NEW PORT RICHEY
Al Guazzo gets the lights out on the first day of November, clearing out his storage unit and getting boxes from his neighbors who let him use what extra space they have. This takes some time, as he is 87 now. His back hurts. He had a quadruple bypass. "I'm feeble," he said. But he still looks strong. He checks the strands, one by one, in his office, the room that is all his in the Seven Springs condo he shares with Lillian, his wife of 63 years. This year, he replaced at least 250 burned out bulbs.
His neighbors have stopped letting him go up on the ladder anymore, so they hang the lights as he gives directions. But Guazzo still does what he can reach — stockings on the carport, lit-up bells and Santas in the windows, white lights on the bushes.
The lights go on the day after Thanksgiving. He plays Christmas music from 5:35 p.m. to 9:15 p.m.
Then he watches and waits. Nightly walks are big around here. When Guazzo sees people stop and look at the lights and do a shimmy and bop to the music, it makes his day.
"Christmas is everything to me," he said.
He never had a Christmas as a child in New Jersey. When he was 8, his father died from heart disease. It was during the Great Depression. His mother worked washing dishes. There was never enough money or food.
"It was tough, those days," Guazzo said. "All we had was 4-day-old bread, coffee and milk."
When he was 12, his mother died. Guazzo lived with an older brother for a short time, but felt like his brother's wife didn't want him there. He didn't want to be a bother, so he left, dropped out of school, got a job at a fish market and rented a room at a boarding house. He did this until he joined the Marines in 1942.
While stationed in Guadalcanal, he was lost in the jungle for 10 days. He got malaria and a fungus that spread from his feet to his knees. He survived and the others called him Lucky. It is still his nickname.
While recovering in Australia, he heard Bing Crosby's I'll Be Home For Christmas. He wept, lonely, desolate.
"It woke me up to Christmas," he said.
He wanted one. He wanted a home.
Guazzo was sent home to New Jersey and worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1945, he went to his best friend's wedding. He was the best man. Lillian was the maid of honor. They began dating but a few months later, Guazzo was deemed healthy enough to be sent back to the Pacific. They fell in love through letters.
In Okinawa, Guazzo's best friend — the newlywed, who was also in the military — was killed.
"I lost it," Guazzo said.
He was shipped from hospital to hospital, overseas and then to California and Oregon. Uncontrollable screaming rage. Flashbacks. All of the hurt in his life flooding out. He was broken.
He went back to New Jersey a 95-pound shell. Lillian made him whole.
"I don't know where I would be without her," he said.
They were married in 1946 and had two children, a boy and a girl. Guazzo got a job at General Electric. The rage quelled. He went hunting and fishing as therapy. He finally had Christmas by giving it to his children. He stayed up all night Christmas Eve decorating the tree, fussing with each strand of tinsel, so the children would wake up Christmas morning and be dazzled. He and Lillian say those were their best Christmas memories.
In 1989, Guazzo retired and they bought the condo on Teeside Drive in New Port Richey. He started decorating with a few boxes of lights that Lillian bought for him. Each year, he bought more and more.
"I made a maniac out of him," Lillian said, teasing.
"I want to give everybody a Christmas," he said.
It took him years before he could listen to I'll Be Home For Christmas without crying. But now it makes him happy. He's no longer lost or orphaned. He loves and is loved and is not bitter about things that happened to him. That's in the past. He has Lillian, their children and grandchildren. Dear neighbors and friends.
He has a real home. And for that, he's thankful.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.