her like she does. Her Christmas Eve is everything she ever hoped it could be. Too bad Jack has chosen to miss it, she thinks to herself. Let’s see…she does a quick calculation. He’s missed it again now for what, the last thirteen years? Well, it’s his choice. Too bad for him.
Kaley turns the page and continues reading. Lea settles in and pushes thoughts of Jack out of her mind. Instead, she listens to the soothing sound of her granddaughter’s voice and breathes in the soft scent of strawberry from Kaley’s hair. Everything is as perfect as it could be. She sighs a soft sigh, happy and at peace, in no hurry to leave. She’ll definitely stay a little longer, she thinks, as the sound her granddaughter’s voice drifts into her ear, sweet as the frosting on an iced Christmas cookie, warm as the glow from a contented grandmother’s heart.
When talk of smartphones run its course, I realize both our mugs are empty again and asks, “Would you like some more tea? I could make us some.”
“Sure that would be good.”
I’m kind of energized. It’s been good to just chat with Dad about something other than our family issues. Maybe we can be amiable with each other after all, even have a friendship of sorts. I’d like that. I think he would, too, or he wouldn’t continue to stay here like he is. In fact, he could get up and leave anytime, but he hasn’t. I take that as a good sign.
While Dad goes back to paging through the third album, I put our two mugs and empty plate on the tray and go into the kitchen. I glance at the clock. It’s just after eight. I fill the tea pot, put it on the stove and have a thought: I wonder how Lea is doing? Well, I know the answer; don’t even have to think about it too hard. Lea’s doing great. She enjoys her family and loves being with them. I can easily picture her and her son and daughter and parents and grandkids are gathered together in the living room, fooling around, laughing and talking and enjoying each other’s company. I have nothing but admiration for her family and like them all a lot. They’re nice folks.
But before I let my thoughts wander too far to Lea and her more pleasant family circumstances, I remind myself to focus on Dad being here. After all, it’s just the two of us spending a quiet evening together on this Christmas Eve. I imagine that it’s certainly a lot different than the holiday festivities over at Adam’s home where everyone’s friendly with each other and happy to be together. However, before I let myself go too far down that road, I stop and shake that homey image out of my mind. I replace it with this one thought: Even though we’ve had our tense moments tonight, at least after all these years Dad and I are together. We’re finding a way to put the past behind us and move on and that’s a good thing. And, we’re talking. It may not be much, but at least it’s something. It’s a start. And I glad for that.
After the water boils, I pour the water into our mugs and, while I’m at it, wipe the crumbs off the plate and put out some more Christmas cookies. I let the tea steep (constant comment this time), then put the tea bags in the trash and take the tray back to the warm living room with the bright burning fire. Dad is sitting comfortably in his chair still paging through the third photo album. He looks at ease. Peaceful. Happy. Looking at him I have one final thought and it’s a worthy one: If he hadn’t shown up this afternoon, Dad would have been alone tonight on Christmas Eve and so would I; him by circumstance, me by choice. Now, neither of us are. We’re together. There’s something good to be said for that.
I sit down and set the tray on the table. As I do, Dad says, “Say Jack, I was wondering, do you ever play backgammon? Remember I showed you how to play when you were young? We used to play together sometimes.”
I am stunned by his question and have to take a moment to collect myself. Is he intimating that he might want to play a game with me? Do something fun together? It’s the last thing I expect from him. While I’m collecting myself I notice he’s looking directly at me, waiting for my response. I rush to say, “I do remember, Dad. I’ve got a game board here in the dining room. Lea and I play sometimes. Why?”
“I’ve haven’t played in years,” he tells me, “Would you like to play a game?”
Wow. With my hand shaking slightly, I set his mug in front of him, careful not to spill. Yikes, is what I’m thinking. This is certainly an unforeseen wrinkle in the evening. It’s also an unexpected, though pleasant, surprise. I set my own mug down, then look him in the eyes and say (because I really don’t have to think hard about my answer), “I’d love to Dad.”
He gives me a big grin. “Good. Me, too. You get the board and I’ll clear some space for us.”
