Yesterday's Magazette

14 – Two Old Gents

Two Old Gents

By Natalie Rotunda

Grandpa was the only grandparent I’d ever known, and his last Christmas with us coincided with the last Christmas I believed in the bearded, red-suited gent who slides down chimneys with a hearty ho-ho-ho. He lived out his last days in a loving old folks’ home run by Sisters of the Poor Clares on the north end of town. He’d been without his beloved Lizzie, my grandmother, for 25 Christmases.

Mom didn’t own a car when I was a kid, so she, my brother Pete and I either walked to our destinations, rode a city bus, or family members like my oldest brother, Pat, chauffeured us.

Christmas Eve the year I was six was crispy cold, and snowy. In mid-afternoon, Mom and I walked to the bus stop half a block from home. Not long after we got there,  we boarded the bus for the long ride to St. Vincent’s Home. Mom greeted Mr. Humphrey, the driver, paid our fare, and we nestled into a seat by a heater near the front of the bus.

Mom bade Mr. Humphrey a Merry Christmas as we stepped off the bus into a blast of cold air. We moved briskly the short distance to the Home’s entrance, my mother’s gloved hand clasped around my mittened one for extra warmth.

Gramps knew about when we’d arrive. He met us at the front entrance, hugged Mom, and leaned down to plant a cigar-flavored kiss on my cheek. In the next breath, he asked where Pete was. “He’s tired, Dad, and stayed home to take a nap,” Mom replied. “He sent his love and said to tell you he’ll see you tomorrow at Marian’s.” Marian was one of my mom’s sisters. She and Uncle Sam lived in a spacious home where family members always gathered on festive occasions.

We walked to his room not far down the hall. Mom sank into a chair near Grandpa’s, and I headed for my usual spot—Gramps’ big featherbed. I stretched out, and listened as their familiar voices lulled me into semi-consciousness. They talked about family, and Gramps relived tales of Lizzie, the livery stable he’d once owned, and who would all be at Aunt Marian’s the next day.

Soon, I drifted off, secure in the knowledge that somewhere in our town Santa was delivering presents at that very moment to excited boys and girls like me.

“We have to hurry to catch our bus, Natalie,” Mom said, nudging me awake. “It’s the last one today.” Quickly, I climbed down from my soft perch, and into my warm coat. Gramps planted another cigar-flavored kiss on my cheek, and he hurried us into the hall and out the front door. Mom and I rushed through the cold night air to our bus stop, where we waited only a minute or two for the last bus home.

As a devoted fan of Santa Claus, I’m sure I talked of little else on the ride home. Had he been there yet, I asked my patient mom. What would he bring this year? And how would he get in? We didn’t have a chimney for him to slide down. If we hurried— or rather if Mr. Humphrey hurried—we might catch Santa in the act of eating Mom’s yummy Christmas cookies.

But the ride took forever. As we climbed the short flight of steps that led to the front door, I noticed the tree lights were on—did Santa plug in tree lights, too? My sleepy-headed brother greeted us. I grabbed him by the arm and pumped it up and down, expecting, I guess, information to spill out of him. Was he here yet?

“I don’t know, Natalie,” he said, “I just got up.”

We all tiptoed into the living room, and right away, I spied the coffee table where we’d left the plate of cookies. Gone, every one of them! He’d been there, all right. And the presents—all piled next to the crib. Oh, I’d missed seeing Santa! That slow bus, I groaned to myself.

Anxious to get to the presents, my racing heart slowed when Mom announced we’d eat dinner first. Soon, we were seated at the kitchen table. Soup. Veggies. Crackers. Soup took a lot of time, and Mom always had seconds. While she headed to the stove, to hurry things up, I slyly shoved my stack of miserable peas onto the floor. Mushy, nasty peas, blech! Pete’s gaze bore into me. With a look, I dared him to squeal on me.

I don’t remember one present I unwrapped that Christmas Eve. But the excitement, and the love that filled our home, is as fresh and real to me now as it was then.

Christmas Day dawned, and we all rode the bus to St. Boniface Church for 10:00 High Mass. While Mom, lead alto in the choir, sang, Pete and I sat in the pew with Aunt Marian and Uncle Sam. They took us home after Church.

Pat picked us up at home shortly after noon, and headed to Aunt Marian’s. Gramps hadn’t gotten there yet.

While Aunt Marian, Mom, and my girl cousins bustled in and out of the kitchen, putting finishing touches on the elegant meal we’d all be eating soon, Gramps established himself in a straight-backed chair in one of the two living rooms. Everyone took a moment to visit with him while I stationed myself nearby, in between trips to the table where I snitched a cookie or two.

It was on one of the trips to grab a cookie that I overheard my cousins buzz about our Gramps. I learned new things about this beloved oldster—he was 95, he walked every day, he didn’t use a cane, he wore his spectacles only when he read, on and on, but my mind latched onto that number…95. That was next to 100. I knew because I had to write my numbers in school, always to 100, too, and it took a long, long time. I liked big numbers, and my grandpa was almost as old as the biggest number I could write.

I walked back over to Grandpa, and stared at him with a new respect. Ninety-five! Wait’ll I tell Theresa when I go back to school.

By springtime, I’d learned the whole story on Santa Claus.

By early December, my dear Grandpa had left us and was probably spending my seventh Christmas with Grandma. Ever since, I’ve missed not having Grandpa around so I could learn about things that only grandfathers can teach.

Photos taken by some thoughtful relative help recall that Christmas. I treasure those pictures and the memories they bring back—of two old gents, and the place they’ll always hold in my heart.


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