An Oil Lamp With a Mantle – A Christmas Memory
When I was growing up I was lucky enough to have a hero that I could hug and talk to every day; a hero who was my friend and my grandfather. I was lucky.
My grandpa has been dead some 45 years now. It’s been a long time since I was lucky enough to have him in my life. And since, I’m getting closer and closer to the age he was when he passed away, I’m thinking maybe someday I’ll get to see him again.
Today I was thinking about my grandfather’s last Christmas and how special it was to me… and I hope for him as well. I don’t know why things happened as they did that Christmas, but I like to think there’s something bigger and wiser and far better than us in the universe – and sometimes by will or by accident, we get to touch it, if only for a moment.
The Christmas Past I was thinking about was my grandfather’s last one, although I had no reason to believe it would be his last one. He was in pretty good health. He didn’t seem to be any different than he had been those last few years of his life. I would have noticed if anything had changed with his health – he was my hero after all – I was always worried about losing him. Back when I was 23 he was 75, and from my youthful perspective, he was very old. Funny, i75 doesn’t seem so old now. But back then I thought people who were that old died more than they lived, so I was always paying attention to his health.
Though his health, humor and demeanor seemed unchanged, I had this, what seemed to be, urgent need to make this a very special Christmas for both of my grandparents.
Ever since I can remember, my grandparents had an artificial tree – and back in those days, there was no mistaking an artificial tree from a real one. I had a real tree at my parents house, but my mom died when I was 10 – in fact she died the month before my 10th Christmas; I only had her for 9 Christmasses. And because of the bad memories of my mom, most of my memories of Christmas are bittersweet. The artificial tree at my grandparents is THE Christmas tree I always remember.
For some reason, I decided that this particular year, I was going to go out and buy a real tree for my grandpa and decorate it too. My girlfriend and I trampled through the snow at over a dozen places where they sold real Christmas trees. I remember lugging that tree back to my grandparent’s house in my little sports car, with most of the tree dangling off the back of it.
I remember the day my girlfriend and I dragged that tree into the house… only to discover my grandparents didn’t have a suitable Christmas tree stand. So, off we went to Giant Tiger (that was the name of a large discount store) to find a stand for the Christmas tree. Remember, I’m 22 going on 23, and I know nothing about home ownership or Christmas tree stands of even decorating a Christmas tree. We found a stand and bought some new lights and a few new decorations and back to my grandparents we went.
My girlfriend and I spent the entire afternoon decorating and fussing over that tree until (we thought) it was perfect. When we done, my girlfriend took a picture of me standing in front of the tree with my grandparents… I still have that picture.
Funny thing, looking back 40+ years, that tree doesn’t look so perfect anymore, my grandfather doesn’t look so healthy, and the day doesn’t look as wonderful as I remember it.
I wonder what is more correct? My memory or that faded photograph? I wonder which has faded more – the photo or my memory?
When the tree was decorated, and my girlfriend had gone home, I made my grandparents dinner that night. We had pancakes. I made great pancakes – so so I thought.
All this took place less than two weeks before Christmas, but when you’re young time passes so slowly. It’s one of nature’s nastiest jokes that the older we get and the less time we have, the faster the time flies. Not funny. I’m not laughing.
My grandfather never asked for much, but after two decades of giving him Old Spice (aftershave/cologne) for Christmas, this year I wanted to do something very special for him and my grandma too. My grandfather, like me, loved to reflect on the simpler times and the more innocent times. He mentioned to me that the oil lamps of the day weren’t as bright as the ones that used to light his home when he was a boy.
“These new oil lamps don’t have a mantle, that’s why they’re not as bright”, he told me. Now, remember, I’m going on 23, i’m hip to the technology of the day, and I don’t have a clue what a mantle is… and there’s no Google. My grandfather tried to describe a mantle but I couldn’t visualize it, so I ended up going to my girlfriend’s house – she had a whole set of encyclopedias! – and looked through them until I found an oil lamp with a mantle.
Once I knew what it looked like, I was like a hound dog on the trail of a rabbit. I looked everywhere. I spent the better of those two weeks looking for an oil lamp with a mantle. I drove sixty miles east and fify miles west. I looked everywhere I thought might have an oil lamp with a mantle. I could not find one. I was about to give up, when I went with my girlfriend to a store that sold nothing but china – and glassware. She wanted to buy something called Cobalt Glass. I had no idea what it was – she showed me this dark-blue glass pitcher, “this is Cobalt Glass” she said – looking at me as if I had just crawled out from under a rock.
But right next to the Cobalt Glass was the Cranberry Glass and there, with the glasses and the picthers and the butter dishes made from Cranberry Glass, I saw an oil lamp with a mantle. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I couldn’t believe the price tag either. It was $89. That was 40 years ago – that’s something like $250 in today’s money. I was lucky that I was making money playing music. Still, it took every last dime I had to buy that oil lamp with a mantle. I took it to my girlfriend’s house so she could wrap it and keep it until Christmas eve for me. I knew if I took it back to my grandparent’s house, I would break down and beg them to open it.
It took all the money I had to buy it, and I couldn’t wait to give it to them. I’m sure you know how that feels. It’s not the money, it’s not aggravation I endured finding it, it’s the love I invested in it and the love I knew I soon would share.
Christmas Eve finally came and my grandpa unwrapped the oil lamp with a mantle. He had tears in his eyes … the expression on his face made it worth twice what I spent and double the time I spent finding it. I can remember the next day he went out to buy lamp oil – and almost every night for the rest of his life, he lit that oil lamp with a mantle.
Looking back, I wonder what made that Christmas different. Why did I decide to buy my grandparents a real tree that particular year. Why did I spend so much time, that particular year, trying to find them a very special gift that year? Maybe somehow, when two people are as close as my grandfather and I were, we somehow know, deep inside when things are about to change. I had a dream a few days before Christmas that year. My grandfather was dressed in white and riding on a white house. From a distance, in a white landscape, I saw him riding toward me. When he rode up next to me he stopped and looked at me and said:
“Soon I will be going away and where I go you cannot come. But we will meet again someday, I promise.” He touched the top of my head softly and rode away – disappearing into the white.
I shook the dream off as just another weird dream.
A few days after Christmas, my grandfather went into the hospital for the first time in his 74 years. When he came home he was never the same. He lost a lot of weight and looked haggard: his appetite and his smile and his fire were gone. But not his love. In late February of that year, he died suddenly.
But today, decades later he lives on in my memory. And on my bookcase sits that oil lamp with a mantle. And every Christmas Eve I light it and I remember one of the most beautiful Christmasses of my life. And I remember my grandfather – who never really left me at all.
Do you have a story like the oil lamp with a mantle? I’m sure you do. It’s all about giving the greatest gift you can give – the gift of your love.