I stand, go to the built in buffet in the dining room and take out the game board. It’s in a leather bound case that unfolds to a cork board playing surface. The playing pieces are made out of round, thick plastic, red for one player, creamy white for the other. The pieces all have light swirls running through them, like agates. It’s a top notch set that I purchased at a favorite bookstore the first year Lea and I were together. I bring it to the coffee table. Dad has moved the photo albums off to the side but left the last one open. While I open up the board he continues to look at the photos of me and Janice and Ethan and Sara and Lucy. Toward the end of the album there are only photos of the kids. Then only photos of Lea.
He looks up and points, catching my attention, “I’m curious. What are your kids up to?”
As I arrange the playing pieces in position on the board, I tell him about my son and two daughters.
“After high school Ethan moved to Montana to go to college in Bozeman. He’s stayed out there. He’s thirty-nine and works as a cook in a locally sourced restaurant. He also manages the fruit and vegetable section in a natural foods co-op called Rocky Mountain Way. He’s married to Rachel and they have a little girl, my granddaughter. Her name is Ruby. My daughter Sara is thirty-seven and quite a talented fiddle player. For the last ten years or so she’s played with a bluegrass group called Left of the Dial. They’re based in Eugene, Oregon but travel a lot. She’s single. My youngest daughter Lucy is thirty-five and teaches second grade. For the last eight years she and her partner, Samantha, have been living and working in downtown San Francisco.”
“How about your ex-wife?”
“After the kids left home, she started devoting more and more time to her artwork. She’s a talented watercolor artist. She met a rich guy who initially was kind of a benefactor for her. He was and still is an investment banker. She and I had drifted apart over the years, so one thing lead to another and she eventually left me for him. The kids were out of the house. She asked for a divorce, I agreed and that was that. It was about sixteen years ago. I decided to move on myself and start over, so to speak. I found a teaching job right away at Long Lake High School, sold the house in Minneapolis, moved out here and began teaching college level calculus and trigonometry until I retired three years ago.”
“She was working at a local garden center when I went in looking for some indoor plants for the little apartment I was living in. That was about fifteen years ago. She had been divorced for a few years and we got to talking. We’re the same age and found out that we had a lot in common. We became friends and then started dating and have been together ever since. I moved in here thirteen years ago.
“Are you happy?”
“Yes, I am, Dad. Very.” I look at him and he’s smiling a genuine smile for what seems like the first time all evening. “It sounds like it,” he tells me. Then he pauses for a moment before adding, “I’m glad for you, son. Really. I’m really glad that you’re happy.” Then he breaks eye contact and focuses his attention on the board as he picks up his dice cup and starts shaking it.
I think back to something Mom told me many years ago. It had to do with Dad’s inability to express his feelings. The way she talked back then, it sounded like it might have been a bone of contention in their marriage. “It was just something he wasn’t comfortable with,” she told me back then. “Expressing his feelings. It was especially true in the early years of our marriage.” I remember her sighing a disappointed sigh before saying, “It was just the way our generation was raised, I guess. The men in particular.”
Remembering that long ago conversation with my mom, I look at Dad. He’s avoiding my gaze and probably thinking, ‘Enough of the touchy-feely stuff. Let’s get on with the game.’ It’s hard to tell just exactly what he’s thinking, but I will say this: I’m touched that he bothered to tell me his was glad for me and was able to express his feelings. I can understand how hard it must have been for him to do that and it draws me a little closer to him.
But he’s clearly ready to change the direction of the conversation. “Now,” he says, rubbing his hands together in what seems to be joyful anticipation, “how about if we play some backgammon?”
“Sounds good to me, Dad.”
And we do. And I beat him, but not by much.
Nate and his family and Emily and her family are standing outside on the porch waving and yelling out ‘Happy Holidays’ and other glad tidings. Lea waves a final good-bye before she climbs into the backseat of her parent’s Prius. Barb starts the car, puts it in drive, beeps the horn goodbye and pulls away from the curb. Ed’s eye sight isn’t very good, especially at night, so her mom does the driving. The flurries have let up and there’s about half an inch of light snow on the streets. The roads will be slick.
