It was Sunday December 23 and dad, David and I sat in a booth at dad’s local favorite Xenia coffee shop that served breakfast fast food style. Instead of having someone wait on your table, you bought your food at the counter like you would at McDonalds and took it back to your table. That way no need to tip, which dad always tried to avoid. That morning’s conversation was mostly about football, including Miami of Ohio’s upset victory over Florida in the Tangerine bowl Friday night, plus yesterday’s pro football playoff games. We distracted and medicated ourselves with vicarious game highlights, instead of acknowledging the sadness that our long weekend together was ending, and we had the long four-hour drive back to Ann Arbor ahead. Dad’s drive that day would actually be eight hours, since he had to turn around and drive the four hours back down to Xenia alone. At least he would have the playoff game between the Dolphins and his local favorite Cincinnati Bengals to listen to on the radio.
The other mostly unspoken sadness hanging over our breakfast of scrambled eggs, pancakes and sausage, was the fact that dad would not be with us for Christmas. Both David and I had avoided bringing up the subject for fear that dad would share with us that because of “your mother” he would be spending the holiday alone. But amidst banter about the football games we had watched on TV the last couple days, it was dad that finally broached the subject.
“So what has your mother planned for Christmas day?” he asked in kind of a neutral offhand way. Christmas day without him that is, though you could not hear that implication in his delivery of this particular question. “I did speak to her yesterday and said I would chip in for a tree, and your presents of course.”
David and I were unresponsive for a moment, both of us feeling dad’s pain, even if he wasn’t expressing it. Despite his attempt to not share negative feelings with us, they just eventually sort of leaked out of him. Finally the Coopster couldn’t let me continue without at least some sort of response.
“Thanks dad. I don’t really know. I guess at least we’ll have a tree!”
David mumbled “thanks dad” as well, just after me. Dad acknowledged the thank yous with a glum nod.
Asking for all the courage the Coopster could possibly at least temporarily fill me with, I spit out a question about how he was feeling.
“Dad… you must feel sad you can’t spend Christmas with us!” I actually managed to say it.
He looked at me briefly, gave the slightest nod and then grimacing. Then he looked out the window of the coffee shop as he spoke.
“Your mother is upset with me for not sharing more about my relationship with Mary. I never really thought it was anybody’s business but my own. I thought it did not impact you guys or her.” Then I could see anger flair briefly in his eyes.
Then he put on his professorial face and looked up towards the ceiling. “I actually have received a couple invitations to spend Christmas day. I’ve decided to spend it with Pat and Ray.”
Both David and I nodded. David somehow was compelled to ask, “Who was the other invitation from?”
“Well…”, dad said hesitating, still casting his eyes up toward the ceiling. “Um… Mary actually, but I didn’t accept.”
I felt bad for dad. He essentially had a girlfriend but he was now telling his sons that he had chosen not to accept her invite, because our mom had a problem with him not being more up front about his relationship with her.
Over the past six or seven years I had spent many hours sitting in the rocking chair in her room listening to my mom share and even rant about issues in her life, including occasionally about dad. I was finally learning to appreciate her, see her as a flawed but very human being like myself, striving yet struggling in the difficult task of moving forward in one’s life, not some sort of iconic parental figure anymore.
Ideally I could somehow undergo the same sort of transmission with my dad. But it was going to be more challenging because he didn’t share those kind of deep feelings.
We got back to talking about the football games, particularly Miami of Ohio making the point with their big win that there were great teams in the second tier college football conferences as well. Finally dad grimaced again.
“I think we need to get going.”
I knew dad wrestled with the timing of things on these Sunday mornings when he took my brother and I back to Ann Arbor. On the one hand, if we slept in a little later, had more of a leisurely breakfast, it extended our weekend together. But that made for a later time for dad finally getting home after his long drive. And this time of year it meant not getting home until well after it got dark. So on the other hand, if we got up really early, had breakfast, and left Xenia by eightish, then after the 200 mile four hour drive we could arrive in Ann Arbor around noon. Then he could start back and hopefully get home before it got completely dark.
