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The week between Christmas and New Year’s has always seemed awkward for me. On the one hand, it's too many days to waste, but on the other hand, why start any new projects when we're headed right back into another holiday – and there's usually a weekend in there to boot.
Everyone's focus shifts toward the new year, reflecting on the last twelve months of good memories and events. 2020 is different. People talk about how bad it was, saying they wish to put it behind them and never look back.
While trying to find some good in 2020, I recalled a conversation with an elderly friend. We talked about getting caught up, trying to salvage a lost situation. He said, "You have to recognize when you can fix something and when it's time to let go and start over." I listened intensely to his words of wisdom as he continued, "You can't polish a turd." He said, then shaking his head, added, "Try as you may, you'll never get it to shine." I nearly died laughing. He smiled at my laughter, "You’ve never heard that?" I admitted I had not. "You've got a lot to learn, Tom."
I thought of his words and conceded, "Yep, that pretty much sums up the year 2020." It was time to move on.
Our girls were here for Christmas. They started a jigsaw puzzle on Christmas evening. One thousand pieces with an image that would be difficult to assemble. Delaney and Annie had to return home for work, but Sydney was able to stay the week. She and Melissa have been making slow but steady progress on the puzzle.
I heard them talking, accusing our dog, June, of eating a piece from the puzzle. Defending my trusty friend, I insisted, "You cannot convict the canine until you've completed the puzzle. As of now, you don't even know if any pieces are missing." They knew I was right; still, I got glaring looks and was informed June's breath smelled like puzzle pieces. "Circumstantial evidence won't hold up in court." I declared and hurried June off to the other room for her safety.
Speaking of pieces, Sydney had been searching a long time for a single piece that would complete the area on which she'd been working. "If I could just find this one piece..."
Hearing this, her seven-year-old daughter, Addison, approached the table. Glancing over hundreds of loose pieces, she picked one up and pressed it in place. "You can quit looking, Mom." She smiled and walked away, smugly. Addison was now an admired hero.
Speaking of heroes, I didn't really want to work on a puzzle. It had snowed overnight, leaving about six inches of fluffy stuff. Clearing the driveway would give me something else to do. I told my granddaughters, "I'm going to snow blow the driveway. Do you want to come with me?"
Dressed in frilly white ballet outfits with shiny tinsel and glitter, they informed me princesses do not shovel snow. "Princesses?" I challenged, "You look like snowflakes to me, and I'm going to pile all the snowflakes on the side of the driveway."
I went into my bedroom and put on my navy blue long johns and matching long sleeve thermal shirt. I pulled my white tube socks up over the legs about halfway to my knees to keep my long underwear from riding up when I put my pants on. When I picked up my jeans, I spotted something that gave me an idea; a light blue bath towel hanging on the towel bar. I laughed an evil laugh.
Today I intended to make snow blowing more fun than usual – even memorable. Over my socks, I put on my new dark blue knit slippers. I tucked the bath towel into my collar on the back of my shirt and wore my blue, white, and orange ski mask. With only an oval opening for my eyes and an extended neck, it looked like a helmet. I put on my camping head lantern and a pair of sunglasses. Oh, I also added blue latex gloves to cover the rest of my flesh, complimenting the goofy blue theme.
With my headlamp set on the flashing mode, I ran down the hall to the living room – my towel, I mean cape, waving behind me. The girls screamed and laughed. Melissa rolled her eyes. "Oh my gosh," Sydney exclaimed, "Who are you supposed to be?"
I turned my head slightly, lifting my chin with dignity. In my best French accent, I announced. "I am a north shore superhero. My name is Long John Jerry. (pronounced Lawn Jawn Jair-ee) I am here to pile all zee snowflakes on zee side of zee driveway!" The two little girls, dressed in white, screamed and ran. I began chasing the snowflakes around the house. "I am Long John Jerry! I shall pile you in zee snowbanks! Mwahaha!"
After a couple of laps around the living room, Addison pulled my towel away – I mean my cape. "You're not Long John Jerry – you're Papa." She laughed.
"Oh, no!" I declared, "Everyone knows a superhero is powerless without his cape." I quickly snatched the towel – I mean my cape, from her hands and retreated.
