Preparing for Christmas With My Dad

Memories of Thanksgiving weekend of my youth
November 28, 2016

I'm writing this on Friday, November 25. Thanksgiving has come and gone. For me growing up, Thanksgiving was always a lot of fun with my family get togethers. But the real fun would always come the day after Thanksgiving. That's because my dad would always devote the entire weekend (Friday to Sunday) to me, and getting ready for Christmas. When the post holiday weekend comes every year, I'm not thinking about Black Friday, or gearing up for a battle at Wal Mart to get the latest electronics. I think back to the memories I have of these weekends that I always spent with my dad.

My father was not a perfect man. He drank, he smoked, and he could have a short temper with certain things. It was those kind of things that led to my mom leaving him back in 1992. But, he always had a special bond with me, I think. I think it had to do with the fact that my dad and I had more in common growing up. He never quite bonded with my two older brothers the way he did me. Part of it may have been with my early youth. I am healthy now, but when I was born, I was dangerously thin and had a lot of health problems, so I spent a good part of my early youth (up until I was about 6, I think) in and out of various hospitals, and going through a series of surgeries that probably saved my life. I remember my dad spent a lot of time with me then, so that probably played a role in our relationship as well.

But it was the Thanksgiving weekend that I remember most of all. Growing up, I was absolutely crazy about Christmas. I loved it all. The lights, the decorations, wrapping gifts, the TV specials, the store displays...I pretty much lived for this time of year as a kid. I was the kind of kid who would start making out his Christmas List in August or so, narrowing it down by November. My dad understood this, so he would always make the weekend after Thanksgiving a special event for me. It was the official kick off to the Christmas Season at my house. The weekend would usually go as follows...

Madison, Wisconsin

The Friday After Thanksgiving - This was always a big day that I anticipated all year. My dad and I would both wake up early, and have a big breakfast together. Afterward, it was time to hit the road. I grew up in a small city in Wisconsin, and on this day, we would always drive up to Madison, Wisconsin. This was the state capital, and it always had such amazing stores compared to the ones we had back home. Heck, my hometown didn't even have a Toys R Us until around 1989 or so, so just going to one of those massive stores in Madison was a thrill for me. We would go to one of the malls there, and just look around. He would let me point out the different things I was wishing for that year. After that, we would usually go out for lunch at a restaurant nearby, and then see a movie in the afternoon. That was also always a thrill for me. The town I grew up in only had a dinky little 3-screen theater at the local mall. Madison had a massive 10 screen mega theater that always left a film fanatic like me with my mouth dropped down to my shoes. We eventually did get our own mega theater in the early 90s (9 screen), but the one in Madison called the Eastgate 10 (which has since closed down) will always be special to me. Afterward, we would drive home, and usually order a pizza when we got back. (No, we were not watching our weight back then, as you can tell.)

Saturday - After that big day, the remaining two days of the weekend were devoted to getting the house ready for Christmas. Saturday was devoted to setting up the outdoor lights and decorations. Every year, we would add more decorations to our outdoor display, so in the morning, we usually drove out to some of the local department stores to look at some of their decoration displays, and pick out lights or those cheesy but awesome stand up figurines of Santa that lit up. I used to love walking through the store displays of lights, and picking out what I think we should add to our own display. After getting home, we would spend the rest of the day setting up all the outdoor decorations. I never minded the cold, it was just awesome testing out the lights, stringing them up, and putting up the stand up figure display we always had. We would usually work together outside until it was almost dark, which was obviously the perfect time to turn the lights on, and see how the display looked. To me, it was always beautiful. My dad was always the one who got into Christmas the same way I did. When he left, we stopped decorating as much for the season, as my mom did not enjoy the idea of stringing up all the outdoor lights, and she thought I was too young to do it by myself. I have a lot of memories of the displays we used to have, and always think fondly back on them.

Sunday - The last day of the holiday weekend was always devoted to decorating the inside of the house. This meant putting up the tree naturally, as well as putting up the indoor lights and decoration. Just like outdoors, my dad and I would go all out. We had lights and holly along the mantle, along part of the railing that ran alongside the stairway leading to the second floor of our house, in every window, and a wreath on every door. We never added to the indoor display every year like we did the outdoor, but it was still always special to me. Naturally, putting up the tree was my favorite part. We would do that first, and then go all through the house, putting up the various decorations. When night came and the weekend was coming to an end, I remember my dad and I would sit in the room where the tree was, and turn out all the lights so that only the tree was lit up. We would then sit together and talk about the weekend in general, and about my anticipation of Christmas. He obviously understood how much the holiday meant to me, and he would go out of his way to make it wonderful every year.

