The Christmas Of 1998

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Even though Eunice was not quite two she had already had her share of meaningful conversations with imaginary friends. My wife, a victim of last minute gift wrapping, was fast asleep in our bedroom. Eunice was playing in the living room amid a pile of books, stuffed animals and unopened presents. The Christmas tree, dressed in shimmery white lights and a million strands of tinsel, stood proudly at her side.

“Why don’t you play with Big Bird and Cookie Monster?” I asked while ducking into the bathroom to shave.

But Eunice didn’t want anything to do with Big Bird and Cookie Monster. As I lathered my face with Barbasol and contorted my cheeks in all sorts of ways (my father swore to me when I was 16 that this approach ensures a clean-shaven mug) I heard Eunice ask someone in our living room, “How are you?”

I poked my head out but saw no one there but Eunice. I went back to the sink and mirror to work on my chin, a part of the face, that if you’re not careful, you will end up walking around all day with tiny wads of toilet paper plastered to your face to keep from bleeding to death. Suddenly a man’s voice answered Eunice’s question.

“I’m doing just fine, thank you,” is what I think I heard him say.

I reached for our “Baby to Parents Dictionary” which happened to be in the bathroom. Translated, here is what went back and forth between Eunice and Santa on Christmas Eve.

“I thought it was you, Santa, but I wasn’t sure. I almost didn’t recognize you without your elves and eight tiny reindeer.”

“Come now, little one, how many jolly bearded fat men in satiny red suits do you know? It’s me alright.”

“How did you get in? We live in an apartment and I don’t even know where our chimney is. Is Rudolph with you?”

“The landlord buzzed me in. As for Rudolph and the other reindeer they took the year off. With snipers shooting at deer here in Cleveland I didn’t want to take any chances. I flew Southwest.”

Santa was referring to the city’s recent decision to help thin out the deer population.

“Thanks for the gifts, Santa. I can’t wait to open them!”

“You’re welcome, little girl. Uh, little girl?”

“Yes?”

“Why is your father shaving at one-thirty in the morning? Better yet, what are you still doing up at one-thirty in the morning?”

“Daddy gets it in his head every once in a while that he wants to grow a beard. This usually lasts two or three days. Then his face starts itching.”

“You didn’t answer my second question. Why aren’t you in bed?”

“I’m all caught up in the spirit of Christmas, Santa. I guess you can say I have sugar plums dancing in my head. They’re making so much noise in there I’m having a hard time falling asleep.”

“Ho, ho, ho nice try, little one! But as long as you’re up, why don’t you tell me what you think of Christmas. You’re how old now?”

“Just turned twenty months. And Christmas is okay. I wish I knew more about it though.”

“Tell me, what have you been doing to prepare for Christmas?”

“Not a thing. I’m young, adorable and confined to a stroller whenever Mommy and Daddy take me to the mall. I just sit back and admire the beautiful colors. Occasionally, I get restless and worm my way out. Then Daddy tells Mommy he’s going to take me for a walk so she can shop in peace. Which in Daddy terms means, it’s been fifteen minutes and he’s had enough with shopping and would rather drag me to the fountain, a spectacle that amazed me way back when I was under one but has since lost its appeal. People come by and do the same old thing. They drop some pennies in there and watch water shoot up in the air. We are surrounded by a large group of other daddies who are with their children because they think this is the only way to keep them from whining. After a few minutes Daddy gets bored himself. Somehow we always manage to make our way past Victoria’s Secret. Daddy’s walk comes to a slow crawl. Then he says, ‘look over there, Eunice. Was that Barney I just saw?’ But there is never a Barney. He was only trying to distract me so he could peek at the scantily-dressed mannequins in the window. Honestly, does he think I’m that stupid?”

“Of course not, my dear. He probably felt a tantrum coming on and wanted to keep you busy looking for something that doesn’t exist so he can buy a few more seconds before you really start crying. It’s natural. And don’t you worry about crying. I know that you’ve been a good little girl all year.”

