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Mychal Wilmes: Sorry, Santa, we're not always nice

"Be careful.''

Mother's mantra did not include "be nice'' because it was understood that the greatest commandment is to treat others like you wanted to be treated. She did not necessarily expect me to always follow those words.

In most social settings there is at least one person who doesn't fit in. Often, those who do fit in grant themselves exemptions to the Golden Rule.

The mismatched puzzle piece in our small town was the lawnmower man, so titled because he drove a riding lawnmower around town, among other quirks. He could be obnoxious on slow Saturday nights at the Municipal liquor store, where he aggressively bummed beer from those disinclined to give. A beer made him your best friend, and as such he shared the good news about his girlfriend via a photograph pulled from his wallet.

"Isn't she beautiful,'' he marveled. "I bet she's better looking than yours."


I didn't have one, but neither did he. The photograph was a long-ago graduation picture of a girl he would never meet. But he had grand plans.

"I'm going to get married,'' he said.

Fantasy can appear more real when loneliness embraces a person like a dirty winter coat. The holidays are tough on people because high expectations can't be met. I was among them, but that is not an excuse for what was said. I called him a retard and crushed him like a cockroach. I wish that I could take that back.

I was down because the Christmas tree back home had become so small that it was foolish to bring the big cardboard box of lights and ornamentals down from the attic. Mother's ornaments — some from the 1930s when popcorn and cranberry ropes were strung on the tree — were made more beautiful because of Mother's memories. One came the year her last child was born at home. Dad lobbied the doctor hard to back out of a pheasant hunting trip to South Dakota as the delivery date neared.

Another ornament marked the first grandchild's arrival. The angel that stood tallest had been her mother's.

Mother wasn't an easy person to buy for. A fancy present would be tucked away in the closet where it would keep until a special occasion that never seem to arrive. Christmas week was less about her than visitors — seldom-seen uncles and aunts entertained with shared stories, fruitcake, cookies and sausage made in the smoke house. They gifted wine and hand-me-down clothing that might suit me.

What really suited me was the Mickey Mantle-endorsed glove I'd seen at the hardware store. I had been good enough not to complain too much about beneath-me housework and chicken chores. It therefore came as a shock on Christmas morning that the glove beneath the tree was nothing more than a used, ugly thing that looked like a dirty pillow. Dad said that a new one was too expensive.

He found an unreasonable substitute at an auction for 25 cents.


The line between being good and bad was remarkably small and the effort made not to cross it worthless.

Mother's memories faded away except for precious moments when Alzheimer's allowed. It's funny how the demon returns stolen decades-old memories while the present remains lost. Toward the long end, we didn't bother with the small plastic tree. The house, once filled with Christmas guests and wood-furnace warmth, stood empty. Some would say it was a more bitter than sweet end, but they would be incorrect.

The memories that remain are warm. Old gifts given are cherished anew. The laughter returns from stories retold and the angel shines from the top of a tall tree.

Be careful and be nice are heard once again. However, neither one is always obeyed.

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