A Christmas Tree! A Christmas Tree!
by David Keig
A Christmas tree! A Christmas tree!
With dark green needled memories
Of childhood dreams and mysteries
Wrapped present-like in front of me.
A Christmas tree! A Christmas tree!
I glimpse a past wherein i see
The child that then grew into me
Not forward fast but haltingly.
A Christmas tree! A Christmas tree!
A time for being with family
A time that’s gone so fleetingly
Yet lives for always deep in me.
A Christmas tree! A Christmas tree!
When twelfth night comes whole hauntingly
One lingered look and then i see
No Christmas tree where it would be.
A Christmas tree! A Christmas tree!
With feelings now felt longingly
No corner in my house to see
The magic of that Christmas tree.
I laughed. Her memory is selectively perfect, by which I mean if it matters to her she recalls details of times and events with the closest thing to eidetic memory I’ve ever encountered. She can tell you, for example, what she got for Christmas in 1947–when she was 5 years old–as well as what the weather was like, who was at the house, and how dinner was that year. After she told me of her three favorite years, in unnerving detail (my wife thinks mom is totally bullshitting us–“she’s convinced herself that it’s what she remembers”–but I don’t know.) I had to admit that I was lucky to resolve the details of any specific year.
I happen to think that it’s for the better. Oh, I remember spectacular gifts I received: specifically: the GI Joe Training Tower–that’s right, for the GI Joe with Kung Fu Grip, the
yellow Mobile Action Command Rescue Vehicle and Mountain Base (that’s two different things–and both of them were awesome and just what I wanted), and the HO scale train set for which my dad made an immense platform upon he
which he mounted tracks, painted roads for automobiles, and sites for buildings from the Plasticville, USA and Pleasantville series of HO scale accessories. I remember that the train
was 1976, because it was a Tyco Bicentennial Edition. A small residential neighborhood included a couple of boxy cap cods and some really depressing 1960’s vintage ranch houses, pictured here–the houses each included an mid 1970s primer grey camaro up on blocks in the driveway and a collapsed above-ground swimming pool full of tadpoles and dead squirrels. Well, not quite. There was also a really, really cool lumber mill on a siding on which, when the train pulled up , a switch would be engaged and three plastic logs would roll down a chute and onto the waiting log car. Finally, there was a vintage diner building that concealed a simulated train whistle. Those were the best three toys of my life–and I still have the train set and the yellow plastic MAC van.
There are less vivid memories–the year my mom caught the curtains on fire cooking bacon for Christmas breakfast. My then 15-year old aunt carrying me from the house and running down the street, tripping on her slippers and both of us falling to the concrete–I would have been about 3. I remember her holding me, and I remember fear and falling–nothing else. Not even the firetruck.
Speaking of fire trucks, another memory is a Christmas memory, but it actually happened on the day before Thanksgiving. My dad was a firefighter back in those days, and Santa would arrive at a local strip mall each year on a fire engine, and I got to go. We drove to the mall in a cool old American LaFrance engine and met Santa, who was waiting patiently around back, by the service entrance, smoking a cigarette with a custodian. He tossed his butt on the asphalt and hopped on the truck–I got to push a pedal on the floor that made the siren work, and pull a cord that rang the bell. Pretty cool, right? I was probably around 7 or 8 and, at the time, it was the coolest thing ever–both the fire truck ride and getting Santa to myself for 3 minutes. He gave me a heaping handful of candy canes that kept slipping through my mittened fingers, and growled, “So remember to be nice, and not naughty, ’cause Santa Claus is watching your ass, ” a comment that amused my dad and the other firefighters to no end.
I remember the year some neighborhood kids knocked out a bunch of the big C9 lights my dad nailed to the porch roof by throwing rocks at the house–the adults were outraged, but I was mainly focused on the degree of accuracy required to accomplish such a feat.
