I thought a Christmassy blog would be in order. But the subject is so darn big, so dense, so crowded with recall, where does one begin? It’s not enough to say Merry Christmas, Happy Christmas or Happy Holidays. It’s too much to live up to our own expectations most of the time. It’s too much to make lists, shop, wrap, write cards, clean, cook, bake, plan, serve and clean up. To take out the special dishes, to make the special dishes, bake the special cookies. Friends say keep it simple. How, I wonder.
Christmas is so much about memories; memories from which we have no discernible escape. The radio plays old Christmas favorites, and the memories come stumbling in with the songs. Elvis crooning about having a Blue Christmas, his velvety voice calling up a teenaged yearning for some unrequited love of a neighborhood guy, Brenda Lee Rocking around the Christmas Tree, and further back, my mother singing along with Bing Crosby “Mele Kalikimaka…That's the island greeting that we send to you from the land where palm trees sway.”
You take out the decorations and you are hit with images of little hands and shrill voices clamoring to hang their handmade treasures, the bread dough ornaments, the painted wooden ornaments, the clothespin ornaments, the candy canes. Little ones in footed pajamas, smelling of Johnson’s baby shampoo, flushed with excitement and runny noses, eager, so eager, for Santa to come.
There was the year that Sunny the cat took a flying leap onto the tree and we all shouted and watched as the tree swayed and the ornaments clinked, a few falling and breaking into splintered piles. The year we put tinsel only on the bottom half of the tree because one of the dogs, older and a little dopey, insisted on eating it, and tinsel would hang from her mouth, or later, from some other opening. The year I was so exhausted I fell asleep sitting on the toilet bowl, waking up at 6am to the sounds of little, happy voices, whispering outside the bathroom door.
I have memories of years when everyone I loved was still alive, when taffeta, brocade or velvet was the fabric of choice for special Christmas dresses. Years when jewelry boxes appeared, perfumes, soft sweaters. Years when my mother and two aunts gave each other fancy slips in pastels or black or red, saying “Ooh and Ah” when they opened what looked to us kids like duplicate gifts. When hors d’oeuvres meant a petite sized crystal dish with cheese spread on Ritz crackers and a smattering of gherkins. When the uncles kept asking when dinner would be ready, and the women would come in with updates, their smiles bright, and fancy holiday aprons tied around colorful wool dresses; the living room heavy with cigarette smoke, gold rimmed holiday glasses with cocktails, the smell of pine from the tree in the corner.
This seems a fitting place for the Tinsel Memory, an excerpt from Chapter 4, Shining Shoes and Hula Hoops, from the book Father Father.
...At Christmas time, Daddy brought the tree home, struggling up the front steps and into the living room of our apartment, saying grimly from the side of his mouth “I’ll have to cut off the bottom to get it to fit.” Mother liked a big tree. After sawing a piece off the bottom and sending the piney smell into the room, he drilled small holes in the trunk and inserted the cut branches, filling out the bare spots. I watched this closely, squatting beside him till he told me “C’mon, give me some room here, I can’t see.” Monica and I sat on the floor waiting impatiently while he strung the lights on the tree, muttering as he placed and replaced the strands till they were just so.
“Alright you pests let’s get the ornaments on.” He watched as we took the ornaments out of the cardboard boxes. “Careful, easy there.” We fumbled with the fragile ornaments, blown glass of dusty blue, striped orbs, no longer shiny and bright, small tarnished bells and jolly Santas, large green, red, gold, and silver globes. Ornaments that had been packed and repacked for the past twenty plus years. Instructions continued as we hooked each ornament on the stiff pine branches of the tree. “Small ones at the top, medium size in the middle, and the big ones on the bottom. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything, knuckleheads.” We giggled at that. The final touch was the tinsel, the glittery, fragile, slightly bent strands tenderly swathed in layers of re-used and wrinkled tissue paper. If the strands were crinkled from being in storage Daddy would get out the ironing board and iron the strands.
With the tinsel ready to hang, we held the slippery strands over our small hands, resting on the crook next to the thumb, as we were told. One by one, we placed them on the tree, as he pointed “Here. Now here. More to the edge. Not there, over here, no, over there, yeah, up here. Be careful. One, I said, just one, one at a time.” When Daddy left the room, saying “You’re on your own for a bit” we threw three or more strands at a time on the tree, and clumps, bunches, up towards the back, where he might not see them. That was the fun part. We were tense with nervous excitement.
When he came back to inspect the finished product, he spied the dangling clumps. “Which one of you monkeys did this? “I don’t know” we squealed with giddy triumph. “Okay, okay, go tell your Mother to come and see the tree.” Maybe the whole tinsel thing was more of a game than we knew at the time, a game that he played along with, every year.
Happy Christmas to All and to All a Good Night…