Holiday Memories of Love and Family
By Brad McEwen
As much as it bothers me to admit it, I just don’t think about my dad as much as I used to.
Sure, he pops into my head from time to time—always at a critical moment when I need to recall some important and timely nugget he instilled years ago—but it’s not often that I really reflect on the 27 incredible years I shared with David McEwen.
It’s been nearly 14 years since he lost his valiant fight to squeeze every last drop of life out of the time he’d been given, and in that time, the frequency with which I’ve thought deeply about my father has slowed as the years seem to have sped up.
But regardless of how often my thoughts turn to my dad, each year when the world is awash in red, green, silver and gold, and carols of hope and holiday cheer float through the air, he always works his way to the forefront of my mind.
So much so that even though they never had the pleasure of seeing his face light up on Christmas morning, Milla, Bear and the rest of my crew understand that “Daddy Dave,” as he’s affectionately known to my children, is very much a vital part of a McEwen Christmas.
Even though he’s not physically with us, his spirit permeates everything we do this time of year.
To say my dad loved Christmas is an understatement. I mean, I know folks who go nuts about Christmas each year, but I guarantee they’ve got nothing on the excitement that permeated my father as Christmas approached.
It seemed as soon as the fridge was filled with leftover turkey and stuffing, my dad’s eyes would start twinkling like the tinsel and lights he’d soon be stringing around the house and you’d catch him quietly humming snippets of his favorite holiday classics as he’d go about his daily routine.
The closer we got to the big day, the more pumped up he would get and the more his naturally happy and youthful demeanor would shine through to everyone around him.
And that enthusiasm was infectious.
As much as I enjoyed Christmas (for the all the typical reasons a kids loves that particular holiday), an important part of the excitement I always felt growing up, didn’t come from dreaming about which presents Santa might leave under the tree, but from seeing how jazzed my dad would get near the end of each November as we made the final push toward the big day.
My dad loved every aspect of Christmas, everything. From hunting down the perfect tree, and trimming the house, to gathering with friends and worshipping at midnight on Christmas Eve. Annual rituals like sneaking an extra one of mom’s baked treats, and savoring the traditional Yankee Christmas dinner of standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding, to making last minute trips to the store or enjoying a toddy and old holiday record by the fire, all of them were precious to my dad. Each tradition, big and small, that add comfort and joy throughout the season were dutifully honored each year by my dad.
No matter the activity, if it was Christmas-related, my dad cherished it and would always find ways to make it even more special.
Of course of all the things my dad loved about Christmas, I’m pretty sure his favorite was giving gifts. To him there was nothing better than seeing the joy on someone’s face when they opened that special something he’d picked out just for them. He made sure, every year, to take great care and when finding gifts for those he loved.
Where vast numbers of folks still do the lion’s share of their Christmas shopping in a mad dash across the final few weeks before the season is upon them, my dad would always plan ahead. As soon as the holiday decorations were back in the attic each January, Dave would already be plotting next year’s gifts and thinking about what treasures he might find as the year progressed. He’d be careful throughout the year to keep his eyes open and he’d spend time thinking about the people in his life so he could to give them a gift that truly touched their heart.
For my dad, gift giving wasn’t about getting somebody the coolest new toy or the must-have thing. It was about understanding the recipient and then getting them something that on Christmas morning would seem as if it was made especially for them.
In Dave’s world giving gifts was about relationships, about understanding and connecting with people.
I always thought it was cool that he didn’t just run out and buy somebody any old thing. And it made a huge impression on me that it wasn’t enough to simply give a gift.
I learned early on, that even if you’re not good at it (me), wrapping a gift was almost as important as the gift itself. At least it appeared that way based on the time and effort he always put in during the final days leading to Christmas. It seemed to me he put as much care and love into wrapping the presents each year as he did into finding them.
In fact, I can still vividly see him gathering up his supplies and heading up to the attic for his annual wrapping ritual.
