When I was young, my older brother and I both were called to holiday light duty. I vaguely remember my brother having to man up and handle some of the bigger responsibilities of holiday lighting. You know, guy stuff. Stuff involving hammers, nails, and ladders. My dad and brother would spend a lot of time in the garage. And then I, and my smaller, nimble fingers and steadfast obedience, would be summoned. For some reason my older sister escaped holiday lighting duty.
When my brother was around, we’d inevitably be hit with overpowering urges to laugh at the ill-functioning lights, which only served to anger my dad. He had serious plans. Holiday lighting was no laughing matter. Kids in the Third World didn’t have holiday lights. We should have been more grateful for the opportunity to celebrate Jesus by adorning our house and trees with strings of lights.
I missed my brother a lot when he went away to college. But I didn’t miss the ill-timed fits of laughter. Sometimes the situation would strike us so funny we’d be in that silent, shoulder-spasming, tears streaming, weak in the knees kind of laughing. Who can Find the Bad Bulb in that condition? After he went away to college, I had to take on more holiday lighting responsibility. It was just my dad and me and dozens of strings of lights. And boxes of replacement bulbs. It was no laughing matter. And much as I missed my brother, my dad’s patience would be spared two hysterically laughing, insolently ungrateful kids.
Cheeks stinging and teeth chattering in the winter night air, I could hear my heart beating faster and louder, eventually beating in time with the offensive blinking lights. I worked diligently, often working by touch instead of sight because the porch lights were dimmed for the purposes of effect for the holiday lighting display. I’d steal a glance into the house through a front window. There silhouetted in warm glow of the kitchen light my mother would be a vision of domestic holiness baking cookies. Maybe chatting on the telephone. She was unaware of the eminent disaster lurking on the front porch. Christmas could be on the brink of decimation and she was baking cookies.
But then, isn’t that why we were doing this? To preserve and protect the holiday rituals? Oh, and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s son sent to save us. Yes. Yes, I would do my part to make sure our house would be illuminated. And then I’d have a cookie.
I’d work more feverishly, even taking off my mittens to speed the process. Frostbite? Who cares? Must. Find. The. Blinker. The fate of humanity rested in my hands. To speed the process, to make it more compelling, I imagined I was working out some complex military code. I had to stop the blinking before the bad guys blew up the entire country. My dad’s progressively worse agitation at the blinking lights should have been compelling enough to motivate me. But my added imaginary saving humanity angle ensured I would find The Blinker in record time.
The relief of finding and replacing The Blinker was palpable. With The Steady firmly in place, all was right with the world. My dad would see his vision of Holy exultation illumination to fruition. There would be cookies. We would live to see another Christmas.
This will be my first Christmas after my dad’s death. My mother and I are going through a lifetime of stuff, sorting, donating, and discarding things in preparation for her downsizing to a smaller home. We both make wide passes around the boxes of holiday decorations. They’re the elephant in the room we don’t mention. But in the past two months of sorting, I’ve found stashes of holiday light replacement bulbs all over the house. It reduced me to gut-wrenching sobs at first. But I find them so frequently, now, that I’m more used to the sadness and longing they invoke. I found two, clipped together, nestled in the middle of a roll of packing tape. I can imagine my dad, in the midst of his lighting prep, setting them down in there thinking they wouldn’t roll away. They’d be handy if he needed them. Instead of tears, finding those bulbs made me smile.
For the first time ever, my parents’ house and yard will not be illuminated this year. I toyed briefly with the idea of lighting it up for my dad. But the prospect is too painful. It’s all too new. I miss him too much. The reminder would be too painful. And the lights were his job. I just helped because my fingers were smaller. The outdoor decorations were his world; the rest of us just lived there and enjoyed it.
Then I remembered the Broadway tradition of dimming the lights, “going dark,” when an actor dies. That tradition seems apt for my dad’s holiday lighting displays.
So, Cherry Cove Road will be dark this holiday in tribute to my dad.
Part 1 | Part 2