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Looking Back at Christmas 2004

December 24, 2014 Leave a comment

This afternoon I went out on my lunch break to the Walmart to find some dry erase markers that are to be a part of a special Santa present to the boys. It was rainy and dreary and as I tried to navigate out of the difficult parking lot, a sudden strong memory came out of the blue and hit me in the face. It was the memory of being a stranger in a strange land trying to piece together a Christmas during what was already the most exciting time of my life.

IMG_0137Ten years ago, Andrea and I arrived in the Lehigh Valley with a moving truck and a group of friends and family ready to help us fill up our small rented home in Bethlehem. Even as boxes and pianos were moved and friends and family standing near, we carried a big big secret with us. More specifically, Andrea carried the big secret. It was only a week before Christmas and we knew that was the time to tell our families that a baby was on its way, not while we were covered in dust and sweat.

It was a hugely exciting time for us. The move to a house in Pennsylvania, where day care and everything else was less expensive than in New Jersey was a deliberate and calculated act when it came to the baby. We told everyone there were other reasons, but growing our little family was at the heart of the matter. We just didn’t expect Benjamin to become a welcome intrusion to our lives as quickly as he did. Knowing what we know now about Benjamin, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

I watched Andrea closely. I made sure she didn’t carry any big boxes. I handed her stuff to carry that wouldn’t even cause a sweat. And we moved and no one was the wiser. The next several days were a blur. As our friends and family went their ways our little house suddenly felt as big as a cathedral. It was just the four of us (our dog Edgar would very quickly learn he was no longer the baby) in that house and even though Andrea and I had known each other for ten years at that point, our life together felt like it was just beginning.

Our stay in the Lehigh Valley began the next day with Andrea very, very sick. Despite best efforts, the activity of the day before had taken it’s toll on her and it feels like she spent the entire week between then and Christmas in her pajamas. It wasn’t the truth; we both had to work a couple of days and in reality, I think she was just sick through an extended weekend. As she snuggled in, I did my best to unpack and get boxes away. Christmas was upon us and I wasn’t going to let it slip by, unobserved in our new house. Andrea moved from chair to chair as I rearranged stuff to make room for a tree and she looked on, going from amused to calculating how quickly she could get to the bathroom.

At some point, we wandered down Broad Street to a Christmas tree stand. We found the perfect tree for our little house, brought it home and decorated it, surrounded by boxes. It was moments like that which triggered the sense of the magnitude of the situation.

We were in a tiny house in a big giant new world for us. We were in a city where we didn’t know where to even get groceries. We didn’t know anyone else and we felt so alone with this big secret. But looking back, there was something so very sweet about it. We had each other and this giant secret between us and the intimacy of that situation contrasted with being in a strange new city made me feel closer to Andrea than I ever have, I think.

We eventually found our way around. I found that Walmart that triggered my memory today. I had gone there for some small things for the house and stocking stuffers for Andrea. I think it was the first store I was able to locate after the move and it’s somehow become burned in my memory, closely associated with that Christmas. Andrea and I would also venture out for a late dinner one night to satisfy a pregnancy craving, and that memory was also burned in my mind. I remember staring out the fake snow frosted window at the Giant across the way and being both scared and excite. However, I also remember thinking that Andrea and I had each other and everything would be fine.

That Christmas. That rushed, weird and even sad little Christmas is still, to this day, one of my favorites. Andrea and I found ourselves caught between our own childhood Christmases, our life together as just the two of us and the boys that would fill up that tiny house and the next one with such joy and love. It was the scariest and most exciting Christmas of my life. While each Christmas with my boys and the Christmases of my childhood are wonderful and sacred, that Christmas 10 years ago in Bethlehem is the one that is burned into my memory to the extent that I sometimes wonder if everything that did happen could have really happened.

Christmas Magic

December 24, 2013 Leave a comment

1518773_10201668740015247_191651628_oWhile I don’t remember who specifically told me, I remember other details around that moment so clearly, more than 30 years later. It’s odd that I can’t remember whether it was my mom or my older brother standing ahead of me and to the left as we came to the top of the center escalator at the Rockaway Townsquare Mall. I was leaning against the right railing and one of my brothers was leaning on the left railing a step behind. It was just before Christmas and the person said, with their back turned to me as they were about to step off the escalator, “You know that Santa isn’t real, right?”

