As Pastor Walter Mitty tried to wake up from a deep sleep the day after Christmas, for a few seconds he didn’t know where he was.
He knew for sure that he wasn’t in his own bedroom in Poplar Park, but as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, the smell of brewing coffee and the sound of Bing Crosby singing “I’ll be Home for Christmas” began to connect the dots in his consciousness.
He wasn’t at home, but then again he was. He was in the basement apartment his sister-in-law Susan had set up for him during the year he had taken a leave from Poplar Park Community Church to help her care for his brother Herman during his year-long, losing battle with cancer.
I’ll be home for Christmas …
Mitty traveled back 50 years in sentimental time to that two-bedroom frame house in Manitowoc where he, Herman, and their mom and dad had celebrated Christmas in virtually the same way every year until he went off to college.
In his freshman English class, they read Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. The novel came to his mind because, lying there in Susan’s basement, he remembered coming home for Christmas vacation and thinking that Wolfe was right, or at least partly right. Just one semester out of his “bubble” had changed him and now, over three decades later, the town itself had changed.
I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams …
Still, he found himself drifting back in his fantasies to those predictable years when everything stayed the same even though it didn’t. The world around him was changing, but in that house on South 24th St. he was safe and secure
Hanging on the wall of his office he had a print of Norman Rockwell’s painting called “Freedom from Want,” in which a grandma is serving a turkey to an extended three-generation family sitting around a big dining room table.
He felt a bit of that sentimental coziness as he lingered under the covers listening to the Christmas music Susan had asked Siri to play, and he began to wonder how his two nephews, Brian and Matt, were feeling about the holiday.
Susan had tried to keep the family traditions alive during the holidays, to somehow recreate that feeling of being home again, but Uncle Walt knew it wasn’t the same and so did his nephews.
Matt and Brian gave Uncle Walt a hard time about sleeping late because he was getting old when he finally trundled down the stairs and into the kitchen. Just like old times.
After that first cup of coffee, Uncle Walt was finally fully awake. Susan sat down at the table with her “three men” and the conversation meandered into stories about the “good old days.”
“Do you remember that time Dad brought home a turkey they had given him at work” Brian said, “and decided since it was his turkey, he was going to cook it?”
“Yeah,” said Matt, “but he forgot to set the timer, got involved in a football game on TV and realized that the turkey was, let’s say, well done when we all began to smell smoke coming from the oven.”
“A lot of healing has happened in the last three years,” Mitty said to himself.
After the laughter subsided, Susan added, “I still miss him. I wish he were here.” And the looks on the faces of her “three men” revealed that they felt the same.
Just then Siri was playing another Bing Crosby Christmas hit. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,” he crooned, “just like the ones I used to know.”
“Well we did a get a white Christmas this year,” thought Mitty, “but it’s not entirely like the ones we used to know. Not a blue Christmas for sure. Somewhere in between, I guess.”
When Bing finished the song, Susan noted that it was written by Irving Berlin who was Jewish. “I heard on the news that his 3-week-old son had died on Christmas Day in 1928 and the sadness he felt, even years later, was perhaps what gives the song its melancholy, wistful feel.”
“The funny/sad thing about the song is that Crosby sang it on the radio for the first time in 1941 a few weeks after Pearl Harbor had been bombed. It sold 50 million copies over the years, and many of those sales were made while millions of American young men were away from home fighting — and often dying.”
“I’ll be home for Christmas,” said Brian with a sigh, “if only in my dreams.”
Mitty marveled at his nephew’s comment. “He’s grown up,” said Uncle Walt to himself. “I don’t remember seeing any Norman Rockwell pictures hanging on his wall.
“I bet Mary wished she could be home,” Mitty imagined, “to share her newborn with her parents instead of spending Christmas in a barn.”