A Ghost of Christmases Past
A Ghost of Christmases past.
Christmas had always been special to him he said quietly, almost to himself, as we rhythmically swung the cardboard boxes onto the stacks one after another. The fog from our breath glowed in the dim yellow light, frost glittered eerily off the sides of the trailer and the cases of frozen food. I remained silent. This was the first time the old man had said anything about himself since we started working together two years ago.
Andy William's Christmas Special
His boyhood had been rough. Christmas was his one solace: The Christmas he saw on T.V., The Christmas Variety Show Specials. The world he lived in then may have been cold, hard, and loveless, but there on the flickering screen he could see people, pretty people, gathering together, smiling, joking, singing. Everyone was welcome there, no one was cast out and alone.
When he had gotten married and had children, he was obsessed with ensuring that their Christmas was nothing like his had been. He strove to make their’s as much like a Holiday T.V. show as he could. It became almost a sacred mission for him: Peace, Joy, and Plenty must reign then.
The real world cannot be held at bay for long though. While he could guard Christmas for his children, the rest of the Year’s troubles would always still be right there at the door, waiting.
He worked smoothly, like a machine. His torso swung to and fro like a pendulum and the stack of cases grew upwards and out toward the end of the trailer. There was silence for a time; only the swish of winter coats and the soft grunts of exertion.
As quietly as he had started he resumed, still almost talking bemusedly to himself.
His wife and he had divorced after ten years; he had finally asserted his hopes and they clashed with her expectations of him. His kids were still only six and four. His face grew grimmer. He had wanted to wait till the children were older, but she wanted it done right then, while she was still young enough to catch another man.
He redoubled his efforts to make sure Christmas stayed inviolable, like Saint Anthony’s Angel. It was tougher now because he only saw them twice a week. But he made it count. They sang Christmas Carols in the car while they pointed out all the Christmas lights on the houses as they drove.
He read them “A Christmas Carol”, they watched the specials together, he told them stories from the season. Perhaps in order to re-live his own youth in a more privileged way than he had really, he had always bought heaps of gifts for his children from Santa.
Now, his children had just more than doubled their Christmas gift take. They celebrated Christmas Eve at his Mother-In-Law’s’s house first. She had long known of, and utilized, gifts to cement loyalty from her two daughters to her. Now she used the same weapon to gain his kids fealty. Then they had Christmas morning with their mother, afterwards he had them for a few days.
He always took them back down to Planet Long Island either before Christmas or on Christmas Day so his folks could give his kids their presents. His parents were engaged in a competition of gift-giving with his Mother-In-Law for their hearts. They were doomed to lose. They only saw their grandchildren a half dozen times a year, and they were hopelessly out-spent. They could not match her bank account.
His kids got four separate piles of presents now. Something not even possible to imagine for him at their ages. He worried about that in his heart. More than anything he wanted them to appreciate what they had, and that the most important thing was that people loved them, cared for them. That’s what those presents really meant: Someone’s hard work and time done just for them. But he felt good to see the heaps of gifts for his kids, even if half weren’t anything they’d actually asked for or needed.
He paused, straightening up to his full height, arching his back, while we waited for another pallet to be brought in for us to unload. Then he seemed to slump, his head dropping almost to his broad chest. After a long wait he resumed.
Then it happened. Three years after the divorce. Christmas was here once again, and his children had had three Christmases already. The one he and his new wife had provided for them was the last. The presents were stacked in heaps under the full tree, the lights sparkling warmly. His boy and girl gleefully threw themselves at the piles with squeals of delight. He smiled and picked up his camera then froze in disbelief.
Toys soared threw the air, crashing to the floor. He watched, stunned, as gift after gift arced up to the ceiling before plummeting unnoticed. His wife stood stock still, her smile given way to shock. He saw his son gracelessly, ruthlessly, flail the wrapping paper off a gift, glance at the exposed present, then throw it up in the air over his shoulder as he reached for another one. His head snapped over to his young daughter. Wearing the new dress her mother bought her with the price sticker still attached, she shredded the wrapping paper like a wildcat. She held the box up for a moment’s inspection, then she too dismissably jettisoned the gift over her shoulder to join the growing heap of opened, scanned, and dismissed expressions of his love.
Silence except for the two small voices gleeful chatter filled the room. Even the album of Christmas songs stopped. The camera hung from his hands unused. Then; they were done. With a smile, they looked up at him, enthroned in masses of colorful, torn, and crumpled paper, and asked if there was any more.
We stepped back as the Fork-lift brought in the pallet. When the driver backed out, we began throwing cases again. The frost under our gloves made the heavy boxes more awkward to grasp. He was quiet for awhile as we got back into the rhythm.
He said he had sworn then and there that somehow, he’d undo what he had allowed to happen.
Christmas wasn’t about presents. It was about being loved, welcomed, and wanted. It wasn’t about how many presents somebody got. He had thought he had empathized that ad nauseum. What could he do? The monster was already born.
He made a deliberate decision. Starting the next year, the gifts he bought them for Christmas or their birthdays were much fewer in number. He bought gifts that were tailored for each, based on who they were, what they loved to do; not just to make a pile. He could only do his best to break the cycle of mindless consuming he and his generation had so righteously condemned.
I thought about what he said in the silence that followed.
“That work out, did it?”
“Just because I wanted to raise my children’s awareness didn’t mean anyone else did. I simply became viewed as cheap.”
“You’re kidding me.”
He was quiet again as he slung the cases. Was it my imagination or was his pace quickening?
“You know?...They never gave me a present. Even when they were grown. At first I didn’t mind. But after awhile I began to think. So I stopped giving them gifts when they reached eighteen. To see what they’d say.” He stopped for a moment. “…And that’s what my parents did with me too. Funny…Forgot about that. They said when you’re eighteen gifts stop.”
“So, what happened? Did they ask what was wrong?”
We worked silently until the load was done. As we left the trailer, he banged twice on the side to let the driver know we were done. The shift was over.
“How old are they?”
“One’s 40 the other’s 38.”
“Ever see them?”
“No.” He murmured, pulling his heavy gloves off and turning to leave.
I watched him for a moment, then pulled my own gloves off. He paused at the bottom of the stairs and looked back up at me, his weathered face wreathed in shadows from the hallway bulb. His voice was low but clear.
“Merry Christmas.” He said quietly.