“Be careful, Mom,” Lea says a few minutes later, gripping the arm rest as the car slips rounding the corner onto 50th street, “We don’t want any accidents.”
Ed laughs, “Your mom’s a careful driver. She hasn’t been in a car accident her entire life, have you Barb? Not even a fender bender.”
“That’s right,” Barb says and slows down as the car in front of her fishtails a little. “I’ll just take it slow and easy. After all, we want to make it to your place in one piece, right? We haven’t seen Jack in what? A couple of years?”
“Mom, you saw him last Thanksgiving, just a month ago.”
“Oh, that’s right. How silly of me.”
Ed looks over the seat at Lea, raises is eyebrows and says, “Don’t worry, dear, I remember seeing him. He wore plaid, as usual.” He laughs at his little joke. Lea can only muster a weak smile in response. She’s suddenly more than a little nervous.
At the intersection of 50th street and Highway 100 Barb asks, “I forget, do I go right or left?”
Both Lea and Ed yell, “Right!”
Barb puts her turn signal on and they turn onto the highway that will take them fifteen miles west to Long Lake. Ed settles his bulky frame comfortably in the passenger seat like this is normal behavior for the two of them. Lea says a silent prayer, and wishes for the tenth time since she got in the car that she had bothered to learn how to drive way back when she was a teenager. To distract herself, she takes out her phone to check to see if Jack has sent a text. He hasn’t. She contemplates sending him a quick message and then decides there’s no need. She sighs and looks out the window. Hopefully he’s doing Ok. He’s probably just looking at those old photo albums of his. A pretty harmless, if not a lonely, way to spend the night, she thinks. Well, that’s the way it goes. It’s his decision.
Her mother’s driving isn’t so bad. She’s doing a good job keeping to steady thirty-seven miles per hour even though the speed limit is fifty-five. The snowy, icy conditions certainly warrant not only caution but a slower speed on the busy roadway. Lea starts to relax but then grips the arm rest as the car slides a little to the left. “Mom, slow down,” she yells, just as her dad says, calmly, “Easy does it, Barb. Better watch your speed.”
Barb corrects the slight skid and backs off on the accelerator a notch until speedometer reads thirty-four miles per hour. Her hands are at the ten and two position on the steering wheel and her eyes actively watch the road, missing nothing. “I’m Ok, really. Both of you just calm down and relax. You’re making me nervous.”
Lea glances at her watch. It’s eight-forty five. At this rate it will take them at least another half an hour to get home. That’s all right. Better late than never, she is thinking just as her dad turns to her and says, “Better late than never, right, sweetheart?”
In spite of herself, Lea grins and laughs, “Yeah, Dad, it is.”
She settles in for the drive home. Her dad reaches for the radio and turns it on. Christmas music fills the inside of the car. Her mother starts singing along to ‘Joy To the World,’ and soon her dad joins in. By the time the third verse begins, Lea hesitantly joins them, humming along. She leans forward and checks the speedometer. It reads thirty-three. Good, Lea thinks, Mom’s still driving slow. Better late than never.
I put away the backgammon board and then attend to the fire. I use the poker to break up the charred wood. I had been so intent on our game that I’d inadvertently let the logs burn down, and right now I’m happy to uncover a few red hot coals. I add some paper, twigs for kindling, three medium sized logs and sit back. In a few minutes first the paper and kindling catch and then the two bottom logs. Looks like the fire will get going again. Good.
“So how are you doing, Dad?” I ask, making myself comfortable on the couch.
He’ been quiet since we’ve finished playing. He looks tired, but maybe that’s to be expected. He’s nearly ninety, after all.
“I’m good, son. Just thinking.”
“I know you’d like me to say that I shouldn’t have left you and Steve and Julie and your mom all those years ago.”
“Dad, I…” I’m about to tell him I’ve reconciled with all that. Talking to him tonight has helped immensely. What’s done is done is where I’m at. What’s past is past, and it’s time to move on.
