Then the phone rang.
It was our friend Lisa, whose tall and slender frame is animated by abundant energy and extravagant personality. “Are you in bed?” she asked the sleepy mama of the house.
“Yes.” (Of course, yes — it was about midnight and not a creature was stirring, not even a husband.)
“Well, I am coming over in five minutes,” Lisa said. “You have to see the most exciting thing ever!”
Five minutes passed, punctuated by a drowsy thought: What could be more exciting than sleep on a weeknight?
The doorbell rang. The mama of the house put on her dressing gown and went downstairs. I remained in bed, because it is not my habit to receive women with large personalities after business hours.
Suddenly, shrieks, crying and more shrieks erupted. Then a bellowed order: “Reg, come down here quick!” I threw on a pair of sweatpants, not knowing whether I might have to punch Santa Claus in the nose or give him milk and cookies.
But what to my wondering eyes should appear but my daughter, Allison.
Wait! That couldn’t be true. Allison lives in Sydney, Australia, with her husband and their daughter, Matilda, known as Tillie. It’s at least a 20-hour trip on a couple of flights to Pittsburgh. We thought they were going to have Christmas in Australia, where Santa uses kangaroos rather than reindeer because they can carry extra presents in their pouches.
Then I saw Tillie; her cheeks were like roses, her nose like a cherry and she would be a right jolly elf if only she weren’t screaming from all the grandmotherly shrieks that marked her entrance.
Lisa was a co-conspirator to keep the visit secret, and in the middle of the night drove them home from the airport.
Surprise, surprise! It wasn’t until I kissed Allison and felt a real cheek that I was sure I wasn’t dreaming.
At 15 months, Tillie is toddling now, making trips around the house in search of biped adventure. She points at some things and makes little chuckles at others, all the while delivering a commentary in a language known only to other babies.
The only sadness is that Allison’s husband could not make the trip from Sydney because he works in retail and the shopping must proceed regardless of geography. Critter, as he is universally known, is a good father. If he were here, it would not be accurate to say that all thro’ the house not a creature was stirring, because Critter is in perpetual motion, often entertaining his daughter.
As the grandfatherly duty officer for this trip, I am trying to fill the vacuum as best I can. One of my favorite tasks is to read to Tillie. She is particularly fond of a book called “Snuggle Puppy.” It takes the form of a love poem or song and, as I read it, I think I am the old dog and Tillie is the snuggle puppy.
Ah, there’s nothing like a real book. When Tillie grows up, or even when she grows from tiny to small over the next few months, she may be beckoned by Pied Piper technology and find her books on an iPad or Kindle. E-books are all well and good, but can they survive an attack of Rice Krispies and scrunched banana that babies use to express their appreciation? I think not.
I have another reservation about electronic books. It is hard to write a dedication on them. The other day, I was going through our bookcase, so ordered by a higher authority to thin the ranks of books — my paper friends — in the interest of eliminating the dreaded domestic clutter.
There I came across “The Coral Island” by R.M. Ballantyne, the first non-picture book I ever owned, given to me by my parents. It was a tip-top boy’s yarn about pirates (allow me here a sentimental “Arrgh”). On the first blank page, my mother had written in her frail hand “Happy Christmas Reggie from Mother & Dad, Christmas ‘56.”
Before she leaves, I want to give Tillie a signed, old-fashioned book. “Thank you and your mom for making this our best Christmas ever, the most exciting thing ever, your old dog Papa, Christmas 2012.”
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
Reg Henry writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.