I don't know why I remembered the Christmas of 1983 today. Maybe it was the call from my aunt. She, my mom, my other aunt, and various cousins/spouses are going on a boat ride tomorrow and I was invited to come along. Of course I can't - work beckons. But as my aunt reminded me, she won't be around much longer and I'd better spend time with her while I can. Now I feel like urinal scum.
What I remember about the Christmas of 1983 is that I really miss my grandmom. She lived alone in a house across town and needed help from time to time. I always helped but sometimes I wasn't nice about it. I wish I could go back and change that. I'm ashamed of the way I treated her. She'd call just to chat and I hated those calls because she'd keep me on the phone for an hour. She needed driving to the grocery store and as I'd just gotten my license I was elected chauffeur. I was never happy about that either. Her yard needed mowing and I hated doing that because it was always hot and there were no trees.
I didn't understand how important it is to hear a human voice when you've been sitting in a house all day because you're 73 years old and you have diabetes and you can't go anywhere. A simple trip to the grocery store was a grand adventure, even if your driver was a surly 16-year-old who didn't want to take you by the drugstore to pick up your prescriptions. And the yard? Well, it came with the house and it needed tending. The house was your bedrock, your locus of sanity in an insane world. And if that meant hiring a rude teen to cut the grass then you endured it because your sanity was more important than your feelings. I never understood those things. If I had I would have been nicer and more accommodating.
On Christmas Eve, 1983, I reported to work at 6 a.m. We would get the newspaper out by noon then enjoy an office party - with beer! There was always an after-party somewhere and I'd usually drag home around 1 a.m. Christmas morning.
Except this Christmas, through some weird confluence of coincidence, most of my immediate friends were out of town. The office party was a pale shadow of its usual alcohol-fueled mayhem and I found myself driving home on a cold, rainy afternoon with no plans for the night.
I arrived at a dark, empty apartment. My roommate was in Birmingham visiting his fiance. My other friends were scattered across the country. I had no real food to speak of but there were five cheap beers in the fridge and no money to buy more, not that any stores would be open.
My phone hung on the wall, silent.
I plopped down in the sagging living room chair and flipped on the black-and-white TV that sat on a cardboard box covered with a towel. This was in the days before VCRs and DVD players, video games, computers, the Internet and even answering machines (we couldn't afford one).
And there I sat, feeling sorry for myself, as rain misted the sliding glass door and a faint, tepid breath of heat emanated from the register above my head. My parents were in Ohio visiting my sister. My other sister lived in Nebraska. My aunts and uncles were out of town.
But grandmom! I picked up the phone and dialed her number. It rang and rang until I remembered she always spent Christmas with our relatives at their farm. She too was unavailable to me.
We could have sat on her couch amid a scattering of those awful movie gossip magazines she so loved and watched "It's a Wonderful Life" on her black-and-white TV. She probably would have made me eat her favorite dish, boiled yellow squash, and at one point she would have nodded off with a lit cigarette between her fingers,requiring a hasty dash with an ashtray. But it would have been fun and I think at that moment I experienced my first glimmerings of a denounment - that I had been a selfish little bastard who should be ashamed of the way he treated her. So I sat in my cold, dark apartment on Christmas Eve and suffered the punishment I deserved.
Grandmom died the next year.
Cut to Christmas Eve 1993. I had gone to work as I normally do and enjoyed the office party - this time sans alcohol as I'd given up the devil's brew. Afterwards I'd spent the day delivering last-minute gifts to friends and family, arriving home around 9 p.m. I planned to fix a heaping plate of nachos and watch a movie.
The telephone rang.
It was a co-worker, Tavel. Her voice sounded desperate. Could I please come over? No, nothing was wrong. She just wanted me to come over.
I started to make an excuse but something about the tone of her voice reminded me of 1983. So I gathered up the nacho-making supplies, grabbed a movie and headed across town. She and her cocker spaniel were happy to see me.
We made nachos and watched "Thelma and Louise" on Christmas Eve.
I don't know if I helped Tavel but somehow she helped me atone for the guilt I'd been feeling since that first adult whisper of responsibility and compassion about grandmom rooted itself in my budding adult psyche that Christmas Eve, 1983.
To this day, on Christmas Eve, I watch "Thelma and Louise."
If you're reading this, grandmom, I really miss you. You were my smoking buddy and I secretly liked your trashy magazines.
Maybe there's a boat ride in my future.