I remember our attic had flooring, so at some point he’d lugged an old kitchen table and chairs up there so he’d have a place to work in privacy. He had what I’m sure was a not-up-to-code chandelier wired above the table to help him see and he’d hole up in there with various rolls of paper and bags of bows, tape and ribbon for hours.
He’d pour over the intricate creases and folds of each wrapped treasure, careful not to use too much tape, and always taking time to decide which of the different wrappings best fit the gift and/or person.
And to make sure no one inadvertently stumbled across what he was doing and thereby risked seeing their present prior to the glorious reveal on Christmas morning, he even went so far as to cut a piece of plywood to fit perfectly over the entrance hole in the floor of the attic so he could cover the stairs once he was up there and work undisturbed.
Just as clearly as if he were right across the room from me now, I can see him sitting there at the table, wrapped up in his ancient red plaid bathrobe, his reading glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, a cigarette in the ashtray and a cocktail at arm’s length, with a broad smile across his face as he’d diligently take the little scraps of leftover wrapping paper and use them to carefully wrap the little trinkets and goodies he’d soon stuff in somebody’s stocking.
And I can still picture him on Christmas morning, kicked back in his robe and slippers, a piece of ribbon or gift bow stuck atop his nest of uncombed hair, Bing the and Andrews Sisters on the stereo, a grin of sheer delight on his face as he watches someone open that special gift he had prepared for them.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but as the years have progressed and the focus of my Christmases has shifted away from me and been placed squarely on my children and others, I’ve come to think that the main reason my dad took so much care and loved giving gifts, both big and small, to a wide variety of loved ones, friends, and folks in need, was because doing so was tied directly to what mattered most to him as a person.
For my dad, giving gifts was about love. It was a way for him to let those around him know how much he cared for them. It was a way for him to give the real gift I think he tried to give no matter the season, and that is the gift of love.
My dad was many things, but there’s no denying that he was full of love. And he had no issue showing it. He wanted you to know he cared about you. He was always affectionate with his family and friends and always met the world with a smile and a kindness that just seemed to emanate from him.
So it made sense that the holiday most rooted in love would appeal so strongly to him.
Each year the debate about the commercialization of Christmas rages and we often lament that it seems the true meaning of the holiday has been lost over the years.
But I’ve always looked at that situation through the lens of my father.
Sure Christmas has gotten commercial, and no doubt giving people gifts sometimes seems to have trumped the focus that many, including me, feel should be placed on celebrating the birth of our Savior, but I like to think my dad had it figured out, reconciling that issue in the way he approached the holiday.
Christmas might be about spending money and giving people gifts, but for my dad, celebrating the love he had for his family, friends, community and Creator and giving freely during the holiday was really an expression of his faith.
I think he saw Christmas as an opportunity for him to honor the gift of salvation that was given on that first Christmas when God gave his Son to the world.
By sharing with others, be it time, gifts, or most importantly love, my dad felt he was connecting to the spirit of Christmas and thereby connecting with Christ. I believe he simply felt that if God could give us a gift so precious, we could surely honor that gift by outwardly living Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors and give unto others—two things that are hallmarks of Christmas.
It’s hard not to get a little misty-eyed thinking back on Christmases spent with my dad, because I do miss him so much, especially at this time of the year. But I also think it’s important to reflect on those times and enjoy the memories and savor the important lessons.
In fact, one of the last Christmas memories I have of my dad, certainly brings with it a hint of sadness but it also sums up how my dad felt about Christmas and about life.
Over the course of the three years my dad battled terminal cancer, we managed to celebrate a few Christmases and as always they were wonderful.
But as one of those Christmases approached, those closest to my dad were all afraid he just wouldn’t make it. He had basically been living on time his doctors thought he’d never get, and he’d already had a really rough patch leading into the prior Christmas, where again we thought we’d lose him.
Well by October of that year we were kind of shocked he was still with us and even more surprised that he was still the same old smiling David McEwen, even if his body was betraying him and he was falling apart.