But he won’t let me speak and holds up a hand to stop me from interrupting ,”Wait a minute, son. Please let me continue.” He rubs his hand back and forth over his buzz cut. He’s obviously nervous. And emotional. Finally, he clasps his hands together in front of him and continues, “I want you to hear me out.” He takes a deep breath, exhales and then says, “You need to realize that I had to leave. I wasn’t happy with being married to your mom. It was nothing against you kids. I know I should have stayed in touch with you and Julie and Steve. I know that now.” He points to the albums, “Looking at the photos you put together has shown me that.”
I try unsuccessfully to hold back a smirk. Finally I’m vindicated, and I feel tiniest bit of self-satisfaction. A tiny bit. But in all honesty, the more I think about it, really not all that much. My smirk vanishes. It’s a shallow, pointless victory. After numerous times tonight feeling like Dad was acting like a jerk, now I’m the one feeling that way. I don’t like the feeling. I’m finding that, in spite of everything, I’ve come to care about him. It’s hard to see the pain he’s now experiencing.
“But, like I said,” he continues, “I had to leave. I wanted to find a woman I could be married to. Someone who I could be happy with.” He pauses and looks into the fire, now crackling merrily. Right now I’m doing my best not to belittle the man’s thoughts and feelings. I’m thinking: You married three more times after mom. You divorced three more times. You’re all by yourself right now. I guess you…
Oh, my god. Suddenly, it hits me. In a flash. I mentally smack myself on the side of my head as I realize the awful truth of my dad’s life. It’s taken all this time this evening for me to finally figure it out. (Not to mention that I’m finally thinking about him as a person for a change instead of myself.) When I do focus on him, it all becomes perfectly clear. What Dad really wanted in his life was to have a successful marriage. More than that, he wanted to have a life with a wife and children. He wanted a family, but he never was able to attain that dream. He failed. He might have been a successful teacher, and might have had a lot of friends, but when it came to relationships with women, he was a failure. I wonder, is this what he’s going to tell me?
“I guess what I’m trying to say, Jack, is that after all these years, I’m finally at the end of my life. I’m old. I know I don’t have much time left.” He looks at me. Something has changed inside of him. I expect to see self pity in his eyes, but I’m wrong. Instead, I see something completely different. His eyes have become so alive and fiery they almost give off sparks. And it’s not just his eyes. His frailness is gone. He’s pumped up and seems stronger. There’s suddenly a passion in him I haven’t seen before. It fills his entire body. He’s the most alive I’ve seen since he’s arrived. “What I want to tell you is that you have a good life here with Lea, Jack. And even though you don’t see your kids too often, it sounds like you have a good relationship with them, too.” He points his finger at me and says, “What I want to tell you is this. Don’t. Blow. It.” He punctuates each word by a stabbing motion. “Make the most of what you’ve got. You can never go back. You can only learn from your mistakes and go forward.”
It may not have been the deepest or most profound advice, but that didn’t matter. It came from my dad and that’s all that mattered.
Growing up, we weren’t a family that dispensed freely with hugs. Well, we never did when you got right down to it. Maybe that’s why when I was older and had my own kids, I started using hugs as a way of demonstrating affection. Whatever the case, after Dad expresses himself, I stand up, go over to him, kneel down and give him a big, warm all encompassing hug. He holds himself stiff for a few moments. Then he starts to relax. I feel the tension leave his body. I don’t say anything except, “Thank you, Dad. That means a lot to me.” A few moments go by and then I feel his tentative fingers on my back. “I’m glad you came tonight, Dad,” I tell him, “I’m really glad.”
In the room I’m aware of a deep silence. A supreme stillness. All I hear is the crackling of the fire, but that’s Ok. It’s comforting to be this close to my father. Then the silence is broken when Dad says, “Me, too, son. I’m glad I came, too.”
Then his arms tighten and he hugs me back.
Barb turns from Highway 100 onto Highway 394, the final stage in the drive home. The road is greasy with a mixture of slush and snow and traffic is moving slowly at thirty miles per hour. Lea glances at her phone. The time reads a few minutes after nine. Still no message from Jack. Should she text him and see how he’s doing? In the front seat, the radio is off and Ed and Barb are talking. Well, Ed’s talking. In between reminiscing about the evening at Adam’s and past Christmas Eve’s in general, he’s guiding his wife down the highway, making sure she’s heading in the right direction and not taking any unnecessary turns.