“Thanks, Santa.”

“Just don’t let it go to your head. Your terrible twos are around the corner. Believe me when I tell you there’s no escaping them.”

I was having a hard time keeping up with everything that was being said. I was flipping pages trying to translate Eunice’s words and every time I found one, a new word entered the picture. But Santa understood.

“Santa?”

“Yes, little one.”

“How come Mommy and Daddy, and Grandma and Grandpa, basically everyone I know, go through the trouble of shopping for one another when they know darn well that you’ll swing by with presents?”

“Well, first of all you shouldn’t be using the word darn yet. Save it for later in life, say when someone cuts you off while driving.”

“Sure, Santa. But don’t you think I should say what Daddy says when someone cuts him off?”

“I’m afraid to ask but what does your father say when people cut him off?”

“Promise not to take my presents back?”

“That bad, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Never mind then. Now where was I?”

“I wanted to know why my relatives buy presents when they have you.”

“Oh, right. That’s a good question. One that has puzzled me since the advent of shopping malls. I think they buy presents for each other because they get wrapped up in the spirit of Christmas. They feel a love, a love so strong it can only be associated with Christmas and giving something nice to people they can’t live without. Unless of course they get roped into it, like with employee gift exchanges.”

“So Daddy bought Mommy a pair of flannel pajamas because he loves her and can’t live without her?”

“That’s right, Eunice. I knew she wanted them but when it comes to things like lingerie, underwear and pajamas, daddies like to have the final word. Just out of curiosity, what did Mommy get for Daddy?”

I poked my head out of the bathroom door. Eunice spotted me.

“I’d tell you, Santa, but some people’s ears around here are bigger than a bread box. He’s pulling for a wide screen TV but Mommy says keep dreaming.”

Eunice and Santa continued talking. She showed off the many books she had read over the year, even the ones she tried eating. Santa was impressed. He told Eunice that he intends to catch up on his own reading once things get back to normal after the holidays. By this time I was only half-done with my face. My right side was as smooth as an apple, my left still white as snow.

“Eunice, most people will agree that the single greatest gift one can hope to have is a loving family. What does the concept of family mean to you?”

“Presents!”

“Yes, of course. Presents play a part. But don’t you think there is something else? Something greater?”

“You mean Daddy’s Annual Holiday Double Feature?”

“Come again?”

“Every December 22nd the Slovics get together and watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and The Christmas Story back to back. They feast on meat and potatoes. Grandpa misses most of the lines from the movies because he’s laughing too hard. And even though he’s seen both movies four-hundred and fifty-one times, he still makes Daddy rewind the tape so he can catch what he missed, or didn’t miss, the last few hundred laughs. Grandma, tired from having to sit with Grandpa through all four-hundred and fifty-one showings of these movies, works on a quilt while waiting patiently for her turn to hold me. I spend the night being passed around like holiday fruitcake. My great grandfather (we call him Super Grandpa) talks Cleveland Indians baseball with Daddy and all my uncles. Like he’s said in the past they need more pitching. My Great Grandmother (we call her Super Grandma) sits in the corner knitting slippers. And Uncle Nick tickles me so much I have to run off and hide somewhere. Then come back for more. Uncle Paul, Uncle Jerry, Uncle Danny and Aunt Leslie spend the evening fighting over me. Being the only baby on the Slovic side sometimes causes a big fuss, but I’m worth it!”

“Modesty isn’t your strong suit is it, Eunice.”

It was becoming clear to me that Santa was trying to get Eunice to share with him what we Slovics feel is most important about Christmas. Like spending time with loved ones. A gift that doesn’t end up in everyone’s stockings at Christmas. Maybe Santa was targeting his questions at me. After all, Eunice is too young to have worldly thoughts. The deepest she treads is when pondering who’s going to change her after she craps in her diaper, Mommy or Daddy?

“Do you enjoy the movies, Eunice?”

