In 1987, however, I'm almost certain that my Dad took us to Harvard Stadium to watch his alma mater, English High School, play. To this day, my Dad still watches games at Harvard Stadium every chance he gets, and just last week and he my Mom watched Harvard beat Yale in the historic rivalry (OK, my Mom may have been shopping in Cambridge by the time Crimson victory was declared, but my Dad was still there whistling). My Dad loves that stadium, not only because it's breathtaking, but also because he played his high school Thanksgiving Day football games there, and those are some of his favorite earlier memories.
From 1988 on, however, me and my Dad have loyally attended the Thanksgiving Day football game between Canton and Stoughton. Apparently the rivalry dates back to 1926 and maybe it's the former history teacher in me, but I find that sort of tradition remarkable. So this entry is about tradition. More importantly, it's about my Dad.
If my parents were sportscasters, my Mom would do the play-by-play and my Dad would be the color commentator. They're the perfect combination that way -- my Mom buys all the holiday decorations and organizes them into boxes (and boxes, and boxes, and boxes) while my Dad has the spirit to actually dig them out of the basement when the actual holiday rolls around. I don't think you could pay my Mom enough to go to a football game on Thanksgiving -- in fact, she'd even rather cook, and she hates to cook -- but my Dad will stand in a blizzard to watch Canton High School suit up against the town's next-door-neighbors.
I love sitting with my Dad during those games. He always brings blankets and wears either his navy blue English High cap or his crimson Harvard Football hat. I'd expect a Boston College hat since that's where he played college football, but for some reason on Thanksgiving, his loyalties run to Canton, English, or Harvard Stadium. My Dad cheers loudly for Canton at those games, calls every player "son" like he's back in Roslindale, and tries to embarrass me with some wise, but funny, comment about something. Luckily, years of sitting at football games with him have made me mostly embarrass-proof, so I just enjoy his humor (and his own enjoyment of his humor) and hope that no one around us is listening to him.
One of my Dad's favorite parts about the Thanksgiving game is the Stoughton High School marching band. My Dad played trombone when he was younger and he loves watching our rival's skilled musicians. I have to agree -- those kids really are something else.
This year, it looks like the weather may be amenable enough to allow us to take both Teddy and Annabel to the game too. Teddy will want to sit between Brian and my Dad, but he'll grace me with some of his attention at some point, I'm sure. Annabel will probably just want to run up and down the bleacher stairs, so I'll be sure to wear my sneakers over my extra pair of socks. I can't wait.
The Friday after Thanksgiving is another tradition of which my Dad is the master of ceremonies. Since I can remember, we all load into the car and head off to this totally random store on the South Shore that is bursting at the seams with Christmas stuff. The owners of this store are very, hum, let's say quirky, and we look forward to paying them a visit every year. Then we all drive to Scituate for a lunch at the Mill Wharf. This restaurant is, again, pretty darn random, but I guess that's what makes it such a tradition. There we eat stuffed mushrooms, some sort of fried food, then a huge brownie sundae, and that is all the day right after Thanksgiving's feast. Impressive, huh? I usually stop to make people pose for photos somewhere along this route and here are a few from last year. It's so cliche, but I really can't believe how much Annabel has grown in one year, and I just love her frown against my smile.
Next we do a little more Christmas shopping in Scituate center. Then it's off to get the Christmas tree. Only here's the great catch to this part of the holiday tradition -- we have finally found a way around the torture of actually getting a Christmas tree. When we were growing up, we would choose the biggest tree we could find at Kennedy's, a great nursery down the street from our lunch spot. An outdoorsy-looking man would load it into the car as we all crammed in beside the prickly tree and held onto it for dear life. I can't believe we really did this. Later, we graduated to putting it on the roof, and with that approach, all of the passengers would nervously watch out the back window to make sure that the tree made it all the way into our driveway. It always did, except for one time, but that's a whole other story.
Then came the part of the tradition that really sucked -- getting the tree up. Rachel and I would usually fight while "helping" my parents carry the tree into the house (Sean would still be asleep in the car). My Dad would rush to get it in water before it closed up, and that would usually be somewhat of a disaster. Then we'd wait a day or two while the branches fell. Next came my Dad stringing the lights. My parents always had this beautiful vision of stringing lights and decorating the tree but the vision versus the reality on that one was about as precious as Annabel's poop in Barnes and Noble. Let's just say, I think I learned my first four-letter words by watching my Dad put the lights on the tree.
Then, of course, there was the daily watering of the mammoth beast with the weighty watering can. Team that duty (which of course, fell to my poor Dad) up with the fact that he always seemed to be having some sort of arthroscopic surgery around Christmas, and the tree started to get to be a big pain, both literally and figuratively. But it was absolutely gorgeous, and it was a Christmas tradition, no matter how painful it was for everyone involved.