And then there was Advent. My mom had an advent calendar each year that counted the long days, but the big countdown came in church, with a special ceremony each weekend in which a candle was lit signifying the 4 weekends of the liturgical calendar leading up to Christmas. A fifth and final candle was lit on Christmas Eve. I didn’t fully understand then and certainly don’t recall now all the conceits, but it was pretty much the solemn, religious countdown to The Big Night, and like all the really great Pagan rituals that were stolen and co-opted into Christianity, it was an old German thing. My mom had her own advent wreath at home that she lit during dinner every Sunday night, at least for a while, which seemed perfectly normal at the time but strikes me as strange now.
The Christmas season permeated all aspects of life back then, religious and secular, as any number of hyperventilating “war on Christmas” conservative hysterics would have you remember. Not only did mangers and giant plastic advent wreaths adorned church lawns and public buildings alike, but school music classes were focused on singing carols–not just Frosty and Rudolph, but Silent Night and other spiritual fare, and I have to say that we’ve lost something in excising the spiritual element of the holidays. That doesn’t mean that I think it’s wrong to respect our rapidly changing population–there ought to be a way to deal with our celebrations through inclusivness–but that’s a whole different post on it’s own, one I doubt I’ll have time to address this year.
We never made a big production out of the Christmas tree–they were available everywhere, for about $5 most of my childhood, sold by a local boy scout troop. Ostensibly I was there to help choose, but that decision always ended up with my mom
I was catching up on on blog posts I’d bookmarked, things that caught my eye on busy mornings or late nights to which I had attended to return long ago, when I came upon this one from Millie Ho about Art, Edward Gorey, creativity in general and–if you read between the lines–a whole lot more.
The post reminded me instantly of Hemingway, and not just because of the prominent photo of the artist Gorey reclined, asleep, and half-covered in his beloved cats. It is easy to mistake this for a photo of Hemingway, as I initially did–and as many others on the internet have done, because along with the deceptively simple syntax and precise word vocabulary, the long line of marriages and adultery and more marriages, the fishing and the hunting and the boxing and the bullfighting, Hemingway is sort of famous for his cats.
My first pet was a cat–a fierce, possibly deranged, copper colored striped cat that maybe weighed eight pounds which I named Amber, because I was a kid (geek) who knew what amber was, what it looked like, and that was what color she was. This led to a lifetime–she would live to be 23 years old–of “that’s a stripper’s name” jokes, which none of us appreciated very much. Amber loved me, slept most of her life on my bed, and tolerated my mother and sister. She waged war on the rest of the world, dominating all the other cats and dogs in the neighborhood via sheer, hostile tenacity. She twice ventured to our neighbors’ yard and thrashed their miniature collie–a silly, lazy thing called “Boots” and cornered it on it’s own porch, then came home to sit in my lap, a tiny, purring little Genghis Khan.
When the neighbor, in all her bright red-dyed hair and perfume-drenched glory marched down to our hovel to confront us, and pounded on the door, the cat launched herself at the screen door, from the inside, growling and hissing as she did to most visitors, the mailman, meter readers, extended family, and innocent passers-by. It was a little embarrassing, especially to my mom. It was also a little bit awesome, in both the colloquial and literal senses of the word.
We never worried about locking our door–my grandmother couldn’t get past this snarling beast. Forget some burgler–not that our house wouldn’t have been the last house of the block to draw the attention of n’er do wells, unless they were looking for warn rugs or a shabby old flowered sofa.
I never appreciated the cat. I was a boy, and I wanted a dog, and when I got one–a stray German Shepherd puppy that started sleeping on our back porch one summer evening and couldn’t be convinced to go home–well, nothing really changed. The cat loved me because I let her alone, I’m convinced, and she worked out some sort of deal with the dog. She let it sleep on her porch, after all, and eventually shared her bed with him (after already sharing the antique double with me). This was a dog she could work with–smart, respectful, quiet–except for his love of fetching things (tennis balls, rubber bones–he even carried a neighbor’s beagle puppy back to me one evening, perfectly gripped–unharmed–in his mouth. That really was embarrassing.) Amber would never have degraded herself by fetching, though she did bring me the requisite corpses of small rodents and birds, but not as tribute mind you–but as a reminder, like the horsehead in The Godfather.
