One day, sometime in late December, I came home from school to find out my father had cut off the tip of his finger. Apparently he was rushing to finish a woodworking project for Christmas and in his haste forgot where his fingers ended and where the board started. Fortunately for my father, he was not a concert pianist or a sign-language translator. His job as a Presbyterian Pastor could be done with ten fingers or nine and a half.
For the next four years my father spent each Christmas service damaged in some way. It was tradition for our family: December arrives, Dad injures himself, Dad has a big bandage covering one of his extremities; Christmas arrives.
The tip of the finger was never located and whenever I was sweeping the garage I feared moving boxes or looking into dark corners, because I just knew somewhere in that garage was a bit of my father that had been displaced. I even wondered if the fingertip might have jumped into one of the drawers of my bed. It didn’t help that there was a movie out at the time called The Hand where a disembodied hand crawled around looking for revenge. The fingertip had probably been vaporized, but I knew one day I would find something in the garage that looked like a large raisin and upon further investigation I would discover it was a chunk of my dad
That Christmas my Dad addressed the congregation with a large bandage wrapped around his right index finger: the beginning of a tradition.
The next year it was my father’s back. He was lifting something in the garage when his back went out. Many years before, he had injured his back playing basketball when someone undercut him; he flipped and landed on his tailbone. It was an injury that would crop up occasionally and this time it immobilized him immediately.
As soon as his back went out, he crumpled to the ground and could not move. This usually wouldn’t be a problem, but because all the kids were at school and mom was at work, he had to lie on the floor until he could move. He tried to stand but couldn’t. He tried to crawl on all fours and couldn’t. Finally, he dragged himself into the house and over to the phone. The phone was hanging on the wall so he had to pull it off the hook by shaking the cord. Evidently this whole process took close to two hours. He finally called our youth director who came and plopped him on a flat couch.
When I got home, there he was all 6’4” of him, flat on his back. He would remain there until after Christmas which, as I recall, was still about a week away. He had his meals lying flat, he watched television lying flat and he even had a special bottle and bedpan. Dad became part of the Christmas décor. There was the tree, there were the stockings, there was the manger and there was Dad tucked neatly under some festive covers near the presents.
Even though the entire Christmas season was a bit strange it was the most memorable and special Christmas I recall. One night I was Dad’s nurse. I took care of the man who had taken care of me for so many years. During the evening he asked for my help in surprising the family. He had stashed a new color television in one of our neighbor’s houses and needed me to get it on Christmas Eve. I felt privileged to fill my father’s role as the Christmas surprise guy and looked forward to sneaking across the street to retrieve the new TV set.
Before Christmas could be officially celebrated there were two major traditions to get through. The first tradition was one I shared with my friend Doug. The tradition involved stealing shiny Christmas tree balls off of our trees and sneaking outside at night to toss the balls high in the air just to hear them “plash” onto the street outside our houses. It was a tradition that started when we discovered the comforting sound of shattering Christmas balls during the annual greening of the church.
The hidden joy of destroying something by tossing it high in the air was a festive part of my youth and over the years the objects Doug and I tossed high in the air ranged from light bulbs, to water balloons, to model airplanes, to favored toys of our siblings, to unfortunate frogs, to food, to things that we lit on fire and pressurized cans. None of those objects smashing to the Earth brought as much joy as our favorite: Christmas tree balls.
The sound of smashing Christmas tree ornaments was so unique and pleasurable that it is hard to define what made it so great, other than to say, to my ear that sound will always mean Christmas has arrived.
The second important Christmas tradition was the Christmas Eve candlelight service. This was a special ceremony because at the end of the service I got to drip hot wax from a candle all over my hand without getting in trouble. My father would always spend a great deal of time on the service and I usually enjoyed the ceremony, but since it was Christmas Eve time seemed to stand still.
The year my Dad threw out his back, he was unable to lead the service; in fact he was at home lying flat as Kansas listening to the procedure on the phone. I sat in the back of the church holding up the phone so he could hear how it was going. One of the church elders led the procedure and did a fair job. Dad had written out the message and planned the entire service just like he was Shakespeare.
