At the age of 6, he woke up Christmas morning before the sun was up. Had Santa Claus come yet? As quietly as he could, he crawled out of bed and walked gingerly to his bedroom door, opening it just enough to peek into the living room.
Yes! Like a miracle, brightly-wrapped presents were now resting under the large, shimmering tree where, just the night before — when he insisted on going to bed earlier than usual so Santa would come sooner — there had only been a few scattered presents from his parents addressed to other relatives.
He went back to bed, but he couldn’t go back to sleep. He thought about the presents, and he thought about going to his grandparents’ house later for the big family dinner, and all his relatives who would be there, and all the things he could tell them about what he had been doing, and how much he liked school, and the A he got on his report card, and the frog he had caught that he kept in a shoebox in his room.
Finally, he couldn’t wait any longer, so he raced into his mom and dad’s bedroom, his excitement barely contained as he whispered into his sleeping mother’s ear those two magic words: “Santa came!”
At the age of 16, his mother had to wake him late on Christmas morning to make sure he would be ready when the relatives arrived. He stayed in bed for another 20 minutes, then dragged himself up. He looked forward to the ham and turkey and mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese and all the other assorted dishes and desserts of a Christmas dinner.
But he dreaded the small talk and the endless questions that would come his way. How’s school? (Fine.) What’s your favorite subject? (None.) Do you have a girlfriend? (Kind of.) I hope that shirt will fit you. (It won’t.) Here’s the receipt in case it doesn’t. (Right, I’m going to rush right to the store with the receipt.) Hey, play us a song on your guitar! (Not in a million years.)
At the age of 30, he and his wife were awakened Christmas morning by their 5-year-old daughter. Santa had come, and she couldn’t wait. He and his wife had stayed up late the night before arranging her presents under the tree, and then eating the cookies and milk she had left for Santa.
He poured a cup of coffee and sat down to watch her tear into the packages. She was happy. Most of what she had asked for, Santa had delivered, although the electric and gas bills might get paid late this month. Why does Santa get all the credit for this, he wondered?
Then they got dressed to drive to his wife’s parents for their family gathering, where they would stay a while before rushing to his parents for another dinner and more gifts to exchange.
At the age of 50, he woke up Christmas morning to the sound of his wife in the kitchen, cooking and baking in preparation for the family dinner, which she had volunteered to host a few years earlier. She told him to call his sister to remind her to bring some extra folding chairs and her card table.
His other job was to shovel the driveway, because a foot of snow had piled up from the Christmas Eve storm, a storm that had started just as they were leaving the candlelight service at church the previous night. He put on his heavy coat and warmest gloves and grabbed the snow shovel. He was happy to discover that the snow was light and fluffy, not packed and hard. He couldn’t shovel as fast as he used to, and he took frequent breaks.
His first grandchild would be enjoying her fourth Christmas this year, which made him smile because at that age they were really excited about it. And another grandchild would come in a few months, he had been told a few days earlier. That would be nice.
The years went by, passing in the blink of an eye. Somehow, without any special announcement or ceremony, he had become an old man. His wife reached across the bed and nudged him on Christmas morning, and asked, “You awake, Grampa?” Yes, he was awake.
He tried to remember when his name had become “Grampa.” Sure, it started with his first grandchild, but somehow over the years “Grampa” seemed to have become what everyone in the family called him, even his own children and his wife. No one had asked his permission. He didn’t remember signing any documents. It had become so ingrained that when someone called him by his real name, he almost didn’t recognize it.
Somehow, they were still hosting Christmas dinner. That was fine, his wife always said, she wanted to keep hosting it, as long as everyone else brought most of the food.
The family came. He enjoyed having everyone together, even if it was a lot of bother. He enjoyed eating with them, laughing with them, watching his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren open their presents.
And when everyone had left, he enjoyed the tranquility of his house and the quiet company of his wife. He told her he was going to take a nap. He stretched out on the couch. He breathed slowly and deeply, and sleep came quickly. And then he dreamed.
He dreamed a long dream. He dreamed a dream that melted away the years. He dreamed of his parents, long gone now, but still living in his dreams. He dreamed of his children being young and wide-eyed and full of mischief.
He dreamed of being young, and running with his dog, and playing sports, and being with his best friends from school. He dreamed of his first little girlfriend, and the way she smiled and giggled. He dreamed of riding his first bicycle up and down dusty country roads. He dreamed of many things, some that had happened, and some that had only ever happened in his dreams.
His wife glanced over at him and noticed her husband smiling as he slept, which made her smile, wondering what he was dreaming, as he dreamed of being 6 on Christmas morning.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.