Thursday, December 24, 2009

Comfort and Joy

This fall has been a traumatic time in my family, most lastingly, perhaps, because of the schism of alienation in the wake of my mother's death.

Enough said.

I was talking to my pal BJ not long ago about how she was decorating her new house for Christmas. She's new to this concept of trees and wreaths and whatnot, having fallen in love with the idea after marrying an Italian. She's still adverse to the notion of Santa Claus or nativities, and he gets a Christmas stocking while she gets a Hannaukah stocking, but for the last couple of years, nothing has delighted her more than getting ornaments as gifts and buying them after Christmas. In the latter case, she puts them away still packaged and is surprised all over again when she opens them the next year.

So we were talking about her tree, which she put up some time in mid-November and I asked what other decorations she would put up. "Nothing," she said. "A wreath...lights!"

"Icicle lights," I recommended. "No lawn ornaments?"

She laughed with derision. "No sleighs, no inflatable anything. I won't live in a Bay Ridge display."

I laughed because when I was growing up, we lived across from a carninval. Each year, our neighbor made one more mechincal gizmo from wood and machinery -- a carousel, a waving Santa on the roof, a elf-run workshop. I don't remember everything that filled his yard, but I do remember the traffic in our cul-de-sac, bumper-to-bumper on the days around Christmas. Most of the other then-seven houses kept the spirit up, I told her, by putting up lights. My mother sewed long strings of gold foil disks to hang in our living room window, with gold lights in evergreen boughs in the flower box that ran along outside.

"Oh, and we decorated the circle of the cul-de-sac," I remembered. This was my brother Dick's project. Our court had a small stone circle with some evergreens and a birch tree. For much of the fall we saved the lids of coffee and other large cans, and collected copies ofReaders Digest. We spray-painted the lids and thronged them with glitter, punched a hole in them and hung them up in the circle. We folded each page of Readers Digest to make a point so that when we were done we had a large heavy diamond-shaped object that we also spray-painted and hung. We put up flood lights. It was very homely but had the advantage of being unappealing to pranksters.

"You had an enchanted childhood," BJ said with a certain wonder in her voice. I thought about that and decided yes, in main I did. Passing for Thin and Angry Fat Girls tell the grim stories but I know from the Rooms and from friends how good I really had it, especially at Christmas.

That's an odd statement in a way because when I was a kid, gifts were not always my parents' point at Christmas. I recently got a Barbie catalogue and nearly choked when I saw that one of the reissued dolls was Nurse Barbie. I got my first Barbie in first grade, which was in the days when it was clothes we wanted for our dolls, not more dolls. Barbie was expensive. The clothes were beautiful. Now it seems the opposite is true. Girls collect the dolls and the outfits are frayed rags.

So I got my first Barbie and she was the first bubble-haired Barbie, the pony-tailed version just phased out. And I got two outfits, which would have to last her a year of play -- a tutu and pointe shoes and that nurse's uniform.

Need I say that I bought Nurse Barbie that night?

My brothers often gave me choice between a birthday or a Christmas present, the two dates spearated by less than two weeks. The next year, my brother Jim gave me a packet of Barbie shoes and hats.

We all know that not only can a gal have too many shoes, but an eight-year-old is especially in need of Barbie shoes.

I think I got Ken in second grade but one of the puppies made short work of him and ever after my Barbies -- Midge, Francie, Skipper, Tutti, Todd and Jessica -- were, unbeknownst to me, lesbians. I think Barbie had to be replaced at some point because she was an amputee. More fine work on the part of Jet or Sandy or Buff or Jan.

The first cooking memory I have is of waiting impatiently for my mother to come into the kitchen to make sugar cookie dough for Christmas cookies.

Last year I gave BJ a mistletoe ornament and her husband a bike ornament. They had a few of these personal ornaments among their generic but pretty balls and I felt kind of sorry for them for not having a tree that is their lives' histories. I just put ours up and saved the few fragile bulbs from my childhood for prominent positions. We have Henry VIII and his six wives because I'm obsessed with the Tudors, and Clara, the Mouse King and the Nutcracker because we all love the Suite so much. There is a cathedral radio like the one my father grew up with, many gnomes because my father loves them (and calls them g-nom-eys), a number of Labradors, a hippo in a tutu because one of my parents' "songs" is [Offenbach?] the piece in Fantasia ("Dance of the Hours." Note: remember to tell Jean the flowering bush is forsythia.) There are oraments from all over Europe and the Southwest, the University of Montana, cloisonne bells that match my mother's small collection of Japanese cloisonne that my father brought back from R&R while he served in Korea, Polish emblams and German and Englsh Santas from my mother's of the family. This morning my father asked why we don't have any mushrooms, which he studied and during surgery made replicas of with the hot substance used to make artificial hip sockets.