“I don’t sit still long enough to watch them. I guess I just like having grandpas, grandmas, uncles and aunts around. They pay attention to me like Mommy and Daddy do.”

“What happens after December 22nd?”

“Don’t you know? December 23rd!”

“Very funny, Eunice. I mean, what else do you and your family do?”

“On Christmas Eve we get in the Neon and drive to Grandma McCafferty’s house. I have ten cousins: Matthew is pushing 13, Brett is 9, Lisa is 7, Michelle is 5, Stanley 4, Kevin 3, Andy 3, Robert 3 and Mary 16 months. The funny thing is they make half the noise that Uncle Paul and Uncle Jerry do!”

“It must be great being around people who are more your age, huh, Eunice?”

“They’re less likely to spin me around in the air if that’s what you’re getting at. The truth is I hate seeing Mommy paying attention to the other kids.”

“Why do you say that?”

“She’s MY mommy!”

“Eunice, sharing is a special part of Christmas. Mommy loves her nephews and nieces just like their mommies love you.”

“Yeah I know. But the majority of parenting books claim that throwing a fit when seeing mommies holding other kids is natural. Just as long as the one throwing the fit isn’t in his twenties or anything like that. I’ll grow out of it. But I intend to milk it every chance I get.”

“I’m sure you will, Eunice. Are you okay with the sharing thing, at least until Christmas is over?”

“I’ll try my hardest, Santa.”

“Thatta girl!”

“Want to know what else we do at Grandma McCafferty’s house on Christmas Eve, Santa?”

I had finished shaving and was leaning against the wall outside our bathroom watching Eunice and Santa. Santa glanced at his watch. All these years I had imagined Santa with a golden pocket watch. But he was wearing a Timex. Product testing he hinted to Eunice who looked as surprised as I was.

“Yes, Eunice. But we better wrap this up soon. I need to be in Parma by 3:00 and you must get to bed.”

“Okay I’ll make this quick. We arrive at Grandma McCafferty’s around –“

“I’m sorry for interrupting, Eunice, but where does your mommy keep the cookies?”

“Are you serious?”

“It’s polite to offer food to guests, Eunice.”

“Whatever you say, Santa. Wait here while I go to the kitchen.”

“Of course I can’t eat cookies without something to wash them down.”

“Whole milk or skim?”

“Take a wild guess.”

Of course Eunice was only pretending to make milk and cookies for Santa. Had she actually prepared a treat it would have ended up in her tummy before making it to Santa. That or it would have been ground in the carpet and stuck in her hair.

“Here you go, Santa. I hope you don’t mind, but I put your milk in a sippy cup. Mommy doesn’t let anyone drink in the living room without a sippy cup.”

“Thank you kindly.”

“As I was saying, we usually get to Grandma McCafferty’s house by six. We enjoy a nice dinner with lots of roast beast and –“

“Uh, Eunice, you’ve read How the Grinch Stole Christmas one too many times. People on earth eat roast beef, not roast beast. I, myself, make sure to come down from the North Pole whenever Arby’s has one of their 5-for-$5 deals.”

“My, how quick we are to criticize. Are we forgetting who just fed you, hmm?”

“Pardon me, Eunice. Please continue with Grandma McCafferty’s house.”

“We eat roast beast and potatoes. There are so many people that we have to sit at three giant tables. One for the older adults, one for the not-so-older adults (so Daddy can feel younger than his 31 years) and finally, a table for the kids. The pre-teen, as Matthew likes to call himself, gets to sit at whatever table he wants. He likes sitting next to Daddy because he’s the only uncle he can beat in thumb wrestling. After dinner comes dessert, which I always have room for. I don’t mean to make your stomach growl but Grandma McCafferty makes a pretty mean Cookies & Cream Pie. After eating, everyone helps out by taking their dirty plates into the kitchen so Grandpa can scrape, rinse and place them in the dishwasher. Daddy tries to help but he’s as lost in the kitchen as I am reading Chaucer. He spends most of his time pacing back and forth trying to look busy. I rescue him by crying. The slight utterance of me whining has him out of the kitchen and by my side in less than five seconds.”

