My dad had a friend named Squirrel.
Well, he wasn’t really a friend, but rather an acquaintance from the bar my dad went to after work sometimes. Squirrel was a slurring, drunk man, though probably not as much in real life as he is in my memory. In the far reaches of my mind he is the wobbly pharmacist from It’s a Wonderful Life, stumbling and spitting his words in my grandma’s kitchen one cold Christmas Eve.
I know for a fact that he stammered, because one of my cousins compared his speech to the lyrics of the Chaka Khan song playing every hour on the pop-radio station that year. Not the part where she croons, “I feeeeel for you,” but the part where Grandmaster Melle Mel raps, “Chaka, Chaka, Chaka Khan…” Squirrel could have probably been an 80’s star if he had only had the right management.
I was a young teenager when this odd, little man stood on the white, tiled floor next to the butcher block where the Christmas ham was perched. It was the same place where my grandma spent hours rolling out dough and cutting noodles by hand. She had no dishwasher, no air conditioning and no counter space, yet she never failed to have supper on the table. I have of all of those things and still don’t always make an evening meal.
But, it was never about what she didn’t have. What she did have, and what that house held, was immeasurable kindness and love. Squirrel, weaving inside the circle that my cousins and I had created around him, was there that Christmas Eve because he likely didn’t have anywhere else to go. My dad made sure that he wouldn’t be alone. Though, at the time, I saw this drunk man as uproarious entertainment, I see him now as a symbol of everything I’m proud of.
Sure, we probably handed him egg nog and rum when he didn’t really need it, but we also gave him warmth, food, and a rapt audience for his grand tales. We gave him a room to dry his boots, a place to laugh and feel part of a family, if only for an evening.
I can’t tell you what I got for Christmas that year. I don’t remember how many presents were under the tree or if my stocking was full. What I got was a fond memory and the sense that I need to give something back. I’m not talking about money, because I don’t have a lot of that. What I really want to do with my life is give people a place to dry their figurative boots.
But, first I have to get this Chaka Khan song out of my head.