My Silly, Ticklish Heart

Christmas rescues us once again, in a house the color of egg nog.

In the last several years, I’ve lost a wife, a son, my last remaining parent, two very close friends, my career and then finally the lifelong feeling that there is someone watching out for me.

Never really saw that coming, this sensation of being totally on my own so soon.

I figured my wife would outlive me; she was always eating kale and egg whites, shunning processed meats. Never drank much, had hardly any vices except for me, the ultimate vice, an emotional vagabond with too many buddies and an endless appetite for small adventures where pretty much everyone winds up hung over.

Christmas was my latest adventure, featuring a bit of prayer, a glass or two of vice and the most intense and delicious slab of beef – the size of a small canoe (thanks Finn!).

On Christmas Eve, the gouda cheese carved up like ancient candle wax. The Barolo wine tasted like a thick Scottish fog.

Absent the usual social options – parties, caroling, church – we did Christmas Eve services remotely, then spent the next day in a house the color of egg nog, accompanied by a trans-Siberian husky that might be a goose, might be a guardian angel.

She rescues me in many ways, this wolf-dog, and we’ve spent recent winter afternoons bonding at the Rose Bowl.

We all decided that my grandpa name would be Papa, as in Papa Bear George Halas, a link to my Chicago roots.

I see the Rose Bowl as therapy, as a retreat, as you would the sea, this tree-lined old stadium on Pasadena’s western hip.

There is something oddly restorative about old stadiums on murky winter days, with their exposed girders and tired grace.

I’ve been drawn to old sports mansions my entire life, going back to old Comisky in Chicago and Tiger Stadium in Detroit. The Orange Bowl in Miami might’ve been the best thing about Miami.

Now there’s Lambeau, so glorious in the blowing snow the other night, football’s Westminster Abbey.

They all have qualities new stadiums lack: a soul, for one. A fetching backstory. A hard-won and rusty allure.

Anyway, on Dec. 26, two of the kids and I put on our new Christmas sweaters and went over to put the Rose Bowl to bed. It was 4 in the afternoon, and the winter sky had just turned to peppermint soup.

Most Rose Bowl hikers hug the inner pavement, along the chain link fence. I prefer the soft outer trails, half hidden in scruffy brush and fallen sycamore leaves.

Sounds like my mustache, doesn’t it: “scruffy brush and fallen sycamore leaves?” More and more, my mustache is the color of Christmas potatoes.

In the photo we took, dominated by the ski sweaters, Smartacus looks like Jack Frost. I look like a Christmas cookie with a mustache.

If you saw us parading around the Rose Bowl, you’d think: “Look at those three loons in the new ski sweaters.” And you’d be right.

Our alpha loon? Rapunzel. She is one of those people incapable of keeping in step, as do marching bands. She’d last about three minutes in the military.

Instead of hiking, Rapunzel dances — the Nutcracker, or some personal ballet she hears in her head — spinning, walking backwards, kicking invisible soccer balls, and chattering the entire time.

Each Christmas, it seems, some little personal secrets spill out. This year, Rapunzel revealed that she was once placed on social probation for performing tipsy while playing Joseph in a college sorority skit.

In her defense, think of what Joseph was dealing with at the time: no money, no motel reservation, and a pregnant virgin bride. You’d drink too.

I suspect Rapunzel was merely lending her own edgy interpretation to the Nativity, one that lives on in Delta Gamma history.

The lovely and patient older daughter revealed no Christmas secrets, other than her glorious pregnant profile. To me, she looks like a candlelit Renaissance painting.

The older daughter crushed Christmas, as she always does, generously heaping gifts on her sister, brother and me. She and her new husband Finn gave me a drawing of an old stadium – Wrigley – to hang in my newly decorated living room.

I gave her some dog-themed flannel PJs in honor of Penny Laine, her new pup. We haven’t been dating long, but I’ve tumbled head over heels for Penny Laine. Proves once again that love is rarely convenient, or well timed. Can’t wait to see what this grandchild might do to my silly, ticklish heart.

On Christmas Day, we all decided that my grandpa name would be Papa, as in Papa Bear George Halas, a link to my Chicago roots. “Papa Bear George Halas” is a little long, so I suspect the grandbaby will shorthand it to Papa, or Pops. I’ll melt to either one.

I also gifted the older daughter with my boyhood Lionel train set, which she’d asked about a couple of months back: “Dad, you think I could have your old train set some day?” So I cleaned it up, got it working, and wrapped it for Christmas.

When she opened it, she cried a little, then her sister cried a little. I looked at their brother and said, “Oh gawd, would you look at them?” then cried a little myself. Our family is like that.

So, this Christmas proved to be a real keeper, despite all the COVID precautions, the silent-night churches, the drive-thru communions.

Guardian angels all showed up in force, ready to work. Took five hours to prepare Christmas dinner, 20 minutes to eat it and three entire days to clean it all up.

One of my few social graces is a love for doing dishes after major parties (it gives the gin a chance to settle in my bones). I felt like I was on a roll till my son Smartacus handed me back the mashed potato dish, claiming I missed a few spots.

“Go ahead,” I said, handing him the sponge. “Wear yourself out.”

And he did, jumping right in and bringing another Christmas feast to the finish line.

Christmas Day is the longest of the year, some 144 hours of gifts, naps, nogs and overindulgence.

It always ends with me kneeling by the fire, as if in prayer, or downing a punt.