In watching her parents, Lea realizes what makes their relationship work so well is that they are functioning together as team. They are making the most of each other’s strengths and, by so doing, they are mitigating each other’s weaknesses. This allows them to have their home – a home they continue to call their own without being relegated to a tiny apartment in a senior care facility somewhere. Also, they are still able to own a car and have a degree of mobility others at their age have had to sacrifice. At eighty-six years old, her parents have a good life. As long as they are safe, is what Lea is thinking. As long as they stay safe and take care of each other I’ll try not to worry so much. It looks like, for now, they are.
Lea glances at the speedometer and then out the window again. They are moving steadily down the snowy highway at twenty eight miles per hour, with the occasional faster car passing them on the left. She relaxes just a little and sits back, watching the Christmas Eve world go by. They’re only seven miles from Long Lake. They’ll be home in less than twenty minutes.
I release Dad from my embrace from where I’m kneeling and get to my feet. As I do, there’s a muffled knock on the front door. I glance at the clock. It’s just after nine. What the hell? What’s going on? Who could that be?
I quickly go to the front entryway (it’s just off the living room) and peek through the window on the storm door. A few weeks earlier, in a nod to the season, I filled two planters outside on either side of the door with spruce tops and evergreen boughs and wrapped them with white, twinkle lights. The lights are controlled by a timer and right now they’re on and bright but, still, it’s hard to see outside, due to the evergreen wreath I’d also hung there. I’m reaching for the door handle when suddenly I hear voices outside. Voices singing. Now I’m really curious. I open the door and am hit with a blast of freezing air, but I barely notice. Instead I take in the scene in front of me. Gathered around the bottom of the front steps, and illuminated in the glow of my outdoor lights, there are about ten people dressed for the frigid night in variety of colorful heavy jackets, scarves, mittens and stocking hats. They are Christmas carolers, and they are singing one of my all time favorite Christmas songs, ‘Silent Night’.
“Dad, come here and look,” I turn my head and yell back behind me.”We’ve got company. Christmas carolers.” I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw anyone going door to door in this neighborhood, or any neighborhood for that matter, singing Christmas carols. It’s a tradition that has fallen not only out of fashion but is apparently way off people’s radar, only happening in nostalgic Christmas movies on the Lifetime Channel. In fact, if memory serves, I think the last time I remember anyone outside singing Christmas carols was long ago back when I was a kid. Suddenly, in my mind, it all comes back to me. I can clearly see me and Mom and Dad and little Stevie and Julie and friends of my parents (what were their names again? The Ramsdens?) and their three kids, all of us going up and down the block of my old neighborhood singing Christmas carols for the neighbors. I’d forgotten all about it until now. “Dad, quick, come look,” I turn and yell again.
I’m thinking that maybe my father has fallen asleep and decide to let him rest. After all, it has been quite the emotional reunion between us and he’s probably exhausted. I turn my attention to the carolers and am surprised, yet pleasantly pleased, that I now recognize some of them (bundled up as they are.) There’s the young couple, Tim and Amanda from down the block with their two little girls, Zoe and Michelle. They have been joined by Tim’s mom and dad, Ann and Gordy. There’s another couple and their two kids who must be friends of Tim and Amanda’s. I count ten folks in all, and I clap enthusiastically when they finish their song. I’m happy to see them all. I smile a greeting and am just about to say ‘Hi’ when they start in on ‘Deck the Halls’. Suddenly I have an idea. I set the door stop to keep the door open and hold up my hand indicating that I’ll be right back. I hurry into the kitchen (where I can still hear their singing quite clearly) and quickly make up a fresh plate of Lea’s cookies. Then I take a Ziploc baggy and fill it with more. I hurry back to the carolers where I’m able to enjoy the last verse. I find myself humming along and I set the plate and Ziploc down and applaud again when they finish. In the back of my mind I’m wondering where the heck Dad is but then put the thought aside.
