Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Memory - I'll Be Home for Christmas

When I was little, most Christmases our family would travel to Lebanon, Pennsylvania to spend the holiday with my Nana Kay. The day after we arrived, Mom, Dad and Debbie would head out to do last minute Christmas and grocery shopping. Since I was a ‘handful’ at the store, I was always left behind. I never thought of it as punishment, for me it was a treat, Nana Kay and I would spend the day baking the final round of Christmas cookies. It is where I discovered the magic of baking.

 I loved her kitchen and often wish I could step back into it; the old white stove with black grates, the square table that sat in the middle, my magnetic paper dolls often adorned the wide metal band that circled the table top, the silver chairs, the peeling sound they made when you got up from the white plastic vinyl cushions. On the right side of the kitchen was the 'dish' sink, it was so tall I had to stand on a stool to wash my hands.  I remember how the oven would warm up the kitchen, the heat would at times be so hot Nana Kay would open the back door, slide down the window on the screen door and let the cold winter air in to cool down the house. 

Next to the kitchen was the formal living room, a place where children were never allowed to sit or play. It was the room with the fancy furniture, end tables with huge doilies, an over-sized curio cabinet I was convinced I could live in and a long table covered with old family photographs that ran the wall of the staircase. I was banished to my room once for knocking down the pictures with my dangling feet as I slid down the banister. Other than the  enticing banister, the room always seemed old, uninviting except for Christmastime. After Thanksgiving the room was a mecca of wonderful. It came alive with feather trees, angels with glittering hair, greens with red bows adorning their drapes, candles that once lit cast dancing shadows on the wall. The trophy of the magnificent room, on the back wall, standing between two large green wing chairs graced with playful Santas and under a set of large shiny red Christmas bells that hung from the ceiling, was a beautiful old hi fi stereo. It was huge, it was wooden and it was awesome. I loved the sound of the brass hinges as I lifted the lid and set the arm to hold it open.  The speaker in the front looked like a black mesh flower, the legs were beautifully sculpted, the sides always polished to a shine.  It was beautiful when it sat silent and it transformed to magnificent when it came alive with music. The only time I was allowed to enter the room and play the stereo unsupervised was Christmas baking day. 

Before Nana Kay would light the oven, measure any ingredient, she would retrieve her Christmas albums from the cabinet and lay them next to Santa in the chair. My job, when an album finished playing, I would replace it with the next one in the pile. As the day wore on the stack in one chair would grow larger as the other stack diminished. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, The Andrew Sisters, Perry Como, Doris Day, the King Family, Elvis Presley, I had them all memorized and would joyfully sing along with each. 

Decca Records, Bing Crosby in a Santa Hat wearing a holly bow tie, with ‘Bing’ signed on the side. The album was White Christmas and I remember it so vividly, not for its title song but for another track, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”. When the song ended Nana Kay would tell me to "run and play it again". I would stand on my tippy toes so I could see the album spinning below and safely grab the needle. I would scrunch my nose and squint my eyes as I carefully identified the correct blank track. Curling my lower lip, slightly biting it I would steady my hand so as not to drop the needle or let it bounce as I placed it back down at the beginning of the song. To make sure I had placed the needle in the proper spot, I would wait for the orchestra to begin before I would turn and skip back into the kitchen. When the Bing Crosby finished and the choir began to sing Nana Kay would take my hand and we would dance around the table. The flour from my apron seemed to mimic a light snowfall as it danced its way to the floor as she spun me. Our last Christmas together, we must have danced to the song a dozen times. What I remember most, I was always puzzled, no matter how many times the song played; Nana Kay never sang the lyrics correctly. Her words were only slightly off, but they were still obviously wrong. I never pointed out her mistake, I never asked why; I was nine, I didn't question, I sang along and enjoyed our dance together. 

It was several years after Nana Kay’s death, when I was in college that I re-discovered her old Christmas Albums while searching for a box of lost ornaments in the basement. I pulled the box from where it had been neatly hidden and placed it on the floor next to Dad’s work bench so I could easily retrieve it later. After the tree had been decorated and my parents and sister went off to bed, I decided to dust off the Old Christmas albums and see if they still played. I pulled the box out from the work shop and loaded up my stereo. 

The fire was dancing in the Franklin stove as I lie on the couch, waiting. I heard the record drop, with the sound of the arm moving across the stereo I began to hold my breath. At first there was only static, slowly the crackling from album’s age gave way to Bing Crosby’s beautiful baritone voice. I smiled as I listened to my old familiar Christmas ‘friend’. I was snuggled deep in my blanket when I heard the familiar orchestra and guitar intro for "I'll Be Home for Christmas." I rolled over on my back, closed my eyes, put my arms in the air, so my Nana Kay could spin me once again. As we 'danced' and I sang along I finally realized it wasn’t a mistake, Nana Kay purposely changed the lyrics. Her words were, in a way, a love letter to my Grandfather. He had died at the age of 36 shortly after returning home from World War II. Now I understood why she often looked to the ceiling as we danced, she was singing to heaven. I understood why she wanted me to “run and play it again” and again and again. Irving Berlin’s song from so long ago; was Nana Kay’s Christmas love song to her Marlin, my grandfather. 

The older I become, the more I can relate to the longing that was in her voice as she sang. Life has taught me when you lose someone you love, the years may pass, memories may fade, but the love never changes, the hurt never fades. 

Tonight after the Christmas Eve service, as everyone was bustling around me saying their Merry Christmases and good byes; I sat quietly in the pew and said a prayer. I prayed for all the men and women who died serving our country that will never be home for Christmas. I prayed for the family and friends they left behind, who if they are like me will be dreaming of a Christmas one more time with the person they love and miss. When I finished my prayer I quietly sang my Nana Kay’s version of I’ll Be Home For Christmas especially to my Grandpa (Lt. Col. Marlin R. Kopp) and Bobby (Lt. Robert T. Bianchi) and to my friends, Kevin (Cdr. Kevin A. Bianchi) and Pete (Cdr. Pete Oswald) who never made it back home.

So this Christmas, I thought I would share my Nana Kay’s story… and hopefully, who knows maybe next time you hear “I’ll Be Home Christmas” you will sing her lyrics, then quietly say a prayer for all servicemen and women who will only be home in the hearts and dreams of the loved ones they left behind. 

Below are her lyrics, (Please note, on the newer recorded versions of the song, there is an intro that was not on the older Bing Crosby rendition, so I added my own changed lyrics to match my Nana Kay’s. I hope you don’t mind) 

I’m dreaming tonight 
Of a man I love
Even more than I usually do
And although I know it was a long time ago
I promise you

You’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
We’ll have snow and mistletoe 
And presents under the tree 
Christmas Eve will find you
Where the love light gleams
You’ll be home for Christmas
Forever in my dreams

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