After clearing the drive, I drove into Silver Bay looking for a snowman or snowflake cookie cutter so the girls and I could bake and decorate cookies. There were none to be found. Before heading home, I thought I would check the Dilly Dally Shop – maybe they would have one. They didn't, but I found something even better.
The Dilly Shop had an old-fashioned Tupperware popsicle maker. It was complete with all six cups, handles, lids, and the tray with six slots to hold the popsicles upright while they're in the freezer. Everything was on sale – 75% off, so it only cost me 67 cents with tax!
Addison, Evelyn, and I filled the molds with pineapple/orange juice then added a little grenadine for color. We pushed the handles through the slots in the lids. "What are we making, Papa?" They asked.
After I snapped the lids on, the girls placed each container in the tray. I lifted Evelyn and she set the tray of unfrozen treats on the freezer's top shelf. "You'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out," I said, setting her down and closing the door.
Early the next morning, something happened that hasn't happened for about twenty-five years. Our oldest daughter, Sydney, came into my bedroom whispering, "Dad? Dad, wake up, it's…" I opened my eyes briefly then drifted off. It was still dark out. I wasn't yet coherent and mumbled something about waiting until the morning. "Dad, just come look at this." She pleaded with urgency, tapping on my arm.
I pulled myself from under the toasty covers, put on my slippers, then followed her down the dark hallway. I thought she would show me some deer or wolves in the bright moonlit yard, but she stopped at the thermostat. "It's freezing in here," she said, pointing to the temperature.
I squinted my eyes to see, "Sixty degrees is not freezing." I replied.
"But it's set at sixty-nine. I don't think the furnace is working." She was more concerned than I.
"The furnace is only five years old." I explained, "I want to sleep a few more hours; then I'll get up and look into it."
I checked the time and temperature; 6:34 a.m. and minus twelve degrees outside. "Twelve below?" That made me shiver; I was awake now. "Are the girls in your room?" I asked. She said they woke up cold and came to bed with her. "Okay, I'll look at it now. You go back to bed and keep them warm."
I checked the breaker and the fuse at the furnace. I made sure the filter was clean and had not been sucked into the fan. It all was good. I shut everything off to reset the unit. The lights came on, but not the furnace. Next, I put on my coat, hat, and boots; I went outside to check the air intake and exhaust with my flashlight. Both were clear. We had just filled the LP tank, but I trudged through the snow across the yard to check it anyway. It was full.
Back inside, I lit a burner on the stove to make sure gas was getting to the house. It was. I even changed the batteries in the thermostat; nothing. It was still before 7:00. I called the furnace repairman, leaving a message to get my name on his list, then started a fire in the woodstove.
I heated corn bags in the microwave for each of the girls and my wife. Putting my coat and boots back on, I went to get more firewood. Knowing my furnace was on the fritz and having no idea when the repairman would be able to get here made it seem even colder outside.
I knelt and grumbled as I set each log in the cradle of my arm. "Twelve below zero, a full tank of gas, and my new furnace isn't working. Screw you 2020." I stood up with a heavy armload and banged my head on an overhead beam. I cursed, rubbed my head, and started walking back to the house. "At least I cleared a path to the woodpile yesterday." I smiled, "Well, actually, Long John Jerry cleared the way."
In the house, I crawled back into bed and tried to snuggle up to my warm wife. She woke up, shocked. "Are you crazy?" she asked, shoving me away. "You're freezing!"
"Fine!" I said, grabbing my pillow. "Come on, June, we'll go sleep on the couch."
"I don't think so, Dad. I'm not cuddling up with your frozen bones." June said, curled up in her warm dog bed.
Our black cat, Edgar Allen, rubbed against my leg as we passed in the hallway. "Meow, meow."
"Are you coming to sleep with me?" I asked him.
"No way, man. You're too cold for me." He explained, "But as long as you're up, how would you feel about putting some crunchies in my bowl?" Humph. I gave him his food, then I laid on the couch with my pillow and an afghan in front of the fire. Ahh. It wasn't too long before Edgar was purring next to my chest and June curled up behind my knees.
Around 8:30, I got up, put some more wood on the fire, then turned the oven to 450. The heat would be welcome in the house and homemade biscuits and gravy would be perfect on such a cold morning.
After breakfast, I went to the freezer, pulling out the tray. My granddaughters were excited to see what we made. I pulled them from the forms and handed one to each child. "Popsicles!" They were well pleased with the fruits of our labor.