I kneel to turn off the gas flames that have flickered since 9 am, and think how much I still cherish the holidays, just the whole bitchin’, bawdy, noisy, overwrought, resonant, beautiful mess of Christmas, the toll it takes on the house, the sharp retorts and the gimme-a-break eye rolls, the hugs and the tears of gratitude…every ping of the piccolo, every little jingle of a bell.

“You OK, Dad?” someone asks as I kneel to turn down the fireplace.

Actually, I’m grand.

Happy New Year. Please get out and glide around the Rose Bowl or walk along the Strand on these magnificent winter days, so that you’re ready when our Happy Hour Hikes begin again. In the meantime, I’m raising a Gin & Tonic Society glass to you and yours. For books, gin glasses, newsletters and past columns, please click here:

25 thoughts on “My Silly, Ticklish Heart

  1. Unbelievably beautiful summation of an indescribable day. Don’t know how you do it, time after time. Your columns are getting better and better. Lucky us. P.S. Someone IS looking out for you. Lots of someones, actually. We love you and your wonderful brood.

    1. Each reader is looking out for you, dear Chris, as I suspect you are doing the same to us. For us? Onward to 2021, Papa. xox

  2. Wonderful words again, Papa! Thanks for making us all smile through the holidays! And I’m pleased to say I got what I asked Secret Santa for: a Hiking Club T-shirt! Can’t wait to wear it sometime soon when hikes resume. Happy New Year!

  3. Thank you for the reminder that when loss seems unbearable there arethings that remain, and they are worth celebrating.

  4. I like the name Papa and love this post. This must have been the Christmas for a fantastic roast the size of a small canoe. Ours was 1960 Cadillac-sized and scrumptious. You’ll bask in its afterglow for years to come. I think this is the year to savor what we do have instead of focusing on what we don’t. You did it beautifully.

  5. Thank you for another beautiful interpretation of your family Christmas. I look forward to your posts but this one was extra special.

  6. Always love your take on the big and little things. So funny, touching, and universally true. Thanks for keeping us entertained and for continuing to include us in your world. Merry Christmas! Cheers!

  7. Chris- thanks for sharing your family so generously with us. I live vicariously through you when it comes to the dogs & hiking! Happy New Year to you & your family. Kathy

  8. Ahhhh…writing larger than life,at least many of them. And a feast for the senses, to go with the rest of the feast. To me, it seems the family is the feast, that goes with the rest of the holiday tenses, the emotional openness the real beauty in the narrative. And “Papa” sounds just right to me. Hemingway, who was larger than life and lived that way, was called “Papa”, and since you share many of his proclivities and a measure of his way with sentences, how could you be anything else to a child newly awed by language ?
    May the New Year bring you the renewed opening of experience to go with the richness of spirit everywhere manifest in your life, Chris. As for romance, maybe just an extension–added dimension, since it’s obviously everywhere around you….

  9. As always, you capture all the moods,sentiments,flavors,aromas,sights and emotions of Christmas! The litany of the tragedies you and your family have endured are heartbreaking. But like a true Phoenix, you and your close knit family have risen from the ashes and continue to brighten our lives with your uplifting prose. Also, you have touched on one of my pet loves, old stadiums. My favorite, the L.A. Colosseum;my family lived and breathed and bled Cardinal and Gold for decades as almost every Saturday was spent in the blazing sun or cool shadows of it’s stately Peristyle and Olympic torch to it’s crumbling arches and tunnels. But we loved going to those games. Then my children and now little grandchildren.There is nothing like the roars of a crowd echoing throughout, or the hush in an empty Stadium resounding in memories. Thanks for rekindling Stadia reminiscing. Happy and Healthy New Year to all!!!

  10. Crushed Christmas yourself, there, Chris. LOVED the train set story—way to go. And you just reminded me that the view from the window of my first office of my first job after college (writing ads for Cunningham Drugstores in Detroit) was of Tiger Stadium, just down the street. Best office window view I ever had!
    Jeff from La Mirada (Sela Ward woulda made a nice view too though.)

  11. What a wonderful gift you have given to all of us that read your columns! I cannot help but smile when I read your lines and these days you know we need all the smiles we can get ! I cannot wait to get back to the Happy Hour Hiking Club when it is all safe and hearing more stories and of course all the writings before then. And I think Papa is a great name for a grandpop BTW. Happy New Year to you and your family !

  12. So happy for you & your family Papa, a new beginning, it will be wonderful for everyone & you all deserve happiness in the new year.

  13. Your writing is amazing, very soothing like a warm blanket. My younger daughter bought me some Gin & Tonic Society glasses for Christmas – perfect gift to crack out on New Years Eve. Happy New Year to you and your family

  14. Thanx for brightening at least two of our days every week this year, Chris. A lot to look forward to, Papa. Enjoy! Grandy

  15. Chris, the comments about your boyhood Lionel train set brought a smile. God bless our children that value family heirlooms and truly want them for their own budding family. Loved that you spruced it up and gave the train set to your lovely older daughter as a Christmas gift. A memorable gift that is kept within your family!

  16. Hi Chris, I liked this column the best of your holiday series – very poignant! I’ve been reading your column for over half the time you were at LAT. We share many connections. I was diagnosed with cancer right before Posh and followed her journey every step of the way. I’m from the city of Chicago as opposed to you who, I believe, is from the suburbs? Every day for four years my brother and I changed buses at Addison x Clark to get to our high school. Many afternoons were spent in Wrigley Field. The sign dedicated to your son is imprinted in my mind. Our son is a bit younger than Smartacus and we have been keenly his college explorations.
    Perhaps you didn’t lose a career but a job? And now you have embarked upon a new stage of life, a Second Act, to define your way, Papa!

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