I could tell as that final Christmas approached that it might be the last Christmas I had with him and without saying anything aloud I think he knew that too.
But despite that growing feeling, we pressed on with our normal Christmas traditions and sure enough on his good days dad had managed to get out of the house and go do some shopping, so we were able to have our normal Christmas.
In fact that particular Christmas was wonderful, certainly much better than the prior year’s holiday when he hadn’t been doing well and we’d all been convinced that was his final Christmas. Dad seemed somehow revived for the holiday, energized. The dread that he might not make it to the day was lifted and replaced with the hope that maybe he had turned a corner and would be with us for more holidays in the future.
But what made this particular Christmas really special was what happened as our normal morning marathon gift exchange drew to a close.
We were finishing up and starting to gather up all the shreds of torn wrapping paper, bows and ribbon that littered the den, when my dad stopped everything and excitedly called me over.
At this point he was pretty frail and didn’t get up and down much, so he often needed my help with seemingly minor things. I scurried over and he told me to hurry into the closet in his bedroom and find a box that he put in the corner on the top shelf.
Ever the dutiful son, I did as I was asked and retrieved the box.
Once back in the den, dad called for me, Tay and mom to sit back down because he had something important for us.
Kind of confused, but absolutely curious, we did as we were told and were absolutely blown away when with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen, opened that box, revealing dozens of wrapped presents.
And in a repeat of what had happened hours before, he started checking tags and handing presents to all of us—big gifts, little gifts, stocking stuffers, you name it. There was something for everyone.
It was like Christmas déjà vu all over again.
Now the reason we ended up having a double Christmas that year, was because after barely making it through the prior year’s Christmas, and convinced in his heart that he would not celebrate another one, my dad had immediately gone out early in the year and done all of his Christmas shopping and wrapping so that his family would have one more Christmas even if he didn’t make it.
Apparently he had done all of that so early in the year, that well before summer had rolled around he was completely done and he’d also completely forgotten he’d done it.
In the back half of the year, with another Christmas in sight and the memory of his January shopping spree gone from his mind, he simply did what he always did and simply knocked out his shopping and wrapping.
He said he only remembered the box of presents after watching us open all of our presents and realizing there were things he’d gotten us that we didn’t open. Yet there were no more presents under the tree. After a moment of panic, where he thought maybe he was really losing it, he remembered the box.
Needless to say, we all got a big kick out of that and looking back I think it was kind of the perfect end to Christmas with my dad.
He left us not long after that, really going downhill health-wise after the turning of the New Year, and as a family we believe he knew that Christmas would be his last. We believe that through sheer force of will he made sure to hold on as long as he did to get through one last Christmas—not so much because he wanted to enjoy another Christmas before he went home to heaven, but because he wanted to see all of us to have one more wonderful Christmas.
He wanted one last opportunity to show us how much he loved us.
Christmas can be stressful. There’s so much going on, the weather is wacky and it’s almost impossible to get through the holiday without worrying just a little bit about how to fund everything. I get that. And I’m as susceptible to that stress as the next guy.
But when holiday stuff starts feeling like it’s getting out of control and I start to feel overwhelmed, I just think about the twinkle in my dad's eye and remember the true joy he got out of being with loved ones and celebrating his faith each year. It didn’t matter what gifts he got or how big the tree was. It just mattered that we were together, celebrating our faith and our love. I think about all the blessings that I’ve received and how fortunate I am that I got to spend so many wonderful Christmases with my dad and now get to share the traditions he loved so much with my children.
Thanks to the lessons he taught me about loving and giving, this Christmas, like the many that came before it, will once again be a magical time of celebrating my faith and making precious memories.
Merry Christmas dad! I love you.
I hope everyone has a joyous and wonderful Christmas and New Year’s.
Beyond the Bank will be on hiatus for the remainder of 2018, but will return soon, ready to share some thoughts about life and highlight more of the incredible people and things that make our community such a special place.
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen