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  • Mike Matson


This column was published December 24, 2022 in the Manhattan Mercury.


The death of Franco Harris this week took me back. To a time of Astroturf, Teflon and G.I. Joe space capsules.

On December 23, 1972, I was lying prone on the shag carpeting of my mother’s father’s newly remodeled Rooks County farmhouse living room. Our eyes glued to his massive Magnavox color TV stereo hi-fi console, in the shadow of an aluminum Christmas tree alternately shining blue, red, yellow and green, from an electric color wheel illuminated by a massive spotlight that got so hot, today would be deemed a fire hazard.

Open a hidden door and a state-of-the-art record player would literally ascend to the console’s surface. Another opened door would reveal my grandparents’ album collection. He’d let us play any record we wanted, Perry Como, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, and their ilk. Meh. My sister and I tried to sneak Jethro Tull’s Aqualung into the mix and got a side glance we interpreted as, ‘not gonna say no, but turn it down.’

Christmas dinner was prepared in non-stick Teflon pots and pans, turkey dismembered with an electric carving knife. The man was literally cutting edge. If it was new and shiny, my grandfather would have it. My grandparents would ask what I wanted “Santy Claus” to bring, I’d tell them, and on Christmas Day, would be rewarded with a G.I. Joe space capsule.

My parents’ upbringings were Venus and Mars. Hers was Norman Rockwell. His was Stephen King, raised by a single alcoholic mother after being abandoned by his father. Mom got a grand piano for her 16th birthday. As one of his mother’s would-be suitors was beating her to a pulp, Pop, at age 14, drove the man from the house with a shotgun.

After my parents split up in the ‘80s, Christmas bifurcated into distinct, standalone events and the notion of a big happy family gathering faded with the big happy family. As I grew older, my addiction-driven life skewed more bah humbug than peace on Earth.

When my own son was young, I didn’t want to hassle with a tree, so I let him pick out his fav picture of a tree from a magazine or Christmas card, we’d tape it on the wall and pile the loot beneath it. It became a ‘guys only’ schtick, masking my shortcomings. Though I felt an obligation to instill some semblance of the true meaning, I didn’t have the skills or emotional wherewithal. But I knew who did. I’d take my son to Rooks County for Christmas and let nature take its course. By now, I had wrecked my marriage to his mother, and was showing up as a single father.

Today my son and his wife are physicians in massive health care systems in Kansas City with enormous daily life or death professional and ethical responsibilities. They have two little boys. The oldest will turn four in February, his brother is just shy of eighteen months.

Last year, we allowed life to intervene and didn’t celebrate Christmas until February. Granted, you can make a case for circumstantial prioritization, but that becomes an ‘eye of the beholder’ thing. This year, we’ve been purposeful to avoid that and are headed to Kansas City today.

Fifty years ago, I was old enough to know I was supposed to hate the Raiders, so my grandfather and I were rooting for the Steelers. After Franco Harris’ immaculate reception, I offered Grandpa my hand down low, expecting him to give me five. He pulled my hand into a traditional firm handshake. An unspoken life lesson.

He seemed larger than life. I guess, in a way, everyone’s grandfather is. Or at least, that’s an aspiration for which we should all hope.

The whole thing traces upstream to a child born as the direct result of divine intervention, an immaculate conception. Because we humans were doing what came naturally. Screwing up.

I hope one day my son’s sons will come to think of their father’s father the way he considers his mother’s father. You can’t script these things, any more than you can choose where you come from. We’re saddled with all the genetic and cultural baggage that accompanies that inheritance.

You can, however, choose where you go, and take purposeful actions that impact the quality and outcome of those choices.

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