Category Archives: Holiday stories

A Father’s Day Reflection

For most people, Father’s Day is over for 2017. Mine extends into next week. I am privileged and blessed to claim several young adults as my children though I have only one biological son. Due to my work and volunteer schedule, I was not able to enjoy brunch with him yesterday as we had planned, so we are doing it next Sunday. Therefore, I still have time to post this essay, which I originally wrote about 10 years ago. I hope you enjoy it.

First, a brief bit of background on the essay.

I love oatmeal: plain (with a little salt to bring out the flavor); not so plain (with a touch of vanilla and cinnamon); exotic (with walnuts, apples, craisins, lots of cinnamon, more than a touch of vanilla, and freshly ground nutmeg). In fact, I eat the exotic oatmeal everyday for breakfast. I love oatmeal made on the stove too and I love it baked. By the way, I have an incredibly good baked oatmeal recipe. Let me know if you want it.

If I am ever invited to have oatmeal at your house, know that I have at least three oatmeal limitations, or requirements if you will:

  1. I am not a fan of microwaveable faux oatmeal. It contains too many chemicals and I worry that a universe-ending explosion will occur when “nuking” it.
  2. My oatmeal must be made using the “old fashioned” rolled oats, not the ground-to-a-pulp “quick” oats which have no substance, no taste, and no reason for existence.
  3. I will not eat oatmeal without salt. Period. The salt (which is always listed as an optional ingredient on the box) is what makes the flavor “pop.” Warning: Most restaurants and hotels with the complimentary breakfast buffets do not put salt in the oatmeal. Such an inhumane action is probably not yet worthy of a boycott or class action lawsuit but do know you will need to salt you own oatmeal.

However, it should be a criminal offense when anyone (and you know who you are!) try to pass off the faux oatmeal as “homemade” or “freshly made.”

Shortly after moving to the East Coast, I wrote of my passion for oatmeal in an essay I submitted to National Public Radio’sThis I Believe” segment that was a regular feature at that time. Now I believe they did not care much for the essay because it was kindly rejected in that soft-spoken NPR way by someone with a delightfully inimitable NPR-type name like Dharma Chung-Nunberg. Despite the heart-wrenching, soul-shattering rejection, I liked the essay and decided to publish it here anyway. (Ha! Take THAT, Dharma!)

I believe in the magic of oatmeal. My palate prefers the old-fashioned, whole grained oatmeal, but the magic of oatmeal usually transcends its form.

As a child, a steaming bowl of oatmeal, generously trimmed with farm-fresh cream and heaps of sugar, seemed to warm the kitchen of our Iowa farmhouse. On frigid February mornings the oil-burning stove at the end of the kitchen strained against the toe-numbing cold. Still, the oatmeal warmed me inside-out and the warmth seemed to mystically radiate throughout the drafty house. On those mornings of school bus windows frosted-over for the entire ride into town, I still remained warm and satisfied until the noon bell rang. At the bell, fueled by the oatmeal, I would race my best friend down the steps to the basement lunchroom of Morning Sun Elementary School.

As a young man and new father I introduced my baby boy, Jake, to oatmeal’s magic. Having wrestled him into his high chair and locked him into place, I would begin the

File0060

Tom & Jake at their introduction on Christmas Day in 1984. (Photo by doctor)

morning breakfast routine. He would strain against the unyielding high chair and vocalize his hunger. I would mix his oatmeal with just enough water of just the right temperature. As the first spoonful of the oat concoction reached his lips he would begin to emit a low “mmm” sound. He would eat and coo as I would whispered to him with each spoonful of his goodness and strength and my love for him. For the next several minutes we were connected, father and son, by the warmth and satisfaction of oatmeal. These early bonding moments have been built upon through the years as he grew and became a man and I, well, just became an older man.

Today, for the first time in my life, I live far from both the farmhouse and the son. Preparing to move from Des Moines to Washington last December I gave away nearly every food item in my kitchen…except my near new box of oatmeal. Upon arrival in DC, I unpacked it and shelved it in a cabinet where I could not miss it. The following morning it became my first meal in my new home.

Middle age demands I eat oatmeal more for its physical benefits today and, sadly, I now must trim it with skim milk and less generous portions of brown sugar. As the morning’s first spoonful triggers my taste-buds, it also triggers my memory. It takes me back to winter mornings in which I remained warm despite the bitter cold. Even more, it warms me with the memory of being a dad. It transports me back to a series of wonderful mornings when my son and I became a part of each other through the magic of oatmeal. I can close my eyes and recall the sounds, sights, smells, and smiles of those moments. When I open them I realize it is only a wonderful memory that will not happen again.