“What does your family do after this?”

“Everybody ventures into the living room. The adults talk about work. I take turns running in circles until I get dizzy. Occasionally, an uncle scoops me up and spins me high in the air. I hoot and holler and nearly lose my Christmas dinner. Uncle Frank and Uncle Mark debate the better movie, Escape from New York or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Uncle Dennis reads the newspaper in the corner of the living room. Kids three and under can’t wait for Grandpa McCafferty to read The Night before Christmas. The older kids wrestle with Uncle Pete on the floor. Except for Stanley. He belts out a few rounds of Jingle Bells on the piano. He’s quite a pianist, you know. Daddy sits patiently on the edge of the couch waiting for just the right moment to tell a good joke. Sometimes he waits all night.”

“What about the women? What are they doing when all this is going on?”

“They usually discuss breast-feeding, poopy diapers, things like that.”

“Interesting.”

“Grandma McCafferty does most of the talking. She has more stories than the Cleveland Public Library. Mommy and her sisters sit on the edge of their seats listening. Sometimes they break into an old campfire song. This provides an opening for the men to sneak off to the kitchen to top off their drinks. Soon 8:30 rolls around. That’s when Mommy, Daddy and I pop out to Aunt Dolores’ house to hang with some Slovics for a while. We get to see Uncle Richie, who’s still crying over the Browns leaving town three years ago and counting the days until football returns to Cleveland. Then of course there’s Aunt Dolores’ Swedish meatballs. Most of the sauce ends up on my face, but this gives me something to lick until Mommy comes by with a wet rag. My favorite part about Aunt Dolores’ is getting to see Grandpa and Grandma Slovic. But they won’t give me my presents until tomorrow. I guess being the center of their attention will have to do for the time being. At 10:30 we go to “Midnight Mass” at St. Barnabas. The pastor moved to the earlier time so he can still do mass and make it to K-Mart for last minute deals before it closes. But I still consider it Midnight Mass. It gives me something to brag about at day care, you know, staying up past my bedtime and all.”

“Eunice, you know it’s not polite to brag.”

“Daddy calls it confidence.”

Santa pulled out from his satin red coat a folder that resembled a file. From behind his right ear he retrieved a ballpoint pen. He licked the tip and jotted something down. It suddenly hit me that Santa was writing about me. All these years I had no idea Santa still kept a file on me. I thought checklists were for kids. I worried that I would never get that wide-screen TV. I’d be stuck watching Indians games on our tiny Magnavox forever! Perhaps Santa will have mercy on me.

“Eunice, maybe you should reveal more of Daddy’s theories about confidence and bragging.”

“I would but don’t you have to be in Parma by 3:00?”

“On second thought why don’t you just pick up after Midnight Mass.”

Whew! Nice save. Memo: teach Eunice that bragging is wrong. Unless of course you’re trying to impress an old bully who used to steal your milk money. Second thought, scratch that. It’s Christmas. A time to let bygones be bygones. Hear that, Santa? Oh, and if we’re still on for the wide-screen TV, can you remember to bring one with multi-screen capabilities and surround-sound?

“We usually make it home by midnight. I’m already fast asleep. If the pastor’s homily didn’t do it, the ride home in a toasty car in the comfort of my child seat will. Daddy and Mommy tuck me in. Then off to the living room they go where Mommy does a splendid job wrapping presents. I’m quite groggy but can still make out the sounds of The Tonight Show on TV. Even though Jay Leno’s monologue is over, Daddy can be heard laughing with some of the guests. Now Santa, keep in mind that I’m speaking in the present because you asked me to describe what traditionally goes on during Christmas with my family. But this is my first real Christmas. Last year I was very young. I’ve heard enough stories to assume that this is how my family celebrates Christmas Eve. The same held true this year. Except when Mommy fell asleep. Daddy carried her to bed and tucked her in. Then he decided he wanted to remove that growth on his face. Fortunately I was still able to sneak out of my crib and see you, Santa. You look much smaller in person.”

