The ghost of Christmas past haunts us all.
My early Christmas rituals occurred in a snowy city, with aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends gathered at my grandparents’ dining table…It was pure Norman Rockwell.
However, in 1971 my parents migrated to a new home on the southern shore of Lake Monroe in Sanford, Florida. After 28 years in the Navy, my father retired and accepted a position as Commandant of the Sanford Naval Academy, a private boarding school for boys in grades 6-12.
Norman Rockwell never painted this one.
I’d never had a brother – at least, not a biological one – but I acquired 150 of them as a 14-year-old freshman in high school.
For a time, boarding schools – with small class size, structured environment and 24-hour supervision – were Southern parents’ primary vehicle for raising young gentlemen who embodied the values of integrity, honor, duty and service to others.
The Sanford Naval Academy used a military structure to achieve that mission: Develop young men of character. The routine of class, physical activity, military training and study varied little from day to day. Midshipmen were responsible for the cleanliness of their room, for shining their shoes and for taking care of their uniform. For many, these were alien activities prior to arriving at the school.
Admittedly, at their age I was more inclined to read “Seventeen” magazine than worry about shiny shoes. Yet, I felt a connection to those midshipmen, my gray, pleated, Catholic-school uniform looked remarkably similar to the gray uniform pants and shirts the midshipmen wore. We were all prisoners, of sorts, living a kind of life we would not have chosen for ourselves. My father the “Commandant,” perhaps, was the ultimate prisoner of a second career that fell short of his life as a naval aviator.
When the school emptied of students during Christmas break, his nightly ritual of scotch, consumed in a reclining chair facing the television, drove my mother and me from our small apartment on the first floor to search for something festive.
We found it in the lights on the 20-foot tree, which glowed brightly in the middle of a deserted “Quarterdeck”- originally built as the lobby of a resort hotel called the Mayfair Inn.
Seating areas in the far corners of the room disappeared in the dark, along with offices, classroom doors and a stairway leading to the upper floors. Surprisingly, the illuminated area surrounding the tree seemed cozy as my mother settled on one couch and I, on another, basking in the Christmas lights.
When it came to enjoying holiday decorations at the Sanford Naval Academy, it was either a feast or famine: The small tree in our claustrophobic apartment or the enormous version in the deserted school lobby. Odd that both spaces felt equally empty, lacking in the humanity that gives holidays special meaning.
Yet a Christmas tree alone does not a holiday make. That came in the form of the young gentlemen-in-training, who arrived at our door in the evenings under the pretext of questions for my father. In truth, they needed my mother’s attention more, and some semblance of family life.
I never considered myself to be an only child, yet the seven-year age gap between my sister and me made it seem so. She left for college when I was in elementary school and, by the time we got to Sanford, she was living in Boston with an engagement ring on her hand.
Magically, our home had filled with new siblings for me. A handful became regular guests at our dinner table, since an invitation from my family provided a chance to escape the “mystery meat” that was served in the school Mess Hall.
Midshipmen joined our family based on some combination of my father’s opinion of them, my mother’s intuition and my tolerance of their friendly overtures. They filled a void we scarcely knew existed and suddenly, they were gone.
The Christmas tree was the last remnant of weeks filled with cookies, gift exchanges and Santa’s arrival at an ice-cream-and-cake party hosted by the Naval Academy for 60 children from the Methodist Children’s Home. It provided a backdrop for photos during the Christmas Formal dance, where I was escorted by a quiet young man from Mexico with soulful brown eyes. His courtly manners were a welcome change from the attentions of another midshipman from Mt. Pleasant, who had tried to woo me with weed. (Manners were important, indeed, as my mother and father – in his full dress uniform – also chaperoned the dance.)
Those activities had lessened my “transplanted Yankee” loneliness and filled me with a sense of family far greater than the one I had been born into. The midshipmen needed us as much as we needed them.
New rituals replaced our Norman Rockwell Christmas. Yet that night, I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that we’d been jettisoned in favor of the boys’ real holiday, the one spent with family members who shared their name.
Sitting in the empty Quarterdeck on Christmas Eve, we wondered aloud about their homes, their parents — if they might miss us, too, when they returned to their native habitats. My mother, surely wondering how she came to be married to a man who drank himself to sleep each night in front of the television. And I, missing the young men who had become such a part of our family — until they joyfully abandoned us to return to their biological ones.
The temporary nature of our bonds became clear that night, as the Christmas tree shimmered with blue and gold ornaments above “gifts” wrapped in shiny metallic paper. And I knew the boxes that lay beneath it were as empty as my heart.
(The Sanford Naval Academy was established in 1963 by The Bernard Macfadden Foundation and closed its doors in 1976. My new book, “The Anchor Clankers,” will be released in 2017 by Southern Yellow Pine Publishing.)