Or will it? Who knows…in the latter stages of my life I may be the one who coos as my son lovingly feeds me my oatmeal. By then, Jake, cream and sugar really should not be a factor in my longevity…so be generous, my son.

 

 

 

 

              

The Bells of Christmas Eve

I was born much later in our parent’s lives than my sisters. It was never made clear to me whether I was an accident, an afterthought, or simply a last gasp attempt to get a male to carry on the family name. Regardless of the plan, or lack thereof, I was born into the same generation as my nieces and nephews, and we grew up together, nearly as siblings. I was the oldest by only three years. It was always a bit odd for me to call my parents “Mom” and “Dad,” when they called them “Grandma” and “Grandpa.”

For the first 25 years of my life, Christmas Eve was celebrated by all at my parents’ house. Though there were gifts for everyone under the tree, my sisters’ families would also celebrate Christmas morning in their own homes where my nieces and nephews would finally receive the lion’s share of their annual yuletide loot. Mine, however, was received in total on Christmas Eve.

Since this was the arrangement during my childhood, I knew nothing else and never questioned it. My family was far from well off but, because we lived on a farm where humans were infinitely outnumbered by cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, sweet corn, potatoes, and other fruit and vegetables, we never went hungry. I remember each Christmas receiving one “big” gift, which usually meant it was the most expensive. The most notable of these was a miniature slot car racing set that stoked my boyish love of Midwestern dirt track stock car racing.

My Christmas Eve was always made special, however, by a mystery. After our holiday dinner of chili soup, oyster stew, and assorted delicacies, including pickled herring, mincemeat pie, and a canvas of sweets, including German Christmas cookies handmade by my mother, we would eagerly await the time to open presents. The mystery usually happened in the brief calm between dinner and the wild chaos of opening presents. It began as a faint jingling and would grow until we knew it was the unmistakable sound of Santa’s sleigh bells. All of us children would fly off to the only window we could reach and peer into the night. Never once did we catch a glimpse of him, but we knew he was there. We had the proof still ringing in our ears. When we finally peeled ourselves off the window and turned back to the Christmas tree, it always seemed a little bit fuller and brighter, and the gifts slightly more plentiful.

When I was on the verge of becoming a teenager, the mystery was revealed to me. The sleigh bells were real but they were not attached to a sleigh. They were dangled out another window (near the one we would race to) tied up by bailing rope, and hidden to all visitors outside the house by a small bush and the winter darkness. At the appointed time each Christmas Eve, my father would slip away to the room and start yanking on the bailing rope to play the orchestra of bells. It was, I believe, the only musical ability he possessed.

On this particular pre-adolescent Christmas Eve, I was shown the sleigh bells and invited to ring them for the others. Even more, I was invited to take over the annual tradition. Things and families change as they tend to do and the tradition was lost. But I still have the bells. Every time they jingle I am transported back to another more innocent time.

My last Christmas Eve adventure with the bells came on my son’s third birthday. By this time the sleigh bells, which really are from my great-grandfather’s sleigh, had been reconditioned and placed on a new leather strap and were hung on a wall in our home for display only. However, on this Christmas Eve, the only in which I (a guy named Klaus) would ever play Santa Claus, I conspired one last time with the bells.

I left the house to run an errand and changed into the Santa outfit in a nearby parking lot. I returned home as Santa, where I asked for my son. He came down the steps and stood frozen upon seeing me. His eyes were about to pop out of his head when I asked…”You must be Jakob. I just saw your dad and he helped me with a problem. I forgot my sleigh bells at the North Pole and he said I could borrow yours, but I had to ask you first. Is it okay?” Still frozen in silence and staring wide at me, it took several seconds for Jake to slowly nod his head. I thanked him for the bells, slung them over my shoulder, and left. When I returned home as dad after running my errands, Jake was no longer at a loss for words. He told me all about the visit from Santa, how Santa had asked for the bells, and how he and Santa had just talked…and talked…and talked.

I still have the bells and, in fact, they hang in my office today where, occasionally, as I walk by them I brush against them and, once again, the symphony of bells takes me back to those Christmas Eves in our Iowa farmhouse.

May your holidays be filled with wonderful experiences that become the most enduring stories of your life.

More later…in 2016

Tom