Christmas in Iowa
“Christmas is a season for kindling the fire for hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.” – Washington Irving
Before I begin this tale of what happened to me in a frigid, foggy, Des Moines many years ago, I want to explain a brief history of why I was even there around Christmas time, since, well…, I lived in Phoenix at the time and did not really celebrate Christmas in the first place. I was seventeen at the time and had become great friends with a kid named Michael Meggison. Usually, I don’t use people’s real names in my posts because they should be anonymous and rightly so, however, in this particular case it is warranted as the family, as well as Michael, should be praised for the kindness they bestowed on me December 25th, 1985.
I was raised in a Jewish household and practiced both the Sabbath and Hanukah every year. My Grandmother, who came from a Catholic family was always incensed that my mother let me be raised in the Jewish faith; I had my bat mitzvah at 13, my Grandparents attended but with angst. I guess a deal was struck that I would see my grandparents every Christmas and Easter to appease the tension that ran under the relationship they had with my parents. No one in the family actually spoke about it in front of me.
It was Christmas break from school, and I had, having been to Iowa visiting Micheal before, wanted to fly out to see him, his family, and the friends I had met the summer before. I was scheduled to fly back home than a short flight to Yuma, AZ to spend actual Christmas with my family there. The plan was simple, really, I got a cheap flight up and back and could do a quick transfer in Phoenix to be in Yuma Christmas Eve with my family. Well, as you will see, the best-laid plans are made by mice and men, lesson learned, Mr. Steinbeck.
Des Moines in December
The flight in was excellent and seeing Michael’s smiling face and open arms was pretty tremendous. We were both pretty giddy to hang out in his hometown and get, well, crazy. It was cold, and I was not used to it. However, I was in my Judd Nelson phase and had bought my first trench coat similar to the one he wore in the eternal classic teen angst movie The Breakfast Club. Although it was a mild winter with no snow, the temperatures were still cool with oddly warmer days. It made it fun for us to run around the small suburb of Adele and meet up with his friends and talk about stories of the day. School was still in session at the time, as Christmas was the following week as I recall. I discovered, among other things, that a chain called Made-Right made a loose meat sandwich that, if it ever came to it, would be my last meal. In fact, to this day, when I go to see Megs and his family, we go to a Made-Right after I disembark the plane.
I was scheduled for an early-morning flight and those of you who know me well, know that I am not exactly a morning person to begin with. But I was young and seeing my Grandparents would drive me like the sleigh in the song to see them, well, it was supposed to. The sun rose in the morning, and we were off to the airport, as the air warmed the moisture in the air caused a thick fog to appear making visibility reduced. Megs came with me to the gate only to discover that my flight had been delayed, then canceled. I was put on standby, and we sat at the airport, all day, on Christmas Eve. Every flight was oversold, every, last, one. Although they tried valiantly to get me on a flight, I was told that Christmas day was just as packed, and all they could guarantee me was a flight out on the 26th of December, the day AFTER Christmas.
And now, the phone call…
We went back to the house, and I was devastated. Up to that point in my life, I had experienced some strange shit but to have to call my Grandparents and tell them that I would be missing Christmas and there was nothing I could do about it, was just this side of spending eternity in any of Dante’s circles of hell. The sound of my Grandfather’s words and the disappointment in his voice still haunts me to this day. “Why did you go to Iowa?” “Why were you so insensitive to the family?” he asked me. “You might as well not come here now as everyone will be gone by the time you get here!” I remember just sitting there quietly listening, feeling hollow. My Grandmother got on the line next and expecting my next 50 verbal lashes she, instead, said warmly, “It’s not your fault. little lamb, if you want to hear God laugh tell him your plans.” She asked me to ignore my Grandad, he was just hurt because he missed me and to get there as soon as I could, she then said, “Merry Christmas. little lamb.” That was my nickname from her, and I loved it, it always made me feel warm and loved yet now it seemed like a dagger to my heart. There was a reason I subconsciously did not want to be there and someday I will purge that demon but, that is for another day.
Now, let me set the stage for you of the house in Iowa. It was huge, in fact, it was the largest home I had ever been in up to that point. It was two stories with a full basement and attic. The living room was huge, and the whole house was a winter wonderland waiting for the 25th of December to arrive. There was a decorated tree with all the trimmings and presents below for the family to open in the morning. I did not know it, but there was a plan hatched earlier in the day by Megs’ family, specifically his mother and two sisters, I believe. Megs had gone to a pay phone to call home telling them it looked as though I would be staying through the holiday and that I was emotional and fragile. He had never actually seen me that way as I was always laughing, telling jokes, and just being snarky. Well, that was going to change the morning of Christmas Day.
I did not want to get out of bed that morning, but the smell of bacon in the pan, and the thought of Megs’ mom’s pancakes and eggs filling my stomach and starting the day was just too much to ignore. When I came down to the kitchen, I was greeted with hugs & smiles, and a plate of hot deliciousness that was the best home cooking. It was just like it would have been had I been home with my family; I needed that. The commercialization of Hanukah and Christmas has never been lost on me, even in my youth. I sincerely liked giving people presents more than receiving them and as I have gotten older my acts of random kindness have increased yearly and there is a reason for that.
The Kindness That Changes
Christmas morning has, for most practicing Christians in the US, to follow a tradition to recreate the giving of gifts to the baby Jesus by the three Kings upon his birth. Being in a free market society and one based on commercialism, this is nirvana for people who make items for consumption. There is a feeling, though, of seeing the joy in a person’s eyes, the glimmer of excitement that someone thought enough of them to get them an item they wanted. I knew it well, it happened every Christmas, and I always volunteered to hand out the presents, one at a time, so that everyone had their moment to smile. Knowing that there was nothing under the tree, here, I offered to do the same. The Megginson’s had their own system of having each member going to the tree and choosing their gift. I don’t remember the order, but I knew that I was not in the batting order for this game. I was not supposed to be there, so why would I? All the kids went one by one to the tree to gather one present to open and show the booty they had received then something unexpected happened.
Mom, as she insisted on being called, looked at me and said, “Derek, it’s your turn now, dear.” I was dumbfounded and sat there perplexed that there would be anything under the tree for me. Thoughts went through my head at that moment, was there really a Santa Claus, could he be real, who is God and does he actually exist, who invented liquid soap and why? I went to the tree, and there in a small pile was not one but many beautifully wrapped with care packages with my name on each. I can tell you now that I don’t actually remember what I received that morning in the way of baubles, but what I took away was that a family, who did not need to do anything for me, who had fed a stranger and given him shelter shared their Love of Christmas with me.
It is one of the fondest memories of Christmas I have and every Christmas day, although I don’t participate like I once did, I look back at the kindness and love that family showed me that day. I missed a Christmas with one family but that Christmas morning I gained another, and that is one heck of the best presents a kid could get. #truestory