By Chris Keane
My father barreled through our packed family room. “Come on, guys! Put those toys away and get ready for church!” The white shaving cream covering his face like a beard was yet another reminder that Santa was on the way. “Don’t just sit there. Get ready!” He yelled, tripping over a pile of Legos. “We’re going to be on time.”
From the couch, I spotted my Mom peering in from the kitchen. She looked focused, like a great military leader assessing a potentially dangerous situation. It definitely looked bleak from the ground. The neighbors hadn’t been sent home. The dog wasn’t walked. My brothers and I weren’t dressed. The Grandmas weren’t bundled up. My baby brother wasn’t changed. My sister was on the phone. And, the church was all the way across town!
Being late for mass had become a major problem every since my father convinced himself that our family was targeted in a political cartoon that landed in our church bulletin just after Thanksgiving. The cartoon poked fun at a family for sneaking into church late. I had to admit, the drawing of a large Irish-looking family piling out of station wagon looked a lot like us. In our church, nestled in an affluent neighborhood outside town, families typically came in neatly wrapped packages of four, not seven. Parishioners typically rode in sleek BMWs, not big old station wagons.
But, little did Father Dave and the rest of the congregation know, the McCormick family was firing on all cylinders that night. My brothers and I dropped our toys and bolted up stairs to get changed. My sister slammed down the phone and sent our neighbors home. Even our family dog helped out by waiting patiently by the door to go out. This probably had less do with my Dad’s little speech, than the shadow of Santa which loomed large over our household. Whatever the reason, we actually left the house on time!
My Dad scooped up my baby brother from the floor like a pigskin on Super Bowl Sunday as he ran out the door. It was snowing and a white dusting already covered the lawn. My brothers and I played games in the rear bucket-seats of our old Country Squire. The back of the station wagon was very cold. I could actually see my breath. There was no way those puny dashboard vents would make the trek all the way to our corner of the car universe. We passed the time drawing on the windows until my younger brother found a half-frozen McDonalds ketchup packet. Unable to resist its inanimate charm, he squeezed it just to see what would happen. In a blink, it squirted the back of the Grandmas’ hair and coats. The car got very quiet all of a sudden. My brothers and I looked at each other in shock. My Dad drove on steadily.
About halfway to the church we all smelled it. Seriously, this was one large, toxic turd. No one in the car could breathe. My baby brother started crying as he realized he was found out. My father, clearly flustered, did a K-turn in the middle of a dark two lane road as cars whizzed by.
Next thing I can remember, we peeled into the driveway nearly taking out our Santa lawn ornament. My Mom yanked my baby brother from the back seat and quickly traversed our ice covered driveway. My Dad and sister gingerly escorted the Grandmas to the ladies room to freshen up. My brothers and I briefly discussed the ketchup stains, which we figured would most certainly would be discovered and traced back to us. The temperature dropped even more when the engine cut off. It was then that I noticed the eight-cylinder monster was low on fuel. I remembered my Dad, who tended to wait to the last minute to do things, complaining earlier in the day that nothing was open Christmas Eve. What else could go wrong?
I checked my digital watch. There was no way we would make it on time now. I felt my hands begin to sweat. Normally I wouldn’t mind if we were a few minutes late for mass. But, it was Christmas Eve and Santa was watching. It just didn’t look good.
A few minutes later the whole neighborhood went dark. My brother broke out our spy flashlights, early Christmas gifts from the Grandmas. We snuck through the house, loving every minute of this unsupervised chaos. At first, all we found was our dog who immediately tacked us. It was really dark and the flashlights didn’t work nearly as well as they had in the commercial. Somehow, we rescued the Grandmas who were stranded on the staircase. They both handed us quarters and exclaimed, “Oh, you’re dears!” I could hear my Dad yelling something to my Mom about a circuit-breaker. Eventually, everyone was accounted for and we made it back out of the house.
