A father's Christmas

By Daniel Dunkle | Dec 18, 2013

Funny how a small moment, the briefest piece of conversation, can stick in your mind.

I don't remember the French I learned in high school or the password to my Google accounts. More and more, I don't remember what I don't remember, but every year around Christmas time, I remember this one time with my Dad.

Mom looked at him and asked if he was all right, the way married people do sometimes when they think the kids or in-laws, or whoever aren't listening. I think this was in my house right before or during a family get-together. The Christmas lights were twinkling on the tree, good food was spread out on the coffee table. It was as bright and cheerful a moment as any in this life, and Dad looked kind of sad, prompting the question.

"I'm OK," he assured her. "It's just not the same." As in, not the same as when he was a kid.

I could never understand back then how this season could be kind of a let down when you're grownup.

Something about it must have worried me when I was a kid. Otherwise, why would I remember it 30 years later? Was I altruistically worried for my Dad? I think even then I had a bit of a concern that whatever happened to grownups that made them disappointed and sad, less playful, less able to see the wonder around them, that it would happen to me too.

All my memories of Christmas as a kid are bright. I remember one year that what I wanted more than anything was a Castle Grayskull for my He-Man figures. I had He-Man and Skeletor, Man-At-Arms, Beast Man.

When Dad was grumpily putting up the Christmas tree (arranging the lights always seemed to lead to bickering between my parents) he threatened I would get nothing for Christmas if I said the word "Grayskull" one more time. I paused, but didn't really stop. This was a campaign.

Dad would say mystifying things like, "Christmas Day itself is kind of a let down. I like the season."

What!? Was he crazy? One year I announced to Mom right after dinner that I was going to go to bed right then.

"What, you're planning to sleep your way to Christmas?" she said. She kind of shrugged. Way to threaten her with a good time. I wasn't able to maintain the early bedtimes and Christmas wasn't going to arrive any earlier.

My kids are all about Christmas morning, I can tell you. For the last week, Samantha has been volunteering to say grace before dinner and always including, "Thank you that it is only eight days till Christmas."

At this vantage point, at 40, I know Dad was absolutely right. The season is the thing. My memories of opening up Castle Grayskull and Battlecat (the green tiger that served as He-Man's steed) are very nice, but just as great are memories of driving around in a cold car with my parents and grandmother looking at the houses with pretty Christmas lights, singing along with carols on the radio. I loved lugging the tree branches and the old oar that served as the trunk for our artificial tree down from the attic each year. I even loved watching Dad mutter as he tried to figure out which light was out on the tree, making it fail to light up on one side.

I should have suggested letting the Grinch take it to his workshop, my dear; fix it up there and bring it back here. But I didn't know how to make pop culture references when I was just a kid.

One year, after Dad had enough of wandering up and down the long cord of lifeless lights, he decided he would go to the store. It was a Saturday morning, I think. I volunteered to go with him.

He was always talking, back then, about how the lights on Christmas trees were better when he was growing up. While I am nostalgic for the early 1980s, he was nostalgic for some Christmas in the '60s or even '50s. His fondest memory seemed to be bubble lights.

They were big round bulbs filled with water. The heat of the light would boil the water and make it bubble.

We arrived at the store. As always, I had to jog to keep up with him. He wasn't really very tall, but he moved fast in stores, as if in training for some shopping event in the Winter Olympics. He actually had a map of the items at the grocery store so he could do a week's shopping in 10 minutes. We lived in Hampden and shopped in Bangor, a place where you didn't stop to talk to neighbors as much as we always do in a small community like Rockland. My father would go right off the deep end if he ever had to go shopping with me now.

We went to Sears or Rich's or one of those stores and found a box of lights. Then he had to go and try them out, looking everywhere for a plug to plug them into. While we were at the store, he found them: bubble lights!

He plugged them in and they glowed in yellow and green and red. They lit something in him for a minute or two. As we waited for the lights to start bubbling, there in the store, he smiled a little smile, something a bit more childish than I was used to seeing in him.

Later, at night, house darkened, except for the tree, I leaned on the arm of the couch and gazed into the bubbles rising up in the little lights.

"These bubble lights are awesome, Dad," I said.

"Yeah," he said, a little sad again. "But they're not the same."

He was right, of course. These were not the same Christmas stars that had lit the night skies of his childhood. They were new memories, and now they are mine.

And now I know what he knew then, and have a wife who sometimes asks me if I'm OK as I gaze wistfully off into space.

All the same, I think sometimes when the kids are tearing into their advent calendars or playing with their grandmother's kitten under the tree, maybe new memories can be just as good.

Courier-Gazette Editor Daniel Dunkle lives in Rockland with his Christine and two children. He can be reached at ddunkle@courierpublicationsllc.com or 594-4401 ext. 122.

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