My arm got tired a few times but I knew how important it was for my dad to hear the whole thing, so I fought through the discomfort and held up the receiver throughout. As the ceremony came to an end and the candles were being passed around, I put the receiver to my ear and told my dad that I was going to hang up now. On the other end, I could hear him snoring. I don’t know at what point he started snoozing but it is safe to say that he is probably the only minister in the history of the world to ever have his own sermon put him to sleep.
When Christmas Day finally arrived, we all gathered around the tree and opened our presents as family tradition dictated, one at a time. Dad lay in the middle of the mess and smiled the entire day. Until we opened the last present, then Dad started to cry. I hadn’t seen my Dad cry before and so none of the kids knew what to do. Dad blubbered something about how everyone had been so good to him and how happy he was; hearing my Dad say those things was the first time I enjoyed Christmas more for the event than the stuff I got. We all gave each other hugs and felt good about being in this family for the first time in a long time.
The next Christmas season, we moved into a different house, a house that was much larger and in a different part of town. Since I could no longer engage in the annual tossing of the Christmas bulbs with my friend Doug, I brought my younger brother on board. Unfortunately, he did not realize that the tossing needed to be limited to just a few bulbs. Slowly the tree looked less and less festive each day, until my Mom caught him in the act of tossing bulbs into the street. He got in a fair amount of trouble, but I pled ignorance and managed to slip by the authorities.
Dad kept up his end of the bargain as far as tradition went. For some reason Dad had a strong dislike for the stray cat my older sister had brought home and never seemed to warm to the idea of having a cat in the house. This cat was constantly sharpening its claws on the furniture and carpet and since Dad worked to pay for those things the cat was doomed to end up “disappearing” one day.
Maybe the cat sensed my father’s dislike and did just enough to annoy him without causing its own demise, but about a week before Christmas the cat stepped over the line. Dad came into the living room to find the cat scratching away on the couch. Dad yelled at the cat and was soon chasing this tiny feline around the house, until it made a break for the upstairs. Dad’s chasing days came to an abrupt end as he smashed his big toe into one of the stairs breaking his foot. The cat escaped, to torment my father another day and Dad was left hopping around the house until Mom could run him into the hospital.
Dad came home with a large walking cast.
That Christmas Dad hobbled around the church and delivered his sermon looking something like an oversized version of what I imagined Tiny Tim looked like from A Christmas Carol.
People in the congregation started to tease my Dad about his yearly injuries. He was good-natured about the whole thing but I wonder if he started to dread December.
The next year Dad was back to his old tricks.
The house we had moved into the year before was an older structure and one of the oddities was that the electrical outlets were on the floor and not on the wall. This didn’t particularly interest me until one day, right around Christmas, the cat decided to pee on one of the outlets. I am sure the cat got a little surprise, but managed to escape without permanent damage. My Dad was not so lucky.
The cat’s pee hit the outlet and caused some kind of electrical spark to shoot out of the outlet. The spark hit a curtain hanging just above the outlet catching the curtain on fire. The flame was already near the ceiling when Superdad appeared to save the day. He grabbed the curtain and pulled it off its hanger and threw it on the ground where he stomped the fire out. Regrettably, the curtain was made of some nylon-like fabric that melted all over my Dad’s hand and arm, burning him severely. He didn’t seem to notice at first, I think he wanted to find the cat and see if her fur was fireproof, but soon his burnt arm signaled his brain that he was about to take his yearly trip to the ER.
So that Christmas, Dad stood in front of his congregation looking quite normal. His right arm was completely covered with white gauze from his fingertips to his elbow. He delivered his sermon, never mentioning his injury and led the candle lighting ceremony. The next day it was Christmas as usual. We opened presents one at a time and Dad stood amidst the mess bandaged to the hilt. He smiled throughout the unwrapping of presents and was probably wondering what would happen next year, but the next year came and went without incident, and then another year came and went and another and another. I stopped tossing Christmas ornaments and had a family of my own.
Two years ago we went to have Christmas with Mom and Dad. My kids were very excited as we pulled up into Grandma and Grandpa’s driveway. They hopped out of the car and sprinted into the house looking for their grandparents, but the house was empty. My wife and I looked around and called out for my parents, but no one was home. I went into the kitchen and found a loaf of sourdough bread half cut, nearby was a sharp knife and a trickle of blood on the floor leading out the door. Instinctively, I called the local hospital and asked if they had someone named Eekhoff there.
They did, a Christmas tradition had been reborn.