“That was great, everybody,” I exclaim, clapping even more enthusiastically than before. I’m touched that they stopped by to share part of their Christmas Eve evening with me. I pick up the plate and Ziploc and then make a joke, holding them out and saying, “Sing one more and I’ll give you all some cookies.” I look at the little kids when I say it, remembering back to that long ago time when my family was out doing the very same thing. Getting free Christmas cookies as part of the experience was an added bonus. Apparently Tim and Amada’s kids feel the same way. Little Zoe, who can’t be more than five or six, looks at the overflowing plate and says, hardly batting an eye, “Sure thing, mister. What song?”
I put my hand to my chin and make it a point of pondering before asking, “How about ‘Jingle Bells’?”
The little girl grins and starts in singing right away, causing all four adults to laugh as they and the other kids hurry to catch up. What I’m seeing before me reminds me of Charles Dickens and his immortal book, A Christmas Carol, an absolute favorite of mine. It’s a perfect Christmas scene. If only Dad could see this. I look over my shoulder, but can’t see him. He’s definitely moved from his chair and is asleep on the couch is what I’m thinking. I turn my attention back to the carolers.
When the song is completed, I chat with my neighbors while everyone munches on the Christmas cookies. (Which takes about a minute. It’s pretty cold out and everyone is eager to keep moving. I don’t blame them.) As they are leaving I give the cookie filled Ziploc to Tim, wish everyone merry Christmas and happy holidays and shut the door, shivering as I do so. The temperature has got to be near zero. With the door securely closed, I peer through the window and watch the carolers head down the sidewalk to the driveway, and then out to the street on their way to the next house. Then I remember Dad and go to check on him.
Still feeling the warm glow of neighborly friendliness and good cheer, I step into the living room and look around. The chair Dad has been sitting in is empty. So is the couch. On the coffee table are the three photo albums, now closed and stacked neatly one on top of the other. I notice that the tray with the two mugs and the cookie plate on the coffee table are all empty. The cushions on the couch are straightened up and things look neat and tidy. The fire is burning brightly, the three logs I’d added earlier are only partially consumed. It looks like someone (Dad?) has straightened up the room. Well, this is strange. What the hell is going on? Where’s my father? Suddenly I am conscious of a buzzing in my pocket. I check my phone. It’s a text from Lea. They’re turning off highway 394 onto country road 112. They’ll be home in less than ten minutes.
It’s great to hear from Lea. It’ll be wonderful to see her and her parents and I’m excited for them to get home safely. But I’m also a little distracted. I still can’t get figure out where Dad is. I check the bathroom. It’s empty and the lights are off. I go back to the living room, stand in the middle and look around, confused. The fire has the house feeling cozy and warm. The Christmas tree in the corner in the dining room with its tiny white lights and quaint old time decorations is still adding a soft, festive glow to the space. The homey feeling I’ve grown to know and love ever since I’d moved in with Lea thirteen years ago is still there. Nothing has changed. But then I have a curious thought: Dad really was here wasn’t he? I really did talk to him, didn’t I? Sure I did, I tell myself. I couldn’t have been making the whole thing up. Could I?
Suddenly, through the front window car lights appear out on the street. I watch as the vehicle slows and turns into the driveway. They’re home!
I hurry to the back door, put on my gloves, boots and jacket and rush outside, just as the Prius is sliding to a complete stop three feet in front of the garage door. I see Lea in the back seat and she smiles and waves a greeting. She’s looking a little haggard, which I attribute to the journey from Minneapolis. (It’s a known fact that she doesn’t like driving in inclement weather.) Other than that, though, she looks happy. She’d must have had a wonderful time at Nate’s, just like I knew she would.
I help her out of the car and give her a hug, “Have fun?” I ask, even though I know what her answer will be.
“I did. It was the best,” she says, hugging me back. “Let’s help Mom and Dad out and get them inside by the fire.” She looks at me with a sly smile, “You do have one going, right?”
“Of course,” I say magnanimously, spreading my arms wide and joking with her, “It wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without one.”