A few years ago, around the time that my Dad got one of his knees replaced, my parents floated the idea to Rachel, Sean, and I of an artificial tree. Hell, no, are you kidding me? was pretty much how we all responded. Kind of like the kids who want the dog that they'll never walk or clean up after. We carried on the tradition of the real tree for a year or two more. Then my parents had had enough of the painful tradition and made the ghastly leap to a fake tree. At first, we struggled with the change. We're a real flexible lot, huh? Soon, however, we all came around. The tree comes with the lights already on and we literally roll it out from the garage and plug it in. There's usually some issue, but it's relatively small; far less swear words over the Christmas music, that's for sure. The best part is that my parents leave the tree up until April. Or maybe it was even May this year when they finally bagged it up again. I remember we were thinking of buying them Easter ornaments for it and my Dad loved the idea. Sometimes certain people conjure up a very clear image for me and for some reason, one of those images of my Dad is him walking in the house, strolling over to the side table by his chair in the family room, and turning on his tree by remote control. As I write this, I can hear the sounds, see the lights, and even smell the smells of that scene. I love it.
Brian and I switched to a fake tree when Teddy was a baby. I literally remember finding tree needles in his diaper when we decided maybe an artificial tree would be good for us. We love our little tree, and even if it's fake to others, it's totally real to us. I can't wait for Brian to drag it up on Friday night. Although I know Brian's a bit scared of that big plastic bag; about a month ago he found a few little mice friends doing a dance in there. Brian hates mice, but I think it's hilarious watching him put his headphones on high (he hates the sound of the mice) and use his hockey stick to battle the little critters. Ah, the joys of the holidays.
Even though I have my own kids now, in my heart, I'm still my Dad's little girl when it comes to the holidays. My Dad may not buy a single gift until Christmas Eve (thank goodness for an incredibly independent and capable Mrs. Claus), but he fills the whole season with spirit. While my Mom has taught me valuable lessons like it's never too early to buy someone a Christmas gift, my Dad has given me the priceless appreciation of Thanksgiving football, Scituate harbor, and Christmas cheer.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this is that my Dad's childhood Christmases were nothing like ours. My Dad's childhood and early adulthood were not easy. Sadly, his father was an alcoholic and although my grandfather was sober for the last decades of his life, a lot of damage was done long before that.
Last night I couldn't sleep so I turned back to that Hope book of compiled quotes that I found in the hospital gift shop. I found this one from Unknown:
Every life has its dark and joyful hours. Happiness comes from choosing which to remember.
In the rare instances that my Dad shares with us something dark about his childhood, he somehow finds a way to make it funny. He really does have one of the best sense of humors I have ever come across. But even though he somehow makes us laugh at stories like those about the nuns beating him because of his severe dyslexia, I'm pretty sure that deep down, there's pain. He's human, so there must be. And yet with years of struggles about which he could complain or because of which he has every right to turn sour, he still shares memories about the good times, and cherishes everything he has done for us that his father never did for him. There's no doubt that my Dad is sincerely happy when he talks about the Scottish strength and sweet kindness that he adored in his mom, Ruth McInnis Talbot. Or when he talks about his job selling peanuts at Fenway, or shoveling driveways, or delivering newspapers, or countless other things that he did to make money to support his mother and his four sisters. Somehow, my Dad chooses to remember the joyful hours, and those keep collecting over the years.
My Dad has been through a heck of a lot in his life, and despite all of it, or perhaps partly because of it, he has found great happiness. Whether it's at a football game, at lunch in Scituate, or unzipping the great big fake tree, my Dad not only chooses to remember the good for himself, but he chooses to create so much good for all of us.
I know that me getting cancer has been really hard on my Dad. I've never seen him cry the way I saw him cry the day that I found out. I've never seen him so mad, and like any kid, I've seen my Dad mad (tree lights, remember?). But this was a different kind of mad. It was a how-could-life-be-so-f-ing-unfair kind of mad. Yet my Dad is the one who has told me time and time again that bad things happen to good people. Yes, they do. Luckily, really good things happen to good people, too.
In a weird way, it's kind of amusing watching how differently my Mom and Dad deal with my cancer. Again, my Mom does play-by-play and my Dad does the color commentating. At first, I thought he wasn't watching the play-by-play because he remained relatively quiet on the topic. But I quickly realized that couldn't be further from the truth. He's watching every single step, it's just really hard for him to see, and even harder for him to find the words sometimes. If I think of it in the context of Brian watching Annabel go through this, it all makes perfect sense to me. Because Brian would be crushed.
Thankfully, my Dad has mastered the art of remembering the joyful hours. As he reminds me over and over, next year, this will all be in my past. It definitely will, and from his lead, I will choose to remember all of the joyful hours that made their way between a few dark ones. In fact, if I'm lucky, and I'm certain I will be, I won't even have to wait until next year to feel that happiness. Because I know I'll find it sitting next to my Dad on Thursday.