Of course, when I was a kid, there were some fancy glass balls, some less fancy ones, and a lot plastic. The lights were the big colored ones and my brother Dick would string tinsel, strand-by-strand, for hours. At some point, my mother made a popcorn garland: I remember taking the ornaments out each December and nibbling on the incredibly stale popcorn.

My father actually had candles on the trees he grew up with. They were lit for about five minutes with a bucket of water at hand. My mother's father invented (and should have patented) strings of white fairy lights from the switch board lights at Bell Telephone where he worked. Her baby doll and straw carriage were left behind in a move but I still have the electric oven of the `30s that was another year's big gift.

Because I was the youngest by seven years and because my mother figured out that T.I.N.S.* from the handwriting on the packages as soon as she could read, Santa was downplayed. We opened our presents on Christmas Eve -- we are Northern Europeans whether we know it or not -- and as I was in the bathtub later, I would hear my father or mother saying, very loudly, "Ohhhh...Santa. Francie is going to be SO sorry she missed you!"

I'd go running out to the living room, wet and nekkid, but he had ho-ho-ho'd off to thenext door neighbor's house and I was left with a tricycle (white, with those plastic streamers on the handle bars, so pristine that I remember riding it through the house) or a cradle and high chair for my baby dolls. Then, when I was four or five, I asked my mother why there was a Santa on every corner Downtown. They were the Salvation Army of course, and the six blocks of Higgins Avenue that was our Downtown, and a place we wore white gloves when we visited, was merry with ringing hand bells. She was tired of Santa and had been disillusioned early enough that she looked down at me and said, "T.I.N.S." End of THAT ritual, though I kept hoping that if I said I believed, I actually would and Santa would come back.

That, I believe, is double-magical thinking.

There was so much snow when I was a kid! Forget about quilts and blankets of snow, this stuff huffed down in boulders and stranded my father's Jeep in mid-driveway. One year my brothers were broke and so they built me a snowman as tall as our house. I loved that more than Barbie shoes and I loved my Barbie shoes. The dementia of the project tickled me and it was such hard work to go to for a baby sister.

All of this left Christmas Day wide open. We always had dinner with our aunt, uncle and cousins, always a reprise of Thanksgiving, always mincemeat pies and "poison" (a.k.a. oyster) stuffing. There was, also, always a paranoia about cranberries, a condition we grew up with from the holiday dinner my aunt served without cranberries. My father and uncle, his brother, excused themselves and went out to find a can. Where? In those days, there were no 7-11's, no grocery store was open -- society expected housewives to be ready in advance because that's what all women did. Somehow the cranberries were procured and I wonder still if they went to one of my father's nurse's houses or my uncles railroad buddies to find them. They grew up in Missoula, went to the same grade school I went to. They knew everyone between them. My uncle had the most wonderful dimples and melodious laugh, as did my other uncle. All of their kids inherited both. Put my eleven paternal cousins in one room, tell a joke, and you will hear the music of the spheres.

There are pictures but not many of those Christmases. To take a home movie or photo meant, in the former matter, a six-foot light bar that instantly made all participants' behavior completely abnormal. And cameras had single flash bulbs that, once used, smoked and had to e thrown away. The temperature of the living room was raised by a good five degrees when movies were taken, and another ten degrees when we burned the wrapping paper in the fire place. Please don't tell Al Gore about that.

So much of what I remember has been lost -- the big Christmas bulbs, the plastic ornments peculiar to the 1950s, tinsel and the patience to string it, the Big Snow, the ice skating rink at the University where my brother Jim danced with me, the hats we wore (knitted ovals that covered the ears and tied under our chins: the Vermont Trading Company just started to carry them and I bought two), the worry about finding last minute cranberries. But a lot of it is on our tree, collected in fond memory of who we are and where and when we came from.

There are ornaments I couldn't bear to unwrap and hang this year - the tin treadle sewing machine that was like the one my grandmother used, the quilt blocks, the Scarlet O'Hara figurine (my mother to my father when Francie wa third grader, when Gone with the Wind was released every ten years: "I am not waiting until my daughter is nineteen before she sees Gone with the Wind!").

But a lot of them are hung, rehung, admired after being forgotten for a year. And now I'm going to go make my grandmother's sugar cookie dough.

*There Is No Santa.


Helen said... made me cry. In a good way. :-)

So many of your memories could be mine. And I will be forever grateful for your putting into words something that I just realized I feel in my heart about my Christmas tree...all the ornaments are the story of my life (and now my partner's life is joined with mine on our tree)...we have ones that I made as a child...and ones that his daughters made. Ones that remind me of every Christmas I can remember. Every ornament is a story to my heart.

Merry Christmas, Frances...wishing you and your family the warmth of memories and love

Unknown said...

I have memories similar to many of yours... what a nice trip to the past when things seemed simpler and people nicer.

Thanks for sharing this. Wishing you peace tomorrow and always.

debby said...

What a wonderful story to read on Christmas morning. Thank you for sharing. It brought back so many memories to me--some very similar to yours. Merry Christmas!

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