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Volume XVII, Issue 52 ~ December 24 - December 30, 2009

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For my last family Christmas in Portland in 1988, my father dressed as Santa.

My Two Christmas Wishes

A white Christmas memoir

by Margaret Tearman

I was raised by parents who were children of the Great Depression. Both families had few material possessions, and the little things held great value. My father remembered the Christmas morning when he found an orange in his stocking. They lived in Chicago, and that piece of fresh fruit in December must have cost a princely sum.

My mother would never forget her eighth Christmas. The only thing Santa left her was a dress for her one doll. The little dress was sewn together from pieces of scrap cotton, but my mother treasured it as if it were made of fine silk.

My parents grew up and into careers that afforded them a comfortable lifestyle. From their impoverished childhoods came not needs for lots of stuff but resolve to teach their child the value of what could not be bought in any store. Santa always stopped by our house on Beech Hill Drive, but little importance was placed on the presents he left. Both mom and dad helped write my wish list to send to the North Pole, but while doing so, they reminded me that the best gifts couldn’t be found under a Christmas tree.

Without close siblings — my brothers are 15 years older than me — I was reared as an only child. I had everything I needed, and almost everything I wanted — except for two things, and those two things were always on my wish list: A white Christmas and a big, noisy family to share it.

The Gift of Snow

I dreamed of mittens and earmuffs and snowy windowsills — while watching my father barbeque our holiday turkey in the warm California sun. In my mind, a real Christmas needed snow. But the only measurable snow in Southern California falls somewhere above 8,000 feet, and even there it isn’t guaranteed. My parents knew of my dream and did what they could, short of moving the family to Vermont, to give me snow — or at least the trappings of a cold winter day — at Christmas.

Christmas 1964, my dad built a roaring fire in the fireplace — never mind the balmy California December day.

One year they bundled me into the car for the long drive up to Big Bear Lake ski resort, high in the San Bernardino mountains, where I threw snowballs and careened down a hill on a borrowed sled. I don’t think I will ever forget the chill brought on by wearing wet clothes all the way back home.

Our California house had a fireplace, but it was rarely cold enough to use. Knowing how much warmth a glowing hearth would generate, one Christmas Eve my parents left the air-conditioning on high all day. When night fell and the house was chilled, my father made a big production out of crumbling newspaper into balls, tucking them under store-bought logs and lighting the fire. My mother made mugs of hot chocolate, complete with the requisite marshmallow floating on top. The three of us gathered around the fireplace, listening to Mitch Miller and his gang sing about dashing through the snow — while our neighbors in their shirt-sleeves wondered why there was smoke coming from our chimney.

When I was a young adult, I spent a year in New Hampshire. That December, it snowed. And snowed. So much snow, I was stranded in a drafty attic apartment on Christmas Eve. I remember standing at the window, gazing past my snow-covered sill to the picture-perfect snow-covered town square while talking on the phone to my parents in balmy California. I was crying my eyes out, wishing for nothing more than to be home with them.

I crossed a white Christmas off my list.

The Gift of Family

When my father retired, my parents left sunny California for rainy Oregon to be closer to my father’s brother and family. Uncle Joe and Aunt Mary had four children, and they were all married with kids of their own. Aunt Mary’s sister and husband, their two sons and families and Grandma and Grandpa Pusateri all lived nearby. When everyone was together, it was very noisy.

I had left California years earlier for Washington, D.C., in search of a career. I endured long, crowded flights back to Los Angeles to spend holidays with my parents. Now I would be flying home to Portland — and smack into my wish of a big family Christmas.

My new holiday routine was quickly established. I’d pack gifts and rain gear and head west the week before Christmas. My parents would meet me at the airport. I longed for a hot shower and a soft bed, but we drove straight to my Uncle Joe and Aunt Mary’s house, where I was greeted by at least a dozen relatives, a simmering pot of my favorite homemade ravioli and a glass of good Italian Chianti.

It was glorious chaos.

Mom sitting on Santa’s lap.

The days leading up to Christmas were spent in a flurry of visits with my extended family. Breakfast with one, lunch with another, dinner with another. The only refuge from the hectic pace and din was a few stolen hours with my cousin Janine. Using the excuse of last-minute shopping, we would slip out to a neighborhood bar where we could hear ourselves talk. We’d sit, sip and catch up with each other’s lives and family gossip.

Christmas formally began about dusk on the 24th with the ringing of bells on the back doorstep: Santa had arrived. Each year one of the uncles would don the old red suit and bedraggled white beard. Everyone — and I mean everyone — would take a turn on Santa’s lap, whispering last-minute wishes into his ear. Only after the last third cousin slid off could the gift unwrapping begin. It lasted for hours.

Finally, usually sometime around midnight, Aunt Mary’s Christmas feast was laid out: A whole salmon caught by cousin Phil and prepared by Uncle Joe in his backyard smokehouse, roast turkey, honey-baked ham, pork cutlets with gravy and bowls of pasta. All washed down with more Italian Chianti. We didn’t break until the wee hours, when everyone crawled — exhausted and bloated — into cars or onto foldout sofas.

During the craziness of Christmas 1988, as I was being tugged out the door on the way to visit some relative, I looked back over my shoulder at my parents. I had yet to spend any time with them. I wanted to ask my father if he had found the right lens for his new camera. I wondered if my mother had seen her doctor for that nagging cough. I longed for a mug of hot chocolate on a warm winter’s night.

With a start, I realized what I was missing.

The big noisy family Christmas of my dreams was a lot of fun. But I found my most cherished Christmases to be the small quiet ones shared with the two people I loved the most — even if we were wearing shorts and sunscreen.

My last family Christmas, in 1988.

Wishes Granted

I didn’t know it, but that was the last Christmas I would spend in Portland. By the next year’s end, I would be starting my life with the man I would eventually marry and making our own Christmas memories, quietly, at home in Maryland.

But I think somehow my dad knew. That year it was he who dressed up in the family Santa suit. When it was my turn to sit on his lap, instead of me whispering my Christmas wish list into his ear, he hugged me tight and whispered to me “I can’t put a bow on this, but merry Christmas — from your whole family.”

With that, I crossed the last wish off of my list.

I had received the two things I thought I wanted most, and in the end I found that I had the most precious gift of all.

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