On this last night of Hanukkah, enjoy the two following posts, the audio recording of which may be found at WordPlaySound.com...with many thanks to Ryan Singleton.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
My Christmas memories are an amalgam of simultaneous dread, distortion and melodramatic nostalgia that could have all occurred on the same Christmas that I was seven, nine or twelve. With the Tree-Returning Incident, for example, I said I was nine but I may have been seven. Or twelve. That event may, in fact, have been the same year my father and his brother chose affirmative action as the topic of discussion to best celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus.
I do not recommend this...ever.
Grandma -a lady who believed that you could outgrow being Chinese and thus had very little perspective to add to a discussion on affirmative action- was there and I had to give my bed up to her -I always had to give my bed up to her and I felt this was a great injustice since no one else had to give up their beds. She and my mother only ever greeted each other through clenched teeth. Like all good Jewesses, my mother decorated the house in all its Christmassy fashion, right down to the red bow on our Westy terrier, who, quite matter-of-factly, chose my other uncle's foot as his fire hydrant. Andy Williams was singing carols on the record player -yes, indeed, I said "record player," people. My father even bought a 3D puzzle of Yuletide London, which tormented us into believing that at least three pieces were missing. Everything was perfect, especially the twelve-foot tree my father erected after three relentless hours of fir needles and curses. The arena was optimized for the self-destructive forces of sibling rivalry and familial angst. In other words, the scene was primed for the Bumpuses's dogs to destroy our turkey.
Yes, sir, affirmative action. Not the least probability that such an intellectual venture could spew forth such vitriolic tidings of Christmas joy.
Two hours after the table was cleared, my father and uncle were still asserting liberal and liberal-liberal standpoints with their overly assertive Italian eyebrows. I had long ago immersed myself in the foam-and-picture world of 3D London to avoid any verbal spillover. The debate was no longer about affirmative action. It was simply about anger. Although the Tree-Returning Incident and the Great Affirmative Action Debate may or may not have been the same year, something nasty had undoubtedly gone viral in our home at the holidays because this may also have been the same Christmas on which we thought family friends had lost their son to a fatal car crash.
The Houstins* moved with us from Long Island to the same neighborhood in Connecticut. Brian and my brother played soccer together. I remember not liking them because when my parents vacationed in Hawai'i for their fifteenth anniversary, leaving my brother and me at the Houstins's home, I held my s*** in for all five days. It was my way of saying, "Mrs. Houstin, I find your peculiar brand of cuisine most displeasing, your disposition most unkind, and your oddly masculine voice somewhat petrifying. I shall, therefore, not defecate this morn."
My father warned my brother that Brian was the kind of a**hole that would one day be driving a car in which the passenger would be killed, that Brian wouldn't die. My brother paled when the prediction came true. We actually received a phone call reporting that Brian died in the hospital, to which my mother buried her face in her hands. I didn't understand why. The other boy was dead on impact. I knew his father and had heard that he was a nice boy. We didn't like Brian. And, he killed somebody else on Christmas Day. I remember thinking the wrong boy died when I heard that Brian was still calling the hospital nurses "bitches" after the accident.
Sometimes I don't understand Christmas. We struggle so much to be with the ones who we love but who we can't bear to be near for longer than it takes to say, "Hello." We try to please the ones who don't want to be pleased. We try to talk casually with people we can't chat with. We try to love the people we wish were dead and try to be sad when we think they actually are dead. You needed to be vigilant to avoid catastrophe. You could never let down your guard lest you allow a poor discussion topic to enter the room. And, then we spend the rest of our lives wishing we had back the Christmasses that went bad. Is this the meaning of Christmas? Love the friends and family you have now because they might be gone tomorrow? Love them because you might not have the chance to love them ever again? Is the message of Christmas Spirit so obvious? Is it this contrived? This trite?
When I was nine, my mother instructed my father to return our Christmas tree to the local Christmas tree vendor because it was too small and simply not Christmassy enough. My mother is Jewish. My father refused. She took me with her and brought the tree back herself.
In the history of Christmas, I don't think anyone has ever returned a Christmas tree, especially when the customer's predominant religion requires said customer to be celebrating Chanukkah at the exact moment that he or she is returning said hypothetical Christmas tree. In this case, however, my mother was a veritable Lucy to my father's Charlie Brown. Although this may have been my father's passive aggressive plea against having to erect a twelve-foot tree under our family room's vaulted ceiling, my mother would have none of it. Everyone driving by on Branchville Road needed to see our tree for miles in either direction from our massive bay window as if it were the light of Baby Jesus himself. An eight-foot tree was simply not enough Christmas for this half-Christian family.
So, with my mother I went to return our tree on a frigid December morning. I pulled my hat down over my face -there were no eyeholes- not in order to hide it from the cold, but rather to hide my embarrassment from the Christmas tree vendor whose expression bordered the line between frustration and disbelief. My mother was incredulous that the vendor would even sell this sub-par Christmas tree to a well-paying family such as ours. Not only did my mother return the tree but so hot was her fervor that she opted to take her patronage to a different vendor entirely, effectively conveying the message, "Your business, kind sir, sucks and, therefore, you will not receive our monies this morn. Good day."
Such is the wrath of a Jew on Christmas.
My mother and I drove to another vendor on the other side of town, carrying with us her refunded money and a complaint about the former vendor. The new vendor listened to our woes, confident that his inventory stored only the straightest, largest, and fullest Christmas trees. A superhero of Christmas tree sales, this vendor immediately led us to the plus-size models, all of which were ten feet or taller. My mother bought a twelve-footer and waited patiently and triumphantly outside the car as our new Christmas tree hero strapped our new new Christmas tree to the roof of our car.
Every holiday season, my mother made it her mission to Christmasize the house, right down to the empty wrapped boxes on the landing, the additional four-foot tree in the living room, and the Christmas menorah that once belonged to her father. She even hung a name-embroidered stocking for our very waspy terrier, Spencer. Spencer had his own holiday bow. Thankfully, I didn't. In her younger years, my mother even went so far as to paint her own wooden ornaments and hang one, in particular, that read, "Shalom."
I wonder what so motivated my mother to become such a champion Christmasser, being a Jew, and all I come up with is this: when we are no longer what we once were, we embrace something...anything. She saw the writing on the wall. Chanukkah had nothing on Christmas. It was popularized by a couple of rabbis in Cincinnati to make Jewish children feel better about their lack of presents in December. My mother had one son who half-heartedly embraced his bar mitzvah and one who would never have one at all. She was losing. Sons are supposed to be the religion of their mother, damn it! We didn't care. We wanted presents. Eight wasn't enough. So, what does she do? If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. And while we're at it, we'll celebrate Chanukkah, too!
Our holiday season was packed. That year, my father spent hours raising the twelve-foot tree my mother and I purchased, dropping countless f-bombs and sweating profusely from his Italian brow. After the fallout cleared, we lit a fire, blasted the Andy Williams Christmas Album, and chased the dog away from the lower tree limbs and rogue ornament hooks, as we leaned and contorted to decorate the branches we were too short to reach. Each year, we had the shiniest star, the classiest white lights, and coziest holiday dinners. We lit our menorah and donned our tree, opened the small gifts on Chanukkah and the big ones on Christmas. We liked Chanukkah but we admittedly liked Big Brother Christmas a little bit more.
And, no matter how big or awesome it was, we communally hated that f***ing tree.