24 December, 2012

The German Girl

I'm sorry, Kerstin.
Ever since my Dad died in '94 Christmas hasn't been the same.  A lot of families have their Christmas traditions and during my life, we've had some but they have been short-lived for one reason or another.  I've written previously about the traditional family things I've missed out on due to the large age gap between me, my siblings and cousins.  Those "traditions" changed frequently with the most stable part being my preteen years to 23.  My 23rd year was when Dad died.  Nothing has been the same since.  Toss in the loss of two cousins, three grandparents, a brother, one of my best friends... I sometimes think that I don't know how to celebrate Christmas anymore.  The stability I do have has come from my remaining family.  Years ago we stopped having Christmas at Mom's house and started holding festivities at my Sister's.  I have to say it has taken me awhile to become comfortable being a "Christmas nomad".  After my Sister and Brother in law (I will henceforth refer to him as "brother".  He's been around most of my life and is not an in-law, he's my blood as far as I'm concerned) bought their current home (it's huge), we started doing an overnight thing as near to Christmas day as possible.  The intent was originally for my nieces and nephews to all be together as well as the rest of us.  I wasn't too thrilled about the idea at the beginning.  I've always worked a night shift and have a seriously different schedule than everyone else; I've also never been able to sleep in "strange" places, i.e. not my own bed.  To add on to the schedule problem, I've been a smoker on and off (mostly on) for a long, long time.  When my Dad was dying I began to think about how I ended up smoking.  None of my other siblings are, or were, smokers.  I'm quite sure they've tried it on occasion, but never fell into the trap.  Somehow, I did.  Long story short, my Dad had a big influence in that area.  Please understand, when I was a kid in the '70s and 80s, smoking was not the social evil it its today.  The effects on our bodies was the same, but the social stigma was not attached.  I digress.  As my father was dying I realized he was probably the major reason I picked up the habit.  I don't hold him responsible, it was simply a different time.  However, I realized that my nephews and nieces were going to be rather impressionable at their young ages.  Somehow my Dad and I had been like-minded when the oldest of my nephews was born.  Dad and I never talked about it except for one time when I was in high school.  He knew I was smoking and he knew how addictive it was.  He confronted me about it one time and didn't scold me, but made his point in the way only he was capable of.  He was still smoking and henceforth couldn't scold me without being a hypocrite.  He simply said to me that he didn't approve of me smoking and if I was going to continue doing it that I was not allowed to smoke on his property.  With a few exceptions, I honored his request.  I also added to it.  By the time he died I had decided that my nieces and nephews would never see a cigarette in my hand or in my mouth.  I smoked in front of my Sister once or twice and one of my brothers fairly often, but never the kids.  I was hell bent on not having ANY influence on them.  As the kids got older I'm sure they were able to equate the smell of uncle Tim with smoking but, to this day, none have them have ever seen me smoking nor have really mentioned it.  I did discuss it with my two oldest nephews a couple of years ago since they were into their 20s and were not apt to be influenced by their wretched uncle.  The oldest of the kids know I'm a smoker, but since I've pretty much kept it hidden, they're thinking that it must be something to be ashamed of.  It will be awhile before the two youngest are clear of the impressionable stage.  I apologize for the long-winded side story, but it is relevant to the Christmas story.  So, having to spend a night at my Sister's over Christmas I, of course, had to be a non-smoker.  Those of you who have experience with someone going through with withdrawl (from anything really) know that it can be a rather bad time.  So, I had two things to battle.  Lack of sleep and nicotine withdrawl.  It has been a huge struggle to keep myself from turning into "Mr. Asshole" at these Christmas gatherings.  I loathed having to do the overnight thing.  Not because I couldn't smoke, but because I knew I would progressively become more of an ass the longer I was without cigarettes.  To top it off, in recent years, my Mother wanted me to drive her to my Sister's.  It only made sense.  Still, That was an extra two hours of driving that I had to battle.  The drive up wasn't bad, but by the drive home I always had a short fuse.  It took all I had to maintain my composure.  In my adult life, I made my Mother cry just once, and that was one time too many.  I have never felt like such a horrible person.  So,  knowing my limits, knowing what can happen to me, the overnight stays were not something I looked forward to at all.  Until this year.  Previous years, I had never had to work during the overnight thing.  There was a couple of years that I had to go to my Sister's after work, but was always able to spend the night.  This year it was looking like I would have to work Christmas eve and wouldn't be able to spend the night.  To my surprise, I was worried about it.  I still think it's a pain, but it's only one night.  Seeing my family in one spot all at the same time is well worth losing sleep and fighting the addiction demons.  Now my concern is what will happen when the kids are finding their own way in life and can't participate.  As the two youngest kids get into high school (considerable gap between them and the rest of the kids, all in their 20s) I think the overnight thing will end.  I'm not going to cry about it, but I worry about the youngest two.  This little event has been a large part of their world for many, many years.  I don't want them to have their Christmas traditions juggled about as it had been for me.  At least they'll have a stable family no matter what the event happens to be.  That's all I can wish for.  Now, just when you think I'm winding things up, I have more.  A lot more.  Hang in there.


