On the first full day of winter, December 22, in 2000, it was very cold in Omaha. The high temperature only reached fifteen degrees under clear skies, but it clouded over a bit as the sun set. It usually snows on my birthday, but this, my 50th, only provided me with a tease with just a few snowflakes in the air. I was born in a snowstorm, and Christmas is my favorite season. I love it when Christmas is heralded by a blanket of white. I’d have to wait a few days this time, however.
It was still a celebration. Several friends had come to help me reach half a century, and my sons were both here. My wife had baked up a storm, so there were several pies to share, as well as the usual libations. By midnight, after all the fun was had and folk had departed, the house was still and dark “as we settled our heads for a long winter’s nap.” It didn’t take me long to drift off to sleep even if I didn’t have visions of sugar plums.
Something disturbed my slumber a few hours later, however. I may have heard a noise or simply turned over and woke myself in the process, but for some reason I felt the need to check on the house. I got out of bed, put on my robe, and crept downstairs.
I don’t know why, exactly, but I wasn’t at all surprised to see someone sitting in my recliner in the living room. It was almost as if I expected a visitor, and there was Santa Claus himself, smiling through his beard and sipping a cup of hot chocolate!
“Hello, Dan!” he greeted me. “I helped myself and made some cocoa. Pour yourself a cup and join me. I’d like to talk to you.” It must have been his rummaging around in the kitchen that had disturbed my sleep.
“Uh, hello!” I said, after shaking my head and making sure I wasn’t still asleep. “Welcome! Nice to see you. Just a minute.” I went to the kitchen and found a pot of cocoa on the stove over a low burner. I poured myself a cup and joined the jolly old elf.
“This is a pleasant surprise. I have always known you were in and out on other days but Christmas Eve. You’re always welcome here. What’s up?”
Setting his cup on the table by my chair, St. Nick sighed and smiled at me and explained his late night visit.
“First of all, Happy Birthday! Congratulations on making this milestone.”
“Thank you! It feels good, and a bit unnerving to be this old.”
“You have no idea about old,” he chuckled, “but it gets even better. Every Christmas, like every birthday, is special. It’s been nice that you and your family have kept me in your celebrations all these years. It seems that fewer and fewer do so every year. That’s the reason I wanted to see you.”
“We’ve always enjoyed Christmas,” I agreed. “I think I have more than my brothers, at least since we’ve grown up. It’s just too much fun, especially with little ones. My boys are grown now themselves, but we like the magic that is Christmas and Santa.”
“I know, and I thank you. I’d like your help, though, if you’re willing. You see, as long as just one adult keeps believing, the magic continues, so I want to recruit you to be a helper. Every now and then I find someone like you who keeps the spirit alive, and then I like to have a chat with him or her and try to enlist some help.”
“I’d be more than happy to do what I can.”
“Good. I knew I could count on you! Now, I don’t need you to take my place or even pretend that you’re really Santa in disguise. What I’d like for you to do is just step up your game, if you know what I mean. Keep doing what you’re doing—continue to exclaim that you know Santa is real, encourage others to feel the spirit of the season, keep the magic alive in the little ones as long as you can.”
“As you get older, it will be easier for you and harder for them. When the time comes, I’ll give you whatever help I can. I can get you a suit like mine, if you’d like. You can even put on whiskers and long hair and do the whole bit if you want, but it isn’t necessary. Just tell people that you’re one of my helpers; and not an elf, either. That’s a bit much. Do whatever you’re comfortable with doing. Talk it up. Enjoy yourself. Be a mall Santa if you want, but you’re liable to burn out doing that. It’s usually better for my helpers to concentrate on their own children and grandchildren and others they know or meet. Get to know your neighbors!”
“Well, it sounds like fun, and something I can do. I think I’d like to start sort of small, if you don’t mind. Maybe, if or when I have grandkids, it will be easier. We don’t really know too many people here so far, and there aren’t many little ones in the neighborhood right now.”
“That’s alright. Like I said, do what you can and what you’re comfortable doing. One of these days I think you’ll hit your stride. I’ll be in touch and give you some ideas as you decide to get more involved. I have mailboxes that are fun. Sort of magic post offices for kids. Do you want a suit now?”
“I don’t think I’m ready for the suit yet. How about if I just think about it and see what happens as my life changes?”
There was a definite twinkle in his eye as he smiled and nodded and exclaimed, “Oh, things will change, my friend. Things will change. I look forward to some good years with you. I think you’ll know when to go all out. One of these days you’ll be needed even more than you are now, and you will take the reindeer by the reins.”
He picked up his cocoa mug and drained it, looked longingly into the bottom of the cup, and sighed. “With that, I’ll take my leave. It was very nice to finally talk to you. I knew you were ready. I’ve had my eye on you. Let me know when you need to have another visit.”
I looked puzzled, I’m sure. “OK. How do I do that?”
“That’s easy. Write me a letter. You don’t even have to mail it. I’ll know.”
“Do you want me to open the fireplace? How did you get in here, anyway?”
He laughed. You know: “Ho, Ho, Ho!”
