My Old Man, Santa Claus

My old man was a hoot. Everybody in the neighborhood said, “Tom Pickering does have one heck of an imagination.” The thing was that his inventions seldom worked. His imagination seemed to be larger than his abilities.

There was the bicycle he believed would fly. He believed it so much that he rode it off the roof of our two story house. All the neighborhood saw it and there were those who shouted, “It’s a bird. It’s a plane.” When my Dad and the bike crashed through our neighbor’s first floor window, they were sure it wasn’t Superman.  Dad landed on Mr. Adams as he was trying to get some shut eye after a long night’s work. Needless to say Mr. Adams was not pleased and neither was the bicycle.

But Dad was no quitter. He had just the right thing he thought would get him into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame. An underwater car. It was a Saturday afternoon when he drove the Chevy off the pier. Little did Dad know that the water was deep. Very deep. So deep in fact it could have made the Challenger Deep look like a sinkhole. Down, down, down the car went as its engine stalled, then stopped. It had putted its last putt.

It was then that Dad realized he had forgotten one essential piece of equipment if you want to travel underwater. He forgot oxygen tanks. Fortunately there were three scuba divers who followed Dad into the water. It took several minutes for them to make the jailbreak out of the car. It’s a good thing that Dad was a deep breather.

Then there was the time Dad went about saving Christmas. At least for my kid brother, Jimmy. It was the year I told him there was definitely no Santa Claus. The whole thing was made up.

At first, Jimmy didn’t take my word for it. Then several of the the kids in his school  confirmed my testimony. They too told him there was no Santa. Jimmy did the math. He added and subtracted, multiplied and divided. He was nowhere near having an answer how Santa and his reindeer made it to every house in every country in the world on Christmas Eve.

When Dad saw Jimmy with qualms of disappointment on his face, he knew he had to come up with a solution to the Santa Claus issue. He remembered way back when he was young. A similar thing had happened to him. Only it wasn’t a kid. It was Old Mr. Creepers next door. He wanted to make Halloween the biggest holiday of the year. There was only one way that was possible. He had to take down Santa Claus.

That year Santa missed Dad’s house. All because he doubted Santa. Now Dad was determined that was not to happen to his kid. His solution: he would appear on our roof as Santa, then slide down the chimney with a bag of goodies.

Now Dad had the heft of a Santa and he carried it with grace. Six weeks before Christmas Eve, he began the preparations for what he called “the Santa’s Caper.” He went down to the local Santa store and bought his fake beard and his fake hair and his suit, which was not fake. And he did not cut corners. Only the best for his little Jimmy.

When Mom got a clue to what Dad was up to, she asked, “You fool, how are you going to get down that chimney?”

“Oh, it will be a tight squeeze. But I have the perfect solution. Grease.”

Mom shook her head, knowing there was no changing his mind. “Just be careful and please don’t break the chimney.” But she gave him that worried look. With Dad, what would go wrong would go wrong. So much so that she had taken to calling him Murphy behind his back

Christmas Eve came. Jimmy and I were sent to bed early with a “Santa won’t come if you’re awake.”

Though we absolutely knew there was no Santa, still we were taking no chances. By ten p.m. we were in our beds, pretending we were zzz-ing off to Never Never Land. Despite our best efforts, we nodded off. Then we heard a noise on the roof.

It wasn’t a clatter we heard. It was more like a bomp. One thing was sure. Santa was making his rendezvous. It was a definite that he was on our roof. Clomp! Clomp! Clomp! went Santa’s boots.

We jumped out of bed and hurried to the window. No sleigh on the lawn. Rudolph must be on the roof. Along with Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. We just knew it.

But it was not Santa. It was Dad. And he had spotted his target. The chimney.

All dressed up in his Santa suit, he lugged his bag over to the chimney. He sat down on the chimney’s side. With the bag lifted over his head, he gave himself a push. As he shoved off, he heard a giant ripping sound. His red pants had caught on a nail. The nail tore not only his pants but his bright red Santa underpants with white Rudolphs on the bottom as well.

That night gravity did its mighty work. Down the chimney went Dad and his bag. Until he didn’t. Like a balloon blowing up, Dad filled up the chimney, then stopped half way down.

Mom took out her flashlight and pointed it up the chimney. What she saw made her throw herself onto the floor, laughing uncontrollably.

In all the history of Santas, this must have been the first time Santa found himself unable to reach the cookies and milk. The grease had not worked.

Jimmy and I rushed into the living room. “Where’s Santa,” we screamed in unison.

“Boys, go back to bed,” Mom said. “Otherwise Santa won’t come out of that chimney. And there’ll be no presents. Right, Santa?”

