Of all the holidays, Christmas is my least favorite. For me, the season is always very contemplative and a little melancholy.
I haven’t always been this way. As a child, I loved Christmas. But in the Spring of 1968, my life changed in profound ways and Christmas has never been the same.
In February, my father was diagnosed with leukemia and given something like six months to live. I didn’t know this at the time. I was nine years old. My mother felt it best not to disclose the details of my father’s terminal disease to me or my three siblings. I only knew he wasn’t himself and he and my mom were making a lot of trips to the hospitals in Pittsburgh.
As Christmas drew near, his condition worsened. He gained weight from the medication he was taking. His normal quiet and introspective temperament gave way to flashes of agitation. The adults whispered more and sent the children into other rooms to play while they talked.
The week of Christmas, things seemed normal. My mom had festively decorated the house, the tree was up and ladened with lights and ornaments, and my father had even managed to hang a few strings of lights in the trees and bushes around the house. But on Christmas Eve, my father’s condition took a turn for the worse.
Sometime in the late afternoon, I did something trivial that caused him to fly into a rage. I may have been fighting with my sister or one of my brothers, I don’t remember. What I do remember is that my father flew into a rage as I had never seen before. It was the first time I remember being scared of him. He chased me up the steps and into my room. I quickly scrambled into my top bunk bed to escape him. He then pulled the safety rail off the front of the bed and raised it high in the air intending to hit me. I crouched in the corner as far as I could at the far side of the bed and brace myself for a severe blow from the heavy maple rail. But just as he began to swing, he suddenly caught himself and dropped the rail on the bed in front of me. His head fell into his hands as he leaned into my bed and he began to cry. That’s the last memory I have of my father.
Out of fear, I remained huddled in my bed. Then about an hour later my mother entered my room and said that she and my father were returning to the hospital in Pittsburgh. She told me that my elderly great-aunt would be staying with us and that Christmas would come as usual the next morning. She also told me that my father wasn’t himself. I remember the banging of suitcases down the steps and out the door and the red tail lights of our family wagon leaving the driveway, then everything went quiet.
I eventually went downstairs to find my Great Aunt quietly sobbing on the couch. She quickly recovered when I entered the room. The evening proceeded quietly. Heavy wet snow was beginning to fall outside and accumulations were expected to top ten inches. Inside, we were watching a Christmas special or something and I was trying to imagine what might happen the next morning. As I had no idea of the seriousness of my father’s condition, my nine-year-old thoughts naturally focused on what the following day would have in store for me. In the previous eight Christmases, my parents had always made sure we had lots of presents and a lot of good food. We usually spent the morning opening gifts and playing with toys. We then had a big Christmas dinner later in the afternoon. But I couldn’t imagine that happening this Christmas Day.
The heavy wet snow continued to fall, piling into a thick layer that blanked all objects in our yard. We all sat quietly on the sofa contemplating the night’s events and anticipating an unusual Christmas. Then about 11:30 PM, something wonderful happened.
Directly to the left of our TV set was a large, sliding, glass door. As we were watching TV, two large figures appeared outside the door and began knocking on the window and tugging the door handle to gain entrance. We immediately recognized the two soggy, snow-covered figures as our youngest aunt and uncle from my mother’s side of the family – Aunt Joey and Uncle Mike.
My sister and I immediately sprang from the sofa and ran to the door to unlock it. Joey and Mike came in out of the snowstorm, dripping wet with half-melted snow. At the time, our house was unfinished, most of the rooms lacked wall and floor covering. I vividly remember my aunt and uncle stomping snow from their shoes which quickly melted into small puddles on the plywood floor.
It seems that earlier in the day when it became obvious to my mother that my father would need to be hospitalized in Pittsburgh on Christmas Eve, she called her youngest sister Joey and ask her to stay with us through Christmas. At the time, Joey and her husband Mike had no children. They, therefore, became my mother’s obvious choice in her hour of need.
Their Christmas Eve trip from Detroit, Michigan to rural Brockway, Pennsylvania was an arduous one. They caught a plane from Detroit to Pittsburgh, easy enough. But once in Pittsburgh, they missed their connecting flight to Dubois, PA (the closest airport to Brockway). The only option for traveling the last 100 miles was a Greyhound bus. As it turned out, missing their flight was a good thing. We learned later due to the heavy snow, the small prop plane they missed crashed on route killing everyone on board.
Their bus ride from Pittsburgh to Brockway was scary. The snow was falling hard making the poor western Pennsylvania roads all but impassable. After three hours of hard driving, Joey and Mike found themselves the only two passengers on the bus and moved to the seats directly behind the bus driver. They told him the sad story of my father’s terminal illness.
The bus finally reached Brockway. The bus stop, however, was at a gas station about a half-mile from our house. By this time, the snow was almost a foot deep and our house was at the top of a high hilltop. The bus driver, now teary-eyed after listening to the sad story, volunteered to take them as far as he could up the hill. He managed to get them to within 500 yards of the house. The couple then walked the last leg, up the hill through knee-deep snow.
