It’s easy to feel haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past this year, even more so than usual.
Either way, for some reason – maybe with all the uncertainty in the world right now – the ghost most recently visiting me used to play piano in bathhouses for Bette Midler (Incidentally, she has a halfway decent Christmas album, if you’re into that sort of stuff.)
That’s to say, I remember getting the Barry Manilow album “Trying To Get The Feeling Again” from my Uncle Tom as a Christmas gift.
Hey, don’t blame my uncle. See, I asked for the album. I liked Manilow’s theme song for “American Bandstand” and maybe even some of the schmaltzy ballads on the disc. Manilow’s easy listening voice sang the songs, even if in one of his biggest hits he falsely claimed he was music and he wrote the songs.
I was so naive – and had yet to hear the Ramones. (Oddly, though, from a cursory look online at release dates, I just (re)determined I had now-classic albums by the Rolling Stones, The Who and Stevie Wonder in my collection by this time. My tastes, indeed, were catholic.)
What makes the holiday story at hand sadder still is this was the Christmas of my father’s disappearance. I vaguely remember he showed up that Christmas Eve night at my aunt and uncle’s house near Midway Airport. But Dad had been gone before that and left sometime during the gathering.
My folks had separated. Judging by the family feuds, a smorgasbord of reasons played into this. My brother, sister and I were never told where my dad went nor why he left. When he eventually returned for good, my parents never offered an explanation. I don’t recall asking for one, either.
So that Christmas Eve, there I was with my Barry Manilow album. Talk about a social distancing tool. It’s as if I invented the practice – which prepared me for 2020.
See, somehow I found comfort in that syrupy music. Like Barry, I too eventually made it through the rain. As it rained today, let’s leave the aforementioned ghost for visits, in no particular order, from other apparitions.
Take last Christmastime. Best Fest Buddy Tom bought a Santa suit up in Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland on a road trip for a relative’s wedding in Michigan. He rocked the outfit for an Irish breakfast with ‘tis himself as Santa at a local. He donned Santa garb at Mike Houlihan’s annual holiday bash.
On Christmas Day 2019, the daytime high temperature hit 57. So Tom took the grandkids to the park. He did the dab in a modified Santa outfit for photos. Speaking of the dab, who knew coughing on your sleeve would become such an important thing to remember come 2020?
Then there’s a Christmas Day a few years ago where Tom and I met Marley’s ghost via some very special brownies baked by one of Tom’s nephews. Tom’s dad and his dad’s lady friend also snacked on them.
Tom’s dad and his lady friend may have seen sugar plum fairies dancing in their heads. Tom was going to work on a car. I went home and went to bed.
I had the radio on while I tried to snooze and remember “Hotel California” playing. The condition my condition was in only solidified my opinion of The Eagles.
Yeah, my rock critic revelation reaffirmed, though I can’t put my finger on it, I really don’t like the Eagles. (OK. I saw them in concert once – a couple years after I had the aforementioned Barry Manilow album. But for Joe Walsh, I found the Eagles really, really boring. More boring than opening act Pablo Cruise, even, and way more soporific and way less fun than the Steve Miller Band.)
The brownie buzz finally lifted, I headed over to Tom’s to see how he was doing. His front door unlocked, I entered the house to find a dark living room.
I called out down the hall to his bedroom. Tom emerged wearing just his boxer briefs.
In his best Ralph Kramden voice he told me in no certain terms he would NOT be feeding me dinner than evening, then headed back to his room. I went home, glad Tom was alive, but still no fan of Don Henley, or henley shirts even.
My favorite family Christmas memories happened when I turned 40. My sister surprised me with airline tickets to visit her and hers out in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I flew out from O’Hare early Christmas morning, and everyone seemed in a good mood. I sat in first class, even. My sister’s good to me like that.
We hit the ground running, taking in the Christmas sites of the city, walking along the beach, maybe even driving back and forth over the Golden Gate bridge. My folks and brother were there, too.
That it was a bit foggy just added to the dreaminess of the day. What a lucky guy I was to be loved this way, to get a gift like this, to enjoy family time laughing and joking on an unexpected adventure.