As soon as we pulled out the driveway, all the lights went back on. By then, the Grandmas had concluded that both the ketchup stains and blackout must have been the work of some hooligans from the block. Then, without warning, my Mom erupted like a volcano that had been dormant for hundreds of years.
“We’re out of gas!”
It was quiet for a moment. Then my Dad muttered a rather unconvincing,
My Mom yelled again, louder this time.
“We’ll freeze to death out on the highway!”
My Dad, clearly on the ropes, started fiddling with the windshield wiper controls.
“Um…I computed how many miles it is to the church…and how much gas we need. We’ll make it.”
My Mom, angrier still, screamed, “So, you had time to sit down and calculate the mileage per gallon to church, but not stop and fill up the stupid tank!”
My Dad, seeming to get his bearings again, said “I calculated it, and I realized it wasn’t necessary to stop for gas.”
I knew my Dad was going to stick to his story. He would rather go down with the ship than admit he had made such a simple error.
My Mom grumbled, “You always wait ‘til the last possible minute!”
Everyone else stayed silent, obviously praying that by some miracle we would live to see Christmas morning.
Once the seven o’clock Mass time had come and gone, my father started blurting out the time like a drill sergeant dispensing corporal punishment. “Seven sixteen!” “Seven twenty-one!” And again, “Seven twenty-three!” Each scream grew louder, more desperate. As we gained speed, my brothers and I bounced around the backseat like pinballs.
Finally, we skidded into the back parking lot and headed out of the car towards the less-noticeable side entrance. This was McCormick standard operating procedure for late-mass-arrival. Even my baby brother knew the drill and fell in line like a good little soldier. Through the stain-glassed doors it felt toasty and warm. The church looked beautiful. A freshly-cut tree tipped the atrium. White lights and red poinsettias lined the altar. Throughout the church, we found a few stragglers exchanging niceties. But, there was no one on the altar. Did we miss it? As we filed into the empty front row, we read a stray bulletin. The mass start time was eight o’clock, not seven! We were an hour off. Not only had we made it, but we were actually early! This was a legitimate Christmas miracle!
My Dad periodically stared down the pew, to check on me and my brothers. Being bad at mass was a rookie mistake and I wouldn’t consciously make it. But Christmas drew some unusual characters from town, and tonight was no different. A jolly red-faced woman plucked my baby brother out of the pew, dangled him in the air and sung, “Oh, what a little angel!” Some wild-eyed kid shot random parishioners with a laser gun. Up on the altar, children dressed in pink bathrobes with towels wrapped around their heads reenacted the Nativity. A shaggy-looking guy tried to high-five me as he strutted up to Communion. I had to pinch myself to keep from laughing.
Our parish had a nice tradition of passing out lit candles as the choir sang Silent Night. Nice of course, unless you are surrounded by your grandmothers’ bulky fur coats. When no one was looking, my brothers swirled their candles like light sabers as I choked the urge to scream, “Fire!” Luckily, the coats were fake and apparently flame retardant.
My brothers and I managed to do our part in keeping it a somewhat silent night. When the Mass ended, the whole congregation joined in a beautiful rendition of “Hark the Herald, Angels Sing”. The choir never sounded so good. My father nodded down the row to each of us with a wink. My Mom and sister looked pretty in their Christmas dresses. The Grandmas looked festive wearing shiny broaches. My brothers and I looked presentable. My baby brother didn’t smell.
In the foyer, Father Dave was greeting parishioners. He spotted us right away.
“Merry Christmas, McCormick clan!”
We all yelled back our Christmas greetings right on cue. My Dad smiled, beaming with pride. As we passed by Father Dave leaned over to my Dad and whispered, “You thought the Mass started at seven. Didn’t you?”
My father’s face fell. On the way out the door, I heard him mumble to my Mother,”I give up.”
The snow was piling up on the ground. Santa would have no problem getting around tonight. Everyone piled into the station wagon for the journey home.