“That’s a good explanation for my easy entrances and exits, but it’s actually much easier than that. Just watch. Good night, Dan. See you again soon.”
With that he set his cocoa mug back on the table and smiled. In the same instance he seemed to sparkle like snow falling on a very cold night. Then there was nothing to him except those magic sparkles that swirled around a couple of times and disappeared completely.
Just before he was entirely gone, I heard him exclaim, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
I sat there staring for a few seconds. Then I pinched myself. Yep. I’m awake. It wasn’t a dream. Now what?
That was twenty years ago. Since then things have definitely changed. I have four wonderful grandchildren. The neighborhood has become a place full of friends and terrific children. And I have grown into the idea of being Santa’s helper.
This year in particular I have felt the need to step up my game, as he said. So I asked him for a suit, and one of his magic mailboxes, and put out the word.
As I turn seventy this year, I officially become Santa’s helper. Ho, Ho, Ho.
I’ve been retired for seven years. My mantra has been, “Every day is Saturday, and every Saturday is a holiday.”
After over six decades of living my life by the bells, it’s nice not to have a schedule. Ha. We are creatures of habit. Even though I can do what I want to do any time I like, every day seems to follow a rough schedule. This “quarantine” hasn’t changed things very much.
We are unbelievably fortunate in our lives, and we know it quite well. It’s essentially a life of leisure, like being on vacation all the time, but we’re very predictable. What we miss are the “events” with which we used to mark special times: the symphony, opera, ballet, local live music presentations, nights out, time with friends and family, our trips around the US and abroad.
My day usually begins with a quick breakfast and settling into my chair with a cup of coffee to catch up with friends and family and read the paper online. Even when I was working, I read the paper every day. The highlight for me is the comics and the games. I do the crossword puzzle in the Omaha World-Herald and the Jumble.
As someone who has worked with words forever, these games typically don’t take me very long. I can unscramble all the Jumble words and do the crossword in about fifteen minutes. I like the trivia that is typical of the crossword puzzle, and if you do them frequently, the creators are prone often to using the same clues. The Jumble rarely stumps me (except for the end puzzles that use “made up” words). My eyes and my mind seem to easily unscramble the letters and make sense of things. Practice and patience and perseverance.
Despite the changes brought on by this pandemic, our jumbled lives still have predictable patterns. We simply have to find our rhythms and make sense for ourselves of the scrambled events. Now and then we’ll find a real “stumper,” but, if we rely on our resources, look for the patterns, and remain patient, we’ll get the answers we need. Evetually we will get those special events back, too.
Keep practicing and remember to enjoy what you’re doing. It will all make sense in the long run.
I’ve lived in this house in Omaha for almost 21 years. I just realized that’s longer than I’ve been in any one abode in my life. Amazing.
The basement is unfinished. When Nancy and I moved in here, we didn’t think we would ever finish it, so it has just been the “catch-all” storage space. We had all sorts of memorabilia from our sons, of course. When her grandmother passed, we inherited decades of family photos, almost century-old college yearbooks, some fancy dresses from the 40’s and 50’s, and things I’m still not sure about.
The boys have been through a few things, taken most of their own stash of childhood and high school leavings. They’ve recently gone through some of the familial flotsam and jetsam and chosen memories of their great-grandparents, grandparents, and their mother. I have boxed up several things that I intend to donate to the county museum. I mean, really. I referred to the basement as my museum. You wouldn’t believe the things I had accumulated. I could hardly walk through the place.
It was always my goal to be able to use the space for something else. After our anniversary trip to Napa last summer, Eleanor and I made a “wine cellar” in one corner. We bought some new kitchen appliances and had the old ones taken to the basement. Eleanor likes to can, so she has a second kitchen there. With the onset of this quarantine, we’ve been stockpiling grocery items. The “kitchen” is now our personal grocery store. Our gym closed. We now have our own workout space in one-fourth of the basement.
In order to “organize” these spaces, everything else has been boxed and pushed into one corner. When I can finally get to donation sites, almost everything goes!
It’s still an unfinished basement, however. Only one small “basement” window lets in any sunlight. Neither one of us likes to feel completely buried, so we decided to paint the walls in the gym. I wanted something bright and cheery. Eleanor chose a Sherwin-Williams paint called “Fun Yellow.” Perfect. We painted the two walls of the gym. It looks great.
Guess what. Just a little brightness in one corner isn’t enough. We’re moving things around and painting all the walls! I can’t believe the difference. Just a little sunshine, even if it’s simply “Fun Yellow” paint, makes it all more inviting.
The whole place is metaphorical for me. I still have boxes full of memories there, traces of the sunshine moments in my life. Now they’re spilling out and splashing all over the walls. Many new memories, as well. Often when I’m sweating my way through another morning in the gym, or tasting a great wine in the cellar corner, I think about the sunshine in my life. I’m down in the basement. It’s unfinished, just like my life. But the past is beautiful. The present is amazing. The sun will come up tomorrow, and I’ll have “Fun Yellow” everywhere.
This is a small blue dot floating in space. The only place there are borders is on maps.
