Christmas Lessons Across the Ages
I used to covet my neighbor’s vacations. Not where they went but how they planned. When I was a boy the neighbors would have a route, estimated time of arrival and packing done well in advance. They would explain they would be back in one week or in two weeks and on the dot they would round the corner and come driving down the street exactly when they said they would be back. In my family there wasn’t any itinerary. Once the old man threw a mattress on the floor of his van and we drove northeast to Watertown and dropped in on one his old buddies from the Army. The guy wasn’t expecting us. He seemed a little weary five people caught him by surprise. I think it’s why we slept that night on the mattress in the van. Next up was the St. Lawrence Seaway and then a long debate between my parents about crossing the border into Canada. We didn’t. Mom had stuffed most of our clothes into school carrying bags and was too embarrassed by any potential inspection of “luggage”. We ended up visiting my dad’s parents who were vacationing at Black Lake. Mom nearly burned down the cottage when she spent far too much time on the Jiffy Pop.
Another year we all loaded into a car and pointed it southwest. Through the mountainous fog of Western Pennsylvania and on through West Virginia. Dad talked of moving to Buena Vista, Virginia after we spent one day there. He was always talking about moving. One summer it was California. Another Florida. When Virginia didn’t happen I knew the talk was more wind than reality. He didn’t feel a need to relocate to South Carolina. One very wet night we stayed in a motel for the grand price of $2.00. When you don’t make plans and drive long into the night looking for a vacancy sign you eventually take what’s available. The room was painted pink. The walls were cracked. The pool was closed and looked as if nobody had been swimming over the last forty years. My sister was frequently car sick. In this instance my mother wisely had packed some empty sacks. I well remember stopping every hour so Cindy could barf along the shoulder of the road.
None of these vacations can compare to the trip to Florida. It included stops at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and the Huntsville Space Museum in Alabama, where my brother annoyed his father to no end. Matt wanted to play an asteroid video game. Something with which we weren’t familiar. Dad grumbled we didn’t come all the way to Alabama to play. Then it was on to Tallahassee where the morning was frigid and I wondered how in heck we’d managed to find a place in Florida with a morning low of 18 degrees. The Tampa Bay area was much warmer. When Mom and Pop saw a vacancy sign in Clearwater they rented an efficiency. It was Christmas Eve followed by this warning. Never, ever drive to Disneyworld on Christmas Day and expect short lines for rides. Never, ever go to Busch Gardens the day after Christmas and expect short lines. Then things became calm. One day at the beach and the rest of the week at poolside where we met some authentic Canadians. Like us, still thawing out from the bitter north. And one day I went back to the room and watched Ken Stabler falling down toss a touchdown pass that stopped Miami from possibly going to a fourth consecutive Super Bowl.
As I wasn’t a fan of the Dolphins the real nightmare on this trip started on the drive home. The family’s brand new Dodge Charger had the yips the entire voyage south. It got worse going north through Georgia. In Virginia it all came to a sudden stop. In a cold and driving rain on the shoulder of a highway. My father was under the hood and I can only imagine his stress level was beyond repair. Then suddenly a man appeared and offered to help. His name was Mr. Myers. Dad was almost 6-and-a-half feet tall. He looked small compared to the taller and muscular black man. We didn’t know many people-of-color back home and didn’t know what to expect. Then my dad jumped into Mr. Myers’ car and they left. My mom, three small children and a stalled car. On the shoulder of the highway during an intense winter rain. Forty minutes later the tall men were back and worked under the hood and the Charger started. Mr. Myers refused money, explaining, “It’s Christmas!”
Later we learned the car had gotten some bad gas even before we left home. After the experience in Virginia I wondered why my parents kept doing business at the Motor Inn Garage on Genesee Street. Fifteen years after the Florida vacation and I was home for Christmas and the story got revived and I asked the old man why he kept doing business with Mr. Botens. Dad sat back and had a very serious look on his face. There had been another Christmas, long before the conversation, and long before the trip to Florida. A Christmas when my sister, brother and I were very young and my mom was very sick. My memory is fuzzy but I recall she was in the hospital a very long time. The bills piled up as Dad had to pull back on one of his two jobs. He was at home with his kids and often paying a babysitter. As Christmas approached there wasn’t any money for presents. My dad buying gas one evening was asked by Charlie Botens at the cash register about things at home. They hadn’t known each other more than half-a-dozen years but my dad bared his soul. There was a toy section at the Motor Inn Garage (my first red bicycle came from that store!) Mr. Botens gestured at the shelves, “Take what you want and pay me when you can”.
He, like my parents, long ago left this world. There is a newspaper column I sometimes read and it’s called First Teachers. It’s about the adults who shape our lives when we’re young. I grew up with a thousand teachers. None of us live forever but we leave our marks by how we lived.