From the chimney came a muffled voice that was half Santa and half Dad.”Ho, ho, ho. Listen to your mother. Moms are always right.”

“Okay, Mom,” we said, disappointment in our voices.

We left the room and closed the door, but we were not about to go back to bed. We’d be kicked out of the All American Kid Society if we did. We took turns peeping through the door.

Somehow Dad squeezed himself almost to the floor of the chimney. His black boots were about three feet in the air. If you’ve never heard a man cry, you would have heard a man cry that night. “What was I thinking.”

“You weren’t, as usual,” Mom gave him one of her what-fers.

“Well, can you give me a hand?”

Mom grabbed onto Dad’s boots and gave them a tug. “Ouch,” the chimney said. The boots dropped onto Mom’s foot and her ouch joined the chimney’s.

“Do you still have those rockets you bought for the Fourth of July?” Mom asked.

“What are you going to do with them?”

“I’m going to stick them up your rear end and send you into the Great Beyond. Otherwise it will be the waste of a perfectly decent chimney. Why do you ask?”

“No.” The chimney was emphatic. “Absolutely not.”

“Do you have a better suggestion?”

For years afterward, my family called this horns of a dilemma The Horns of a Dilemma.

Behind the slightly open door, my brother turned to me. “Where’s Dad? He could get Santa free. He’s smart like that.”

I just didn’t have the heart to tell Jimmy where Dad was.

Then a thud. And not just any thud. It was The Thud.

Mom’s eyes and Jimmy’s eyes and my eyes shot to the ceiling and the footsteps. Could it be?

Of course, it was.

From above, we heard a deep bass voice. “Fool, get out of my way.”

Dad dropped to the chimney floor and crawled out, his suit all in tatters. Behind him were a pair of boots. They stepped over Dad and into the center of the living room. There was a glow about The Man. He wore a suit of the brightest red I’d ever seen. I swear the white beard shined.

Mom rushed over and grabbed the glass of milk and the plate of Oreos. She timidly handed them to The Man.

He looked at Mom and smiled and took the refreshments. He gulped them down, then headed for the work of the night. The Christmas tree.

Frozen in our places, the four of us watched. He set his bag on the floor, reached up and adjusted the star and several of the ornaments. Then he opened his bag. He looked over at Jimmy and nodded. “This one is for you.” He placed the large gift under the tree. “For believing.” Next came my gift, then Mom’s.

Finally he looked over at Dad. Tears were in The Man’s eyes. “Thanks for the help.” Out of the bag came a very small package. He placed it under the tree, giving it a bit of extra care as he did.

In a flash, he was back at the chimney and up on the roof. But he wasn’t done. Back down the chimney he came. Standing before us in all his glory, he said in that deep deep voice of his, “I forgot.” Then he sent us a “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

From our toes to the tippy tip top of our heads, our bodies filled with joy and love and peace and hope.

“And one final thing. Merry Christmas and a very good night.”

On the roof, we heard, “Peace on  earth and goodwill toward men.” Then he disappeared into the night, heading onward to fulfill the mission he has been on for centuries.

And now, from Uncle Bardie, Merry Christmas to one and all. May you and your loved ones have a wonderful holiday this year. And one final thing. As Tiny Tim said, “God bless us everyone.”

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The Funeral

It was an average Saturday afternoon during an average week when something unusual finally happened to Jackson Schmidt. One minute he rode his Schwinn through the park on a gloriously sunny day. The next he keeled over, falling from his bike, pain filling his chest.

Like a tiger, the heart attack had sneaked up on his prey, sprang into the air, and its teeth bit into his chest. His glasses crashed onto the cement pavement. By the time Jackson hit the ground, the heart attack brought his thirty-seven years to a quick stop. He was dead.

Between twelve and one the following Wednesday, the mourners started arriving for Jackson’s funeral mass. The white chapel stood beside the large, red brick Saint Anne’s Catholic Church. The chapel was only about a third filled.

Scattered around the chapel, Jewish people, Catholics, some no faith at all. Most of the mourners were co-workers. Others knew the family. Only a few were family. From the turnout, one could have said that the deceased had not made much of an impression during his life.

Jackson’s corpse of a body was much too short for the coffin, short like his father, not long and lanky like his mother. He rested on the soft red satin, hands folded in front of him, a map in his right hand, the map representing his passion for mapmaking. A pianist played Beethoven softly in the background.

Jackson felt like a soldier, standing in line to be reviewed by his commander. And there she was. His mother. A woman in her fifties looked down on the open coffin of her son. Her sister, and Jackson’s godmother, Brigit, known to everyone as Git, stood at her side, her arms around his mother, Catherine Conor Schmidt.

