On Christmas Eve, my dad would always bring home a huge box of navel oranges and bags of pecans, walnuts, and almonds, all still in their shells. These would be arranged, though not artfully, on the fireplace mantel underneath our stockings.
We knew that these gifts did not come from Santa Claus — they came from Florida, where Dad had just been in his 18-wheeler. He was not what anyone would call a healthy eater, but he did love those navel oranges. He’d peel them with his fingers, and then tear off sections for us to share. I liked peeling back the thin layer of skin on my section and then pretending to be a dinosaur devouring hundreds of the exposed, tiny orange trees with one enormous bite. Christmas Eve.
We’d sit around the tree, poking at the presents — the ones from our parents or distant relatives — lifting them to gauge the heft, or giving them a gentle shake to see if anything moved inside, and how it moved, and what sounds issued if it did move. Since these were “parent” gifts, we knew that the contents would be something responsible, but dull, like tube socks or a flannel shirt, but since Santa would not be arriving for several more excruciating hours, and these presents DID bear our names and MIGHT be something at least a little more exciting than usual — maybe a Dallas Cowboys toboggan or a box of cashew turtles — we couldn’t help fussing over them obsessively while mean old Ben Weaver kept trying to get himself arrested in the Christmas episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” which we watched every year on Christmas Eve.
Ben Weaver. The Grinch. Ebenezer Scrooge. If Christmas possessed the magic to turn those hardened hearts, it was no less magical to us because it also had the power to bring our dad home to spend the evening with us, which was a rare and wondrous thing. He spent most of his time out on the truck, driving all over the country, and when he was home, he managed to find, orchestrate, or simply will a card game into existence, such was his love of gambling, or more precisely, his love of playing cards. Gambling was just his way of making the games more meaningful.
In any case, I didn’t begrudge it. I have always enjoyed, even admired, being around people who are in their element, doing what they love, and my dad was in his element playing cards. When we got a little older — old enough to drive — we knew we could find him at the golf course or the pool room or Southside Restaurant or Grady’s General Store playing gin for 10 or 20 or 50 dollars a hand, depending upon the daring, foolishness, and/or relative wealth of his opponent at any given time. He almost never lost, and when he did, he would usually win the next four or five hands in a row. He understood the game from the inside, somehow. If “Good Will Hunting” had been about cards, my dad would have been played by Matt Damon.
We’d find him, and then watch him play for 20 or 30 minutes. It was like watching a detective sweat out a confession, as he toyed with his opponent, joking one minute, grimacing the next, arching an eyebrow, the meaning of which was impossible to decode. The other guy would try to read something in his face — a huge mistake, a fatal mistake, as he transformed suddenly from a detective to a vampire, glamouring the poor fool into playing out another losing hand, and then handing us the proceeds to pay for gas, arcade games, fast food, or whatever escapades might await us on a Friday night in Sparta.
How many of our weekends, automobiles, or college classes were funded over the years from gambling is impossible to say, but suffice to say it was a lot. My sister once got a bedroom suite because a guy couldn’t pay. I once got my house painted.
Last week, my wife bought home a huge bag of navel oranges on the eleventh anniversary of my father’s death. It was just a coincidence, but this convergence brought him back with a force I haven’t felt for awhile, though he is, as he always has been, dead or alive, at the edge of my thoughts and dreams, barely out of reach, but still always there somehow, happy and in his element.
If you are lucky enough to have your dad at home on Christmas Eve, give him a big hug and savor him. If you are a dad, get home as much as you can all through the year. Find your kids in their element, and savor them. They’re growing up quick — you can bet on that.
Merry Christmas, Dad. I hope the navel oranges in heaven are as good as the ones from Florida.