(This Mile Marker is continued from the last installment)
Part 3: The Gift.
Mrs. Owen greeted us at the door with a wide grandma smile and a hand-typed program and thanked us for coming. The Redhead and I shook the snow off our coats and stomped our boots clear and walked into the cozy living room. The smells of cinnamon and vanilla and ginger and apple and pine whisked lightly and enticingly through the air. A fresh-cut Christmas tree stood in the corner at attention, draped regally in silver tinsel and purple ribbon and hanging heavily with shiny gold ornaments and hundreds of twinkling blue and orange and green and red and yellow lights, warmly bathing us in the spirit of the season.
Polite conversation was the order of the evening as we squeezed through the packed roomful of strangers, scrunching ourselves down into a couple folding chairs tucked in tightly next to the jet-black baby grand. The fireplace was roaring, chasing the Idaho chill out of our bones while we sipped our mugs of eggnog and munched our crunchy-sweet krumkake. Nat King Cole played softly somewhere. Chestnuts Roasting.
It was Christmastime, 2006. Mrs. Owen’s Annual Holiday Piano Recital. Our eldest’s first public performance. He’d just turned eight and had been taking lessons for a year and liked playing and was actually pretty good but when I dropped him off earlier for dress rehearsal I’d caught his dark and worried eyes in the rearview. Asked him if he was okay and he nodded and said he was fine but I was certain he wasn’t. Looked a little shaky. A lot pale. I couldn’t understand why he was so nervous but I’d find out soon enough. He’d been planning a surprise. For me. A Gift.
Mrs. Owen floated into the living room like the Queen Mother, her stately presence silencing us, commanding our attention. She folded her hands grandly in front of her ample bosom. Thanked us all again for coming. Said that all of the children had been practicing very very hard and that we should all be very very proud of them and that we should also be very very proud of ourselves for raising such very very fine young ladies and gentlemen and we all burst into a round of applause just because it seemed like the right thing to do. Mrs. Owen beamed. Floated to the side of the room. Dimmed the lights. And the recital began.
Marky Wilson kicked things off with a rollicking version of Jingle Bells, catching everyone off guard when he snuck in the “Batman Smells” lyric. Hilarious. That Marky. A tough act to follow but Nancy Kostecki was more than able, slaying us with an angelically soft and sweet and oh-so-sincere Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Plenty of snorts and sniffles from the crowd when she finished, followed by cheers and applause and a gracious curtsy from Nancy. Danny Parsons was up next, taking a painful, halting, and wildly misfingered shot at Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a memorable performance made all the more so when he stopped midway through, slammed his fist hard onto the keyboard, and barked out a word that none of us ever thought a third-grader would know. Thankfully, after a short and impromptu intermission, Sarah Anderson brought the festive mood back into the room with a cheery and peppy and delightful reading of Winter Wonderland, as Mrs. Owen side-manned expertly on sleighbell. Then, it was the eldest’s turn.
He walked out from the hallway to the center of the room. Looked sharp in his charcoal-black suit and crisp white shirt and red Santa tie. All grown up. Didn’t look at me or the Redhead. Gave the audience a quick, shallow bow and marched over to the baby grand and took his seat. Cleared his throat. Reached up to the keyboard. Started playing. Christmastime Is Here. My all-time favorite-ever Christmas song. From my all-time favorite-ever Christmas show. And he played it beautifully. With Nuance. Style. Dynamics. Pacing. Ennui. And as the song’s final lovely notes decayed into the candlelit hush of Mrs. Owen’s living room, he looked at me. Smiled. And I melted into a blubbering mess.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
And now it’s Christmastime 2020 and he’s twenty-two and things are, well, Different. Thank You Covid. He graduated from college a month or so ago and after diligently quarantining we all gathered at stately sludgo manor to watch the ceremony stream live on the big TV. Cheered and whooped and hollered when his name scrolled past on the screen. He tossed his mortar board in the air. Sipped a congratulatory toast. Opened the cards from the Beehive and the Redhead’s folks. And looked happier than I’d ever seen him.
As I sat and watched him enjoy the moment, I remembered the text convo I’d had with his significant someone back around Halloween. The one where she’d casually mentioned he’d been talking about getting back into music after graduation. Not the piano, though. She said he’d been looking for a guitar. A good acoustic.
So I got up out of my chair. Walked back to my studio. Brought out the Guild from Cucamonga. Handed it to him. He gave me a puzzled look and I told him it was a surprise. For him. A Gift. Said I could teach him some stuff. If he wanted. Just the basics. Some chords. Some runs. A few Jedi tricks in case he ever wanted to impress his friends. And just then the holiday music station started streaming its next selection. The Vince Guaraldi Trio. Christmastime Is Here.
He looked at me. Smiled. And I melted into a blubbering mess.
Merry Christmas, BaTsters…