Throwback Thursday: Surprisingly Sentimental (A Christmas Story)

My dad’s a surprisingly sentimental guy. He enjoys traditions like biscuits for breakfast on his birthday, and he proudly displays photos around his new apartment of him shaking hands with Clinton and grinning with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. (Please, don’t ask me who they are-I’m way too young and you probably are too). He’s even got a tiny wooden rocking chair in the corner that he’s had since he was a boy-it was important enough to him to make the trip from New England to central Florida. As sentimental as he is, though, my dad is still the former detective I grew up with, and it takes a lot to get him worked up. I’ve only ever seen him cry twice-once when our family dog died when I was ten, and once when his younger brother died of an unexpected heart attack.


He’s been living in an apartment now for about six months now, in a cute little Stepford complex where each building looks the same and there’s absolutely no parking anywhere. I’ve been really worried about him just picking up and moving like he did; he’s never had a problem making friends, but he’s also not really the type to go out and join a Bingo game.


Except that’s exactly what my dad did-he plays Bingo, weekly, with the people in the surrounding apartments. And he does more than just play Bingo with them, too. On Friday nights, he goes with them to a local bowling league (though his knees won’t let him play anymore); when they get out of work at the Disney parks, he’ll meet them there and goof off until it’s time for the fireworks. He’s gotten particularly close with one family, transplanted here from Southern Massachusetts, and regularly plays with their six-month-old baby, Evvie, when Momma needs a break.


I really wasn’t expecting much of a holiday here. I was raised Jewish, and although my dad was raised in a Christian home, we haven’t celebrated Christmas since I was twelve. Holidays tended to be strained towards the end of my time at home anyway-but that’s another story, for another day. I figured maybe my dad would buy me a sweatshirt or two in the Disney parks, and potentially pay for a butterbeer in Harry Potter World, and we’d call it a day. I was genuinely surprised when he told me that we’d be spending part of Christmas Day with his new friends and their family, and that they had presents for us, to boot.


When we finally got to their apartment, we apologized over and over for being late-we had gotten tied up at my dad’s best friend’s home (another pleasant surprise to find out they had invited us over as well). We carefully stepped over baby toys and a sleeping greyhound or two and grabbed some space on their already-crowded couch. The apartment belonged to Dan and Do, a semi-retired couple around my dad’s age, and their son Danny, along with his girlfriend Laurie (who is definitely my age), and of course, baby Evvie. Joining us that night was Dan and Do’s daughter, Crystal; her boyfriend, Bo; his toddler son, Bebo; Bo’s brother; and their cousin, Mr. Bill. Strewn among people were cans of root beer and plates piled high with Puerto Rican dishes Laurie had spent all day making, and she handed us each our own once we sat down. “Eat. Eat!”


Danny was poised by the Christmas tree, a present in each hand. One-by-one, he handed them out to each person, calling out their name and patiently taking photos as they tore through the wrapping paper and exclaimed in delight. Bebo, at four years old, was finding it hard to sit still, so when possible I’d distract him by asking him to tell me about his dinosaurs. He’d light up as he explained the difference between a brontosaurus and an allosaurus, and it reminded me of a good childhood friend who would get that same gleam in his eye nearly fifteen years before.


I wasn’t expecting much when Danny called out my name. I knew that part of the gift was a set of tickets to Sea World, thanks to Crystal’s connections. What I wasn’t expecting was for Danny, grinning, to call my name several times over the course of the night. Between the basket of lotions, a stuffed pirate toy, and a beautiful Disney poster, I couldn’t believe my luck. But the thing is-this story really isn’t about me. It’s about my dad, and his new friends next door.


Several days before, my dad and I had wandered through Downtown Disney in the hopes of making some purchases before the holiday deals were over. We ended up stopping in one of the more classy Disney art shops, where they sell frames from various movies, and art inspired by the classics themselves. My dad paused in front of one of the cases, and pointed out a ceramic Mickey figurine, shaking hands and looking in awe of the firefighter in front of him. “Isn’t that cool?” My dad asked. “They have one for police officers too, but they sell it at the other art store, in the parks, and I’m going to use some of my birthday money from Nanny to buy it. I’m just waiting until I go with Dan and the crew, so I can use their ‘Disney Discount.’” He winked at me, and we continued on our way, weaving through toddlers dragging giant Mickey toys behind them that would never fit in their carry-ons.


Back at Christmas dinner, Danny had been hinting that the gift they had for my dad was going to make him cry, and if it didn’t, “everyone needed to go home.” Finally, as the pile dwindled down, he handed my dad a giant red box and motioned for him to go on. My dad tore off the wrapping to find a box, and opened it to find-another box. “Keep going!” the label encouraged, and so he did. Four boxes later, he finally reached a Styrofoam layer, and carefully lifted the lid. A single tear rolled down his face as he laughed, speechless. There lay Mickey and the policeman in his lap, as the family laughed and clapped with joy. “This is why we haven’t been to the parks with you yet,” Danny shouted. “We couldn’t let you buy it!”


The season is all about goodwill towards men, as the voices echoing over the Disney parks have reminded me all week. I wasn’t really sure what that meant, until I watched the joy on this family’s face as they surprised someone that they just met with a gift they’ve wanted for years. Dan, Danny, and Laurie work at the parks in the kitchens, and from personal research (ahem), I can tell you that they don’t make much. For them to take their hard-earned money and buy gifts not only for my dad, but for me, someone they had met days beforehand-it was what I needed to understand exactly what this time of year is about. It’s not about getting a photo with Santa Goofy, or putting ornaments on a three-foot fiber optic Christmas tree. It’s about peace on Earth, and goodwill towards men. And I’ll remember that every time I look over and see a ceramic Mickey shaking hands with a police officer, nestled between a photo of aging rockers and a surprisingly sentimental guy.

Throwback Thursday: Surprisingly Sentimental (A Christmas Story)