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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Friday, November 24, 2006

When Doubt Came Slowly
Part One:

Like most adults my age, my work-week is full of deadlines and stacks of things to do.

But when we were kids, our local schools had tossed out the concept of homework and my elementary years were pretty much deadline-free. My siblings and I did have one important assignment (though it didn't come from school) due every year on the Friday before Thanksgiving. This must-do task required weeks of forethought and field work, and we knew it was almost due when Dad started packing for deer hunting.

My dad, his brothers, and a few friends traditionally took the week of Thanksgiving off to hunt in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They left and returned on Saturday, missing the big day itself, which we spent with our cousins on Mom's side. It was a pattern of life that made sense at the time.

Like all parents’ at the time, my mom and dad’s roles were securely fixed in a yet-unchallenged gender-based genetic code passed on since the beginning of time. The week of Dad's departure was full of hunter-gatherer ritual: cleaning rifles, laying out gear, and talking of meat for the family. Mom spent the same days happily in the kitchen baking banana bread and her famous date-filled oatmeal cookies and gently packing them into shoe boxes for the trip. [She later made the same “care packages” for us at college.]

By the time this week came, my mother became as giddy as a schoolgirl. Without warning, she would blurt out—“It’s beginning to look a lot like Chrits-muts…” The last word chirped out and was her cue to pinch whoever was within reach. This went on for weeks.

Just outside the kitchen, in the corner of the “someday dining room” where a “someday table” would someday go, the floor was strewn with Christmas albums like "Sing Along With Mitch" and “Christmas with the Chipmunks” (which my brother Dave had gotten the year before). The large vinyl records spun beyond the edge of the portable player and the music spread to the far corners of the house.

Mom would be up to her elbows in flour with Kathy at her side helping. To keep Paul and Dave and me out of the way she'd remind us of our Friday deadline.

"Have you finished your letters to Santa?"

There were two reasons this delightful deadline coincided with Dad’s trip: the real reason and the story we were told each year. What we were told was that Dad would take our letters to the North Pole since it was right next to the Upper Peninsula. True, the U.P. is typically a snow-covered wilderness throughout the winter, but since it’s another 2,000 miles to the North Pole, I guess they meant “right next to” in the same sense that Ann Arbor is right next to Pasadena. Just a couple of homework assignments in geography would have undone their scheme, but in our ignorance we bought the story for years.

The real reason the letters were due that week was so Mom could begin her Christmas shopping. It never struck me as odd that our Letter to Santa was to include a local store's price of the item and a running total. It looked more like an invoice than a letter. It was as if one part of me knew full well that every gift depended on telling Mom where to get it and keeping the total cost of my list within our family's budget, but another part of me actually believed that Dad took the letters to the North Pole on his way to the U.P. and that Santa would get to work right away on my requests.

The year was 1964. Still clinging to the Santa story when I was nearly nine took little effort. I was the youngest of four kids in a house full of Christmas romance.

My brother Paul studied the TV Guide and scheduled family nights around the specials. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and young Natalie Wood's The Miracle of 34th Street, and Alastair Sim's 1951 A Christmas Carol, were always on the list. [Many years later, "It's a Wonderful Life," became our family's favorite, but most of my generation never saw that film until the year after a less impressive made-for-TV remake starring Marlo Thomas aired in 1977. Ironically, public rejection of the now-forgotten remake created the loyal following the original 1946 Jimmy Stewart version has enjoyed ever since.]

This particular year debuted a milestone in holiday specials. Burl Ives narrated a stop-action animation classic that has aired every year since). It was produced in color, but since most homes still only had black-and-white TVs, our family saw it like this for years. (Click here to see "Holly Jolly" and here for other songs.)

Our most enchanting experience was one our parents never saw. Every Christmas morning when we woke up before the appointed time to open presents, my sister Kathy snuck us into her room and passed the hour by reading The Story of Holly and Ivy from cover to cover.. She was twelve at the time. Like all teachers-in-waiting, she loved to read aloud, and her voice had the rhythm of care and characters that pulled us forward as we listened. (That memory is still as warm as the baker's shed on page 36 where Ivy, the orphan in the story, spent Christmas Eve lost and alone.)

