I was 14 months old before my dad ever laid eyes on me. He was a sailor in the US Navy, and shortly after I was conceived, was deployed to Morocco, in North Africa, where he spent 23 months of his life doing what he had been doing for several years already-serving his country. Recently he told me he remembers what he was doing the day I was born – he was standing at attention in an inspection line feeling like crying, “I just want to go home”! I’d never heard that story before.
I have heard the story of the day he finally did come home many times. My dad still tears up every time it is told. He usually begins the story, then my mom takes over and finishes it. I’ve heard the story so many times, I think I remember seeing him walk in wearing his Navy Pea Coat, stand at the side of my crib, lean over and pick me up. Of course I don’t remember it – I was 14 months old. But I’ve heard it that many times, and like many memories told to me of my early childhood, I can see it in my mind like I’m watching a movie of it.
I do have a real memory of my dad coming in the front door of our home wearing his Navy Pea Coat when I was about 3 years old. I think I must attach that memory to the one of him seeing me for the first time when I was 14 months old. It was August when he saw me the first time, so I’m pretty sure he wasn’t wearing his Pea Coat – except for in my imagination!
Anyway……I’ve been told that I listened to an old reel-to-reel tape of my dad’s voice and kissed a picture of him good night every night while he was overseas. So when he came in that hot night in August and came to the side of my crib where I lay sleeping in the position I’ve been told way too many times (for my comfort!) I slept in – bottom up in the air, shoulders on the mattress with my head turned to one side, arms under my tummy – I heard his voice, woke up and was in his arms in “one fluid movement”. As a parent, I know now why he tears up when he tells that story.
After my dad got out of the Navy, he bought his own semi-trailer truck and began hauling goods cross-country and would be gone from home for sometimes weeks at a time. My poor mother was often left to raise my four siblings and I alone. In my memory, though, my dad always tried to be home for Christmas morning. I remember one year, when I was about seven or eight years old, my dad called shortly before Christmas and told my mom he wasn’t going to be able to make it for Christmas, but he thought he could be home by New Year’s Eve. My mom, in all her parental ingenuity, convinced us all it would be an adventure to wait until New Year’s Eve to open our presents. We were all young enough, we were game! When my dad did make it home a day or so early, it was a happy surprise, and we all enjoyed our “New Year’s Christmas”.
After years of driving a truck over the road, my dad went to work for the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) working crazy shift hours each week. So even though he was not gone for weeks at a time, he still was “gone” as he had to either work or sleep at odd hours. I don’t have any clear memory of him being gone on Christmas morning, but I think he probably was a time or two.
In recent years my parents began renting the local Senior Citizen’s building to host our annual family Christmas get-together. With five children, each of our spouses/significant others, twenty grandchildren and their spouses or significant other, and 20 or so great-grandchildren, you can imagine that having a family get-together in my parent’s old 2 story farm-house wasn’t exactly feasible. So, for several years, we met in mid-December for a once-a-year visit with as many of the family members as could come.
My dad always brought his keyboard, my older brother usually brought his bass guitar, and my younger brother his acoustic guitar, and all of us brought our singing voices and our willingness to please our parents/grandparents/great-grandparents by joining with them in singing Christmas carols together. We sang all the old favorites we all grew up hearing on my parents’ record player – Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Joy to the World, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Winter Wonderland, and so many more. My mom taught herself to play O Holy Night many years ago, so she always assumed the place of keyboard player and we all joined in singing that beloved carol in 3 or 4 part harmony, depending on who could remember what part at the time.
I grew up knowing I’ll Be Home For Christmas was one of my parent’s favorite Christmas songs, and I like it as well, especially when it is done in a bluesy fashion. And my dad usually played this song at our Christmas get-togethers. It seems, though, now that I think about it, that he usually waited to play it until his 5 noisy, rowdy adult children had begun to drift away from the keyboard, distracted by our own children or grandchildren, or just busy chatting with each other. These get-togethers were quite noisy and my dad’s keyboard playing was sometimes just another sound going on in the background.
One year, though, I had an epiphany of sorts about my parents’ love of this old classic. I was chatting with my younger sister as we walked away from the keyboard, having just finished harmonizing (badly, I’m sure) to one of the Christmas classics, and my dad began his annual playing of I’ll Be Home for Christmas. I happened to glance up and saw my mom across the room from my dad, my sister and I between them, and as soon as my dad started playing this song my mom turned toward him, looking him right in the eye, and began singing it, just as he began singing. It was as though there wasn’t another person in that entire building – just my mom and dad, their musical pledge to each other ringing out above the din of the voices of their children, grandchildren and great-children. It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve witnessed (and understood, finally) between my parents.
For the past 2 years I’ve cried every time I hear this song on the radio at Christmastime, and usually turn it off within a few seconds of it coming on. This will be the third Christmas since our middle son went to his eternal home. This year, though, I have sensed a slight shift in my thinking about this awful grief we are left here with after his untimely and tragic departure. This year the memory of my parents love and commitment to each other for 58 years, demonstrated by that lovely Christmas song sung to each other every Christmas for all those years, overshadows the grief I feel knowing one of my children will not be coming home for Christmas, this year or any other year ever again. Tomorrow I may cry my eyes out over this fact…..again. But today I rejoice that my parents have had each other for all these years. They have not had a perfect life together, but they have stayed together, loving each other, and trying to always be home for Christmas.