I stumbled for a moment as the escalator steps flattened under my feet. I really don’t remember much after that, but I do know that Christmas had forever changed for me. I had suspected for at least a year. I was sick at some point during the previous Christmas season and my mom put me in her bed so that I could watch TV and rest while she baked cookies in the kitchen. She gave me strict orders to not look around the room. I looked around the room. My mom had done her best to cover all the wrapped presents with blankets. In the corner, one fairly large present was exposed. It was wrapped in gold colored wrapping paper with poinsettias on it. I remember staring at it a lot during the day.

On Christmas morning, I came down and found that gold wrapped present in my pile from Santa. I confirmed with my parents that it was from Santa and then I knew. It was a very cool Stompers play set (this one, I think), but it would provide the biggest seeds of doubts I had about Santa. Yet, for another year, I still tried to rationalize how a present that was in my parents room could be from Santa. I came up with a few theories as I struggled to continue to believe in Santa. I knew it in my head that my parents were Santa, but I didn’t want to believe. When it was finally confirmed a year later, it hit me like a sack of coal.

After the initial shock of the moment of confirmation, I would go on to have many more wonderful Christmases, but they never really had the same magic.

Now, as Benjamin gets older and smarter, I realize Santa may not exist for him much longer. Three weeks into this Christmas season, I am actually somewhat surprised that he hasn’t put the pieces together. Andrea and I, like so many other parents, do our best to hide gifts in places where they won’t stumble upon them. I make sure receipts are not left around and Andrea makes sure that Santa has his own paper and ribbon that gets carefully stashed away.  We so desperately try to keep that magic in Christmas.

And we try to add other magic to the holiday for the boys. While other houses have Elves that visit at night, we have a Christmas Cardinal that leaves small gifts, ornaments and candy for the boys throughout Advent. The boys talk about the Cardinal with such reverence, they leave birdseed out for him and even write notes, asking him questions. The wonder out loud about how the Cardinal can do what he does, sometimes speculating that there is more than one. The Cardinal has become as much a part of our family as our dog.

There were a few years, where Christmas not only lost it’s magic for me, but seemed like a stressful interference to everyday life. Those years made me sad. Now, I really, really worry about the days when the boys no longer wonder about Santa and the Cardinal. I worry about the days when they no longer believe. And I feel like it will break my heart, just like it did that day in the mall when I was a kid, when the time comes for them to know the truth. I truly believe I need this magic as much as they do.

The truth is, and I know this is cliche, Santa does exist. Matthew told us at dinner the other night that the Santa that visits us now is not the original St. Nicholas. He thinks that the job of Santa is passed on from one generation to the next. I can’t agree with him more. I look at what my parents managed to do for six kids, year after year, and I can’t help but be amazed. That, to me, was true magic and they managed to instill Santa into me, which I now pass on to my sons. My hope is that one day, they will pass the magic along to their kids.

So, I know that while it is inevitable that one day the boys will stop believing in Santa, I am certain he will live on in them.

Categories: Christmas, Matthew

CSI: North Pole

December 30, 2012 Leave a comment

45080_4300559867171_935294126_nA couple of months ago, our dog Digger lost a tooth and so the kids decided to put it in a bag and put it under their pillow for the Tooth Fairy. Later that night, after I had slipped the tooth away and was in the process of slipping a bone under Benjamin’s pillow, he suddenly woke up, looked at me then quickly lifted the pillow.  In that moment that he looked at me, I was able to quickly slide my arm away without him noticing, and, for now, the Tooth Fairy remains alive for them.

So, when we got to Christmas Eve, I was nauseous with nervousness on the boys discovering Santa’s true identity. In our house, Santa doesn’t just drop off presents.  He also decorates the hallway outside the kids room with lights as well as does other things in the backyard, just outside their window.  He also, with the help of the Christmas Cardinal, decorated the Christmas tree in the kids room. So, there is a lot of room for mistakes.

Since the kids were old enough to understand, we have been extremely careful.  We have special paper that is used just for Santa’s gifts, as well as ribbon.  We have a red “Santa’s Bag” that we keep well out of reach of the kids that contains all our tools of the trade. When we wrap, we carefully collect all the little scraps and make sure they go deep into a garbage bag, which immediately goes into the trash cans outside.  Presents are well hidden in the basement and we carefully monitor the boys approach of the basement door.

As we go through all of this, I start to use all the “knowledge” I’ve gained from watching CSI and CSI: New York. I analyze the scenes for little mistakes: a tiny scrap of paper, something that would identify Andrea and I as Santa, even footprints in the snow (after I finished hanging candy can lights in the tree in the backyard after the new snow fall, I dragged a rake over my footprints and made a crazy pattern in the snow).  As I got closer to their room and more and more stuff got set up, I was cleaning up behind me so that I could jump into bed if they woke up.  I had cover stories in my head in case I messed something up and they caught me in the act.  I left nothing to chance, but it was so very stressful…and successful.

