People instinctively think that what life is all about is some sort of complicated, incomprehensible thing…. I think a happy life is just about love — that’s it.
–Ben Nunery, graphic artist, Cincinnati
Thirty years ago, A CHRISTMAS STORY in film told of a nine year old boy named Ralphie growing up in 1940s Cleveland, wanting but one thing for Christmas: a Red Ryder BB gun. But there are other bygone Ohio Christmas stories to be told — stories from a parental perspective. This is one such story.
Five years ago to the day — Tim and Karen Gordon’s first Christmas as man and wife — that’s how long it had been. His and her parents had traveled here to the middle of Ohio to spend the holiday with them for the first and — it turned out — final time. Really, that was the last result they would have expected.
They had known that their parents didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye, but even Scrooge would have been more sociable company in that setting. They didn’t know which had been worse: the ill-disguised hostile edge to the conversation before dinner, or the painfully obvious lack of conversation during that first shared Christmas meal. After dinner, both sets of parents had promptly up and left in a huff, and from that point on, it was implicitly understood that neither his nor her mother and father would welcome a return engagement.
So why did Karen do it? Why, after all this time, suddenly re-invite parents here to Columbus from opposite ends of the state — both literally and figuratively — when it would’ve been much easier to simply continue the practice of the past four years: Tim and Karen spending Christmas one year with his parents in Cleveland, Christmas the next year with her parents in Cincinnati. After all, what had changed? Yes, there was now a grandchild and they were now grandparents, but that only seemed to make them seem older, not mellower.
In any case, Tim had yielded to her determination on one condition — that several others also be invited to Christmas dinner in order to forestall the confrontation that was bound to re-erupt if decorum didn’t have to be maintained in the presence of outsiders. Thus he wound up inviting his eccentric boss, with whom he didn’t have much in common, but who was single and without close relatives (and therefore presumably free for the holiday); the invitation was tentatively accepted, contingent upon being back in time from a business trip.
Karen invited their new next-door neighbors, the Crowleys, whom they had yet to get to know (but at least the Crowleys had given a definite acceptance — that is, until early afternoon, when they called to say their basement was flooded and they didn’t know if they could make it).
As for Tim’s and Karen’s parents, neither pair was told that the other had also been invited, but both must have had their suspicions — his parents had called yesterday to say snow was forecasted in northern Ohio with possibly hazardous driving conditions, and her mother had called from Cincinnati to say her father wasn’t feeling well. Both situations were presented as “coming if they could, but making no promises.” No wonder Karen’s exasperation reached its limits after the Crowley’s call — how does one prepare Christmas dinner for pick-a-number from none to seven guests? A definite “no” from any or all would’ve been preferable — not to mention, infinetly more considerate.
“What’s the weather like out there, hon?” George Gordon asked his better half. He had just awakened and noticed her standing at the bedroom window looking out at a winter-gray Cleveland sky. “Is it snowing?”
It felt good to sleep late on Christmas morning (if almost eight-thirty could be considered late). If they were driving to Columbus today, he wouldn’t be able to stay in bed much longer. First breakfast, then church, then —
“It’s not snowing now, but it snowed overnight — looks like four or five inches on the ground.”
“Well, we’ll see what the driving’s like when we go to church. On the phone yesterday, Tim said they weren’t predicting anything more than flurries in Columbus.”
George had mixed emotions about going to Columbus — and not just because of the driving. Naturally, he and Vi wanted to be with their son and daughter-in-law for Christmas, but he couldn’t honestly say the same about Karen’s parents, Harry and Ruth Cain….and he had no doubt that they had also been invited. Oh, he supposed they had their good points. After all, they’d managed to raise a fine daughter — but he had never met two more opinionated — to say the least — people in his life.
George supposed he should he should get up and shovel the driveway before breakfast, but he couldn’t resist staying in bed a few minutes longer. Perhaps when he retired in a few years, this wouldn’t seem like a luxury, but for now….
Vi had gone to the kitchen to make coffee. Returning with a cup for him, he sat up as she sat down. He sip-tested his coffee: hot, hot, hot! Getting out of bed, he said, “I might as well shave while this cools.” When he came back, Vi was still sitting next to the bed. Of course, he knew what she was thinking. She would let it be his decision, but he knew she wanted to go.
“Too bad it didn’t snow four or five feet instead of four or five inches,” he muttered more to himself than to her, but he realized his comment fell flat, just the same.
“Either that, or didn’t snow at all,” she ventured to add pointedly.
By the time they left for church, it had started snowing again.
On Sundays and holidays, Harry always got up before Ruth to read the morning paper. He liked to give it a thorough reading, starting with the business news, front page, sports, and continuing until he had given at least a cursory glance to almost every page.