“Well Eunice, TV adds at least 15 pounds.”

“I guess it has nothing to do with that box of Oreos you just ate, huh Santa?”

“Oops, will you look at the time! Eunice, it’s been a pleasure meeting you. What’s on your agenda for today?”

“Lots of presents!”

“Speaking of that, how would you like to help me deliver the rest of these presents? Parma is my last stop. I can have you back by 6:00. What do you say?”

“I don’t know, Santa. I mean, I’ve never flown on an airplane before.”

“Eunice, Parma is only five minutes away. Besides, I rented a minivan from Alamo.”

“Aren’t those expensive?”

“Not when you’ve racked up the number of frequent flyer miles I have. The balance is coming out of Rudolph’s pocket.”

“Are you serious?”

“I’m kidding, Eunice. C’mon, lighten up. It’s Christmas!”

Santa helped Eunice with her jacket. He wanted to help her with her shoes but Eunice, being in her independent phase, insisted she be the one putting her shoes on. They were about to make it out the door when it dawned on me our baby girl was about to venture on a journey of a lifetime. The weather outside was not fit for man or beast. She needed her parents with her. Without thinking I blurted out.

“Can I come with you guys?”

Santa turned to look at me.

“How long have you been standing there, I’m not good with names, is it, Mickey?”

“That’s right Mr. Claus. I’m Mickey, Eunice’s father.”

“Mr. Claus is my father and he lives in Boca Raton. Please, call me Santa.”

“Well, how about it? Can I tag along, too?”

“You didn’t answer my question. How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough to hear that you want my baby girl to help you deliver presents in Parma. Do the words ‘child labor laws’ mean anything to you?”

“Let me guess, another adult who feels slighted because he never got to ride with Santa the night before Christmas, right? I suppose you’re going to blackmail me next.”

“Let’s just say I’m willing to forget all about the wide screen TV if you take me and my wife with you.”

Santa leaned back in our rocking chair and thought about it for a while. He knew my wife and I were more capable helpers than Eunice. She’d be interested for a short time, then pass out in her car seat.

“Sure, why not! An experience like this needs to be shared by the entire family. But I still want to talk with you about that swearing, Mickey.”

I ran quickly to the bedroom to wake my wife.

“Lindsay, wake up! Lindsay, wake up!”

She was out like a baby. I ran to the kitchen for some water. I filled a mason jar to the brim, and added some ice. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said Santa as I ran past him. I went into our bedroom and poured the ice cold water on Lindsay. To parody The Night before Christmas, she jumped up in bed and arose with a clatter. I looked her deep in both eyes and asked, “what’s the matter?” “GET OUT!” she said in such a manner, I nearly drained by entire bladder.

I tried convincing Lindsay that Santa wanted us to deliver presents to the boys and girls in Parma.

“Yeah, and I bet his sleigh is out in the parking lot right now, hmm? Don’t just stand there, get me a pair of dry pajamas!”

“Actually, Santa couldn’t travel to Cleveland with his sleigh and reindeer. It’s not safe, you know with the deer being shot out here and all. He has a minivan instead.”

“You’re having a bad dream. Go back to sleep.”

Lindsay slipped into her dry pajamas and rolled back over to sleep. I woke her again. I managed to help get her dressed while she said mean things to me. Though she didn’t match, she looked warm in her Bowling Green sweat pants and my Cleveland State sweat shirt. A pair of multi-colored mittens and a Mickey Mouse cap rounded out her attire.

I led her kicking and screaming into the living room where Santa was waiting with Eunice. Lindsay nearly fainted at the sight of him. At first she thought he was one of my brothers fooling around.

“Would I risk life and limb dousing you with cold water if he was one of my brothers? He’s the real thing, hon!”