Sadness hung in the air. David struggled to say something upbeat to break that thrall, and give a different framing to the end of our time together.
“Well… onward… the journey north awaits!” David was trying to frame this car trip as an adventure and not an ending, as dad had always seemed to do when my brother and I were little. David and I would climb into the back seat, the “wayback” when we had a station wagon with three rows of seats, and Dad would drive off in some direction to nowhere in particular, just for the adventure of it.
We got in dad’s Barracuda, David and I both in the back like we normally did, unlike when I sat in the front on the trip down to regail dad with stories from my trip. Our bags were already packed in the trunk.
When we had packed the car earlier, I had put my Strat-o-matic Football game, which i had brought down with us, on the ledge of the back window so David and I could maybe play it to pass the time on the way home. Once we were back in the car and underway, I opened its box and we did our best to set the thing up so we could play, despite not really having a stable flat surface, table or floor, to lay out the board.
I had gone eleven weeks in Europe without playing the range of military and sports strategy board games that I had been addicted to in the States. Since I had gotten back, twelve days ago, I could finally satisfy, or at least ameliorate, my continuing obsession with the things. In those twelve days, I had already played “Blind” Panzerblitz, while consuming wine and lots of weed, deep into the night on two consecutive evenings with Jerry, Avi and Clark, it being their current jones (and well on its way to becoming mine as well). David and I had joyfully pulled out our tabletop hockey set, and spent a weekend afternoon reliving the glories of our made up hockey teams, the Cooperstown Cats and the Davidville Desperados. Though David was not into the military board games, I did convince him to play Le Mans with me, Avalon Hill’s auto racing game. On my own, I had even nostalgically set up the German units on the Avalon Hill D-Day game board for the defense of France from the Allied invasion of 1944, though I got bored at that point and did not actually play the game. I say nostalgically, because that was the first of such military simulation board games I had bought, back when I was nine years old.
There was definitely something about immersing myself in the very different world of the game. Using my imagination to conjure up the context of being a battlefield commander leading an armored brigade in the assault of an enemy hilltop position, or being the pro football coach, calling the right defenses to try to stop, or at least slow down, my opponents potent running attack. Wrestling with problems that were indeed challenging, like the real life ones, but perhaps more clearly solvable, given good strategic thinking and some fortuitous luck thrown in by a good roll of the dice. And in the process being able to escape the here and now, give my ego some R and R, and indulge my drive to do something profound, at least in an imagined reality.
David and my sports game playing definitely flowed with the seasons. Given that pro football was at its yearly zenith at the moment, with the pro playoffs and college bowl games, our BLM and Strat-o-matic football games were on the agenda. I was particularly enthralled at the moment with the latter of the two, with its very sophisticated system for deploying defensive and offensive players, and its actual named player cards on both offense and defense, representing the heightened abilities of star players compared to the rest of the herd.
So there we were in the backseat of dad’s Barracuda, as he piloted it north on I-75 towards Ann Arbor. David and I had the game gerryrigged so we could play it, its game box between us, resting on his right and my left knee. The board was balanced somehow on the box with the cards and charts scattered on our laps, the floor of the backseat, or the ledge behind us under the back window. Though the stability of the board was at best shaky and occasionally capsized, it didn’t really matter that much because at the end of each play from scrimmage, you reset all your players on the board anyway. After years of long rides in the backseat of dad’s car, or on long trips in the folded down backseat or our old station wagons, my brother and I were skilled improvisers. And Dad wasn’t left out of the fun, off as he was in the front seat and having to focus at least his eyes on the road. He got to listen to our extensive “play by play” of our game, including “color commentary” on the various strategies of the opposing coaches, and the success (or not) of the various players key to each team’s success.
David and I were playing last year’s Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins team against the Oakland Raiders. David played the Dolphins, with their invincible defense and killer running game, that year featuring Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris, both running that season for over a thousand yards. I quixotically was playing my favorite Oakland Raiders, the NFL’s perennial rebels and bad boys. Theirs was a good team as well, that year featuring running back Marv Hubbard plus the legendary wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, one of my all time favorite pro football players. My Raiders were fairing no better against David’s Dolphins than the real Raiders had last year in their playoff loss to the undefeated Miami squad.