Imagine three brothers sitting on their sister's chenille bedspread enthralled by a story about a Christmas doll. It's a wonder we turned out at all.

That story involves some "window shopping," which, of course, is the first step in making the Christmas list for Santa's letter.

Since it was just a few-blocks walk away, we'd walk to Federals Department Store at Eastgate Center in Roseville. (This was before Kresge's became K-Mart.) Mom would shop the Ladies Department, put something on "lay-away," and then come back to the Toy Department at the rear of the store where I was doing research for my letter. I'd give a brief report on whether inventories were going down and prices were holding steady—I was like a commodities broker for toys. [The sign at Eastgate reflected the space age in the early 60's. Notice S.S. Kresge 5&10 in the background--that store's namesake became the "K" in K-mart.]

A few days after Thanksgiving we were at Federals and saw a Santa set up outside the toy department. Like most kids, I'd been told that "store Santas" were only his helpers. Even so, I held that a kid should only talk to one Santa a year, and it should be the best one possible. Mom knew I was holding out to see the Santa at Hudson's in downtown Detroit, but as we approached this Santa, Mom whispered, "Look Tom, There's no line."

There’s only one thing worse than standing in a long line to see Santa…and that’s seeing a Santa so pathetic looking that he has no line at all. This one at Federals just slouched back in a big chair that had been spray-painted gold. His suit was too small for him; his beard looked like one I made once by gluing cotton balls on a half paper plate that hooked over my ears. As we walked closer, I could see his glassy eyes which, but for a missing smile, may have looked merry.

“Come here, little boy, and sit on Santa’s lap,” he mumbled.

“We may stop another time,” Mom said politely, pulling me past him, “but thank you for asking.”

We browsed the Toy Department for a few minutes—just long enough for me to point out the priorities on my list for the umpteenth time—and then slipped out the back service door that opened to where the dumpsters were.

Sitting on a bail of flattened boxes was the same Santa on his fifteen minute break. His fake beard was pulled from his face, showing the stubble of more than a day. In his left hand was a smoldering cigarette butt and in his right was a crumpled paper bag showing only the neck of a bottle, which he pressed to his lips and leaned back to swig. I stopped for an instant as the cold slush of reality began seeping into my shoes.

It was then he saw us but only shook his head as if to say, "Now's not a good time, kid." Mom grabbed my hand and pulled me along before any words were exchanged. I looked back again and saw him mid-swig.

"Why did you have to pick this door to come out, Ma?”

I was understandably upset, but looking back on it now, I find it odd that I blamed my mother for her choice of exits rather than “Santa” for failing to tell Federals the true cause of his red nose.

“I’m sorry you saw that, Tom. That man should not be a ‘Santa’s helper.’ You know what? I think we should go downtown Saturday to see Santa at Hudson’s and forget all about this.”

Drunk Santa? What drunk Santa? I don’t see a drunk Santa.…
All was well. We were going to Hudsons.

[But in truth, neither of us ever forgot. Years later we’d smile at the pathetic irony of that moment. Sometimes I didn’t smile. Sometimes I actually felt bad for the man who had obviously misplaced himself…long before he put on that Santa suit.]

(Continued above)


Blogger Jody said...

Just so you know...I'm glued to my seat on the edge of my keyboard waiting for you to post part 2. =) I love that mall 'space-age' sign. I wish they had those around now...retro is very hip these days, and I can't seem to get enough of it. And in case you hadn't noticed, it's scarce in the Fruitport/Muskegon area. Happy Thanksgiving too!

22/11/06 5:05 PM  
Blogger sonshinejudi said...

I remember that Eastgate sign! So much in your story was like reliving my youth in Roseville. Where did you find the picture clips? I remember Federals, too!We moved back to the area in 1976 and alot of the landscape was still the same. It was a great memory lane mind jogger!

3/12/06 5:48 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Judy! Good to hear from a fellow Rosevillian. (--I've never used that term before. It sounds like an evil florist, twirling his mustache as he makes a bouquet.) Who would have thought that a relatively non-descript suburb in an ever-expanding circle of suburbs would later have meaning in our lives? It sort of confirms those signs you see in home decor shops "Home is where your story begins."

5/12/06 8:52 AM  

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