To some of us Christmas Eve may bring back warm memories of chestnuts roasting by an open fire, fond memories of Yeletide moments shared with friends and family, precious memories of favorite gifts received and given. To me each year it brings back hilarious memories of the year when I was 15, because that Christmas Eve was the last time my father beat the living hell out of me.
Before you decide these are the raving recollections of a mosochist who grew up in a deranged household, let me point out that my attitude toward pain is normal-I don't like it-and that my father, rather than having been cruel of sadistic, was a kind man who seldom resorted to physical chastisement of his children, even me, his only son who deserved it more often than he got it. But how I avoided death or serious bodily harm at the hands of that kindly man on that holy night, I'll never know. I do know, however, what brought it all about.
My father was never, I'm happy to say, one of those parents one reads about in magazines or sees on television-a pal to his children. He begat them; he paid for their upbringing; he tolerated them; and I'm sure that he loved them, but fortunately not in a way that caused him to interfere much in their daily lives, or to let them interfere with his. Except on special occasions such a Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas when he went all out to create a festive and tradtional family atmosphere.
Most of my memories of these occasions are pleasant ones. I happen to like roast turkey, ham, plum pudding and pumpkin pie. My holiday obligations consisted simply in showing up at the dinner table on time. As I grew older, Christmas became a bit different.
One of the traditions my father honored was never doing his shopping until the last day. He had this idea that if he waited until Dec. 24 to make his purchases, the merchants who were terrified of being stuck with leftover merchandise would be so grateful for his last-minute appearance in the marketplace that they would sell him what he wanted at a fraction of the usual price. That was especially true of Christmas trees.
On one Christmas Eve early in his marriage, ha had the rare good fortune of having bought "the most beautiful tree you ever saw" for 50 cents. And he spent every Christmas Eve the rest of his life trying to duplicate that experience.
During the weeks before Christmas, while walking by empty lots or street corners where trees were being sold, he would delight at the number of unsold trees. If he happened to spot a tree that looked good to him, he would ask its price. When told $5 or $6, he would look at the seller as if the man were insane, and he'd shake his head and walk away enjoying the anticipation of being able to pick up tha tsame tree on Christmas Eve "for a song."
From the time I was 12 or 13, or big enough to carry things, he would invite me to accompany him on the Christmas Eve buying jaunt. I soon came to dread it. We'd start off at the lot nearest the house where he would have me drag out every big tree to hold up for his inspection. While I'd stand there shivering from the cold, the pine needles pricking my hands, he'd slowly circle the tree, shake his head, make a face, and say, "Nah!"
His summary rejection of these trees was due to two factors. First of all, by that late date all of the good trees had been sold. Second, he waa not about to make a hasty decision. This was the year that he was once again going to pick up the most beautiful tree you ever saw for the price he was willing to pay-"a song."
And so we'd trudge on through the cold streets to the next lot, where I would again start dragging out the big ones. When he would see one he liked, he'd slyly ask, "How much for this one?" Any answer costlier than 50 cents would evoke one of two looks: he was about to call a cop to report him for attempting grand larceny.
As we'd leave the fourth or fifth lot, ,y father, who was in most matters a tolerant man, would begin to make critical remarks about what he guessed were the merchant's religious origins. I can recall onone of these involving Irish Catholics.
On this particular Christmas Eve when I was 15, I was going through the adolescent awareness-of-muscles stage wherein I was beginning to look over my father with the arrogant, self-confident thought that, "I can take this guy." That no doubt led me to adopt a less respectful attitude toward him than normal. When he asked my opinion of a tree, I shrugged my shoulders to show my complete indifference, and finally I made the mistake of muttering, "It won't fit the stand anyway." That touched a nerve.
Many years back he had bought a Christmas tree stand. It was on ornate, balck wrought-iron device with four legs, not bad looking, but it had one drawback-no Christmas tree ever grown in this world had a trunk small enough to fit that stand, and certainly none of those of ceiling height, the only kind he would consider buying.