We improvised dinner, picking up food pretty close to closing time for a locally owned grocery store. I think we had tri-tip, a very California thing. It was delicious.
At that grocery I also found what remains a treasured chachki, an old-school style San Francisco 49er bobblehead doll. I wound up flying home on a plane with an upper deck. That made me never want to fly coach again.
I’ve had surprises as Christmases, too, mixed in with my personal traditions.
About 10 years ago or so, one happened. First I made my usual stop at the Dees’ family gathering. The Dees home to me on Christmas Eve is the stuff of seasonal legend, a house full of friends, family, gifts, pizza and french fries.
After that, I met Best Fest Buddy Tom at a local for a birthday drink. Yeah, Christmas Eve is my birthday. Somewhere tucked away in a box is a Santa sleigh that once decorated the top of my dual purpose cake, even.
Tom and his dad had been at a Feast of the Seven Fishes put on by a teacher for whom Tom’s dad volunteered as a teacher’s aide. I salivate just thinking about such a seasonal meal and wish I were Italian, if just for that night.
Anyway, on this particular night, post-feast Tom and I were settling up at the pub. Somehow my last name came up and a woman we had been talking with said that was her last name, too.
I joked that was the worst pick up line I ever heard. She and her friend laughed. Nobody did get picked up. It is me we’re talking about, after all. But Shawn Dannehy (now Anderson) and I remain friends to this day.
Her friend with Shawn there that night, Denise (Krecker) Napoli, passed away recently from cancer. Yeah, it’s been that kind of year in so many ways. Shawn is celebrating her friend’s life with a new Facebook post filled with photos and memories each day for 14 days, Fourteen marks the number of years the two knew each other.
You can’t stop reading now if you like. It’s a fine place to settle down for a long winter’s nap.
Past this I’ll just list past Christmas seasons’ greetings and doings. How many of the below have you done? If you have a score of 10 or higher, we might be related. Here goes.
- Worked at the old newspaper office one Christmas and seeing swans floating on the frozen Fox River – only to have a lazy intern photographer claim he couldn’t find anything to photograph for next day’s paper
- Posed for a photo with Santa and your sister and oldest cousin, after being scratched on the face by that sister, and probably deservedly so
- Ordered Chinese food to have while watching “A Christmas Story” on Christmas Day.
- Headed downtown for a drink or to take in sights with a variety of friends, including dining with an opera singer who had a part in Hansel and Gretel at the
Lyric; going to a cigar club gathering in a Michigan Avenue building with a fed friend; and hitting Macy’s/Fields with a buddy and seeing where two devilish little boys dressed in golden suits for their fabulous photos with Santa
- Enjoyed prime rib at a neighbors’ home on Christmas Eve
- Shopped for discounted ornaments, particularly one time downtown on Christmas Eve at Macy’s/Fields after a light work day at the Sun-Times Red Streak
- Watched the Chicago Bears play the New England Patriots play a meaningless game on Christmas Eve. The Pats’ kicker hit a tuba player accidentally with the football at the end of halftime. Or was it an accident? Either way, a good laugh.
- Played Santa Claus at Macy’s/Fields that same year for a feature story
- Sat under the aluminum-branched Christmas tree, mesmerized by the blue spotlights hitting the blue ornaments on the shiny branches
- Played with the train set under a real tree shedding its needles on the tracks.
- Gawked in slack-jawed awe at the potlatch-like piles of presents at one set of cousins’ house pretty much every Christmas as a kid
- Grabbed a bite at quintessential Chicago-at-Christmas spot Petterino’s, saw the Goodman’s renowned production of “A Christmas Carol” (available as an audio play at the link) then headed with buddy Traci Clarke to pick up a new TV at ABT up in the north suburbs
- Vomited after receiving Communion at Midnight Mass one year. I was in Catholic grade school at the time. As far as I recall, they let me back in after Christmas break and did not require an exorcism.
- Looked in vain for holiday pictures you thought you had saved on a computer or a cloud somewhere and realized all you have left are your memories.
There you go. May my memories spark yours during this most unusual holiday season and your spirits be bright. Muddle through somehow, and have yourself a merry little Christmas now. And happy birthday to me.