Marilyn A. Kinsella, 1987
Since my father died in 1979, I have come to believe that the passing of a loved one opens a “window of grace.” It is a time for miracles. If we leave ourselves open, a message will arrive like a warm evening breeze…a gentle whisper confirming what we already know.
My father, Fred Niemann, was your typical “50’s dad.” He worked hard to support his family. He provided an excellent example for all who knew him. Although he was never a demonstrative man – to put it mildly - we never for one second ever doubted his love for us. Faithfully, he practiced his religion. Although he firmly believed in an after-life, he also firmly believed that there was no way for the spirit world and our physical world to make contact. It wasn’t so much that he totally discounted the idea, it was just that such things as ESP, visions, miracles, etc. never happened to him. So, he simply chose to “not believe.” I wonder now after the events surrounding his death…would he choose to “believe.”
To understand his story, one has to understand my father. He was an intelligent, analytical, left-brained person. He thought of words as a series of letters that needed to be compartmentalized into little boxes for his favorite New York Times Crossword Puzzle. He was a master bridge player who could remember and discuss bridge hands from years past. He had a time and place for everything and everything in its place.
My father was a creature of habit. His movements were controlled by the clock. Seven o’clock – time to wake up; twelve o’clock – time for lunch; six o’clock – time for supper.
Even his dinner plate was set-up in clock fashion: twelve o’clock – starch; three o’clock - vegetable; six o’clock – meat; nine o’clock – salad. He would start at 12 o’clock and take precisely one forkful of food, chew and swallow; proceed to 3 o’clock – repeat. He went around his plate like that until he was down to his last bite. If he saw that he did not have enough 6 o’clock to finish his plate, he added one forkful in order to make a clean sweep.
Even his ice tea had to be made a certain way. According to his book there were two ways to make ice tea – the Fredrick W. Niemann way and the wrong way. To make Fredrick W. Niemann tea one added three Lipton tea bags to a pot of rapidly boiling water. Let steep. Add two teaspoons of sugar to a glass full of ice cubes. Poor hot tea over the cubes and stir…viola – Fredrick W. Niemann ice tea! I’m not really sure his recipe was all that good, but we sure did go through the ice cubes at our house.
And all this was nothing compared to the holidays. We had certain traditions that were…unique to our family. For instance, my father would not buy the Christmas tree until the Saturday before Christmas. Everyone else up and down St. Clair Road had their trees up, but not the Niemann’s – oh no, we had to wait until the Saturday before Christmas. I’m not sure if that was a German tradition like my father told me – or that bit of Scots blood that ran through his veins…”You know ladies, if you wait till the last minute, you get such a bargain on those trees.” Finally, my dad took his old Chevy down to the tree lot and picked out a broken- branched, needle- bare tree and hoisted it back home. By this time, we were just happy to have a tree.
Next, came the lights. We didn’t have those soft, twinkly lights of today. Back then we had hot 6- watt bulbs. If one went out, the whole string went out. My father would plug the strings of lights from every outlet. Dad would sit down with a box of lights and try out each one until the string of lights shone. Soon our living room turned into a giant, electronic game board. After the lights were strung, we ceremoniously added the ornaments…and the tinsel to the tree one-by-one-by one. Once the tree was decorated we all sat back…no finer tree in all of Fairview!
Something else happened on that Saturday. My father always waited until the last minute to buy his gifts. This was a joyous day for me. This was the day my dad took me out to “help” buy gifts for my mom. Now, mind you, he knew exactly what he wanted – the size, the color, and most importantly, the price. He just had this thing about buying presents. It looked better, if I bought them. I didn’t mind because he always took me out for lunch. This happened only one time during the year. It was our special date. I’d take his gifts, wrap them, and put his name on the tags. Mom opened the gifts with great relish. She’d slyly look over at me and give her Mona Lisa smile. She knew what went on, but loved them even more.
After my father retired, he developed arteriole sclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, as we called it. After several operations to clear his veins, the doctors said they could not operate again. In November of 1979, when symptoms reoccurred, he was hospitalized. The doctors recommended a controversial treatment. Since there was little choice, he agreed to the prescribed medication. At first things looked hopeful, but then he suffered a series of small strokes.
The once self-assured, brilliant man was now reduced to a frightened, forgetful soul. Sometimes when I came in, he didn’t even know who I was. Other times, he had lucid moments and spoke with great clarity. He told me that he wrote some gift ideas down on one of his crossword puzzle. He wanted me to find the list and get them for Mom. I agreed that I would. I looked everywhere for that newspaper with the list, but I couldn’t find it anywhere.
As December approached, we knew that Dad would not be coming home. One day I came to the hospital. Dad had a faraway look in his eyes. I stood there for a few minutes until he suddenly looked at me and said, “Do you see them? Do you see the lights?”
“What lights, Dad?” I asked.
“The lights – at the Shrine! They are so beautiful!” I didn’t want to tell him that I had been too busy to go the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows this year to see the light display.
Then he came out of it and said, “Oh, I thought I was at the Shrine.” At the time I thought it odd that sometimes Dad didn’t know who I was, yet he knew the lights were on at the Shrine.
It was several years later when I heard of a phenomenon called “traveling”. It happens when death is approaching. The mind, or spirit, travels to those special places that it wants to visit one last time. Although my dad never believed in such things, to this day, I believe he was out enjoying those lights when I entered his hospital room.
On December 12th, Dad passed away. It’s always hard to lose a loved one, but especially at the holidays. I was bound and determined to make the best of this Christmas. So I went on a mission to find the list he left. It would make my mother so happy. One day, I was going through some things in his room at home when I found it. His newspaper was neatly folded up with some hospital things. When he switched rooms, we bought some things home – that’s why we couldn’t find it. The list was written in pencil around the margins of the crossword. The Saturday before Christmas I bought the gifts, wrapped them, and put them under the tree.
Mom was so surprised to see the gifts from him under the tree. I felt like I was his special messenger that Christmas. But wait. There was more. Mom said there was a box in the hallway closet. We brought it out. Inside were more gifts from my father – all wrapped and tagged. It was as if he knew! Had my father who chose all of his life to “not believe” turned into someone at this Christmas season who chose to “believe?”
A few days after Christmas, I visited the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. The crowd had died down and I had the place pretty much to myself. At one point I stopped the car and just watched the lights as they mingled with the stars on that cold, crisp December night. As the lights blurred I said softly, “Yea, Dad, I see the lights. And they are so beautiful.”
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