Although he would never admit it, I am certain he bought that stand on Christmas Eve and had paid an exorbitant price ofr it. As a consequence, each year as I helped him lug home the tree he finally had to purcahse at an exorbitant price from one of those "thieves," I had to look forward to the agony of helping him saw down the trunk. The trunk was always gooey with sap, and neither my father nor I were particularly handy with a saw. Had there been power tools in those days, I might have been able to avoid what befell me later that night.
After setting the tree in its stand in the living room and washing the goo off my hands, I had hoped to be able to get as far away from my father as I could. He was laready in a foul mood because of the swindling he had once again suffered and the struggle with the saw. Of course, he was taking it out on me.
Decorating a ceiling-high tree by youself is not only not much fun, it's difficult. Better to have someone help unpack the decorations, line up the lights and hand you ornaments when you're up on the ladder. So, my father called upstairs for help.
My mother and my three sisters usually helped him trim the tree and, unlike me, they enjoyed it. Unfortunately my mother and grandmother were busy in the kitchen stuffing the turkey, my older sister was out on a date and the two youngest were out shopping. Which left you know who.
I remember that I was sitting in a large armchair feeling sorry for meyself, envying all the orphans in the world, when my father brought out the boxes of decorations from the hall closet. The sulky look on my face must have conveyed my thoughts: "Now I suppose I've got to help trim the damn thing!"
He took one look at me, then picked up a box of lights and threw them at me, hitting me in the stomach.
"Here," he yelled, "get in the Christmas spirit!"
I cursed him silently, then began unraveling the strings of lights, arranging them along the carpet so I could test them. He placed a bedsheet under the tree to catch the needles which were already beginning o fall, this particular tree not having been the buy of the century.
When he finished, my father stepped back to look at the tree, and his foot landed on some of the light bulbs I was testing. I gave him my best long-suffering look which I was pretty good at by that age, but because I was down in a position where he could easily kick me in my long-suffering look, I said nothing.
He shook his head to show utter dismay that he could have fathered someone stupid enough to place lights where he couldn't help stepping on them.
"Don't move!" he yelled as he walked over to pull the light plug from the wall. Then he told me to get a dustpan and brush and to clean up the mess I had created. His obedient servant to the end, I did so.
We worked together side by side, shoulder to shoulder, in silence and mutual contempt, until I managed to drop and break on of the fragile decorations that had been in the family for generations, no doubt picked up late one Christmas Eve by a prudent ancestor "or a song."
"Give me those!" he shouted, grabbing the box of decorations from me and pointing to a chair. "Sit there! And try not to break anything else."
I sat, and he turned to his task without me, looking like a master disappointed by an apprentice whom he had spent years trying in vain to train.
Most of the trimming had been completed by now, and he breezed right along, hanging a bulb here, a bulb there, and distributing tinsel throughout. As he started up the step-ladder to do the upper part of the tree, he glanced over at me, and I noticed that he didn't seem as hostile as before.
"Why don't you put on some Christmas music?" he said, pointing to the radio. I started fooling with the dials to make a suitable selection to soothe the savage beast.Unfortunately, the radio was an old one which we seldom used anymore, and it had a few loose tubes or wires which caused sudden and wide variations in the volume. I would be enjoying "Hark, the herald angels sing" at a pleasant level, and the next moment my ears would be assaulted by "Glory be to Christ, the King" so loud that I wanted to scream.
The sudden changes in the volume were, of course, blamed on me by the man on the ladder, the one with the Christmas spirit who was conviced that I was now deliberately trying to blast him through the ceiling. I tried my best ot keep the volume at a reasonable level, but it was impossible, and I finally turned off the radio.
I sat there feeling miserable. I swear that if at that moment I could have gotten my hands on the baby Jesus who started the whole thing, I might have changed the course of religious history. I sat in silence until I eventaully heard a voice from above ask, "How does it look?"
"What?" I look up and saw my father standing hig on the ladder in a half-crouch. He had just placed the star of Bethlehem on top of the tree. and he was smiling, obviouly pleased with his work.