It seems ironic, in retrospect, that I under-appreciated the value of such an interesting companion probably because she demanded so little of me besides the occasional scratch behind the ears, the opening and closely of doors, some water and food. Do we love based on the effort we’re required to make? Perhaps not exclusively, but it’s something to think about.
You expect a dog to provide companionship, but a cat–I’ve learned to expect, if not quite settle for, something called “affectionate disinterest.” Psychologically, this is genius on the part of the cats, who could provide excellent advice on human relationships. I had to learn that keeping my distance and moving (seemingly) reluctantly into relationships, more often than not, is a far better strategical approach than, say, the emotional equivalent of marching headlong into the brink.
We’ve all seen Black Hawk Down, right? In love, Tom Sizemore and a column of Pakistani mechanized infantry aren’t going to rush in at the last moment and save your ass when you crash and burn.
Better to be the tentative Pakistanis, biding their time.
But there weren’t any cats in that movie…
My ardent followers and weary friends will certainly attest to my love of most things Christmas, not to mention my enthusiasm for Christmas-themed posts. It didn’t come out of nowhere–which is a fancy, literary way to say that it did come from somewhere, like just about everything.
To cut to the quick, I wasn’t the happiest kid. It takes an effort to find a picture of me smiling, but each year as the days turned dark and cold, my family’s humble holidays brought moments of magical respite from the rest of the year. It wasn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was better and in endeavoring to make it similarly special for my children I’ve found even greater joy and satisfaction as an adult–so right up front there’s a lesson for you: focus on making some other people happy and it’s likely you’ll get a little good back for yourelf….
Now, to be clear, when I say “Christmas” we are talking about an extended period which began before Thanksgiving and persisted through New Years to Epiphany–the last of those happy “Twelve Days of Christmas”–the very sort of Holiday over-reach that drives Christian extremists nutso. Not that I care what they think. For many of my generation, “Christmas” began with the arrival of the Sears, Roebuck & Company “Wish Book” and it’s myriad, fantastical possibilities–toys I had never imagined, let alone seen, and mostly likely never would, but of which I could marvel and dream. (all this and a ladies lingerie section, too–the Wishbook was the original internet). Within moments of it’s arrival, I had a ballpoint pen in my hand, circling anything interesting with reckless disregard for reality, or anyone else who might want to read those pages. I never seemed to notice that I would get none of it–the magic was in the dream, not the reality, which was never half as entrancing as the catalog imagery. I mean, all that crap broke by New Years Day, in any case.
The next great holiday milepost was our church’s annual “Hanging of The Greens” night–a massive covered-dish dinner, at which hundreds of people–mostly the older folks and families with young children–gathered and sat at long tables, partaking in the seemingly endless bounty of casseroles, gelatin-based salads, and chewy white rolls. After dinner, the men would go to the huge sanctuary and decorate the half dozen or more trees, the hundreds of poinsettias, wreaths, swags, bows–it was truly spell-binding, and it’s disappointing that I have been unable to locate a picture. While the men scaled ladders and hefted trees, the women cleaned up dinner (ha!) then adjourned, as did the children, to their various Sunday School classrooms to decorate them with craft decorations we had made ourselves. At the end of the evening, we’d all gather in the sanctuary for a small lesson, a few Christmas hymns, and a benediction. I invariably went home exhausted, but excited. Christmas was really on the way. It’s odd to me now, three decades after my scandalous, sin-tainted family–with the adulterous father, the cloying mother, and their no-good, unruly little boy– was quietly marginalized and driven from that church, to recall how warm and inviting those halls were, as familiar as–and far more comfortable and safe–than my own home.
We had had to get through Thanksgiving first, not that it was a chore for a kid–relatives magically appeared in my grandparent’s living room, food filled the tables as if conjured from some mystical autumnal netherworld. In a tough year I had to help set the table, though I was hardly trusted with the “good dishes” and crystal that, with the exception of three meals a year (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter) rested, inviolable, gathering dust in my grandmother’s corner cupboard. Looking back, I have to wonder if those glasses were really crystal–hell, I don’t even know what crystal is, compared to glass, and it’s not a luxury in which my particular circle indulges (we don’t even have “good dishes,” but a collection of mismatched plates and bowls, the unbroken remnants of several sets bought at thrift shops in Pittsburgh and Philomath, Oregeon–linked not by size or style, but by color–vaguely)–but it seemed remarkably classy to me. We used the “nice napkins,” and they weren’t folded, but rolled and gathered in soft cotton scrolls by napkin rings (napkin accessories? oh brave new world!).