On this Christmas morning, it seemed vaguely materialistic to start with the business section, so he turned first to the front page. The once-a-year headline proclaimed PEACE ON EARTH, GOODWILL TO MEN, but the news was the same old disasters/do unto others whatever you could get away with doing — the usual bill of fare from which he had always felt somehow detached….until the morning of a sales trip almost a year ago when he’d overslept, missing the return flight home, and the plane crashed on takeoff with no survivors.
No one knew of his missed flight, as he’d not been expected back in Cincinnati until the next day; he had wrapped things up faster than anticipated and decided to surprise Ruth by not calling to tell her he was coming home ahead of time. Having almost been on that plane wasn’t something that needed to be dwelled on, much less expressed. Without saying a word, he’d stayed over until his originally scheduled return and, to this day, had kept it to himself. As far as he was concerned, it was a non-event. End of story. He was in control.
“Merry Christmas, Harry.”
He lowered his newspaper to find his bathrobed wife standing there, and allowed himself to realize that they hadn’t really talked in years. He didn’t know why he should think of that now — tuning out when she spoke had inexorably become second nature, like drifting off into sleep over a long period without being conscience of it. It was as if he had become comfortable with….what? Even Christmas had become a ritual, full of trimmings and trappings, signifying nothing. Shakespeare said it — at least the last part — not him.
“Ruth,” he found himself replying, “I hate to change things at the last minute, but maybe we should reconsider not going to Karen and Tim’s today.”
A twenty-pound turkey was in the oven and the dining room table was set for nine — nine and a half, if you count their three year old, who for the first time was old enough (Karen hoped) to sit at the table without a high chair. Her head told Karen that not all those invited would come, but her heart insisted this was still a day for belief in small miracles….or, at least, their possibility. Her sense of the symbolic — Tim would call it wishful thinking — suggested that if long ago a little child would lead them, why not today?
Two o’clock. Three. Three thirty. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas without guests. The house was as quiet as an infant’s nap, and Karen turned on soft Christmas music to fill the void. Tim was nowhere to be seen, as if he might be tempted to say “I told you so” if he appeared.
Three forty-five. Karen was about to open the oven to check on the progress of the turkey when she heard Tim call from the front door, “I’m going to mail a letter. I’ll be back shortly.”
What mail could be so important that it had to go out now, she wondered, realizing even as she wondered: there was no mail pick-up today. He just wanted to get out of the house. Well, that was the privilege of being a man — what chance did she have of getting away for a few minutes? OK, maybe she was being childish . Maybe not.
Tim had hardly been gone when the doorbell rang. Karen composed herself and took a deep breath. Time for the first installment of “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” she thought as she went to the door and opened it.
It was Tim.
“I forgot my keys,” he mumbled, and for one wild, improbable moment, she imagined that he was about to spring an elaborately planned surprise and produce, as if by magic wand, a happily reconciled foursome of smiling grandparents; but he was already striding past her toward the telephone in the foyer. As he picked up the phone, he saw her watching him, and paused before dialing.
“I was just standing out there thinking what wimps we are to take this lying down,” he told her with self-righteous resolve. “I don’t care if they are our parents — does that give them the right to treat us like this? I’m going to call my mom and dad — you can do the same with yours — and if they answer, we’ll know they’re not coming and wish them Merry Christmas. If they don’t answer, they’re probably on their way — and even if they’re not, we won’t be any worse off than we are right now.”
She was about to protest that calling too soon might only aggravate the situation, but he was probably right. If people won’t meet each other half way, it’s already a lost cause — why prolong the agony? So she simply slumped down into the nearest chair and let silly thoughts dance in her head: Comes Christmas and all through the house, not a creature concurring, not even a spouse. She didn’t need him to prove that Christmas was just another day in the year….she conceded it.
But he had already begun to dial, and then the doorbell rang again, and all was lost in the blur ofgreetings and hugs, handshakes and kisses.
Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! And many other words were spoken: joyous words, tenative words, exuberant words, inadequate words. And if at times the laughter seemed just a bit forced and loud, or if occasionally a pause in the conversation seemed a trifle awkward, the moment soon passed. It was, after all, Christmas.
After dinner, gifts were exchanged, and then someone proposed a Christmas sing-a-long. Outside the frosted window panes, darkness had absorbed the last traces of daylight as voices joined to repeat the sounding joy. Away In A Manger, Jingle Bells, We Three Kings, Deck The Halls, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear — they sang until no one could think of another song.
In Cleveland, darkness had fallen clear and cold, freezing tracks and footprints left behind in the snow. In Cincinnati, snowless streets and sidewalks left no evidence of those who come and go. In Columbus, Christmas was an ember when Karen sank exhausted into bed next to Tim and received his half-asleep kiss; then, like a simple child, she lay there thinking contented thoughts about people who know nothing is more important than being there for you in something like the silent night.