The Ghost of Christmas Past Keeps Calling and Calling

I think a lot about my father at Christmas.

Christmas 1959 croppedMy earliest Christmas memories always found my father behind a pair of blinding, 8-thousand gigawatt movie lights that generated so much heat that they may have triggered the dawn of global warming. He filmed all the family milestones with his 8mm (and later, Super 8mm) movie camera and a pair of lights that kept us squinting through a decade’s worth of home movies. In the future, when alien astronauts unearth my father’s film library, they’ll probably conclude that our species perished from a super-luminous supernova.

My dad wasn’t a wine guy and I’m not one of those wine professionals who got into the trade because my parents served wine at every meal. My parents were from the cocktail generation and by the time my younger sisters were nine years old they had mastered the construction of the perfect, extra dry vodka martini. When Mom headed to the train station to pick up Dad, my sisters dropped their homework so they could hand him a martini when he walked in the door. The Carter household had its priorities in place.

Dad wasn’t particularly athletic either. He was what they used to call “scrappy”. More nerd than jock, but a scrappy nerd that loved to take us fishing or get down and wrestle with his boys now and then. He’d get home from work, peel off his starched white shirt, and relax in an undershirt the greaser kids next door called a “Guinea-T” or a “wife beater” although he was neither. Rather than join in the roughhousing he was usually content to simply watch us play, martini in hand, from a lawn chair made of plastic straps that left transient checkerboard patterns on his back.

My father Lee with his father George.

My father Lee with his father George.

Every year he took us to Chicago’s south side to see the White Sox play. It was a rowdy place for a young boy, but as loud drunks puked in the aisle, cherry bombs exploded in the stands, and fights erupted all around us I felt safe and secure with Dad by my side. He wasn’t tall, but he wasn’t afraid to get up in the face of someone twice his size if he sensed a threat to his boys.

I idolized my dad and thought he was the coolest man on Earth, but then something terrible happened; I became a teenager.

In the late 60’s and early 70’s I immersed myself in the counter culture and it strained our relationship. It was hard for a middle-of-the-road Nixon republican to understand a rebellious son who brought home books by Eldridge Cleaver, Abbie Hoffman, and “that communist” Norman Mailer. We grew angry and distant and for several years we seldom spoke to one another.

I think a lot about my father at Christmas.

When I think of Christmas I don’t pine over my dad’s movie lights and the indelible impact they had on my memories and my retinas. There is however, one particular Christmas that will always remain inexorably tied to memories of my dad.

It started on a fall evening many years ago when my father called and asked if I’d like to join him and Mom for dinner at a new taco joint in town. I hung up the phone feeling dazed and ecstatic. This was a watershed moment in our relationship, an official recognition that our past heartaches were behind us and a new, grown-up friendship had begun. In a flash I imagined many more dinners together, playing golf by his side and swapping stories over drinks.

I danced into the restaurant and found my father walking with a limp. He complained about a pain in his hip but said, “Nothing to worry about. I have a doctor’s appointment in the morning.” The evening ended much too soon and as we embraced, his limp was the farthest thing from my mind.

Over the next several weeks I learned words that no 25 year-old son should have to learn; words like pet scan, oncology, and metastasize. The cancer was swift and vicious and as calcium from his eroding bones leached into his bloodstream, my father quickly descended into madness. We never had a chance to sit and talk man-to-man, friend-to-friend, or even father to son.

Last picture with my father and grandfather.

Last picture with my father and grandfather.

On my last visit to his hospital room, my father had a brief moment of clarity and despite the restraints on his wrists he grabbed my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “I love you Donald.” He died later that night. He was 62 years old. It happened ten days before Christmas and for 30 years I’ve treasured the parting gift he gave to me.

So I can’t help but think about my father at Christmas. It’s a good time to be reminded of what’s really important – my family, my wife, my friends – and the precious little time we have together. These are the gifts that matter. From where I stand, sixty-two looks like a train boring down on my mortality. I can’t get off the tracks but memories of my father remind me to enjoy the ride and to cherish the time we share with those we love.

I imagine my father up in heaven, swapping stories with Saint Peter and sipping on a martini so dry even Jesus can’t turn it into wine. Have a Merry Christmas Dad and save me a seat at the bar. Someday we’ll continue that grown-up friendship that ended as abruptly as it began.



  1. Scott Olsen
    Dec 22, 2015

    Touching story, Don. Good to see you in NJ this past week and Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    • Don Carter
      Dec 22, 2015

      Thanks Scott.
      Seeing you and so many other old friends at the Wine Seller really took me back to the great parties and wine dinners thrown by the newcomers group. Those were good times. Enjoy the holidays!