Christmas time will always be special
Sunday, December 25, 2016 9:39 AM
He had his first Christmas in 1936 in the aptly named village of Tranquility. He didn’t have much call for celebration.
It was the time of the Great Depression. Essentials were scarce. Luxuries were nonexistent. A day with three meals – or even two, and sometimes one – was a good day.
He moved to Cincinnati, to the poorer neighborhood known as Over the Rhine – for its German immigrants. He didn’t know any Germans in Over the Rhine.
He lived on Chestnut Street with an Irish grandmother he called “Ma.” His parents were divorced.
Before he was 10, he had a steady job selling newspapers, the Cincinnati Times-Star and, later, the Enquirer. He held a coveted downtown street corner outside the city’s first White Castle hamburger joint.
He loved sports, particularly football and baseball. He played football at Hughes High School and summer league baseball. He saved a letter from the Chicago White Sox offering a tryout in 1952. He didn’t go to the tryout.
He dropped out of two public high schools and one Catholic high school in two years. He left Cincinnati for Florida, with the hope of working for an uncle in the surveying business. He was 16.
He spent the next few years working between Sarasota and Fort Myers, along the state’s southwest Gulf Coast. He learned the business of land surveying and the business of fishing in and around the Myakka River.
Before he was 30, he earned his professional land surveyor’s license. He passed a multi-state examination without a high school diploma and without ever stepping into a college classroom. Such an accomplishment would be impossible today. In fact, in most states, it would probably be illegal.
Somewhere along the way, he left Florida for the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. He continued with surveying.
He met a girl. They fell in love.
They were married in Maryland.
They had two children.
But his heart was in southern Ohio – in the country. Away from cities like Baltimore and Cincinnati.
They moved. And moved. And moved. He told his children – they would have four – that they moved every time the rent was due. Mostly, though, they moved further from the cities and closer to country, near the smaller town where he wanted to raise his family.
He loved Christmas time.
He shared that love of Christmas with his family. He made certain that Christmas was always a special time. Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Once, he told his young son that the saddest face at Christmas is not the child’s who didn’t get what he wanted; it is the face of the father who could not afford to buy the present.
He worked long, hard hours. He worked too hard. He grew tired now and again. But he always carried a child’s enthusiasm and excitement at Christmas. It was his wish that his children would never recall a sad Christmas.
He did not want his children growing up with memories of Depression-era holidays, where one new pair of shoes might be a child’s sole present. (He also would not want his son making such feeble puns in a newspaper column.)
He did not have near enough good childhood memories of Christmas.
There were the Depression years, followed by the war years. There was a family breakdown that could not be repaired.
He would have none of that for his family. He would be a real father. And his wife would be a real mother. Their children would know their parents and understand what a family truly is.
They would have their disagreements. The usual stuff. Money would get tight. Work would pile up. Responsibilities and demands would become stressful. Serious illness would strike. It was life.
But it was their life and they would get through it together.
He taught his children about being a family and being with each other – in body or in spirit – at Christmas time.
Sometimes, he would let his children open one present on Christmas Eve, at midnight. He told his children they could talk to the animals at precisely midnight on Christmas Eve – but only for an instant. He didn’t say the animals would talk back, but he left that impression.
He would bring home Christmas trees that were 12-feet high, for a living room with a 10-foot ceiling. He liked big Christmas trees. He would not permit an artificial tree for Christmas.
Much like Virginia O’Hanlon, he believed in Santa Claus.
In fact, he had a good deal in common with Old Saint Nick. He often gave to those in need and he derived much more from giving than from receiving. He tried to catch a reindeer once, too, but that’s another story.
Today, in addition to his four children, he has eight grandchildren. If he could, he would tell them stories that would embarrass their parents. He also would make sure they knew a child’s happiness at Christmas.
He held his first grandchild, a baby girl, just a few weeks after his last Christmas in the winter of 1989. He told her father: “She is beautiful.” As usual, he was right.
He has missed the births of seven of his grandchildren – and the passing of one – but he would say the same thing about each one of them.
He would take his grandsons fishing. He would take them to baseball games. He would teach them to throw an old-fashioned dropball. He would not call it a “sinker.” He would tell them that he once met the greatest hitter who ever lived, Ted Williams.
He would warn his granddaughters of overly aggressive young men. He would say to them: “If you need anything, just call me.” He would be their guardian angel and he would be a good one.
His family has now had 27 Christmases without him, but his lessons and his love stay with them all. He taught them how to cherish this time, and how special it is. He made sure his family always had a good Christmas. He was always home for Christmas.
In a way, he still is.
Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.