When friends bring up their favorite Christmas movies, I never summon up the ones they mention.
Not for me, It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol or A Christmas Story, much as I like them all.
It all goes back to the night before Christmas in 1955, the only time I ever spent out with my folks on Christmas Eve. Perhaps, when I tell you the story, you will understand.
I couldn’t have been more excited on that long-ago day.
My folks and I were going to a new movie called Ulysses, starring Kirk Douglas; perhaps better known these days as Michael Douglas’s father, or the father-in-law of Catherine Zeta-Jones.
I would have my folks to myself, my little brothers (much too small to go) being held in the charge of mom’s parents. And, we would be eating at an Italian restaurant, a very rare treat for the Stein family, where memories of the Great Depression were forever recalled to justify frugality, stay-at-home meals, and the second-best of everything else.
I had just turned nine-years-old.
But of course, the real excitement would continue into the next day — Christmas Day — and all the presents I could only hope might come my way. Things like electric trains, rocket ships, games, and other gifts beyond imagining.
There was no tree in my home because there was certainly no religious connection to that day in my home; not that religion or any religion. Instead, it was simply an occasion for the purpose of showering me (and my brothers) with presents; or, at least, as many as I could persuade my parents to buy. I was well past the belief that Santa existed, so I knew from whence the loot came.
It was, I realized, my dad’s hard-earned cash that would pay for everything. A man who worked four different jobs on a typical week: his regular full-time position as a postal supervisor, part-time labor as a bookkeeper for my Uncle Sam’s business in Downtown Chicago; dad’s own small cigarette lighter-repair enterprise which (with my mother’s help) was the object of his after-dinner attention, and usually one weekend day spent serving as a security guard at some factory or other in the Chicago area.
Being out with my father was pretty special whenever it happened. Sometimes, just to spend a little more time with him, I’d walk from our first floor flat at 5724 N. Talman to the Lincoln and Washtenaw bus stop that was the final destination of my father’s journey home from work. I’d wait there just to see him come off the bus and get an extra five minutes with him on the walk to our place.
Once home, he would take off his coat and hat, put down the satchel he carried with him, wash up, and sit down to dinner at the kitchen table with my mom. And I’d have to share him again, with mom and my brothers; and with the work he would remove from the satchel soon after dinner at the table in the adjacent dining room. There, he laid out the cigarette lighters that needed repair, the tools that my mom used to fix the most difficult items, the protective tins and cardboard boxes in which he shipped these incendiary devices back to their owners, and the paper trail of invoices that eventually would produce a little more money for the family coffer.
If the repairs went well, he might have some time to watch TV. Then we shared a few more minutes sitting close to one another on a living room sofa that was covered in a clear plastic couch-protector designed to make the sofa last. I bathed in the warmth of my father’s presence and the glow of the 26″ Muntz TV screen, one of the few things my parents bought that represented any sort of luxury. It was the largest TV screen then available.
Dad would go to bed not later than 10 or so, be back up before 5 AM for his 7 AM clock-in at the giant postal facility on Canal Street downtown, and repeat the cycle in-perpetuity.
My father would have a heart attack in November of 1958, then three years ahead of us. Some part of me never saw him or life the same way thereafter, cherishing even more the time we could spend together when I was young, worried that he might be snatched away forever. But this Christmas Eve would be special, I thought, and his cardiac problems were unforeseen. A great action movie awaited with swords and spears and bows and arrows and monsters and everything! The treat of restaurant food and the anticipation of the next day’s Christmas haul!
Ah, the best laid plans…
Ulysses is the Roman name for Odysseus, the famous Greek hero who is credited with the idea of using a “Trojan Horse” to achieve the fall of Troy. The movie I was about to see is best known as Homer’s story The Odyssey, the tale of Odysseus’s 10-year-attempt to return from the Trojan War to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus on the isle of Ithaca, the place of his home and kingdom.
Well-fortified with a tasty spaghetti dinner at the restaurant, I was ready for the movie’s action.
