Dear reader: One of my Christmas traditions is to write a letter to go along with my annual card. Usually, I go for humor. Sometimes I even make things up — or exaggerate for comedic effect — in pursuit of that humor.
My letter does not compile a list of family highlights like trips abroad because we don’t take trips abroad. Sometimes, in the Christmas rush, I wish I didn’t have the tradition of writing a letter. Or even the weight of Christmas cards. But I carry on.
When I write a holiday letter in which I don’t make anything up, I often share it as a Pokin Around column. What follows is this year’s letter.
(FYI: Kemery is my wife and Luke is our 31-year-old son.)
Kemery, Luke and I hope you are doing well and finding joy this season and throughout the year.
I am too set in my ways to not write a letter to tuck in with my Christmas cards. But with writing comes the responsibility of asking: What do I want to say? Is there a story I would enjoy telling? Is it one you might enjoy reading?
My childhood memories of Christmas include driving by a business I never entered: Stark’s Warehouse Store on Harlem Avenue in Chicago.
When I was a boy, my family lived in Melrose Park, Illinois. We rented the first floor of a two-story house owned by relatives who lived in a small home at the back of the lot.
On Christmas Eves, we drove to my aunt and uncle’s house in Evergreen Park near Chicago. Aunt Ruth was one of my father’s four siblings. She always bought me and my brothers clothes. I am the middle child of three boys.
At that age, I wasn’t thrilled with clothes as a Christmas gift, no matter how many times Mom pointed out that they were purchased at Marshall Field’s in Chicago.
I remember it was always dark when we drove 25 miles to Aunt Ruth’s and Uncle Leo’s on Christmas Eve. My brothers and I would be in the backseat of our Rambler station wagon.
It remains a mystery to me that the gas cap on that car was so often stolen. It was today’s catalytic converter – without the precious metals. I was convinced that for some reason Rambler manufactured, say, 10,000 models, but only 9,000 with gas caps.
My dad would cover the void with aluminum foil until he could find a replacement.
No, he did not go gas-cap hunting at midnight and steal one – to the best of my knowledge.
Not quite the star of Bethlehem
The presents we brought to Aunt Ruth’s would be piled in the back of the station wagon. My dad drove; he often smoked a pipe. I am fooled into thinking he is nearby, even today, whenever I smell Kentucky Club Mixture.
My Mom was of the stay-at-home variety. Only later in life did she learn to drive. She eventually worked outside the home.
I recall that we drove a stretch of Harlem Avenue to get there. I double-checked the route before writing this letter. Stark’s Warehouse Store was at 59th Street and Harlem, according to an online site called “Forgotten Chicago Forum.”
Stark’s wasn’t quite the star of Bethlehem, but it had a big and bright sign that pointed the way to Aunt Ruth’s. The sign would be dark by the time of our trip home.
As a boy, I read Marvel comics. They were delivered via the mail. It was a special day when a Spider-Man, wrapped in brown paper, arrived with my name on it.
I imagined back then that Stark’s was owned by Tony Stark and that somewhere in that building on Harlem Avenue was his Iron Man suit.
The Iron Man character debuted in 1963 when I was 10.
I never entered Stark’s. I never even owned anything from Stark’s. But to this day, I link that sign to Christmas Eve, when I would see the Pokin side of my family, including my cousins, and I link it to Christmas morning, as well.
That’s when my brothers and I would receive an extravagance of presents from parents who I knew, even then, struggled financially at that point in their lives.
As I said, I read about Stark’s on “Forgotten Chicago.” For some reason, it pleases me to discover I would have enjoyed the place.
Its wares included sporting goods, fishing and camping equipment, army surplus and bizarre items like slightly burnt — but highly discounted — bowling balls.
On top of that, a boy could actually look through a bombing sight that had once been in a World War II bomber.
Of course, Stark’s is long gone, as is Marshall Field’s, as are my parents.
Only one of my father’s four siblings remains — Uncle Frank, the youngest, who is 91. My brothers today are fantastic grandpas.
I am 68. I am not a grandpa.
I’m in good health and started a new job Oct. 1 with an online-only newsgathering organization called the Springfield Daily Citizen. It’s a nonprofit.
The paper tried to keep me, but it was too little/too late. I’m excited about 2022!
Hope you are, too.