However, I love every moment of it.  I know there is probably just another two or three years of this for them, probably even shorter for Ben (I feel he may connect the dots next year).  I don’t know who will be more heartbroken when then discover the truth behind Santa.  I love Christmas so much and actually creating Christmas magic for them…well, it makes me really feel like Santa.  So, the thought of no longer being able to do that just makes me want to hold on to these years that much more.

Darkness and Light

December 19, 2012 1 comment

darknessandlightThe other night, I sat at church and watched the Christmas concert for my sons’ Catholic school.  I watched with an overflowing heart as my kindergartner and my big first grader sang, one with a giant smile on his face, the other studiously singing the words as he seemed to be scanning the audience.  They stood among their friends and classmates, all of them decked out in their Christmas best. They were the very faces and minds and pureness of the innocence that the Christmas season promises every year.  Their equally well dressed parents, friends and teachers watched and reflected the children’s excitement.  It was a building that, even before the concert started, was rumbling in the excited talk and laughter of the children and parents alike, to the point where a member of the faculty had to remind all of where we were. It was a building filled with such joy.

And it was a night that was dedicated the the victims and families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.  It seemed like such an appropriate tribute.

Like much of the country and all decent human beings, I have desperately struggled against the sadness of this senseless attack.  It’s a sadness, I think, that may lie in our souls for a long time. A sadness that will fall to the depths of the scars that we all still feel from September 11, 2001. A friend of mine  recently talked how she will be walking around happy, having a good time and then think about what happened and instantly be filled with panic and sadness. I think it is a range of emotions that many of us share. As a parent, the thought of what those parents of those innocents are going through is unbearable.  It is impossible to not project those losses into our own lives and families.

My sons are the joys of my life. I have no doubt in my mind that the reason I am on this earth is to be Benjamin and Matthew’s father and to do all I can to give them a happy life.  If I accomplish nothing else in life except to raise two happy, loving boys into two happy, loving men then my life will have been a success.  The thought that one person in a single instant could wipe that all out is terrifying.  That fact that one man did exactly that to so many families has me living in a perpetual heart break.

In the days since the attack, I have found myself relishing in my sons’ laughter, love and even pestering.  I find myself just starring at them in wonder.  However, there are times when I need to turn away from them to hide tears because, it is hard to watch them without feeling a sense of remorse and guilt for all those fathers in Newtown that have lost their joys. I guess it is a sort of survivors guilt, even though my sons were secure and safe, hundreds of miles away.  I take some comfort in my belief that those 26 souls have made their way to heaven, but I mourn the hell that has been left behind in Newtown.  The fact that it is Christmas, the season that is suppose to be all about the children, these feelings get amplified to the point where I just want to take down the Christmas decorations and move on.

Of course, that is not possible because it is the season of children and forgetting that and not celebrating our children would not be honoring the memories of those lost.  For now, I keep my grief hidden away from them and do my best to repair my heart with their laughter.

I am doing all I can to make this the best Christmas my sons have ever had as some small way to honor the families of the victims.  It is a dark Christmas for them which makes me feel like I need to do more to make our Christmas brighter.  I’ve become more patient with them, taking time to help them fix the LEGO village under the tree that they destroyed.  I have stopped doing far less important things to check out how the Christmas pig is riding the crane (don’t ask). Last night, I walked into the family room where the TV was still on and saw a message on the screen that it was about to power down because there was no activity for four hours because we were all upstairs playing and talking and laughing.  The pile of presents from Santa in the basement seems to have doubled since last Friday.  There is little I can do for those Newtown families, but there is so much I can do for my own.

During the concert, the principal, used the metaphor of the children being the brightest lights in this world, and that is so true.

So often, we face evil and sadness and pain in this world. So often, there are people that suffer and struggle in the darkness that sometimes seems to dominate this world.  When the darkness lashes out at the tiniest, most innocent, yet brightest lights in our world, the sadness becomes that much more profound.

We struggle for answers on how to battle the shadows that live in people’s souls. I am sure the answer lies only partly somewhere between the polarized sides of the gun debate and how we help the mentally ill in this country.  I know that the biggest part of the answer lies in that raucous building of children, educators and parents and in similar buildings around this nation and this world.  Whether it be a church, temple, mosque, a kitchen table, a mud hut or any place that people gather in love and joy, embracing hope and faith.  It doesn’t matter if that faith is in God (or gods), science or ourselves.  We fight the darkness by passing that faith, hope and love on to the children with the hope that the next generation will grow up in a better, brighter world.