I was excited by the Cyclops that Odysseus and his men defeated, the Sirens, and all manner of trial and nemesis he encountered on the way back home. There, Penelope and Telemachus waited for him for 20 years in total — 10 while he fought at Troy and 10 on his long way back. Penelope had the additional job of fending off the advances of suitors who wanted her surpassing beauty (and Odysseus’s estate) for their own. The suitors, in fact, were camped out at Odysseus’s palace, eating his food, drinking his wine, and lusting after his wife, who could only fashion excuses to make them wait.
I was still engrossed in the movie, even if my stomach was rumbling a little, by the time Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, revealed himself to his son and enlisted his help to defeat the suitors. But the actual carnage, when Odysseus and Telemachus killed every last man occupying his home, began just when my belly full of pasta was turning south. I’ll spare you the gory details of both the final resting place of my meal and of the suitors. Suffice it to say that neither was very pretty.
Somehow I actually was able to make it to the movie’s end and back home before the inevitable catastrophe kneeling at the bathroom alter, certainly the most religious position I had assumed in connection with the holiday. You know how it is when you feel like the physical event has sucked every bit of life out of you; when you’d like to be carried to bed, tucked in, and just allowed to sleep off your body’s betrayal.
Sleep it off I did, in a good enough state of health to enjoy my Christmas gifts the next morning. It’s interesting that I can remember nothing of the presents themselves, only the lead up of the night before, including the movie and being with my folks. Actually, it is probably the only holiday of my youth other than July 4th that stands out in my memory.
As my childhood proceeded forward, I continued to take nearly every chance I could to be with my father. Once a week, always on Sunday afternoon, his mother would come to our house on the bus and when the evening meal was over, I tagged along as dad drove her back to the apartment she shared with her sister, south of Riverview Park. The dual treat of watching the Silver Flash roller coaster as we passed the amusement park on Western Avenue during the summer season, and having my father all to myself for the 30 minute drive back home was more than I could pass up.
On the occasions that dad and I would go on an elevated train ride after his heart attack, catching the Ravenswood train at its Western Avenue stop, I was always mindful that his mortality took the ride with us. As we walked up the stairs to the southbound train, my father would stop at the first landing to take a breather, then reach into his pocket for a nitroglycerin tablet and swallow it, to make sure that another heart attack could be forestalled.
It took many years before I realized that The Odyssey had a personal meaning for me. By this, I do not mean to say that it had more meaning to me than others, only that I finally realized that its classic theme of “homecoming” was one that I could relate to. And for me, homecoming meant the time when my dad was finally home from whatever adventures he might have encountered on the road to making a living — the thing that the Great Depression ensured would define him.
Like his son Telemachus, I waited for him and kept the faith, knowing that eventually he would be there, if not as soon or as often as I liked. When I needed books for a research project or a book report, he would gladly borrow them from the downtown library. And he often brought a Planter’s Peanut bar with him, because he loved peanuts and thought that I would too. I never did come to like peanuts, but I can tell you that I tried hard to like them, just as I tried hard to like fishing with a bamboo pole (and later with a rod and reel); enough to go out on several frigid Saturday mornings before dawn, bored out of my mind and short of sleep, to do the thing he loved and that I hoped in vain to grow to love.
It didn’t happen and eventually both of us gave up on the project. But I still am touched by the thought that he wanted me to share the thing he enjoyed, even if, in the end, it simply wasn’t in me. Instead, my brothers Ed and Jack — especially Jack — embraced his hobby as their own, as I never could. Thankfully, we did share a love of baseball, something that bound us together until death finally took him at the considerable age of 88, almost 42 years after its foreshadowing in the 1958 heart attack.
Christmas for me means (as it does for so many) family and memories. And, very particularly for me, spending time with my dad, even if my stomach was upset, or we were watching a very un-Christmas-like movie; or, for that matter, waiting for him on a street corner, or freezing to death on a lake early in the morning, hoping to fall in love with his favorite hobby.
My memory of that long-ago Christmas Eve is now 57-years-old. But at least in my memory, my unsettled insides on December 24, 1955 didn’t make that much difference.
In the end, all that mattered was that, like Telemachus, I was at home with my dad.