"How does it look?" he repeated, nodding down toward his masterpiece.
The young lion looked it over carefully, and in that moment decided to zing it to the proud old lion.
"It looks lousy!" I said.
You could hear a pin drop in the silence that filled the room. If not a pin, a needle, one of those falling in profusion from that crummy tree. The next sound I heard was that of my father's head hitting the ceiling as his reaction to my rather forthright critical comment caused him to straighten himself up to his full height.
The mext sound was his body hitting the floor as he fell from the ladder.
"God Almighty!" I thought, freesing in my chair. I looked over at his body, expecting, indeed hoping, to see it grow lifeless, but instead it stirred. I saw the arms move first, then the head, which came up slowly and deliberately. The eyes were looking at me in a strange way, an animal way I had once seen in a jungle movie-a tiger ready to spring.
I bolted for the door and dashed across the hall and up the stairs three at a time. I didn't dare look back. but I could hear him coming for me. The sounds he was making were not a all filled with Christmas cheer. I ran fro my life.
our house was one of those attached two-story houses, each having long hallways with the rooms all on one side. I shot down the upstairs hall a good 30 feet in front of my pursuer who was now making insane, growling sounds.
As I passed by my middle sister's bedroom, out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of her emerging with her arms filled with gaily wrapped gifts. I didn't stop t admire them, or to ask which, if any, were for me. Then I heard her scream as my father sideswiped her, knocking her packages against walls, ceiling and floor, but slowing him down not a whit.
By that time I had managed to gain the sanctuary of the upstairs bathroom, and I quickly closed the door and leaned against it. Passing th kitchen, I had cought a glimpse of my mother and grandmother sitting at the table piled high with provisions for the morrow's feast.
The bathroom was small, which gave me the advantage of being able to place one foot against the sink and my back against the door. In normal circumstances and with a normal person involved on the other side, I would have been quite safe, but these were hardly normal circumstances, and the battering ram that struck that normal strength.
With great effort I was able to hold off the first few onslaughts, but I knew I couldn't prevail over the long haul. I began to review the misdeeds I had been guilty of in my short lifttime, and to ask God's forgiveness.
The only encouragement I had as the relentless battering continued was the sound of my mother and my grandmother screaming at the attacker: "Walt, what's happening? What's going on?"
as I feared, Walt was not one bit deterred by these questions, and before long he slammed and clawed his way past the door.
Again the bathroom; thank God, was a small one and not an ideal arena for the landing of roundhouse, murderous blows. I took full advantage of that by leaning into my opponent and bobbing and weaving as best I could. My father hit all four walls, the sink, the toilet, the bathtub and his beloved son in approximately that order.
He was hut from banging his skull on the downstairs ceiling and his fall from the ladder; he was winded by the run upstairs and down the hall; he was weakened by battering the door, bruised by hitting everything in the bathroom and thoroughly exasperated at not being able to finish me off.
As he tried once more to shove me back away from him to get in a lethal blow, I heard my mother's plaintive cry, "Walt, for God's sake, it's Christmas Eve!"
What father could resist such a plea?
Mine. But lucky for me, his strength was spent. He leaned against the wall, gasping for breath and looking very unsatisfied with Christmas thus far. My mother took one of his arms and made him sit down on the side of the tub, and I quickly eased out of the room without saying so much as Merry Christmas to all and to all a goodnight.
The next Christmas when I was 16, I had a part-time job after school, and with the money I earned, I bought a ceiling-high tree for$6 and a stand that fit. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, before my father came home from work, I set the tree up on the stand in the living room. Then I got the hell out of the house.
I came home just before midnight. The tree was decorated and lighted. My father and sisters were putting away the ornament boxes.
"It looks very nice," I said, making my contribution to peace on earth and good will to men.
"Nice tree," he said, adding his.
I said goodnight and walked toward my room.
"How much did it set you back?" he called after me, as I knew he would.
"Half a buck," I said.
With the door of my bedroom closed behind me, I started making ho-ho-ho sounds like jolly old Saint Nick until I fell asleep.