During the concert, I also found myself staring at my sons’ teachers and the rest of the school’s faculty.  I really wanted to go up and hug each one of them, because I don’t doubt the love they have for our children and what they do.  Many are parents themselves and I can only imagine what a painful time it must be for them.  Yet, there they were, smiling and laughing and celebrating our children.  May God bless them and educators everywhere and may God watch over our children and the families of Sandy Hook.

Dear Little One, Part 2

April 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Below is the second of three “letters” I wrote to Benjamin in the month after we found out Andrea was pregnant.

December 9, 2004

Dear Little One,
Edgar very comfortableWell, after a whole lotta tests, we are fairly certain you are on your way, and we couldn’t be any happier or excited…or scared.  Your momma and I are getting ready to move to Bethlehem, which should be your first home.  Plus, Christmas is coming, so there is a lot going on.  It was funny, on Monday and Tuesday, I was so happy and just felt pure joy.  Now, I am still so happy, but overcome by worry.  I keep fearing that we will lose you and that this happiness will be brief.  Plus, your momma is experiencing a bad case of morning sickness that lasts all day.  Then, you big brother, Edgar, has a hurt leg and keep limping around.  These are anxious days and I think I’ll feel better when we get through them.

Not much going on the the world, right now.  George W. Bush is President, the Red Sox are World Series Champions and the Giants and Mets are horrible teams.  I wonder who you will root for…will you root along side your papa, or will you go another direction (you can’t root for the Yankees or I’ll disown you).  I wonder what you’ll be like and what you will look like.  I don’t think I can wait the nine months to see you!

Oh, by the way, from here on in, I will refer to you as Pudge.  You’ll have to ask your Momma why she decided to start calling you pudge.

Wise Guy with Candy Canes

January 1, 2012 1 comment

Just before Christmas, Matthew and I were walking out of daycare with him holding candy canes.  He explained to me that he had three candy canes, “One for me, one for Benjamin and one for you, daddy.”

He then proceeded to accidentally drop one of the candy canes, breaking it.  Without missing a beat, and starting to giggle, he said, “that one is yours, daddy.”

Technology is Amazing, Charlie Brown

December 28, 2011 Leave a comment

I loved Christmas specials on television growing up.  I can still remember the excitement as the colorful “Special Presentation” (or whatever it said) words would spin in a multi-colored kaleidoscope on to the screen, announcing that a Christmas show was about to come on.  While I still enjoy many of them, my favorites are still “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (the original cartoon) and “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.  Those are the two that have stood the test of time for me.

The boys, of course, love them and they eagerly would watch most of them.  There have been some new ones added over the years — some funny, some heartwarming and some that are just plain creepy — that we have discovered together, but it is the old ones that they seem to enjoy the most…You can’t beat the classics, I guess.  It is adorable as Matthew, who really struggles to talk sometimes, walks around the house singing the Heat/Snow Miser song, making sure to hum the trombone parts of the song.

However, the interesting twist, that was unheard of when I was growing up, is that that they could watch their favorites over and over thanks to the DVR.  A VCR was unheard of for most of my childhood.  As kids, if we missed a showing, that was usually it…we missed it for the year.  And, in a way, that was nice because the night that Rudolph was on became an event.  We eagerly waited for it and we watched it together as a family.  Basically, there was no way we were going to miss it.  Now, I could be walking around the mall and pull up an app on my phone, scan the TV listings and set the DVR to record a particular show.  We would watch it when it was convenient (and if it was a hit, watch it over and over and over).

That same technology allows me to download the Heat/Snow Miser song so that I can play it, and other favorites, in the car to cheer them up on the way to school.

However, in all of this, the intersection of Christmas tradition on technology that touched me the most was the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” app by Loud Crow that was available for the iPad (maybe Android, as well).  I feel like I am about to write a review, but this was amazing.  It is designed like a pop up book with the familiar music of the television special playing in the background.  The kids could turn the pages and have the book narrated or they could read it themselves.  They could “pop” snowflakes, play Schroeder’s piano, make the characters dance on stage and even decorate Charlie Brown’s tree.  As the season passed, they could find ornaments and other goodies hidden on different pages.  Both boys spent countless hours playing on the iPad.  I really thought this was a special part of their Christmas.

And I have to confess, whether it is on television or on the iPad, I can’t help but let a tear go when the characters yell, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” at the end of the book.  It makes me feel like a kid on the inside again.