She was twenty-one. A pretty girl, in a corner booth at the Motor Bar of the old Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit. It was nearly Christmas, and she was alone.
Really alone. Her father, a fifty-nine year old German immigrant, had died in her arms two months before. He had been her only family after her mother died and both her brothers were killed.
She was engaged to be married, but her fiancé was across the street at an office Christmas party.
And so her cocktail was salted with Christmas tears.
That was sixty years ago.
We have celebrated the birth of the Christchild in 15 different houses since then. There have been plenty of squeals of delight and shouts of joy, gasps of surprise and smiles of contentment.
But it seems there are always some tears. Christmas tears.
I don’t know why it is. God knows I have tried.
The first year I bought her a vacuum cleaner. The next year, an electric frying pan. Then a clock radio.
When I gave her the electric blanket, she stopped crying long enough to explain that nothing which plugs in is romantic.
I tried buying clothes. Very iffy endeavor. If they are too large, she is insulted. If they are too small, she is hurt.
One year I bought pleats. She said she never wears pleats. I said I never noticed, and she cried.
Next year, I brought home pleats again. It didn’t help to tell her that my secretary picked them out.
And then there was the year I decided to be practical. We had a house full of little ones and no savings. I wanted to give her a sense of security, so I bought her some airline stock. To build up the excitement and suspense, I went out to the airport and got one of those folders they give you. I wrapped it in a small box and put that in a larger box.
When she finally got it open and saw the folder, she jumped in my lap and said, “Where are we going?”
Needless to say, the stock certificate was a disappointment. Adding insult to injury, Eastern Airlines went broke in a couple of months.
One year I decided that the best gift I could give my family was to quit smoking. I snuffed out a cigarette five days before Christmas and quit cold turkey. Then, to make it more concrete, I spent the next 120 hours composing a detailed diary, which I printed out and bound up in a booklet, entitled “Five Days to Christmas.”
I was sure that my dear ones would treasure that story and celebrate my new found freedom from the ravages of nicotine.
Not so. The booklet sat on the coffee table until well after New Years, when I filed it away in my desk.
When kids are little, tears often come at the end of a long day of excitement. New toys seem to break easily. And young ones don’t accommodate sharing very well on Christmas Day.
There are tears of joy, and tears of relief. And tears of exhaustion.
And tears that come when, at two o’clock on Christmas morning, the damned toy that just won’t work they way it does on television finally succumbs to Brennan’s Law.
Brennan’s Law? Very simple.
You can’t fix it unless you take it apart. It won’t come apart unless you force it. If your force it, it will break. Therefore, you can’t fix it unless you break it.
Of course, there are tears of joy on Christmas, too.
I managed to evoke some of those a few years ago when I gave my dear wife the keys to a cottage in the North that she had been wanting for a long time, but never really expecting to have.
But real Christmas tears are poignant, bittersweet.
They well up and salt your glass of wine when your daughter and her family have all gone to bed and you’re sitting alone in front of a multi colored tree remembering the hectic days, the exciting days, the days full of hugs and laughter, wrapping paper and card board boxes. The long nights of anticipation, the cold parking lots and midnight Masses, the long rides home.
Any Christmas could have been our last.
We never thought about it. We were too alive. Too full of the moment. Too busy doing Christmas.
We think about it now. Every kiss and every hug. Every thank you and every goodbye. Every moment of this magical season pinches the corner of your eye and calls out a little wet reminder that it will all be over.
Not this year, surely. Maybe not next year or the year after that.
But sooner. Always sooner.
We’ll squeeze it for all it can give. Christmas is, after all the story of the Baby’s birth. It is all about beginning, starting new. Starting over.
And not being alone. Not ever being alone again.