The corpse sang to himself, “The Schmidt’s are here, And all the Conors too, To honor the Jackson they hardly knew.”

Then he said, “Boy. Aunt Git, you sure brought out the infantry. All that’s missing is the general. Oh, hi, Mom.”

“Your Aunt Git contacted everyone in both families and at your work too.” Catherine, known to one and all as Katie, said as if she thought the poor dead guy could hear her.

“I tried to contact some of Jackson’s friends,” Git said to his mother. “You know, I don’t think he had any friends. Just a few co-workers.”

“No wonder he never got married. I kept insisting he date. But he just wouldn’t. Of course, there was that Liz. She had to go and die on him. Just like he went and died on me.”

His mother reached over and tightened his tie.

The corpse knew she couldn’t hear him but still he said what he said, “Ouch. Damn this tie is tight. It could choke a guy. And I didn’t die on you. I didn’t have any choice. I had a heart attack.”

“I kept telling him,” Mom protested, “to eat right. Which he did when I was around. But who could know what he was up to on those bike rides.”

“I never once,” the corpse said, “ate anything you wouldn’t approve of. And some of that stuff I hated the taste of. Dad never made me eat tofu and yogart.”

“It looks just like him,” Git said softly. “So natural.”

“How can I look natural?” the corpse asked. “I’m dead and there is nothing natural about this corpse.”

“How can he look natural? He’s dead,” his mother repeated. She was sobbing. “He wouldn’t be caught dead in that suit. Oh, I forgot again. He is dead so he doesn’t have any choice. What was I thinking when I gave them the okay for the suit?”

The corpse’s big toe started itching. “Oh, no. Oh, God, it itches. I wish I could scratch.”

“It’s okay,” Git comforted. “He looks fine.”

“It is not okay,” Mother came back. “Such an unappreciative son. The bastard left me all alone.”

The corpse looked up at her as if to say, “You’re not alone. You’ve got Dad.” He didn’t stutter. Jackson couldn’t believe it. He didn’t stutter. Maybe this dead thing wasn’t so bad after all.

“That son of a bitch. He wouldn’t even show up for his only son’s wake. ”

“That is because you wouldn’t allow him,” the corpse screamed. “It was you who chased him away from the viewing last night. Not me”

“That’s because,” his mother said, “he wanted to do that crazy Jewish thing with his friends. And we were having a wake. Geez, couldn’t he have some respect.”

“The kaddish?” Git said. “At least,  I think it was that.”

“No,” Jackson corrected her. “It was another prayer. Baruch dayan ha’emet, I believe.”

“Why wouldn’t you let him?” Git said. “This is his son. For God’s sake.”

The corpse had that corpse-like look on his face like some of the guys Git had dated in college. Jackson suddenly realized he was starting to smell, and he didn’t like the smell. It was moldy. He would have frowned if he could have. The itching had finally quit.

“Jackson Patrick Schmidt,” Catherine turned her attention to her son, “you had to go and do it, didn’t you? You had to go and die. After all my entreaties.”

“Now, Catherine,” Git said, “it’s not his fault.”

“Of course, it’s his fault. What am supposed to do? Divorce his father and become a nun?”

“Finally,” the corpse spoke up.

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘Finally.’ You’ve been trying for thirty years,” the corpse said. “So now’s your big opportunity to get the divorce over and get on with your life.”

Catherine said, “And now I will never have any grandchildren. Is that how you treat your mother?”

Git led Catherine away from the coffin, saying, “You can always borrow my grandkids, you know.”

Two of Jackson’s co-workers at the museum where he’d worked, Tom Dressler and Maddie Benn, stopped by the coffin. With their plain, Midwestern, American Gothic faces, Grant Wood would have easily recognized the two. They wore their plainness like a coat of arms, these two of good American stock. Jackson had spent many a late Sunday afternoon playing croquet on the museum’s back lawn with them.

Maddie was the first to speak, “Jackson, we have some good news.”

“We’re getting married,” Tom finished her thought. “Maddie has agreed to be Mrs. Dressler.” There was much pride in his voice.

“I didn’t know you were dating,” the corpse spoke back.

“We weren’t dating or anything,” Maddie said. “It was all of a sudden.”

“I asked her out last week.”

“And yadda yadda yadda, here we are engaged.” Maddie gazed over at Tom. If you can be sad and happy at the same time, that would have been the way Maddie felt, standing in front of that coffin. “We’re going to miss you at the museum. It won’t be the same.”