And that wasn’t the half of it. The turkey was always huge–it cooked all day, while I huddled in the living room, a fire in the fireplace, watching Thanksgiving parades on television. I remember waking on Thanksgiving morning, my mother clattering around in the kitchen making some side dish or another to take to Mummum & Grandpa’s house, carols playing in the background, the TV turned on–and up loud–so she could “listen to the parade” while she worked. The Macy’s Parade: giant balloons. More magic. I’ve negotiated with my wife to allow the playing of Christmas carols beginning on Thanksgiving Day, because that’s when it feels right to start.
I’m not a turkey aficionado, but I do appreciate the scent of a good, roasting bird mingled with onions and a hint of celery. We ate late in the day, as the sun set, a typical lower middle class family wrapped in the warmth of convention, the illusion of luxury–my wise-ass great-uncle George up from his haunts as a beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking, genuine artist from old town Alexandria cracking jokes about our affected formality in the day, reaching over someone for a gravy boat and quipping, “now, this isn’t done in the best of families” and somehow seeming both polite and, in retrospect, just a little critical of the whole Norman Rockwell dog and pony show. Bemused, that’s the word I want. What I wouldn’t give for a chance to go back and soak up his benevolent raillery as a perceptive adult. There’s a lot more of him in me than a love of turtleneck sweaters and scotch on the rocks.
It wasn’t a holiday of originality–everything was rigidly conventional, as if pulled from the pages of a Thanksgiving manual: turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole with mushroom soup and those odd canned, dried onions crusted on the top, cranberry “sauce” on one of those alleged crystal plates, direct from a can, sliced into magenta medallions, quivering modestly every time someone bumped the table. We had real butter–not margarine, or “oleo” as my grandfather called it–and, in later years, crescent rolls. Not actual croissants, but the factory-made homage; I know you know of what I speak: fat-laden white bread triangles delivered compressed into a cardboard tube that explodes into full-scale carbo-reality when one bangs it on the side of the kitchen counter–poof!–like freaking David Copperfield (the magician, not the Dickensian protagonist). Unroll the lump of dough onto a tray, separate into triangles–it’s perforated, thank the gods–and roll them into little whatever-shaped rolls. These were the epitome of classy, almost reckless holiday indulgence. Of course, a can of these puppies now goes for over $2.00, making them more expensive, ounce for ounce, than gourmet bread from the bakery, so maybe we were onto something.
I was a kid, and the oldest grandchild by seven years, so my earliest memories were of being the only child at a table full of adults, and like a good kid I kept my mouth shut and listened to the adults-though I really only recall that, with my mother and aunt both being nurses, the conversation inevitably turned to talk of medical procedures and the sloppier aspects of physiology. Yech. Each year around the holidays I see articles on how to remain pleasant in the company of one’s wild-eyed tea-bag conservative uncle, but I think I’d find a swaggering gun-luvin’ Toby Keith Republican preferable to an extended dialogue on the post-surgical complications following a bowel resection. Just keep that in mind when you’re courting: limit family trees to one or less medical professionals–or suffer the consequences in silence.
There was not midnight shopping. In fact, if one forgot to buy something there was one option–a shamefaced knock on the neighbor’s door, but of course this never happened, not at Thanksgiving. Folks planned accordingly–you did last minute shopping, filled the gas tank in the car, and maybe even got a prescription filled. We’re soft, now, and lazy with the expectation of convenience, when with a little planning and a little restraint we could allow everyone to enjoy their holidays. I’m not immune. This past year, visiting my sister, we realized that some items were missing from the pantry and my wife and I heroically volunteered toss aside our convictions and venture out to WalMart. Our cashier was an 86-year old great-grandmother who hadn’t just been assigned to work Thanksgiving morning, she’d been split-shifted, scheduled to work 6-11 in the morning and 6-11 that evening, and then 6-3 the next morning. What kind of bastards do that to an employee??