When they arrived at the sliding glass door, they were soaked and snow-covered. Joey was wearing knee-high leather “go-go” boots popular in 1968 and mike was wearing his national guard, green military coat. Once inside, they made arrangements for our aunt to go home and sent us to bed.
From my bed, I heard a lot of muffled talking and some bumping and banging. I assumed Joey and Mike were getting situated and went to sleep.
The next morning, my younger sister, two younger brothers, and I descended the steps to see if Christmas had come. To our surprise, there were lots of presents under the tree. My Aunt and Uncle were understandably tired, but they got up with us and cheerfully orchestrated the morning’s events.
About mid-morning, my Aunt began to prepare the Christmas meal, which was to include a large turkey. The bird was in the oven for about thirty minutes when a strong chemical smell began to waft from the kitchen. It seems that the night before, my Mother was in the middle of cleaning the oven when the decision was made to take my Father to Pittsburgh. They left in such a rush that she left the walls of the oven covered with Easy-Off Oven Cleaner. Fortunately, my Aunt discovered the oversight. She removed the turkey and finished cleaning the oven before she resumed roasting the bird.
All things consider Christmas turned out okay. We loved Joey and Mike, the dinner turned out great, and we enjoyed opening our presents. The specter of my Father’s hospitalization, however, clouded the holiday. We could sense something was very wrong.
The day after Christmas, my Aunt and Uncle did the best they could to cheer us up. We played games and played with our new toys. Everyone mustered as much joy as possible.
The second day after Christmas, we awoke as usual and began to play with our toys. About midmorning, my Mother returned from Pittsburgh. My siblings and I assumed my Father was still in the hospital. More relatives came to the house. They all sat around the kitchen, drinking coffee and talking in hushed tones. My mother and my dad’s brother, Uncle Paul, seemed especially exhausted and distant. Occasionally, someone would cry. When we attempted to enter the kitchen, one of the adults would usher us back out to the living room and ask us to play quietly.
Around mid-morning, my Mother summoned the four children upstairs to our bedroom. We went upstairs. She shut the door. Inside the bedroom, we sat, two on the lower bunk and two on the “roll-a-way” bed. My mother sat on the edge of the bed and explained that my father died the day after Christmas. Even at that young age, I knew that this news and its ramifications would take a while to be fully understood. I sat in shock and then cried. My mother said it was going to be okay.
It was very sad and hard at first. Returning to school, there was a lot of explaining to those not aware of my circumstances. Those aware of my circumstances avoided the subject which was its own brand of weirdness. My Uncle Paul did the best he could to help me with things my father would normally do, Pine Wood Derby modeling, Little League signup, hunting, fishing, etc. Like my father, he was sort of a renaissance man. He had many interesting hobbies and knew a lot about a lot of things. He was great. The following summer, my mother returned home to Michigan where my Uncle Richard, a Scout Master, and my Uncle Mike, a college football fullback, would serve as great role models and surrogate father figures for many years.
The following winter, my Aunt Nancy returned from a stint in the Peace Corps to live with us in our half-finished house and help my mother. In the Peace Corps, she toured Afghanistan and taught in elementary schools. That was a real education for me. She had lots of great slides, mementos, and stories. The crude poverty of Afghanistan, made real by the stories and images was beyond anything I could have imagined. Aunt Nancy had a lot of grit and was game for any adventure. She loved to play games and was a lot of fun. The three years following my dad’s death were filled with weekend road trips to places of interest in western Pennsylvania. She and my mother made the best of our situation.
Aunt Nancy and my mother made the following Christmas as fun as possible. There are lots of presents, and good food, and we played lots of board games. Unlike the previous year, there was a lot of laughter and merriment.
In the Winter of my twelfth year, my mother would re-marry and our lives would take another turn. Larry Beighey zoomed into our lives in a silver Corvette. He was an executive at the local Glass plant and he and my mother fell in love, married, finished the house, and had two more children. There are six of us now. My new father was a great guy and a good role model. He eventually rose to plant manager, then went on to partner with another man, eventually owning his own plastics factory. Things did turn out okay.
But like the ghost of Christmas past, the specter of my father’s death has always haunted me around the holidays. Sometimes when I sit quietly beside a Christmas tree, 1968 seems like a moment ago. My father was an artist and musician. He attended St. Francis college on a trumpet scholarship where he earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry. He went on to earn a master’s degree in chemistry from Penn State, then a doctorate in dentistry from Pitt. My “big” present the year he died was a huge chemistry set. After his death, I fumbled with it in the basement for a while, trying to follow the recipe cards and replicate experiments. But without guidance, I soon lost interest. At Christmas, I often wonder what life I would be leading had he lived.