“That’s for sure. Mom and Dad will love it.” She squeezes my arm, an intimate gesture that feels really nice.
I’m stepping over to help Ed get out of the passenger seat when Lea stops me. “Wait a minute. How about you? Are you doing okay?”
I know what she’s getting at, especially with me mooning over those albums of mine like I’ve been doing lately, reminiscing and, frankly, feeling more than a little sorry for myself. Well, after tonight, all of that is past. My talk with Dad (whether I imagined it or not) showed me that I’ve got a lot to live for. It’s up to me to put the past aside and make the most of what I have right here and now. I hug Lea again.”I’m doing great,” I say, squeezing her tight, thanking my lucky stars that we’d found each other fifteen years ago. “I’ve never been happier.”
We get Ed and Barb inside and situated on the couch in the living room. Lea makes tea for everyone and I stoke up the fire. We stay up for a while, talking, relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. Lea and her parents all have fun looking through the photo albums I ‘d left on the coffee table. Both Ed and Barb comment on how much they enjoy catching a glimpse into my past, saying the photos bring them closer to me. Lea, god love her, only jokes about all the cookies that had been consumed while she was gone. Me? I tell her that they were so good, I just couldn’t stop eating them.
At one point Lea goes to the freezer and takes out four more cookie containers to thaw. I’ve followed her into the kitchen.”Good thing I planned ahead,” she laughs and adds, turning to me, “You know everyone’s coming over tomorrow, right?”
I nod my head as I munch on one of her sugar cutouts. “Yeah, I do remember.” Then I mention what I’ve been thinking about off and on throughout the evening, “Say, about everyone coming tomorrow…I wanted to talk to you about that.” I point back toward the living room, “Maybe later after your folks go to bed. Is that Ok?”
“Absolutely,” she says, giving me a quizzical look.
I wave off any concern she might have, saying, “It’s no big deal, just something I’ve been thinking about tonight.”
“Ok,” she says, “Sounds good.”
She takes a list off the refrigerator and starts to review what she’s going to be working on in the kitchen tomorrow morning, getting ready for when Nate and Emily and their families come over. One thing I appreciate is that she doesn’t say anything about the two empty tea mugs, even though she does give them a funny look as I take them to the sink and quickly wash them out. Then we both go back to the living room and join Barb and Ed.
Upstairs there are three small bedrooms and a bathroom. Whenever Ed and Barb stay with us they prefer the one on the north side of the house. It’s a cozy little space that once was Adam’s bedroom and they don’t seem to mind sharing the small, full sized bed. Around eleven or so Ed starts yawning. Then Barb.
“Well, time to hit the hay,” Barb says, “Tomorrow’s a big day.”
Lea and I help her folks upstairs and get them settled. Then we go back downstairs. I go into the kitchen to make us some chamomile tea while Lea makes herself comfortable in her chair. I bring the tea out and for a while we sip it companionably while we watch the final coals of the fire, now glowing red hot and throwing off tons of heat. Then I look at Lea and she looks at me. We both smile, happy to be together.
I’m wondering if now is a good time to tell her about how I spent my evening and the things I thought about and the conclusions I came to concerning my father when Lea says, “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”
Oh, yeah, there’s that. I shift mental gears and say, “You know, you’ve got your family coming over tomorrow.”
Lea has turned toward the fireplace, watching the coals and enjoying the warmth they are giving off. I can see her visibly relaxing as she sips her tea, but she’s still a little revved up from the evening spent seeing her kids and grandchildren and her mom and dad. In other words, she’s in a super good mood. “Yeah, I’m going to be busy in the kitchen in the morning. Moms’ going to help. Why?”
“Well, I was wondering if that offer still stands. About me joining you all. You know, me being a part of it.” I pause and then add, “With your family, I mean,” emphasizing the obvious.
