Today, November 21, 2014, would have been my father’s 92nd birthday. He passed away nearly six months ago at his home in Cuero, and all of us who loved him are bracing for our first holiday without him. You see, Dad was truly Father Christmas. He always had the freshest tree, so big that it was necessary to move several pieces of living room furniture to accommodate it. He decorated it with the most beautiful ornaments you’ve ever seen, which he collected over a lifetime. Some were over eighty years old, having hung on his boyhood Christmas tree. Some were hand-sewn by an old family friend who gave him a new one every year: the tin man and scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, a sequined pink octopus, a Christmas goose. His favorites were the huge glass Radko-types; colorful santas, nutcrackers, gingerbread houses, and toy soldiers. Growing up, we loved helping him decorate the tree, but noticed, days later, that all the ornaments we’d hung had been moved to another location where “they’d show up better.” Our house was always full of friends and relatives on December evenings, as they would drop by to admire “Frank’s tree.” Last Thanksgiving, as Dad’s health was failing, my brother brought in a smaller tree, and we convinced Dad to let us decorate it. He hung a couple of ornaments, but mostly observed our handiwork from an easy chair nearby, making suggestions of the perfect spot for hanging several special ones.
Another tradition of Dad’s was his annual baking of an English plum pudding with hard sauce. This required him to travel to the butcher for suet – (if you don’t know what that is, don’t ask unless you want to squelch your desire for this delectable dessert for all time) – and to an out of town grocer for candied fruit. He had a single large mold in which he baked his pudding, and he spent an entire day baking several, one after another, so that on Christmas Eve he could deliver them to appreciative friends and relatives. At our Christmas table, he’d set the pudding soaked in brandy on a platter, then light it on fire. When it was extinguished, he topped it with a sprig of holly and commenced serving. I was never too fond of the pudding, as I had seen the suet beforehand, but I’d take a tiny sliver so that I could drown it in the hard (which means whiskey) sauce. Delicious!
When my sister and brother and I were young, Dad helped us write letters to Santa Claus. After listing our many requests for Barbies and BB guns, we always added, “And please remember the poor children around the world,” at Dad’s insistence. He always made sure we left a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa near the fireplace, then we’d settle in for a reading of “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” a tradition he continued with my daughters who spent nearly every Christmas Eve of their lives at my parents’ home. After the kids were tucked into bed and visions of sugarplums danced in their heads, he’d sit before the television with a late-night toddy in hand, and watch the Pope say Midnight Mass from the Vatican.
On Christmas morning, Dad was always up before the rest of us. When we awoke and excitedly ran towards the living room, he’d stop us and say he first had to check to see if Santa had come, and every year, without fail, he’d walk back with a long face and report, “I’m sorry, children. Santa didn’t come this year.” We’d race past him to find piles of presents under the tree and stockings overflowing with goodies. And, always, the voice of Harry Belafonte singing “The Friendly Beasts,” from the nearby record player. Dad’s excitement in the holiday never wavered, even as we grew up and had children of our own. He tried every year to find the perfect gift for each member of the family. He gave my daughter her first Harry Potter book before any of us had heard of J.K. Rowling. All three of my girls received a Razor scooter the instant they hit the market. One Christmas, before any of his grandchildren could drive, they found a “Mule,” a four-wheel drive-type vehicle, parked on the sidewalk in front of his house with a sign attached to it that indicated it was for all ten of them to share and enjoy driving out in the country. (This did not dissuade my daughter, Caitlin, and her cousin, Alex, from jumping in it that afternoon while the grownups were napping, and taking it for a spin around town, only to be pulled over by the cops who escorted the ten year olds home.)
Perhaps the most magical Christmas of all was the 2004 “Christmas Miracle,” when six inches of snow fell in South Texas on Christmas Eve night. Our joy was made greater by Dad’s delight, and I joined him early on Christmas morning for a quiet stroll through his snowy neighborhood, which looked like a scene from a Currier and Ives greeting card.
Each year at Christmastime, Dad’s childlike enthusiasm and joie de vivre were infectious. We’re all a little afraid of what this holiday will feel like without him. So, we’ve decided to erect a tree in his honor, in his living room, and decorate it with his ornaments. Hopefully, we’ll be reminded of his joy in the season, and will feel some of it ourselves. But first, I’m off to find some suet!