This is the way it went from the time as far back as I can remember, right up to the last Christmas we spent together in 1991. I was 14 years old that year, and while I wasn't quite as much into the season as I was when I was young, I remember still loving our holiday weekend tradition, and getting the house ready. Oddly enough, I don't really have any memories about our last Christmas. I don't think we even added anything to our outdoor display that year. Maybe my dad knew even at that time that things were not going well with my mom. Still, he did his best to make the weekend special as always.

But there is one particular weekends that I spent with him that I always remember when I think back on this time. That was the weekend that occurred in 1987, when I was 10 years old...

This particular day started out as usual with the big breakfast, and the drive up to Madison. We spent the morning looking around the mall and the local Toys R Us and Babbage's (a video game chain store that was popular back in the 80s and 90s) to look at things that I was interested in that year. Of course, like just about any red-blooded 10-year-old boy, I wanted a Nintendo that year, as well as a copy of Legend of Zelda. As always, my parents came through to me, and I would find both under my tree a month later.

The now abandoned Eastgate Cinema in Madison.

But it's what happened later that day that I will always remember. That afternoon, we went to see a movie at the Eastgate Cinema, and the only two family-oriented films that were playing at the time were Three Men and a Baby, and the re-release of Disney's Cinderella. We were both interested in seeing Three Men, but unfortunately it was sold out. That meant the only other choice was Cinderella, which neither of us were crazy about. My dad was never a fan of animation, and I wasn't exactly thrilled about the idea of seeing a "girl's movie" myself. But, what else could we choose from?

That's when he hit upon a brilliant idea. He knew that there was another movie that had just opened that I wanted to see. That was none other than the latest John Hughes comedy, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It starred Steve Martin and John Candy, and I had been talking about wanting to see it since the commercials started airing on TV. Unfortunately, the movie was rated-R, so my mom had forbidden it. But, here we were at the theater, faced with the main option of watching cartoon singing mice. Mom was all the way back home. We were two men desperate for entertainment. Well, what would you choose? I remember us standing in front of the poster for the film, and my dad looking at me and saying, "Well, I won't tell her if you won't..."

Going to see an R-rated movie at the theater was a huge thrill to me, as it was my first time doing it. I had seen a small handful of R-rated movies on TV with my parents, such as the original Police Academy and National Lampoon's Vacation films. But this was the first time I had been allowed to see a "movie for adults" at a theater. We bought our tickets, went inside, and to this day I still remember it as one of the best experiences with my dad I had. We both absolutely loved the film, and to this day, it stands as a favorite of mine that I watch annually once a year. I don't think I remember hearing my dad laugh as much as I did that day. For me, not only was I seeing a great movie, but it was rated-R. When you're 10 years old, it feels like you're getting away with something when you do something like that, especially since my mom didn't know.

A reasonable simulation of my mom's reaction when she found out...

We drove home that day, talking about how much we loved the film. But, my dad made sure to remind me not to tell my mom what we had done. I promised, but...Come on, I had just seen a great movie! How could I keep it inside? I remember later that night I just had to tell my older brothers about the movie I had seen that day. I told them not to tell mom, but you know how older brothers are. They immediately raced downstairs to tell mom that dad had taken me to see an R-rated movie that day. Naturally, it was mostly out of jealousy, since they had wanted to see the movie also, and had been forbidden to as well. My mom was naturally not happy with either of us, but I don't think I got in too much trouble. I still got to spend the rest of the weekend getting ready for Christmas with my dad, and the following Monday, everyone on the playground at school got to hear about the movie I got to see.

When it comes to the holiday weekend, I always think back on these times I shared with my dad. That day in 87 always sticks out in my mind, and is the one I think of the most, but I have a lot of other memories, too. My dad is still around, but honestly, we don't talk or see each other as much as we used to.

However, it's impossible not to think about him when the Thanksgiving weekend comes around. I sadly don't have any children of my own, and I don't know if I ever will. But, should the time ever comes, I want to make sure the tradition stays alive, and I will treat that child to a special weekend every year after Thanksgiving as much as I can.

Hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday. And as always, keep the past alive.
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