Fall 1989.  I was introduced to Kiki (Her name was Kerstin, but she went by Kiki) by friends.  Kiki was an exchange student from Unna, Germany.  A beatiful girl with sandy blond hair and a smile that would knock your socks off.  As cheesy as it is, we fell in love very quickly and spent a lot of time together.  Her command of the English language was remarkable and we could converse normally with only the occasional pause to sort out some slang she had never heard before.  We went on dates, went to school dances, held hands, watched movies, made out... the things teenagers do (or at least did when I was a teenager).  Christmas eve 1989, Kiki's parents had scraped together enough cash to fly to the US and see their daughter.  They didn't speak a lick of English, yet they were here.  Kiki and I made plans for that night.  I was going to go to her host family's house meet her parents and hang out for a little while.  Keep in mind, this was before the world wide web, so other than phone calls and letters, Kiki had no way to connect with her parents.  No email, no IM, no skype... You get the idea.  Anyway, I was at my grandparent's house and then had to announce my departure.  Something I had never had to do before on Christmas.  I headed over to Kiki's place and almost wrapped my Dad's truck around a telephone pole due to ice and inexperience (strangely enough, that spin-out happened just six blocks from my current home).  Still, I arrived safely, met her parents and chit-chatted as much as possible given the language barrier.  Kiki then took me into her room, sat me down and handed me a little box that she had wrapped with much care.  I opened the box and saw the silver chain with the silver "K" she had always had around her neck.  It was strange that I hadn't noticed she wasn't wearing the necklace at the time.  But, she had given it to me as a token of our relationship.  It was a heavy moment that I didn't fully appreciate at the time.  About a month later I had asked her to accompany me to the annual awards banquet for the fife and drum corps I had been a member of for many years.  It was a way for me to reciprocate the devotion she had shown to me on that Christmas eve.  I arrived at her place to pick her up and she answered the door in pajamas.  I hadn't communicated our plans clear enough, she didn't understand or simply got the date wrong... Some innocent mistake.  I saw it as her not taking me seriously enough.  Something that had happened to me rather often in my youth (I was definitely NOT in the "in" crowd).  Like an ass, I stormed off.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  Not long after, March as I recall, Kiki's friends were throwing her a going away party just before it came time for her to return to Germany.  I did not plan on going, but a former friend somehow dragged me to the place.  I refused to go inside.  Eventually, my former friend came back out and we left.  That was it.  I found out later that Kiki had started crying when she found out I was outside and had refused to come in and see her.  She left this country on an unhappy note because I was a complete asshole.  The two most bitter enemies of any person, pride and selfishness, had gotten in the way of something that was beautiful.  I had allowed those two enemies to enter my life and destroy something that was very precious.  Love.  Like the clueless youth I was, I shoved that night into a corner and tried to bury it.  The guilt, however, has remained to this day.  Starting Christmas eve 1990, I started driving by the place she stayed while in this country, this city, in my heart.  Not to be nostalgic, but to remind myself of what a horrible person I had been, and can be.  I loved that girl.  When it came time for her to leave I had no idea how to deal with that situation.  My simpleton mind found an excuse and used it.  Wrong!  I wanted her to stay.  I think she wanted to stay, but also wanted to go home.  I can't hold that against her.  Maybe things would have worked out.  Maybe I could have gone to Germany to visit her.  Maybe she could have come back here.  Unfortunately because of my mistakes, I'll never know.  Making Kiki cry and hurting her is the wound, thinking of what could have been is the salt I pour into that wound every Christmas eve.  This year is no exception to the rule.  Twenty three years after the fact and I'm still beating myself up.  I'm sure she's long forgotten about that asshole in Wisconsin, but me having been the cause of her pain, I can't let it go.  Beating myself up every Christmas eve is my punishment.  Merry(?) Christmas.

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