I’m not much for the winter holidays. Christmas can’t pass quickly enough for me; I loathe the excessive commercial emphasis and look forward to packing the artificial tree in the basement once it’s over.
This has nothing to do with my evangelical views. I’m just little suspicious of anyone who thinks overdoing Christmas in the weeks after Thanksgiving makes up for eleven months of decidedly non-Christian living. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those folks who gets upset when someone says “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Both are perfectly valid ways to greet friends, enemies, strangers, business associates, and family. As with so many other traditions, if the church thought it was a good idea to abdicate authority for sacred celebrations to the folks on Pennsylvania and Madison Avenues, it seems to me that we’re getting what we deserve.
And it’s not that I don’t have many Christmas memories, I do.
I recall running in an all-out panic and frantically trying to hide under the couch one year when my father dressed as Santa and knocked on the front door. My parents and grandparents thought it would be fun to see the look of joy on little Michael’s face, but weren’t too disappointed when joy was replaced by terror. For the next ten years, I got to watch that scene replayed on Super 8 film as a holiday tradition.
A few years later I peeked out of my bedroom window when mom and dad were returning from a shopping excursion and spied Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots being toted in the door. I really wanted Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, but with a few weeks to go, knowing it was going to be waiting for me under the Christmas tree removed all the anticipation. Why bother with the paper?
But of all my childhood memories, it was a Christmas twenty years ago that stands out in my mind.
I had been out of the Navy a little more than a year and was living in Portland, Maine with my friend John Sullivan in a cluttered bachelor pad at the Los Angeles Apartments. Across the hall lived an old woman named Mrs. Prilutsky who was as sweet a lady as could have been. She was preparing to relocate to an assisted living facility a few blocks away, but we got to know her through frequent neighborly conversations, and by purchasing some of the things she wouldn’t be taking with her when she left her apartment.
The day Mrs. Prilutsky left the Los Angeles Apartments she extended an open invitation to visit her at her new place, and we said we would. A couple weeks later I paid her a visit and brought with me a pumpkin pie I’d baked for Thanksgiving. It was little more than pre-made crust filled with a can of One Pie mix, but I was proud of myself and seemed to make Mrs. Prilutsky’s day when I presented it to her. We chatted for a few minutes and I excused myself, promising to return in a week or two.
When I came back, Mrs. Prilutsky confessed that she’d given the pie to her brother. I wasn’t aware, but she was diabetic and the pie’s sugar content was more than enough to cause trouble. Even so, she told me she chanced eating a small sliver out of respect for the gesture.
The next week I called on her again, but was told at the front desk that Mrs. Prilutsky was at Maine Medical Center. No reason why, but I hoofed it over and inquired at the front desk then rode the elevator to her floor and found her room. Her brother was with her and I entered to say hello, but my visit lasted only a few moments. “She’s very tired,” her brother quietly told me. I left, naively offering a joke about her speedy recovery as I did.
Two days later I went back, but Mrs. Prilutsky wasn’t there. I returned to her assisted living home and was told that she had died the day before.
What I didn’t know about Mrs. Prilutsky was that she was Jewish, the implications of which would not have mattered much except that, because she died on December 22nd, her funeral would be held on December 25th.
So Christmas morning, I walked the mile and a half from my apartment to Temple Beth El, put on a yarmulke, and paid Mrs. Prilutsky one last visit.
All these years later I still wonder if it was my pie. Happy holidays, Mrs. Prilutsky.