News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 14, 2009

The Off Season: ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas…’

By Mike Lunsford

A cheap string of Christmas lights frames my big office window in these days leading to the holidays.

The blues and greens and reds cheer me a bit on an otherwise gloomy night that has already seen snow and rain and wind batter us homeward from work in the hope that our gas furnace will warmly greet us.

Diana Krall’s silky-smooth voice serenades me from my bookshelf stereo with “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and I can smell the faint scent of a Black Hills Spruce that we have decorated in our living room. Our housecat, Arthur, snoozes beneath the tree, moving from his stupor only long enough to stretch his chubby legs or to grab a quick snack from his kitchen floor bowl. It all makes for a nice, cozy feeling.

Perhaps the lights are gaudy, just plastic, commercial reminders that we should have Christmas cheer, but we don’t feel as cynical as that.

My wife and I are sentimental about such things; we see the years slipping by and our kids grown and much of the magic of the Christmas season drained off by the endless television babble and radio sales pitches. We like to be home on nights like these, and despite the fact that we’d easily lose one of those neighborhood yard display contests that seem so popular these days, we enjoy the conservative approach we’ve taken toward Christmas decoration again this year. Where others enjoy lighted rooftop sleighs and inflatable elves and flashing Vegas-like tube lights, we stick mostly with evergreen wreaths and red bows. Our concession to modernism may be the pair of antlered white-lighted deer that pretend to graze near our front sidewalk.

When I was perhaps 8 or 9, my dad brought a plastic Santa Claus home. Our jolly old St. Nick was one of those hard plastic, cheery-faced gentlemen, and he was promptly propped up in our yard with a 40-watt light bulb snugly nestled near his black-booted heels. I thought we were rich to have such grand ornamentation, for in those days we decorated a tree, but nothing else around our place. It had always been a secret desire of mine that we, too, could join those whose power meters spun in happy anticipation of Christmas, that perhaps we could even run a string of colorful lights along our gutters or up our antenna mast. But Santa remained our solitary yard decoration for years, doomed to an otherwise boring life in storage along our basement stairs for the other 11 months of the year.

We used to put our tree — a live one that we usually bought in North Terre Haute at a corner parking lot resplendent with lights strung from wooden poles anchored in old 4-ply snow tires filled with concrete — on our cold front porch near a stretch of leaky crank-out windows that frosted from sill to lintel on the coldest nights. My sister and I spent a good many days on that porch, secretly shaking and rattling gifts and scraping our names onto those frosty panes. In those days, December lasted approximately three months, and it seemed like we were forever chilling our feet on the black and green and white tiled floor of the porch while we longed for Christmas morning to arrive.

We decorated our tree with the usual array of family keepsakes and homemade baubles, and I remember stringing popcorn on thread, too; I usually jabbed myself with the needle that my mom so deftly wielded, and we employed strings of aluminum tinsel, it coming in open-faced boxes that ran 29 cents apiece.

The crowning glory of our tree was two strings of Noma bubble lights, hardly cutting edge at the time, since they were big sellers from the late 1940s through the ’60s. Our lights were made of glass, and on occasion, particularly since they’d been boxed in our closet for a year, we had to shake them to get them started on their way to effervescent magnificence. I had no way of knowing then that the single bulb in each light actually boiled the methylene chloride inside at a very low temperature; it was magic not science to me — still is.

Christmases in those years, despite tight budgets, were sublime affairs. My mom always packed the three of us kids off to bed early on Christmas Eve so that none of us could spy the cheery man’s arrival. Most often, we were condemned to a single bedroom, and there spent most of the night sleepless and yearning for the next morning’s festivities around our tree and at the manger scene my grandmother faithfully placed near the picture window of her house a hundred yards away.

We — my brother and sister and I — thought it cruel and unusual punishment to be banned from wandering the house at all hours. We tossed and turned in our footed sleepers (my brother didn’t wear those since he was six years older; I think he slept in a leather jacket and kept a toothpick in his mouth), half-listening to Perry Como and Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney belt out Christmas tunes on our yellow-dialed radio. I must have heard Nat King Cole sing “The Christmas Song” 20 times on those long, long evenings.

My dad kept a vigil near our tree, napping on our living room couch, sometimes covered only with the newspapers he had been reading, as if he were homeless and on a park bench. He was a poor guard, most often dropping off to sleep to the hiss of our gas log and the glare of our old Philco. My dad was a prodigious snorer, and the inhaled blasts of his heavy breathing shook the house and could be heard even over the upraised voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as it reminded us through the radio that we still had at least five years of the 10-year sentence left to endure before we could open our presents.

Those days are gone now, of course. The last time I saw a bubble light was in a water-soaked box of decrepit junk at a local auction, and I haven’t been back to my childhood home for close to 20 years. But the glow of those dime store lights that adorn my office window takes me back home for a while, so much, in fact, that I can still hear in my head the bittersweet communion of Nat King Cole and snoring and the December wind.

You can contact Mike at hickory913@aol.com, or by mail c/o the Tribune-Star, PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. He will be signing and selling his books at Baesler’s Market on Saturday, Dec. 19 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and be at Kadel’s Hallmark at North Plaza on Sunday, Dec. 20 from 2 to 5 p.m. You can visit Mike’s Web site at www.mikelunsford.com