I have eclectic tastes in music although I generally listen to classical pieces or American Standards from the 40’s and 50’s. My iPhone contains offerings from around the world. If you walk in our door, it’s hard telling what will be playing.
We like to go to the Joslyn Art museum here in Omaha, but we’ve been to others all over the country and some in the UK. The works of artists from around the world express individual themes and cultural differences, but it’s pretty easy to see similarities from all areas and ages.
Our menu here at our home is about as eclectic as our taste in music. Eleanor is a great cook (I’m no slouch, either) and surprises me with dishes of all kinds. We both grew up with Midwestern “farm fare,” but our palates have expanded even if our waistlines haven’t. The variety makes life interesting.
And that’s the point. Whether we’re listening to Sinatra and eating steak and potatoes, a mariachi band and enjoying enchiladas, the African rhythms of Ladysmith and some Moroccan or Ethiopian fare, an interesting Asian artist and a great stir fry, we’re feeding our tummies and our hearts with what the world has to offer. We all make music, and we all have to eat. Feed the heart, the mind, the body.
One of the things that has been apparent the last couple of months as we’ve daily watched the spread of this virus is that it affects all people. No one is immune because she or he is of a different race—or even species, it seems! All HUMANS can be infected and suffer and possibly die…the fate that awaits us all.
Benjamin Franklin told his fellows in the Continental Congress, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” I have thought of this often lately. The Nationalism that I’ve heard espoused from politicians around the world is short-sighted, I think. Our global survival may be hanging by the thread of compassion and cooperation.
Our masked social distancing should be bringing us together, not pulling us apart. This is one world. We are one people. I am hoping we will one day enjoy one celebration of life and not myriad separate funerals.
I did “duck and cover” atomic bomb drills in elementary school and didn’t understand the relevance when we lived close enough to a “first strike zone” that we wouldn’t see it coming. Tornado and fire drills were commonplace but understandable.
My parents were always there, constant reminders that love persists. My great-grandparents were the first leavings. Then my grandparents. Too recently my parents joined them, and all-too-soon my wife of forty years.
Now I smile behind my mask, but I’m sure there is fear in my eyes…the grocery carts are too close together, going the wrong way, and there is no mask on that indifferent face.
I cherish each distant moment with my children and grandchildren, but the news tells me that almost seventy is almost surely dead at any time.
The icons of my life—important historical figures, icons of stage and screen and music and art—are leaving only their memories almost daily.
We planted flowers the other day. The same places we planted last year. The tomatoes are growing. The beans are starting to come up. Just like they did the last three years. We replant.
A robin has built a nest in the birch tree high above us. I don’t know if she was here last year, but there was one….
We picked up some deer antler sheds last week. Another year’s growth discarded. The grass was covering them quickly. Soon they would have been overgrown with new growth, a forgotten memory.
I saw some forgotten pictures of my mother yesterday. She was such a beautiful young woman…she didn’t get to be an old woman. I see her in my niece and her son.
Excursions away from home are both exhilarating and frightening. We need plants. We need to take gifts for Mother’s Day and birthdays and just see faces from a safe distance. Buying paint seems like invading a plague ward. We come home and sterilize everything we’ve touched and wash away everything but our humanity.
I am grateful for the connections. I scroll through thousands of pictures that I’ve stored (prints and digital pieces) and they remind me of the myriad moments that I have lived and loved. They will make a great reminiscence.
This afternoon I spent some time revising my last wishes. We’ve been planning, off and on, so that our children don’t have to make decisions that shouldn’t be theirs. I read today’s death toll, and our preparations just made sense.
Daily I am reminded of the presence of endings. With every breath I am reminded of beginnings. Our mortality is simply a collection of moments that we have lived…if we’re lucky.
I can still see resplendent sunrises…and jaw-dropping sunsets. The stars so abundant in their blue-black blanket. Smell new lilac and roses and fresh-mown hay. Hear the first wren and spring and fall’s traversing geese and ducks and the quiet whisper of snow on a windless January afternoon.
In my life I’ve loved them all….
I can see the mother of my sons walking down the aisle…holding both of them seconds after their births…wiping away tears at graduations…and a wedding. I can still hear her last breath.
Every day I feel the snow beneath my skis and feel the wind rush by as I hurtle down the mountains in my mind. Remember the warmth of every fire that has warmed my body and spirit… campfire, fireplace, fire pit, loving hearts.
In my life I’ve loved them all….
I wake every morning with my love beside me and know our day will be full of her shining smile, gentle touch, promise of forever. In her eyes I see the future. In her smile I hear the laughter of our children and grandchildren, both mine and hers.
In my life I’ve loved them all….
I close my eyes and see again my many classrooms…thousands of promises, hopes, dreams. “Pomp and Circumstance” plays again and again as they march through my memories.
In my life I’ve loved them all….
I conjure old friends and we are young again, daring tomorrow. Reconnections spark hope and smiles and tears at loss. The grey halos remind me of the sweetness and depth of old wine. Drink up.
In my life I’ve loved them all….
I wrap myself in my life, all the gladness and all the hard-to-bear, and feel the fullness of my cup. In the coming tomorrows I will happily let it overflow with new memories.