Because there was no father on hand and because my mother tried to have a life even while caring for an only child, I did a lot of things on my own that would probably have been more enjoyable in a larger family environment. But at the time I didn’t have anything to compare it to so when Christmas time came around I began to plot the blossoming of the yuletide environment in our house.
I looked forward to it because I loved the decorations, the ritual of trimming the tree and the holiday accoutrement that would bring the whole house into the season. This was a solitary endeavor that didn’t include my mother because the idea was to surprise her when she returned home, usually on a Saturday night after a date, coming into the driveway and getting that first glimpse of the neon picture window.
As much as I enjoyed the doing, I enjoyed the element of surprise because I worked it from the ground up so there was no hint of what to come. After we’d finally retired that magnificent specimen of the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, the aluminum tree with the ever revolving color wheel, there would be no tree waiting in the wings and so no giveaway as to what, when or how.
From the time I was old enough to manage the entire operation I got hold of her schedule, waited until she left and began the process by hiking to any nearby tree seller, buying something I could manhandle and, with no car at my disposal, would drag the tree however many blocks back to my house through the snow. Youth served me well in those days because if I tried that today, they’d find me the next morning, face down, having made at least a valiant effort before the coronary.
That’s why now we just take it out of the box.
The other thing to take into account were the dimensions of the tree stand which I had to visualize in my head because the damn thing was made out of cast iron and would be like hauling a boat anchor and a tree and, youth or not, I wasn’t up for that. So, as I usually do with everything (tape measure be damned), I eyeballed it and then matched the picture in my head to the prospective tree and usually came out remarkably close. Also, I had to get the height right but that was a much easier task.
After pulling the sacrificial vegetation into the garage I got a hacksaw and made the angle cut on the base so it could suck up water once in the stand and then left the inevitable trail of pine tears as I dragged it up the stairs, into the living room and up on the stand. I put plastic down on the carpet under the stand and filled it with water and added sugar to hasten its consumption, keeping it fresh for the duration.
I was like an anal retentive Martha Stewart (seems redundant, doesn’t it?) and followed my own setup protocol by the book every year. The only difference between Martha and me was that all the narrative took place in my head, the melting pot for nearly everything I did growing up.
Tree skirt, lights, ornaments, icing, in that order and, voila, the tree filled the picture window like a Christmas TV special just waiting for my mother to get the first glimpse as she pulled in later that night. After that, it was on to the wild cards; the various figurines, lighted hangings and occasional snow spray window stencils (although I abandoned that after awhile since it was such a bitch to get it off the window after the season was over).
My favorite tchotchke was a foot and a half high plastic snowman (looking a bit like Frosty) singing carols from an open book and illuminated by an appliance size light bulb in the back. I loved that crazy ass thing and still wish I had it but it’s run off, just like Frosty, never to be seen again. But while it was in my rotation it was the knickknack of all knickknacks, displayed prominently on top of the television set. There was something about the ethereal glow that it gave off that really sealed the deal on the feeling of Christmas.
After I’d spent the entire evening getting everything just Martha-perfect I was ready for the unveiling and so I waited…and waited…and waited a little more until she pulled in and walked in the front door. And there I was poised in front of my creation like Betty Furness hawking a refrigerator and just as pleased with myself as could be.
I turned that attic box of shit into a wonderland, all by myself and, every year, I was pretty proud of my work. Of course, my mother was always surprised (or faked it well) and complemented me on the arrangement but, thinking back on it now, it feels like a lonely affair. I don’t think I acknowledged that to myself way back then but, in truth, I was taking a communal celebration and internalizing it.
I’m not trying to romanticize what I never had but I think families, as completely bonkers as they’re capable of being, do feed our need for a shared experience, and maybe it’s worth walking through a minefield to achieve that. My childhood reflects none of that and so, as my wife so often laments, I have missing parts to my social machine. Sometimes I don’t communicate effectively because I’ve already talked it over with myself and we’ve come to an agreement, but maybe that’s not the best way to celebrate life because you can end up with nothing more than your own reflection.
Now, at Christmas time these days, when I’m with my fabulous niece and nephew and the large cast of kooky characters in my wife’s family, it can turn into a dysfunctional circus to be sure, but I also think how much it all takes me out of the twisted lump of synapses in my noggin and makes me a part of something larger than myself. That’s something I never knew growing up.
The other night, watching the TV comedy, 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s character had a very funny reaction to the chaos of her boss’s family Christmas dinner party, an event she was using to avoid spending Christmas with her own relatives:
“You know what I learned tonight? As hard as you try, no one can escape the horror of Christmas so it might as well be with your own family. I’m going to go get a bus to White Haven now and I should be home just in time for Aunt Linda to try to prove that she’s sober by holding someone’s baby while cooking.”
So, even though you may have constant feelings of flight and may want to run screaming from family gatherings, think of the example of my little half-baked celebration spent alone. Christmas was meant to be shared not incubated so get a bus ticket and put yourself in harm’s way…
It’s Christmas again.