Recently, I reached into a big brown cardboard box of open fruit to pick out the perfect apple.
Standing there staring at the fruit, that Christmas spirit running loose everywhere around me right now, a very remote file in my old brain unexpectedly opened itself.
I was on bus #33, it was Christmas, and I was coming home from South Haven in Lexington and it was the last day of school for Christmas break.
The Peanuts and The 3 Stooges were straight ahead as soon as that bus door opened. Maybe I’d get in one last round through the Sears catalog. We were down to the wire now and I could have accidentally missed something that I needed in my life.
I was in high hopes he would see the bright orange whip flag I wanted for my bike. I was in an especially accelerated prayer that he would have seen my absolute need for that Apollo capsule tent.
I did indeed get that white rocket shaped tent one year and flew untold missions around the globe. I had flawless and precision liftoffs and splashdowns from my backyard with my white 3 legged dog, Charlie, as my fearless copilot.
Maybe I’d go over to Neal, Keith or Jeff’s and see what they had asked for Christmas.
Maybe we could go into town and see the spectacular Christmas tree at the Lexington courthouse, or go see the lights at the rich man’s house down the road from high school. Maybe there would be a good movie on at the Princess.
Alvin and the Chipmunks would surely be played on the record player, or Snoopy and the Red Baron would be a good alternate.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was coming on tomorrow night, I think. And undoubtedly, if daddy was home, Lawrence Welk would serenade the house with a holiday medley and a long skinny stick in his hand.
And this Sunday night, Santa would come in to church at Palestine and bring more presents. I was tall enough that I could see him poking his head up through the triangular windows in the door at the back of the church.
Getting up while the hot bus is still rolling to a stop in front of my house, I make my way to the front of the bus as we neared my house on Cook St. My older brother and sister were busy with older brother and sister stuffs, dating, kissing, stretching out the one phone cord that we had, and going to hang out with friends at the newly made Beech Lake. My younger brother was twirling around the house like the town drunk in a yellow walker with half chewed Cheerios splayed on his tray. He would jump up and down in the walker when I came in the door. He was a fun kid.
Mom was making fruitcakes to give to people. The round brown circles lay on wax paper spread out on the big dining room table.
I would no doubt have to hammer holes in another coconut, drain the milk out and then help scrape the innerds of that nasty thing out for mom’s coconut cake.
Dad was away on the truck a lot. Long haul trucking was no easy life.
But when dad was home, aunts and uncles might stop by and they’d all sit up late talking, drinking coffee and eating coconut cake. And everyone smoked, either cigarettes or cherry tobacco in a pipe. And I’d go to sleep to the sounds of dishes clinking, and being washed, women in the kitchen and men smoking, laughing and coughing in the living room.
Mom had just had her hair done at Mary Lou’s at 3 on Friday, so soon she’d be wrapping it up in toilet paper so as not to crush all the fine work that was sealed into place by Aquanet.
Bouncing like the silver ball in a pinball machine off of the green vinyl bus seat tops, I made my way to the front of the once yellow school bus. Along the way, I passed by some good friends and then some mortal playground enemies that I prayed would transfer to reformatory school or start working in a factory soon.
Social promotion should have had term limits.
I’d get to the front of the bus a little early to talk a little bit, not much, with Mr. Johnson because he was a nice man. He always enjoyed talking with the kids. Especially the ones like me that acted like they had some raising and didn’t try to smoke on the bus, cuss or grab the girls.
The brakes squeaked, the sign went out on the side, he clutched and then downshifted the manual tall stickshift in the bus floor.
Soon, Christmas freedom, furlough, was right in front of me.
No school, no homework, no teachers in dark gray dresses that always smelled like peanut butter and carried a paddle as she waddled all that authority down the hall.
Mr. Johnson would stop the bus, smile and tell us to reach into the big brown cardboard box and get a piece of fruit, a candy cane and a pack of either Juicy Fruit or Doublemint gum sometimes. It was a gift from him for Christmas.
Then, he’d tell us Merry Christmas and crank the door open. I’d thank him and down the black vinyl covered steps I’d go and stop and turn around and watch the bus rev up and move on, gray exhaust spewing out as he rolled on down towards Shipman’s market.
Walking up the short drive with my book-sack and wearing my green corduroy coat, I could tell already that Christmas was on schedule to be another good one. With plastic candles in all the front windows, that I assumed were like landing strip lights to him, Santa would surely be able to find our house and somehow maneuver the HotWheel garage I had wanted into the living room.
I always thought Santa was even more magnificent to pull off the feat of getting into our house, without being heard, and without a chimney? How extraordinary was that!?
Christmas was always a time to re-calibrate ourselves in our home. It was a time when love was present and tangible as the plastic snowman that sat in the front window.
Other times of the year, life was hectic, busy and we might not see each other much. And then, life could dictate that we might not always be in the best of moods.
But Christmas was a time to be together and celebrate and put yesterdays behind us.
But, no matter how busy we all were, how many weight stations daddy had to dodge to get that truck home in time, how many ballgames, band marchings, crazy hospital schedules, college schedules had to be worked around, we have always had all of our family together at Christmas.
Lives were rearranged for Christmas.
And still we do today, and it’s as ingrained in all us and the children that are coming after us all, that Christmas is a special time of year.
Some things may not always be perfect like the year that I brought a raw sweet potato casserole, thinking it was cooked.
Or the infamous year that the dressing was dry and for a brief moment, the Earth tilted a little more to adjust itself to that event.
Life happens, we grow up and we have families of our own now.
We have our two kids that have personally seen the red material that hung on the fireplace door in our living room. Santa had hung his suit going back up the chimney and we were worried that he’d catch his death of cold. They saw the reindeer footprints in the fireplace ashes. Man, those reindeer are messy eating carrots.
But not as messy as Santa was with cookie crumbs spread all over the coffee table.
Perfection has never been our goal in Christmas gatherings.
Simply being with those people that you love is the goal.
So, the apples, oranges, pears and bananas in that big cardboard box in 2016, triggered and streamed some beautiful Christmas memories from many years back.
Memories that were only made available at that one special time of year.
Memories that were made intently and steeped with family tradition.
Memories that were made inside of a warm, red brick house on the edge of town in Lexington.
A warm house that smelled of homemade coconut cake, plastic snow sprayed in the windows and a fresh cut cedar tree that hovered over and protected generations
of green and red shiny wrapped boxes.
Merry Christmas 2016 to you,
your families and