Out to the parking lot we flew. We yanked the child seat out of the Neon and piled into Santa’s minivan, strapping Eunice snuggly inside. Santa pulled from his pocket a fistful of magic dust. He blew some on the steering wheel, transforming the minivan into his sleigh and reindeer, with each animal sporting a bullet proof vest.

“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen! You, too, Rudolph!”

We had liftoff.

The cool, crisp air took my breath away. Eunice caught a few snowflakes with her tongue. Lindsay leaned over and kissed me. “Thanks for waking me,” she whispered. I asked Santa to ask Rudolph to shine his nose.

“Rudolph, a little more light please!”

I looked down at the earth below and noticed that 9 out of every 10 Parma houses do have plastic pink flamingos in their yards. We flew over Parma Pierogies, Byers Field and Big Creek Parkway. We narrowly missed a plane heading for Hopkins International Airport.

“Hey Santa, where are the elves this year?”

“Union negotiations. They want shorter hours, nicer uniforms and coffee breaks every half-hour. I considered hiring scabs but couldn’t find anyone short enough. Plus, the regular elves blocked the warehouse doors whenever they tried to enter.”

Eunice fussed with Santa over who gets to control the reins. She’s in her independent phase, you know. Everything is “mine” nowadays. But she fell asleep before we reached our first destination, a snow-covered side street near Padua High School. Slowly, Santa began his descent.

The sleigh bells broke the silence of the peaceful December night. The Christmas lights below glistened like airport runways guiding us to each and every rooftop. Lindsay watched over the sleeping Eunice while I tossed presents down chimneys, plunking Santa on the head more than once.

My mind wandered ahead to the waking hours. Watching Lindsay wrestle with Eunice’s knotted hair. Eunice not wanting to sit still because the presents she just spent an hour opening are sprawled out on the floor waiting to be played with. After our presents are opened we’ll sit back and catch our breaths. But not for too long. Lindsay’s blueberry muffins will be in the oven. My stomach will hardly wait for them to finish baking.

After muffins we’ll get dressed. It will take me about five minutes, Eunice fifteen, and Lindsay just under an hour. She’ll most likely ask my opinion on something. “Should I wear the blue sweater or the red?” They both look fine so I’ll say anything to get her to move faster. Then she’ll go with the one I didn’t pick.

It will be a busy day. One filled with extended visits to Grandma McCafferty’s, Super Grandma’s, and Grandma Slovic’s. A special time for fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents and grandchildren. Last year Eunice found the wrapping paper more entertaining (and tastier) than what was inside. But thanks to the power of marketing (Barney, Big Bird and Elmo to name a few) I’m looking forward to seeing the look on her face when she opens a box containing a familiar friend inside.

After a day with relatives we’ll come home to the warmth and comfort of our apartment. We’ll tuck Eunice in and pass out on the couch. The sweet smell of scented candles means Lindsay was fast at work lighting them when my back was turned.

We’ll take a few minutes to sit back and enjoy our tree. On every branch hangs a decoration that tells a different story. A hamster wearing jogging shoes and a red cap spins on an exercise wheel. Lindsay gave this to me years before we even started dating. A few branches below hangs Mickey Mouse on a sled. We picked this up in Portland on our honeymoon.

“You gonna toss those presents down or just stand up there with that goofy grin on your face?”

“Huh? Oh, here you go, Santa!”

We finished helping Santa in under an hour. Back to our apartment in Cleveland we went. Santa blew another fistful of magic dust turning the sleigh back into a minivan as we touched down. Thank goodness for anti-lock brakes!

I kissed Lindsay. The clock on the nightstand read 3:54. I drifted to sleep.

I don’t remember anything else about our trip to Parma. I do remember waking up with an unusually smooth face. That morning my wife and I sat under the tree with Eunice and opened presents. At some point I looked at this woman and child I love so much. One does not need a wide-screen TV to feel this happy.

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