Dave Simpson: It Was A Merry Walleye Christmas

Columnist Dave Simpson writes, "We couldn't leave them home alone for Christmas. I told my mother I would drive the 420 miles, pick them up, and bring them down to our house for Christmas. Then after Christmas, I would drive them back home."

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Dave Simpson

December 18, 20234 min read

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There were tears on the other end of the line.

Plans had changed, and the folks wouldn't be coming to our house for Christmas after all.

And that was a bad thing, because we had the sure-fire ingredients for a memorable Christmas: Grandchildren, deeply embedded  in their Santa Claus years. And higher than little kites.

It was my mother on the phone. A medical test made it ill-advised for her to drive the 420 miles from their house in Wisconsin to ours in Illinois. And a stroke had previously ended my father's driving days. So it looked like they were stuck at home for Christmas. And since they were planning to be at our house, they hadn't put up a Christmas tree. Pretty bleak.

This was 30 years ago, and they had long since scaled back the elaborate Christmas traditions of my youth – a big natural tree, bare spots fixed by my father, inserting spare limbs with his electric drill. My mother baked bread for the neighbors, and I delivered them, warm from the oven.

They sent out hundreds of Christmas cards, exposed in the basement darkroom (my dad, a civil engineer, never did anything half way), developed in trays of chemicals, washed, dried, then trimmed on a cutting board. I remember my father adding personal notes to some of the cards, referring to one old buddy from work as “you old rascal.”

It was quite a production.

In their 80s, however, they had scaled way back. And they couldn't drive to our house. And my mother was in tears.

Well, we couldn't leave them home alone for Christmas.

So I told my mother I would drive the 420 miles from our house to their house, pick them up, and bring them down to our house for Christmas. Then after Christmas, I would drive them back home. That totaled 1,680 miles of driving in the two round trips.

“But, it's going to cost you,” I warned my mother. “I want the walleye special at The Viking (our favorite restaurant in a small Wisconsin harbor town) when I get there, and another walleye special when I take you back home. This is non-negotiable.”

“Done!” she said with a laugh, delighted that Christmas with the grandkids had been saved.

So that's what we did. It was a full day of driving to get up there, with a perch sandwich for lunch at a favorite lakeside diner along the way. And the walleye special that night – lightly breaded, served with little red potatoes, coleslaw, and a frosty bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon – was worth every mile of driving.

Christmas was great. I think my son got a play workbench. (He's a carpenter today.) My daughter got a play grocery store checkout counter. (She's in health care.) And the walleye dinner on the return trip was equally spectacular.

This year, we will be the grandparents in the equation, savoring the holiday with our daughter, son-in-law, and the essential Christmas ingredient, our granddaughters, ages five and three. There will be an elf on the shelf. Presents under the tree. Christmas cookies. The magic of Santa Claus. And we might bake bread for the neighbors.

I know all the stores to get the stocking stuffers and last-minute gifts for the little ones. I got them coonskin caps one year, and little blue enamel cups for when they get old enough to visit the cabin. I've got a great picture of our younger granddaughter, proudly sporting her first cowboy hat. (It's bright pink.)

I can't wait.

I remember those 1,680 miles of driving that saved Christmas for my parents that year, more poignant now because they both passed away years ago. When I got them home after the holiday, my father thanked me. Maybe he didn't realize how much that family ritual drive meant to me.

I'll always remember the joy they had spending that Christmas – one of my father's last - with little kids around. I'll know that joy this year myself.

It's a wonderful thing to get the family together for Christmas. The miles are small price to pay for the precious time together. The memories last forever.

(And if you get a couple walleye dinners out of the deal, it's even better.)

Dave Simpson can be reached at: DaveSimpson145@hotmail.com

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Dave Simpson

Political, Wyoming Life Columnist

Dave has written a weekly column about a wide variety of topics for 39 years, winning top columnist awards in Wyoming, Colorado, Illinois and Nebraska.