“Why, of course,” Lea says, suddenly perking up. I can tell she’s happy I’ve decided be part of her family’s get together. Then she thoughtfully takes a step back and looks at me, curiously, “What’s brought this on all of a sudden? Usually you just go to a movie.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, knowing I’m sounding vague. Now is the perfect time to tell her about talking to my father. I think about it for a split second and then decide to let it go. Maybe some other time. For now, it’s best to just focus on tonight with Lea and tomorrow and getting ready for Christmas Day with her family. So I say, “I just think that maybe it’s about time.”
However, Lea is more than a little perceptive and wise to me to boot. She’s not ready to let me off the hook. She points to dining room table where the stack of the three albums has ended up. “Does it have something to do with those photo albums of yours?”
I stand up and go to her and kneel down and hug her tight, “Yea, sweetheart, it kind of does.”
Lea hugs me back. I’m sure she’s wondering what is going on with his man she has chosen to live with for the rest of her life. She seems to be enjoying the moment, though, and the closeness. She does have one final question, however, and I’m not surprised when she asks, “I know I sound like a broken record, but please, tell me one more time. Are you sure you’re doing all right?”
I don’t have to even think about it when I tell her, “Yeah, I am, Lea. I really am.”
A fleeting image of my father passes before my eyes. It’s not the image of him from the old pictures in that first photo album we looked at from back when I was just a kid, only nine years old and didn’t know any better. Not even close. Instead, it’s an image of Dad as an old man. The image of the man who was here with me tonight. When he and I sat by the fire, had some tea and cookies and looked through the past, reliving both of our lives. Right now my evening has jelled into a sort of pact with myself. My talk with Dad has revealed that, like him, I’d made some mistakes in my life. No one is perfect, that’s for sure. But, in the end, my life has been a good one. A great life really. I just need to stay vigilant and not get lazy; not forget to pay attention to the things that matter most. To that end, I’ll call each of my kids tomorrow and wish them a happy holiday. I’ll encourage them to make time to see me next year because I’m planning to come out and visit each of them. I’ll tell them that I miss not seeing them and want to establish physical contact. Soon. I’m pretty sure they will agree. I hope so, anyway. I’m going to do all I can do to stay in close touch with each of them: Ethan, Sara and Lucy. After all they are from my blood. They are my children.
Just as importantly, there is Lea and how much she means to me. Our life together is more special than I could ever have imagined. By the end of his life, my father had failed to find someone to love and commit to. I hadn’t. Call it luck or fate or what have you, but I’ve found Lea. We have each other and for that I will be forever grateful. I’m going to do all I can to make her happy and prove to her that she made the right choice when she decided to let me into her life.
After a minute or so, we release from our embrace. I return to the couch and Lea goes into the kitchen. As she passes through the dining room she glances at the cupboard. The door is ajar. She goes to it and before closing it, she looks in. “Hey, Jack, what’s with the backgammon game? It’s been moved. Did you have it out?” She gives me a funny look which after a few moments turns a little wistful, “Remember, we used to play, didn’t we? We haven’t played in years.”
“Yeah, I know,” I tell her, “I was just looking at it earlier.” I look into the fireplace, contemplating the red-orange coals, and then back to Lea as I have a sudden thought, “Say, maybe we can start playing again. At least for old time’s sake. You know, we used to play a lot.”
Lea laughs, “As I recall, I beat you quite often. You sure you’re up for it?”
Another fleeting glimpse of my dad passes before my eyes, “Sure thing,” I say, “Absolutely. Anytime.”
“You’re on. It’ll be fun, but after the holidays are over, okay? I’ve got things to do tomorrow.” She pauses, thinking and then adds, “Maybe while Mom and I are busy in the kitchen, you can build a fire and you and Dad can play. He’s used to be pretty good. He’s the one who taught the game to me. I think he’d like it.”
If Ed and I played, it would be the first time I would have ever done anything with Lea’s father. Just the two of us. Ever. Amazing at it may seem, we’d never even had a one-on-one conversation together in the over thirteen years we’ve known each other. Well, I thought, no time like the present.
“Sure,” I tell her. “It’ll be fun.”
The next day we set up the game board and play. I sit on the couch where I sat last night, and Ed sits in the chair where my father sat. He beats me two games to one. I was right, it was fun. Really fun.
I’m already looking forward to next year.