When I was a wee child, I had a magnificent idea...
The Christmas Ladder
The advent season provided a significant buildup of anticipation and excitement in my seven-year-old self. At Church each week they lit another of the four candles in the middle of an evergreen wreath that sat flat on the altar. Four weeks before, my father leaned over to me in the pew and said, me nodding in response, being quiet.
"You see those three purple candles? All right. Now you see that white candle? Yeah? Ok. Well the three weeks before Christmas, they'll light those purple candles, then, on Christmas they'll light the last one. Then Santa comes."
Dad didn't know that a fifth grader named James S. had crushed the magic weeks before, making me wise. Despite my attainment of fact, I remained (and still do) enamored by the mystique and wonder of reindeer hoofs on roofs. I knew Santa would come and that he would bring the Millennium Falcon and a new Han Solo to replace the one buried somewhere in some sand, frozen now just like in real movie life when Jabba froze him. I knew Santa would come even though my Dad had been "laid off" which meant he was there when we came home for lunch. My father was growing a beard, he didn't look like Santa but apparently they were the same man.
My father was spending his time off stripping the layers of paint from the bannister in our front hall. Multitasking, he was also rewallpapering the small areas in this entry way. I would come crashing through the front door to find him atop the Jackson Pollock step ladder, wearing his fatigue jacket from Nam. That jacket had been in the jungle. Now it was an urban cam-o work shirt, the dried drips of paint covered the faded olive drab.
Home improvements often add a bit of stress to a marriage. Throw in two kids, a recent job layoff and Christmas and my parents were only uttering subtle criticisms to one another. Putting up our ancient fake tree that year; tangled lights, broken wire branches being forced into splintering broom handle trunk, my parents snapped. As a result, we had to get a new tree. And fast - they were lighting the last advent candle the next weekend.
We couldn't afford a new "fake" tree and mom was allergic to real Christmas trees. A dilemma which had to be solved stat. That night I went to bed and listened carefully for sleigh bells. I was afraid that my Millennium Falcon may never come. I pulled the mason jar I kept under my bed out and began to pray. That's when the idea came...
Late that night I snuck down the stairs. I creeped onto the front porch and retrieved the streamers left over from the summer block party. Quietly, carefully, I wrapped the streamers around the base and individual rungs and steps of the ladder.
This will be better than a Christmas tree, this will be like Hannukah.
I thought we could use the ladder as a type of advent calender/ tree. We could put little presents on each step of the ladder and gradually climb to the top in the days preceeding Christmas. This would produce the benefits of multiple present days like my Jewish friends. On Christmas, the Biggest would be on top. The ladder also served a perfect Nativity manger, the sheet was already under it.
The next morning, things seemed to be better. My parents were talking and laughing, but the Christmas ladder was propped up against the wall.
"Good morning sleepy head, want some pancakes? We're gonna go cut down a tree today." Said my father smiling, flipping jacks in the cast iron pan.
"What happened to my Christmas ladder? I asked, pulling the chair out from under the table.
"Hey that was a good idea, but I think we're going to have a tree this year. A real tree. My father placed three golden brown patties on my plate. "Not too much syrup." He said.
I began to whimper and felt the heat rise in me, my throat closed up and I began a typical tantrum.
"Why can't we have the Christmas ladder, we can have a present each day. Fr. Carolyn said last week that Jacob had a ladder. I decorated it and every thing."
My father replied, "You can have a Christmas Ladder when you grow up."
I grew up.
Through my angst ridden years of adolescence I ruined Christmas. Sulking, angry, bitching about the commercialism of the event. I would say that I could not believe in anything anymore because of the lies I was told as a child.
Then I went to Prague. I met WLO there and she shared the magic of the Holiday with me. Christmastime in Praha is beautiful. The spires poke the mule colored sky and the bells resonate secret hymns to the cobblestones. The squares have Christmas markets where they roast chestnuts over huge barrels of fire. Blacksmiths work their trade along the vendors selling wood puppets and water colors. Vats full of live Kapra wait on every street corner to become a traditional dinner. This city gave me Christmas back.
Since, I have treasured the holiday. I embrace my loved ones with generous hugs. I think about Zu Zu's petals.
Last year, I returned from Asia two weeks before Christmas. I was sick. Here in Oak Park, Illinois it had snowed twelve inches. I was in America, Christmas was here and I had a bag of gifts right off of Khao San Road that was gonna blow away my friends and family. Then the doorbell rang the Friday before Christmas.
Two plain clothed policemen were standing on the steps of my parents home. My tan skinny body in boxers stuck my head out into the cold. I knew right then.
"I'm Sergeant ***, Is Patricia here?" The man asked. Their black cruiser sat idling curbside.
"No she's at work, is there something wrong?" I asked, shivering.
"Your father has been in an accident. He's at the hospital. We're here to bring her." They said, looking nervous. Shifting. but I knew, I could feel it already.
"Can you take me? Just give me a minute." The adrenalin was creaking through me and my stomach filled with marbles.
We drove through the streets of my youth. Bare branches of elm linked arthritic fingers over cold bare asphalt lined with piles of plowed snow. The police continued their small talk until they walked me into a converted broom closet at the hospital with functional chairs and a phone. They asked me to sit down and said someone would be right with me. That someone was a male nurse of about forty from Ireland, he resembled my father.
"Is Mr. Brocken your father?" He sat down in the chair next to me and held out a box of tissues.
I said I prefer to feel the tears and asked for a moment alone. I was the first to know and for the next three quarters of an hour, I would be waiting in that room. Waiting for my mom, my sister ...
Christmas wasn't quite the same. The only thing I remember through the haze of shock and my Thai stash of Valium was when I went out to my father's car to get some things out of the trunk. Inside were our unwrapped Christmas gifts from him. I gathered them up in my arms and returned inside.
Now I sit, a year later. Today I experienced a wonderful day with my mom, nephew, sister and the rest of our family and am content. I went down into the cluttered basement to find the fatigue shirt my dad used to wear as a smock. I looked through the piles of clothes and cardboard my mom has accumulated through the years to no avail. I stepped through a tangle of old bikes, the victrola, until I spotted the Big Red One shimmering in a shadow. I pushed my way through the clutter and found it on the old stepladder I once decorated for Christmas.
Update: Chrimma 2004, Dawn and I had our first Christmas ladder.
Chrimma 2005, I just put up the Christmas ladder. No new ornaments yet but it has been decided that December 15th, the aniversary of my Father's passing will be the Chrimma ladder day.
2006: The Chrimma ladder is up. It has lights and a plastic orange this year. We also made a bobber ornament and some fish are on there for sure.
2007: Chrimma Ladder again. It was wonderful to behold
2008: Chrimma Ladder get's Yoda Print from Fingerhut catalog.
2009: Chrimma Ladder full of Bob for Baby Penelope.
2010: Chrimma Ladder in new house in basement. WOnderful and full of tears.