While washing the breakfast pots and pans, I got a text. I dried my hands and picked up my phone. "This is Denny. I'll get there in the afternoon." I took a deep breath and exhaled. Just knowing he was coming took a ton of weight off my shoulders.
Denny looked at the furnace. "I'm going to have to order a blower motor," he said, "with the holidays, it may take a few days to get." He assured me he would be back as soon as he had it.
After he left, we all got dressed in warm clothes to go outside. Seeing me in my blue thermals, Addie called out, "Evelyn, it's Long John Jerry." Her French accent is cute.
"No, no." I said, "He only comes out with the snowblower."
Sydney brought her saucer sleds. It was time to prove septic mounds have more than one use. Romping and diving through the powdery snow, June retrieved sleds for the kids, carrying them up the hill in her mouth like they were frisbees. The only problem was trying to get the sled back from June at the top of the mound.
After sledding, we came back into the house. Melissa put more wood on the fire while I turned on the burner. I made a batch of hot cocoa, just like Mom used to make. The girls got marshmallows with theirs while the adults got a splash of peppermint schnapps. Mmmm. I drank mine while sitting on the hearth in front of the fire.
The girls began dancing and singing, "Hot, hot, hot. Hot chocolate." Melissa put Polar Express on the TV. I cleaned up in the kitchen, pouring the extra hot cocoa into the Tupperware molds, and setting them in the freezer.
After the movie, Addison, Evelyn, and I went to work in the kitchen. For Christmas, we gave them a pop-up book: Stone Soup, along with a handwritten recipe. Melissa happened to have a perfect soup stone that came from the shores of Lake Superior. I rounded up some ingredients, and we soon established an order.
Addison was the head chef; Evelyn, the sous chef. I was the prep cook while Melissa and Sydney were assigned wait staff to prepare the dining room.
The girls poured four cups of water into a pot, then added the soup stone. Next, they added chopped onions, carrots, celery, and diced potatoes. They stirred in some seasonings, peas, green beans, corn… Everybody helped and in about thirty minutes, we gathered at the table to feast on a full pot of delicious stone soup. Yum!
After supper, I put another log on the fire. My wife and daughter proudly announced the completion of their big jigsaw puzzle – except for that one piece on the bottom edge that was missing and one other piece that was pretty mushy from being chewed and spit out on the floor. I gave June a rub on the head and whispered in her ear, "The jury is back. You might want to go hide out in the other room for a little while."
The next morning, before dawn, Sydney stood next to my bed, "Dad, the fire is out, and it's cold in here." I got up, rekindled the fire, then went outside to get more wood. When I came back inside, I was cold and anxious to return to my warm bed.
Edgar was sleeping soundly by my wife. From the motionless lump under the covers on the far side of the bed, a voice spoke out, "Don't even think about it." Humph. I thought she was asleep.
I grabbed my pillow. "June?" She shifted in her cozy dog bed and let out a sigh. "Never mind," I said and went to sleep on the couch in front of the fire. A certain dog and cat soon joined me, but I'm not one to drop names.
The next day we had homemade fudgesicles. The girls loved them. That 67 cents was definitely money well spent. We got dressed to go sledding on the big hill at the golf course. It was a blast!
On New Year's Eve, the wall clock chimed twelve times. I got up and opened the back door to let the old year out, while Melissa opened the front door to let in the new year. We toasted the new year, then danced in front of the fire to Guy Lombardo's Auld Lang Syne. After throwing a couple more logs in the woodstove, we sat on the couch and watched the flames.
I gave up trying to tally the ugly events of 2020. Instead, I focused on the previous few days – just those awkward days between Christmas and New Year's. Was my furnace dying in subzero weather a curse or a blessing? I have a good woodstove and plenty of wood. Many people don't have the luxury of a backup source for heat. It also gave me cause to remember what's truly important; time spent with my wife, children, and grandchildren, making memories that will last a lifetime for all of us.
Considering all the good things that happened over these last few days, the furnace going out seemed pretty menial.
I often think about that conversation long ago with my elderly friend. It wasn't the best year, and you can't polish a turd. But still, there was too much good in 2020 for me to write it off as a turd. He was right in saying I had a lot to learn, and I have learned much since then. Now I am blessed to still be here with yet more learning to do.
Welcome, 2021. Let's see what you've got.