Several hours later we passed the “Welcome to Michigan” sign. David and I had finished our game, and David had pulled out his sketch pad and was drawing. Dad looked back at me and his eye caught mine.
“So Coop”, he said, with his thoughtful professorial voice, “What’s your plan for the months ahead?”
Yeah, that was the question, but I felt my pat answer was a good one. It felt right to me, and seemed to mollify mom and other adults who had asked. It was too late to enroll for Winter term at Western, and working was always an acceptable use of a young adult’s time if they were taking a break from school, as long as they were planning to go back and not become a “dropout”. I was very conscious of that dynamic, the concern that a kid out of high school might “fall off the wagon” and not complete his college studies, and ruin his prospects for adult life with a good academically earned career. Taking a semester or even a year off for a specific high profile project, like traveling in Europe in my case, had a cache among the academic circles that my parents lived within. And as long as one had a plan to go back to their chosen institution of higher education, then filling in the gaps with a job was perfectly acceptable. It would at least “keep you out of trouble”. I mean neither my dad or mom had ever laid that all out in so many words, but it was in the larger community zeitgeist, and at times implied in other things they said, and my peers and I had often discussed and internalized it as well.
So I delivered my standard sentence to reply to that oft asked question.
“Once we get through the holidays I’m going to look for a job, and work until I go back to Western in the fall.”
“So what sort of job will you be looking for?” dad inquired offhandedly as he focused on the road ahead, so as not to seem he was interrogating me.
“Not sure. I’ll see what’s in the want ads. I know that I don’t want to do again what I did last summer, basically cleaning hotel rooms.”
Dad laughed. “You know I did that when I first came to Ann Arbor. Cleaning the rooms where they housed campus visitors at the League. I learned how to make a bed, and scrub a toilet.”
David piped up, “You never told us that dad!”
“Hmm… I guess it never came up. I didn’t think it was important. It’s just what you do to survive.”
I continued, “So hopefully something that pays better than the two bucks an hour I earned cleaning rooms.”
Dad continued his casual inquiry. “So are you continuing as a theater major in the fall?”
“Yeah I guess so.” As soon as I said the words it struck me that I shouldn’t be so ambivalent about my educational path. Yet I guess I was. Before heading off to Europe last September with Angie, theater had been pretty much the developmental edge of my life, along with playing the complicated military simulations, if that even counted as anything more than a time killing hobby. Was I really going to try to pursue a profession in theater as an actor, designer, director or playwright? It seemed my official answer was still yes. I certainly had no desire to be a college professor like him, or a doctor, scientist, mathematician, businessperson, or as my mom always suggested, a lawyer. What I fantasized about being was a revolutionary, but no one was going to pay me to do that. I chuckled to myself and thought, we’d have to lock up the rich people in charge of everything and divide up their money.
“Yeah theater. I love theater.” I tried to make it a good line reading and sound convincing.
Still looking at the road, dad nodded. “I admire you being able to go out on stage in front of all those people and sing and dance. I don’t think I could ever do it. I mean I’ll sing with my barbershop group in front of an audience, but that is not the same.”
“Dad, you’re in front of an audience every day teaching!” You could hear some irritation in David’s voice, like dad was selling himself short.
Dad nodded thoughtfully, finally saying, “True.” Then thinking some more and continuing, “I’m just being myself at the front of the class. It doesn’t feel like a performance.” Dad had actually used the word “feel” in a sentence.
David wasn’t going to let this go. “C’mon dad, I’ve seen you in action. Zadie was right, you’re ‘Doctor Z’ up there!” The name conjuring up “Doctor J”, or Julius Erving, the spectacular star player for the ABA New York Nets.
Dad chuckled. He of course closely followed all sports and got the Julius Erving reference. I could tell he was enjoying this acknowledgement of what he did for a living, though he downplayed it in his response. “Well I don’t know about that!”
