There is a song I hear during the winter holidays called, ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas.’ I’ve heard it each year going all the way back to the 1960s, but until recently I hadn’t paid much attention to the words. The singer promises he’ll be home for Christmas. He assures us we can count on him. It appears that promise might not be wholehearted because he says he’ll be home for Christmas, but only in his‘dreams.’
I will be home for Christmas, mom. You already presented to me your gift. You introduced me to a woman who has the Christmas spirit you did. She wraps those packages up with the same patient care. I watch her place them carefully under the tree. You always made Christmas special, for me.
I still have a vivid image in my mind of you in your long brown coat and scarf walking briskly to that bus stop on Main Street. When I think of you I think of Woolworth’s, the 88-cent store, S&H Green Stamps, or Bob’s 19-cent hamburgers. You didn’t have the full stomach, toys and warmth I had growing up. You gifted me with each one of those things despite your lack of similar experiences. You took your gift, saved it, wrapped it, and placed it there for me.
I hadn’t known of those heart-breaks you endured as a child until dad informed me of them on that horrible day in August. I lived with you so long; why didn’t I know? You shined so bright. You led us into our future. I didn’t know of your past. You shined for the whole world, but especially for me.
I’ll be home for Christmas. I’m safe and warm and dry. One Christmas I needed you to be at home. I packed a lot of stuff into my car with only one thing on my mind. I wanted to get away from that strange city I could never call ‘home.’ I wanted to spend Christmas with you and dad. I didn’t know how much time we had.
The rain and sleet pounded the windshield as I sloshed down the freeway hoping to make it by midnight. I kept thinking of the heat of your fireplace, of putting presents under your snow blown tree. Each present I had carefully wrapped, to present to you the careful choices I’d made. I was a nervous man.
‘I’ll be home for Christmas; you can count on me.’ That’s what ran through my mind that night as I held onto the leather steering wheel. If sheer will alone could have kept that car running, then I’d have made it. But even as I prayed and held my breath, that engine started to knock. There is never enough time.
Mom, I never wanted you to go. I want so bad to drive to your house. That house remains, but it is empty now. I feel I need to call you. I draw an imaginary line on the hardwood floor. The knotted pine paneling that sheets one wall reminds me of that day. The old wooden bed with chewing gum stuck to the post. You told me the chewing gum could have belonged to anyone. It could have been stuck there by my dad when he was a kid.
Where does life go? I still can’t keep track with my eye on the lines ingrained on the wall paneling in my old room. I can’t count them, even if I trace each line with my finger. They’re strongly etched here, and then spiral into nothing there. You can trace it back into the rough knothole it came from. That was so long ago. Is it possible to return? I spent all those hours in my sick-bed. I counted those knotty pine lines with one eye open. My finger guided my vision. Some might call it ‘wasted time.’ Could any part of childhood ever truly be ‘wasted time?’
Green grass holds a swing-set and a willow tree. How many friends and family greeted me or said ‘goodbye’ at that front door? I wish I could go back to when that door was made and watch each friendly face come in. I would listen to each conversation. How nice that would be. And the corner where the Christmas fir stood, angel topped, strewn with a child’s touch of too thick tinsel, silver, gold, green, red eggshell thin bulbs mounted to the needled limbs by sturdy wire hooks. “Is there a bike for me? No, two bikes. The green stingray is mine!”
I’ll be here for Christmas, but I’ll have someone to talk to. She’s of the same spirit as you. She’ll talk to me as she stirs the fudge. She’ll also lay out decorations and hum Christmas songs. Perhaps I’ll even see dad again as I remember him. He’ll be in his young blue-jeans, coat, and hat shoveling fresh fallen snow.
It’s six in the morning again; mom and dad are talking softly in the kitchen. You hear breakfast dishes sliding on the kitchen table. You know it’s time to get up when mom turns on her radio.
I couldn’t make it home for Christmas that year. I broke down at a closed weigh-station near Salem. I spent the night freezing in my fold back bucket seat. I was cold, wet and broken. But dad came and picked me up. He took me home to where it was dry. And you were there at the house. Christmas was stacked under the tree.
A hot ham waits, and good old pumpkin pie. Mom, I’ll be home for Christmas; if only in my dreams.