Christmas feels so different when you're an adult. It just comes, like any other day, lacking the magic and massive build up it always had when you were a kid. There were so many great Christmases when I was young. I remember the year I got a pound puppy from my aunt Lori and the year I got a talking stuffed animal named Teddy Ruxpin. I ran into the living room and spotted it right under the tree; knew what it was before I even unwrapped it. But my best Christmas memory came when I was seven years old.
I was an only child then. We lived in a basement apartment in Albany, at the corner of Tremont Street and School Street, behind the Golden Cue and Joe’s Bar on Central Avenue. My parents were young, and I guess we were really poor, because we lived in this cave-like place, without windows, below an old Haitian couple who couldn’t speak English. It was late at night on Christmas Eve and my uncle Jack was still over at the apartment after the family party. Jack and my dad were telling me that Santa’s sleigh had just been spotted by TV reporters coming towards Albany. A few minutes later, my uncle distracted me while my dad snuck outside and started ringing Christmas bells near my bedroom wall. When I heard those bells, I went crazy, convinced it was Santa coming close. I leapt into bed and forced myself to sleep, so Santa wouldn’t see me awake, and decide not to drop gifts. The next morning I woke up and raced to the living room, and the entire floor around the Christmas tree was covered with gifts piled high, all for me! That was the greatest Christmas ever.
That was our last year in the Albany apartment. The following summer we moved out to an old farm house on a lake in Averill Park. The better life. My sister and brother were born soon after, and Christmas become something else altogether, now that they were the babies. My mother started a tradition of making lasagna and ricotta-cheese cookies on Christmas Eve. I loved ‘em, and remember them most about Christmases at that house. In some ways Christmas became a way to mark the passing of family members, like grandma and grandpa, and the maturation of others. Younger cousins grew and new family friends joined the Christmas Eve celebrations held annually at our house. Christmas 2000, we took a family pic together in the kitchen. Everyone was in it, smiling wide with arms around each other, because we all understood that that Christmas would be Uncle Dave’s last Christmas. In that pic, he wears a denim-jean shirt and funny Christmas hat that I gave him. I am looking at that pic right now as I write. Everyone is happy or faking happy so well. And Dave, well . . . He died three months later from cancer. He was 33. Ten years later we watched as my father sat in his favorite living room chair, opening gifts while wearing his green bathrobe and tube socks, his family all around him, and he's happy. With the opening of every pack of undershirts or new Old Spice, he gives the same fake, “oh wow this is great.” He always did that, even for the crappy gifts. Dad never got the good gifts, he just gave them. Sometimes that's the deal in life. Sometimes that's exactly the way you want it. Eight days later he breathed his final breath in that same chair, wearing that same robe.
Now it’s hard to go home for the holidays, to my mom’s house. All those ghosts of Christmas past still live in those rooms, even though most of those rooms are remodeled and unrecognizable now, they’re still there. My mother still wants those same Christmas Eve parties, where the house is filled with so much family, and Christmas music playing, and food, and drink, and gifts. But for me it’s hard to be there then, because I’m returned to a time in my life that can never come back fully, and I’m filled with sadness and regret from it. Why wasn’t I a better son, brother, cousin when it mattered most? There’s only so many family pics of people passed on that I can look at, while “O Holy Night” plays. So I go north and spend the holidays in a place brand new to me, where I get to be a guest rather than a historian of Christmases gone by. And when I call home and wish my mother merry Christmas, I get sad and regretful again. Then I think of that line in my all-time favorite Christmas cartoon, “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.” It says, “Remember, Scrooge, you’ve fashioned these memories yourself.”
This past Saturday night after a day of Christmas shopping at Crossgates, I drove down Tremont Street and stopped outside the old apartment on the corner of School Street. I pulled into the driveway and parked. The small place was undecorated and the few basement windows were dark. Sitting there with another Carol playing from the radio, I remembered a Christmas right there way back in ’88, when a little boy leapt into bed because he heard ringing Christmas bells. And I wondered if inside that same apartment another little boy now slept, and would soon wake to the present he’d prayed to Santa for waiting under the Christmas tree, the same way a stuffed teddy named Ruxpin once waited for me, so long ago. Then I started the car and drove away, to the restaurant for dinner, to the life I live now. There was no further reason to stay. My time there was no more.