“I think you do dad!” David was suddenly relentless.
Still looking at the road, dad pursed his lips. “Maybe so!” He stopped talking but you could sense the gears spinning in his head.
We were all quiet for a couple minutes. The intensity of David’s last words still hung in the air.
“So at least I can listen to the Dolphins-Bengals game on the way home”, dad noted. It seemed like a complete non-sequitur.
But it struck me that in all the many times over the past five years dad had driven up to Ann Arbor and taken us down to Xenia for the weekend, I hadn’t really thought that much about his additional four hour journey home alone. Particularly when he used to drive up Friday afternoon to pick us up and take us back to Xenia, then a day and a half later, do the whole thing again. Eight hours on the road for us all told, a lot right, but sixteen hours for him. Dad’s last comment might have been referencing obliquely how difficult that journey was for him.
So we talked about this afternoon’s upcoming playoff game, a more typical discussion for the three of us, and whether the Bengals had a chance to defeat the Dolphins, given that, though not undefeated like last year, the Dolphins had a better record and the home field advantage.
It was a little after one when we pulled up to our house on Martin Place. The front yard and the various parts of the roof were covered by about an inch of fresh snow. Through our front living room window there was a Christmas tree all covered with colored lights and ornaments, even tinsel. Mom had apparently gotten a tree, got it set up, and decorated it herself. Seeing that tree inside the window with the white snow all around the brick walls of the house brought back all those fond memories of Christmas. I loved Christmas. The presents. Singing Christmas carols. Being with my family. My mom extolling on Santa Claus.
The three of us walked up to the house, me in the lead and dad taking up the rear. The door was unlocked, so I led the way inside. The house was very warm with that dry feeling in the air from the heater running. There was the faint smell of cat pee, which I only noticed when I’d been away for a few days. The tree looked really good in its corner of the living room by the two windows. Mom of course, the artist, had applied all her passion and skill decorating it. Each strand of tinsel was separately placed so that it hung straight down unimpeded by a branch below it, not in the clumps like David or I might do. There were wrapped presents under the tree. The fond memories continued to flow through my mind. This was definitely my favorite time of the year.
Mom, who had probably been in her room, came down the stairs, stopping before getting to the bottom, addressing us from behind the wrought iron bannister like a sort of podium or pulpit.
“So as you can see I went ahead and bought and set up the tree. Thank you Eric for offering to pay for it!” Her tone seemed conciliatory, not like the little skirmish when we had left on Wednesday. “I hope Coop and Dave that you don’t mind that I did it all without you. It’s almost Christmas and I felt it should be up. And I wanted you two to come home to it with the presents and everything.” She gave us her biggest toothy smile.
“That’s okay”, I piped up, “The tree looks great. Merry Christmas, mom!”
David followed, “Merry Christmas mom. It does look great!”
There was a pause, wondering what dad would say. Finally he said, “Merry Christmas Jane”, his voice was soft and modulated. He continued, “You decorated a beautiful tree! It’s gorgeous!”
Mom’s eyes warmed. “Thanks Eric, and thanks for changing your plans so you could take Coop and Dave down to your place for the long weekend.” And then grinning and eyes sparkling, “And with your help I worked it out with Santa Claus to get the things the kids asked for. I think he covered all the bases.”
Dad nodded and smiled. Though the two of them always seemed to have the ongoing issues with each other, they still put that aside to collaborate on anything having to do with my brother and I.
“I thought I’d order a pizza from Domino’s if you’d like to stay for lunch before heading back”, she offered.
“Thanks Jane”, dad replied, “But I think I want to get back to Xenia before it gets too late.”
“Okay”, she nodded, “I know it’s a long drive by yourself.”
I saw the present I had wrapped for dad under the tree, and suddenly realized that I didn’t want him to leave without it. After all the time I had spent in Europe pondering what to bring dad home, the decanter I had finally bought him, on a whim, now seemed pretty lame. Oh well!
I went to the tree and took the wrapped decanter and gave it to dad, “Merry Christmas dad!” and then, “Don’t open it until Christmas day!”