We did shop on Black Friday, though I’d never heard that term until sometime in the past decade. For us, residents of a sleepy town in the Alleghenies, it was not about the deals and sales but about variety. It was a time when Main Streets were starting to die, but Malls were still a largely urban and suburban phenomena–like Chinese food. Every year (and it seems like it was forever even though I’m actually talking about a string of maybe 7 or 8 years) we would rise early, drive south to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and pick up my Aunt Jean and her best friend Nell. Uncle Ernie, and Nell mysterious, never-seen husband never attended. We would then drive an hour west to Monroeville, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb with the largest mall in the region.
It was amazing. The stores were arranged on two levels–if you can believe it–a first AND a second floor, with a large ice skating rink in the center, three large department stores (Kaufman’s, Gimbel’s, and Horne’s), and all manner of small, interesting specialty shops–including an entire store dedicated to just toys. All toys, all the time! And a store full of music–National Record Mart!–a store full of organs. Organs! Some guy sat on a bench at the front of the store and played all damned day–Christmas carols with the automatic bosa nova beat. Wow. All that, and Monroeville Mall was famous, too: ever see the classic zombie movie “Dawn of The Dead”? The one with all the Zombies at the mall? Yup.
I was promptly set loose–and I was rich. My birthday was earlier in November, and I would be flush with gift cash–twenty, sometimes even thirty dollars of it, and that’s in 1970s money. Aunt Jean always slipped me a few extra bucks, and other adults would hand me fives and tens to buy presents for each other. Grandmother: buy something for your mom. Mom: buy something for your sister and your dad. Dad: I’m gonna beat you with a stick if you look at me again. Etc. I had all the Mall to prowl, as long as I met up with the family for lunch at the Horne’s (?) That’s right. It was a store. With a restaurant inside. And they had the best damned grilled cheese sandwiches. Magnificent grilled cheese sandwiches, and they weren’t all smooshed down into a chewy mess like mom’s. These were crispy, yet tender, golden hued, and was it just me or did the “Behold, I bring tidings of great joy…” Angels hover around the plate when the waitress tossed it onto the table. Sandwiches of great joy. That’s right.
The independence was the thing–just me, a digital wristwatch, and a time and place to meet. I wandered around, enjoying the decorations, the carols, the displays of cheesy mechanical elf figures sawing the same pieces of wood, painting the same toy trains, wrapping the same presents hour after hour, week after week, year after year. I enjoyed the hustle and bustle–all those people, all those packages, all crammed together. The shopping rarely took more than an hour–what kind of 10 year old puts that much thought into presents? The rest of the day I just wandered, taking it all in, reveling. There was just nothing like it at home–no huge crowds, no robot elves, and certainly no wander all day freedom. I was hooked on the novelty of it as well as the excitement.
Each year, on the way home, we would eat at a restaurant called The Corners in New Alexandria, PA–I think it’s a bank now, and if there was anything special about it, I couldn’t tell you what it was–except that we ate there every year because it was out of the suburbs and a little less than half the way home. I don’t remember actually eating there (probably a grilled cheese sandwich), or if it was really great or just average, though I’m guessing the latter–my recollection is that it was one of those half-step up from a diner deals that were pervasive before the rise of the corporate “improvement” on the model–Denny’s, and that lot, but I remember that we were always hungry, the food was always great, everyone (even my eternally angry father) was always happy, and it was the second time in a day that we ate in a restaurant. We didn’t even do that on vacation! It didn’t hurt that Aunt Jean was a wonderful, intelligent, warm and loving presence–actually my dad’s aunt, she was like an extra grandmother (right down to the socks and underwear she gave me each year for Christmas). I was happy simply to be around her, which–after a chocolate sundae–didn’t stop me from falling asleep on the way home.
Part 2 is On The Way….