As a child, I was jealous of Christmas.
I grew up in Coral Gables, Fla., in the late ‘50s. Only one other Jewish family lived on our street. While my family was still finishing leftover turkey sandwiches and soggy pumpkin pie, our neighbors were inflating plastic Santas and hanging colorful electric lights. I envied the stockings dangling from mock-fireplace mantles and the giant evergreens crowned with gold stars, their branches flaunting shiny red balls.
Our tiny wooden dreidels and shiny brass Menorah didn’t stand a chance.
I sulked at this injustice until Christmas Eve the year I turned 10, when my father took us on a bus tour of holiday lights. After our customary egg roll and egg foo young Christmas Eve dinner, my father drove my mother, 7-year-old brother, 3-year-old sister and me to the municipal building where we purchased our tickets and boarded the tour bus. Our driver, dressed as Santa, stood at the top of the steps and greeted us, one-by-one, with a deep, “Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas!”
The bus was crowded with families chattering in anticipation of singing elves and dancing snowmen. Little girls twirled in red velvet dresses, and boys squirmed in plaid pants and green bow ties. I wore jeans and my favorite pink top. My brother and I argued over the window seat until Santa admonished, “sit down” as he pulled away from the curb. He drove us past the shops on Miracle Mile, rounded Alhambra Circle, and then pulled over at the first gawk-worthy house.
My nose was pressed against the window for a glimpse of the nativity scene, when I heard a familiar off-key voice singing, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”
“No way,” I thought. “It couldn’t be.”
Mortified, I turned to the row behind me as my Jewish father sang on: “had a very shiny nose.” Blushing from my neck to my hairline, I yelled, “Dad, stop! What are you doing?” Then, after he chimed out, “and if you ever saw him,” the other passengers joined in with, “you would even say it glows.” Flashing me an ear-to-ear smile, he continued singing and led his choir from Rudolph to Frosty and other holiday favorites. Despite ourselves, it wasn’t long before my siblings and I joined the chorus of “Jingle Bells.” And, before the two-hour tour was over, my father had the busload of passengers belting out “I Have a Little Dreidel.”
The Christmas lights bus tour became a family tradition, until I left South Florida for college and later married and moved to Baltimore to raise a family of my own. Now, on Christmas Eves we still eat Chinese Food, but instead of bus tours we go to the movies.
The Christmas before last, my husband, Charles, and I watched the one about a woman who invented a special mop, starring Jennifer Lawrence. When the movie ended, Charles bolted outside for a cigar, as I glanced at the credits and turned my cell phone back on. There were 15 missed calls. My heart began racing; my hands, shaking.
The theater lights went on, I took a deep breath, and I skimmed through the “recent calls” on my iPhone: my sister, my brother, my mother, my sister again, my brother again — all of them, again and again. Now, taking fast, shallow breaths, I browsed through my text messages: “Call me!” “Laura, you need to call me.” “Wherever you are call me.” “Call me.”
I went outside, found Charles and said, “Something’s wrong. I think it’s my father.”
He steered me to a bench. A cold eeriness enveloped me, like my hand was slipping from the ledge of a mountain. I called my sister. She could hardly get out, “Hello.”
“Laura. Oh, my God, Laura. Are you sitting down?” She cried even louder, and I strained to hear what I didn’t want to know.
“Tell me,” I said. “ Just tell me. “
“Laura, Daddy died.” She was crying too hard to speak. I was silent. She caught her breath and gave me the details.
I handed the phone to Charles and collapsed into sobs. It felt like I was floating away with my father. Yet, I could still smell the buttered popcorn on my fingers. I could hear the shrill of a woman asking her husband, “Where’d you park the car?” And, I felt the energy of a new crowd scurrying through the doors for the next show.
And, it was Christmas.
Charles said, “Come on, let’s get in the car and go home.” He guided me through the parking lot. He buckled me in. And I flashed back to those nights of shiny red noses and a snowman called Frosty, and I cried for all that was gone.
Most people say it’s coincidental that my father died on Christmas. I choose to believe he did it on purpose, to memorialize the lessons he taught us on those bus tours: Rules of social protocol are merely suggestions; do not wait for permission to lead; and, regardless of religion, we are all more alike than we are different.
Whatever the truth, I will carry those lessons with me always, along with the memories of my father — and the way he made Christmas meaningful for us.
Laura Black (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and the author of "Big Butts, Fat Thighs, and Other Secrets to Success" (Cazco Press, 2012).