Dad’s face warmed and he nodded. You could tell he was pleased, at least with the gift from his son. Mom finally came down the rest of the stairs and went the tree and got a small box with a big silver bow. She took it over to dad.
“This one is from David and I.” Despite her determination to spend Christmas without dad, she respected the protocols of the holiday that required that you have a gift for everyone, plus adding my brother’s name to it so he would get credit to giving a gift to his father. Dad took it from her and nodded acknowledgement again.
“Thank you Jane. Thank you David.” His voice was subdued.
“Merry Christmas dad!” David said, trying to sound upbeat.
“Merry Christmas Eric!” After saying the words, Mom looked at him thoughtfully. “So Pat says you’re going to spend Christmas with them!”
“Good. I’m glad.” And then more to the three of us, “I’m sorry it all worked out this way and not how we originally planned.”
Dad nodded again.
Mom continued, “Next year let’s plan to be together for Christmas!”
“I’d like that Jane,” dad replied. I thought again about him turning down the Christmas invite from Mary.
Mom nodded and looked contrite, but said nothing.
There was awkward silence.
Dad finally spoke. “Well okay, I better head out!”
“You sure you don’t want to stay for some pizza?” she offered.
Dad paused in thought, you could tell the pizza sounded good to him. “How about you wrap a couple pieces for me up in paper towel.”
Mom brought out a roll of paper towel from the kitchen along with a can of Tab from the refrigerator. She gingerly separated a big square of paper towel, set two pieces of pizza next to each other but pointing in opposite directions to form more of a rectangle, and then wrapped them like they were a present, with all the nice folds and tucks. She handed the package and the can of soda to dad.
“Safe trip home, Eric”, she said, and then again, “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas, Jane!”, his voice sounded a bit more upbeat, one arm crooked with gifts of food and others yet unknown until opened.
He took a deep breath and exhaled. He looked at David and I, put his other hand first on David’s shoulder and then on mine. “It was great getting to spend time with both of you. Thanks for the travelogue Coop! Sounds like you had a life changing experience.” Then looking at David, “You are both so grown up! I’m proud of you two!”
I was so choked up I couldn’t talk. I just nodded. David did the same and looked down at the ground.
Dad turned and headed out the front door, closing it behind him. There was another awkward silence after the latch clicked on the door.
Mom finally spoke, now just to David and I. “I’m sorry things worked out like this. I just could not do Christmas together this year. It’s just stuff between your dad and I, and I’m sorry your Christmas gets caught up in it too!”
David nodded, the wheels spinning in his head. “I’m going to unpack my stuff.” He headed up the stairs with his suitcase.
Mom focused her big blue eyes on me.
I met her gaze and didn’t flinch. “Next year!”
She nodded and said quietly, “Next year.”
That night, down on my mattress in my “room” in the basement, I thought of the first bit of that little ditty that had come to me two months ago on the train leaving Rome, when I was feeling particularly homesick…
I want to see those faces glad
I want to see my mom and dad
To feel accomplishment and then
The mellowness of home
It had just been twelve days since I’d flown back from my eleven week odyssey backpacking through Europe. I had seen those glad faces of my family and friends. My mom and now finally my dad, though not my favorite aunt Pat. My mom’s best friend Mary Jane, who seemed more like a family member than just a friend. Avi, Jerry and Clark. Lane and Angie and a number of my other theater comrades. I had told my tale of travel adventure in all those circles and they seemed duly impressed.
But that “mellowness of home” thing, still some issues there! Yeah mom seemed to be moving forward with her life, having good friends Mary Jane and the rest of that circle, presumably getting that job to make some of her own money, and no longer seeming debilitated by depression. But then this whole Mary thing and we couldn’t spend Christmas together as one family. Mom commandeering my room, and me now still kind of feeling exiled in and getting used to having my bedroom in the basement, though it was a good venue now for smoking the occasional weed. Me needing to get out there and get myself a job, be a “working stiff” for a while, before I went back to Kalamazoo and college.