“Congratulations, guys,” the corpse said, then the two moved on. Then Jackson wondered how the marriage would succeed. After all, she was a Quaker, he was Southern Baptist. He imagined the two having sex while Tom quoted John 3:16 to her. He would have laughed out loud but he couldn’t. He was a corpse.

Paul Dorris, Jackson’s boss, came to the coffin. He wore his usual white suit with the black bowtie and the glasses much too big for his face. “Jackson, I am going to miss you.” The man was sobbing. “I can’t think of anyone that was more of a delight to work with. And irreplaceable. I have no idea who can take your place.”

“How about Doc?” the corpse offered. “I mean Professor Conrad Owens. He is imminently qualified.”

“I was thinking about offering the position to your Doc friend. But I don’t know. I’m not sure he’d be willing to work for what we can offer.”

“Oh, he would. He’s been wanting to settle down somewhere the last few years.”

“By the way, did you hear the news. Tom and Maddie are getting married. And I didn’t even know they were dating.”

“I know. They told me.”

“We’re going to offer the museum for the wedding. Well, guess this is it, Jackson.” Dr. Dorris reached over and patted the corpse’s chest. “You shouldn’t have problems getting a position where you’re going. Do me a favor? Tell my old boss, Dr. Evan Smithers, he was wrong. I did make it to be a museum director.” The director laughed at the thought of his revenge. Dr. Smithers hated him, and he hated Dr. Smithers. Then Dr. Dorris remembered this was a sad occasion and he sobered himself. “Well, so long.” And Dr. Dorris was gone to his seat in the church.

His father, Samuel, came to the coffin. His eyes red, tears weeping and running down his face, his yarmulke on his head, respectful for being in a house of God.

Once as a boy Jackson asked his father, “What happens when you die, Dad?”

His father who never lied to his son did not lie this time. “I don’t know, Son. I don’t know.” If his father had been asked at this particular time, he would still have said, “I don’t know.” But on this day of all days, the day of his son’s farewell, he would have also said, “It is possible that your mother is right. That there is a place called heaven and it is a wonderful place.” Samuel reached over and squeezed his son’s hand with all the love he could pour into it.

If corpses could cry, Jackson would have bawled his eyes out. Though his father did not hear him, he said,” Dad, you were a great father. You were the man I always wanted to be and could never be. Thank you for all you passed on to me.” Samuel felt his son’s words and gave Jackson’s hand one final squeeze. Then he kissed him on the forehead with all the love a father can have for a son. He walked away from the corpse, crying.

Joey Abbott, his father’s business partner, best friend, and Git’s second husband, stepped up to the side of the coffin. “Well, Jackson, I don’t know what to say. You were a good man and you tried your best. What with your parents, you had a lot to overcome. Them splitting up and getting back together all these years. Buddy, I don’t know how I would have dealt with all of that.”

Then Joey started to move on. He stopped and returned to Jackson’s side. “Listen, I would like to ask a favor. I love Git and all. But, my God, Ashley…if you have a chance to see her wherever you are off to, tell her this. That there isn’t a day since we broke up after high school that I don’t think of her. Please.”

Jackson made a mental note of Joey’s request.

“Thanks,” Joey said, squeezed the corpse’s hand, and moved on to his seat beside his wife.

Then there was Doc. “I am going to miss you, Buddy. I am going to miss you a lot. And thank you for your friendship. It has been a pleasure.” Then he too moved on, the last of the line to say goodbye to Jackson Patrick Schmidt.

Jackson had rather enjoyed the occasion if one can say that one enjoyed his own funeral. The pianist playing his favorite Beethoven and the people showing up, even though there weren’t that many people, less than thirty, he had rather enjoyed it all.

The priest began his homily. “Today we come to celebrate the life of a young man who left us all too early.” Now why did he want to go and say that. His life wasn’t that much. He felt he was just taking up space that another could use much better.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jackson spotted the ghost of his Uncle Saul. He was here to give him a send-off, whatever that meant. Jackson wanted to call out to his uncle but corpses are not good at that sort of thing. One minute his uncle was there, the next he was gone. And suddenly Jackson felt very very alone. He guessed that was the way of things.

The priest continued with his words, praising Jackson for being the good son, the good employee. He would have said the good friend but that did not seem to be on any list that Jackson would have belonged to. Finally, the homily was over and the mass continued. And the lid of the coffin was shut.

Jackson felt the six pallbearers carry him out to the hearse. He felt the hearse slowly moving, then it stopped. The pallbearers carried the coffin for a few minutes. Finally, they stopped and set Jackson down at his final resting place. From within the coffin, he heard words mumbled. Soon everyone had left.

