Al Batt: Santa wasn’t watching, but Aunt Ingeborg sure was

Published 8:33 pm Tuesday, December 22, 2020

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Tales from Exit 22, By Al Batt

I don’t care if we have a white Christmas.

There, I’ve said it. Such an utterance is nearly a sacrilege.

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I remember going to see the Christmas tree man each year. He was destined to sell Christmas trees according to a neighbor who claimed the man’s head comes to a point. We bought the cheapest Christmas tree in the lot, only seeds would have cost less. The tree had a lived-in look. The guy gave us a box of needles to go with it.

The stockings were hung by the chimney as a warning to others. Some presents looked familiar. That was because my family saved wrapping paper. Used wrapping paper is good enough for the present. Our Christmas wasn’t measured by the depth of discarded wrapping paper. The cat sat in a cardboard box. It lived in the present. I gave my brother and father English Leather cologne so they could smell like leathery Englishmen. The Christmas Day meal taught us that the secret ingredient is always butter.

One of my Aunt Helens (I had three of them) loved odd things acquired at low prices. She worked at a gift shop and must have spent her entire paycheck buying curious objects. One year, she gave me an automatic card shuffler. Sadly, it disappeared to that place where those kinds of things go. Another year, she presented me with a snow globe containing a tiny house and a tree. I’d fight sleep by turning the globe over and over again. It gave me feelings of power and weightlessness. I dropped the globe. It was bound to happen. It cracked. The liquid ran out. I put water in it and replaced the snowflakes with soap flakes. I knew that wasn’t a good idea, but I did it anyway. At least the surviving snowflakes were clean. I put cellophane tape over the crack and attempted to glue the crack shut with Elmer’s Glue. That broken snow globe was never properly repaired or replaced. It joined the automatic card shuffler. What could live up to its memories? Sometimes memories are all we have.

I lived in one fine city, worked nights in another and attended college in a third. I spent a lot of time on the road when my car was feeling up to it and met many of the same cars each week. An older fellow driving an Oldsmobile in one small town frequently ran a stop sign in front of me. The guys at the table of infinite knowledge in that town’s cafe told me the driver had been opposed to the installation of the stop sign and running it was his way of expressing his displeasure. A dangerous protest. I met my wife’s Aunt Ingeborg regularly on the road. I was heading south as she motored north. She was a schoolteacher who might have exceeded the speed limit slightly. I waved at her each time we met on the highway. She had her hands at 10 and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel and her eyes firmly focused on the road ahead. Her mind was on how to turn her mushy-minded charges into lean, mean, learning machines. I waved. She didn’t return my waves. I even checked my rearview mirror to make sure she wasn’t merely late in waving back. Nothing. She wasn’t waving. I did exaggerated and goofy waves, including waving with both hands. Nada. Then one day, after a stressful 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. work shift, I replaced my wave to Ingeborg with, let me phrase this delicately, an obscene gesture. It’s something I don’t do, but I did. I couldn’t help myself. I was a young man, one of the lowest life forms on earth. There was no response from Ingeborg. I figured she hadn’t seen it, just as she’d seen none of my kinder and gentler waves.

That Christmas, I was one of the in-laws, properly referred to as the outlaws, who’d received a Christmas card from Ingeborg at the family’s holiday gathering. I knew the card would have a fresh $5 bill she’d gotten from the bank just to put in the card. It was the same thing each year, but appreciated. I opened mine and found nothing in the card except her signature. I shook it. Nothing came out. The other outlaws each got $5.

I should have told Ingeborg a hand cramp had caused my obscene wave.

Merry Christmas and then some.

Al Batt’s columns appear in the Tribune every Wednesday.