Kinda sounds like one of those “What I did on My Christmas Vacation” reports we used to be forced to do in school, right? Do they torment kids like that these days? I could rehash a few for you. “I got phew-ammonia and puked in the hamster cage.” No? Okay, how about the time we drove home from Endicott, NY to Schenectady, NY inna blizzard and Daddy hit a deer? The deer was fine, got up and walked away, but we spent Christmas night inna ditch? Mmm, nope…ooo, I know! We survived the Ice Storm of ’63! Or was it ’68? Anyway, we went sledding on cookie sheets down the frozen drift – from my brother’s second-story bedroom window to the street!
And no, I didn’t see the Christmas Star or an angel… My Christmas Star is a man. He’s a Merchant Marine – civilian sailors, the guys on oil tankers, dredges, tug boats, non-military (most of the time) – and my husband. His work schedule was often unpredictable. He could be out for three months, home for one, or be called back to the ship after only a week home. Holidays had to be as fluid as the ocean. Quite often, our kids’ best Christmas gift was a phone call from Daddy, full of static and short because ship to shore calls were extremely expensive. (This was twenty-plus years ago – long before computers, cell phones, all the toys that we take for granted today.)
Yet, somehow, Randy managed to make Christmas special. His voice lifted our spirits and reminded us we were loved. When he could, he would mail a letter or card. A few times, he shopped early and hid the presents, just in case he wouldn’t be home on Christmas morning. He once hid them under a huge pile of clothes I was supposed to wash and then take to the Salvation Army store. He forgot to tell me they were there. I was busy and never got around to doing that laundry. We found those gifts three months after Christmas.
One year, when we lived in upstate New York near Syracuse, Randy’s ship was dredging sand along the East Coast. Normal people would ask why we didn’t go visit for a day or why he couldn’t drive home for a weekend. “New York City’s only four hours away. Why don’t you take the kids down to the Port there and visit him?” Hmm, sorry, no, it doesn’t work that way. Merchant mariners may not be military, but they operate along the same guidelines. I could explain it to you, but this is a blog, not a book.
And, yes, it was depressing knowing he was that close and we couldn’t be together. My little sister and her husband visited us that year. I had people I loved in my house, their sweet toddler was a living doll our little girl was enjoying babying and our boys were teaching naughty tricks to, we had laughter, presents, good food, and, I was lonely. My husband wasn’t overseas that year, he was in the same state, and we couldn’t have him with us. He hadn’t even been able to call us, which pissed me off because he could have used normal phone connections instead of a marine operator.
The weather was lovely – fresh snow, cold but not frigid, and a sunny Christmas morning. My sister and I were making French toast for breakfast, still in our pajamas and robes because in my house, no one gets dressed in real clothes until noon on Christmas Day. Christine’s husband looked out the window and asked, “Do you know anyone who drives a white van?”
Jeff pointed outside. “He’s in your driveway.”
At eight o’clock on Christmas morning, after being up until dawn wrapping gifts, I had the brain function and curiosity of a dust bunny. Christine had helped me, but managed to be a chirping chickadee – god, how I hate morning people. She was also more of a city girl than I and instantly alarmed at the sight of a plain, unmarked, paneled white van skulking up my driveway (visions of kidnappers dancing in her head). “Where are the kids? Call the police. Jeff,” she prodded her husband, “is your gun in the car? Put on your boots, chase him away!”
I yawned. “Sweetie, Chief Willy lives two houses down and is probably still asleep. It’s a small town, everybody knows everybody else. They’re someone’s relatives, using my driveway to turn around.” I flipped the bread in the pan and heard Jeff say, “Huh, he parked. He’s getting out!” Dear Jeff, the most open, honest, heart-on-his-sleeve guy, and I heard the lift in his voice. Something had just made him very happy and Christine squealed with joy.
I whipped around and ran to the window. By that time, the driver had the back of the van open. Jeff scrambled to shove his feet in his boots as the driver unloaded boxes and bags. I knew the curve of that strong back, the tilt of that beloved head…I beat Jeff out the door, dashing through the snow in my slippers, and was caught up in a hug that nearly crushed my ribs before I crashed into the side of the van. I have no memory of going back inside the house, I think he carried me because my feet were turning blue and Jeff carried all the gifts. I do remember that kiss – one that hurls fireworks down into your stomach and buckles your knees, a kiss that requires your love to hold you upright because you no longer have any bones in your body.
The ship had been put in dry-dock for a quick repair at New York City Harbor. The captain gave Randy 24 hours off the clock, just enough time… Randy asked if he could borrow the port captain’s van to make a trip home. He stopped at a 24-hour Kmart outside the city and bought what he could with the cash he had.
After the excitement of kids climbing all over Daddy and ripping into the gifts he’d brought, we settled into the rest of the day and enjoyed our Christmas feast. In the afternoon, my sweet sister and her dear hubby giggled and winked and bundled up children. “We’re taking them to the park to go sledding!” they called out. I think Randy and I were upstairs before the back door slammed shut.
Cuddled together, beginning to hear the happy voices of our loved ones returning home, Randy whispered, “I didn’t get you a gift. I’m sorry.”
“Silly man, I have the best gift of all, right here.”