Jackson waited. And he waited. And he waited. Then he felt the coffin lowered into its grave and the sound of dirt pouring over him. It was at that moment that Jackson realized how alone he was. He shut his eyes and tried to get some rest. Being a corpse, that should have been easy. But he couldn’t sleep. So this was it.

It came to him that he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. He was alone in this wooden box and under six feet of dirt. There was no room to move. Even if he could move and turn over on his side. He never enjoyed lying on his back. Why hadn’t they buried him on his side. He felt like shouting, “Hey, this is no fun anymore.” But who would hear him? After all, he was dead.

Suddenly Jackson felt free. Lighter than air.

Jackson Schmidt woke to find himself floating through a sea of clouds. “Whoopee, I’m flying,” he screamed and did a couple of somersaults. He eased down, his body getting closer to the ground and closer. He landed, standing up. Everything was fog. It was quiet. Deathly quiet. Not a sound. Then the sounds began with a bird singing.

“Well, this isn’t so bad,” Jackson said.

The Gift

As she stood in the living room, Doug’s daughter looked beautiful in her strapless, ankle length evening dress. Just gorgeous. Marge’s blonde hair was short and curly and that accentuated her blue eyes. She had her mother’s eyes. Ellen, her mother, snapped several photographs, then she urged Jack, her daughter’s date, to join Marge so she could take more.

Jack’s smile was the smile of someone who was receiving a precious gem. He took the flower out of its box, laid the box on the table and walked over to Marge. He went to pin the flower to the gown. His hand shook. He was too nervous.

Doug said softly, “I’ll do it.”

Jack looked at her dad with grateful eyes.

Doug took the flower from Jack’s hand and pinned it onto his daughter’s gown. “There,” he said, then kissed his daughter on the cheek.

“Thanks, Dad,” Marge said.

Doug backed away, proud of the girl they’d almost lost two years earlier from cancer. Ellen snapped more pictures. As Marge stood beside her date for the prom, her face glowed.

Doug and Ellen followed the two outside. Standing on the porch, they stood arm in arm, and watched the work of their lives get in the car and drive away. Their eyes were filled with wonder.

Grandma’s Chair

“Dad, I want the chair,” Ellen said.

“That was Grandma’s chair and you can’t have it,” her brother, Taylor, said. “I think I should get it. I am the oldest.”

Fred was not happy that his children were fighting over his mother-in-law’s chair. She’d only been dead a week. Now the kids were fighting over her things. God, didn’t they have any sense? What would they be like when he died?

His wife, Madge, interrupted his thoughts. “None of you are getting it. It’s coming home with me and your father.” Madge didn’t even like the damned chair but she was sure as shooting not going to let the kids take it. It was her mother’s, after all.

That’s when Madge’s brother, Carl, stepped in. “You’re not going to take it, Madge. You didn’t even like it. I’m taking it.”

Madge gave Carl a look but figured that settled it. It did not. When it comes to family, it is never settled.

Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Movie: Memories of Mother

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. In honor of Mother’s Day, this week’s Spotlight is the movie, “My Mother’s Castle” (1990):

A man looks back to the days of his youth in the early days of the twentieth century. The man is Marcel Pagnol. A boy and his family spends the holidays in Provence. Marcel is 13 or 14 years old. He goes there with his mother, Augustine, and his father, Joseph, a school teacher, his younger brother, Paul, and his baby sister. There they have a glorious time.

There the family relaxes with Oncle Jules and Tante Rose. Marcel runs free in the hills and meets a local boy, Lili. Lili’s family is poor and he traps animals to help feed his family. They become friends.

One holiday, he has his first encounter with love.He meets a young girl, Isabelle, who is a bit stuck on herself. They play “I’m the Queen and you’re the Knight”. She plays the piano. Eventually he becomes disillusioned with the girl. And that breaks his heart.

The family falls so much in love with the place they decide to return on weekends, not just on holiday. It is a four hour walk from public transportation. One afternoon they encounter one of Joseph’s former students. He is a canal worker. He offers to show the family a pathway by the canals. This will cut their walk down to a half hour.

The film may focus on Marcel and his adventures and the troubles the father may or may not have. But it is the mother who holds the family together as mothers often do.

Directed by Yves Robert, “My Mother’s Castle” is a wonderful tribute to family and our memories of some of the best days of our lives. When we were young and our parents were the center of our universe. Watch “My Mother’s Castle” and soak it up. You too will fall in love with this wonderful family.

And if you love “My Mother’s Castle”, you will want to see “My Father’s Glory”, which precedes it.

So enjoy.