Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Holidays are Coming

My grandfather used to say “New Years is for amateurs.” Pop was serious about his drinking and he had no time for people who drank only on occasion. He was especially suspicious of Teetotalers. He considered them furtive. To Pop, a Teetotaler was unable to drink for fear they might reveal their true selves and therefore could never be trusted as a friend. My grandmother shared this opinion and every once in a while I would hear her describe someone in an uncharacteristically quiet tone, “He’s a Teetotaler, you know...” as though she were revealing the darkest possible secret about this individual. I am certain this was all born of the fact that my grandfather’s father lost his fortune due to Prohibition. In addition to his liquor business being shut down by the law, my great-grandfather Glynn was driven out of the Catholic Church after a fellow parishioner caught him with his hand firmly stuck in the tithing box. It was his intention to push his charitable donation further into the box, but it served only to appear as theft. Now he had no livelihood due to the Teetotaling menace and his Church had disowned him. There was only one thing to do -- drink himself to death.

Oddly enough, my grandfather was born on New Years Day. He was the first baby born in Boston, so the story goes, at 12:01 am on January 1, 1905. His mother was given a cake for bringing Thomas Burke Glynn into the world at such an auspicious time. And it seems that the significant dates of my grandfather’s life would all fall around the holidays. He married my grandmother on December 26, 1936. The 26th of December, of course, is known as Boxing Day and he used to quip that it was the most appropriate day for his union with my grandmother as “it had been a fightin’ match ever since!” My grandmother’s birthday was December 6th and my mother was born on December 7th, five years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. But most significantly for Pop was that his mother died on Christmas Day in the early 1930s. This cast a shadow over Christmas for him for the rest of his life.

The holidays are coming and I am preparing, as I do every year, to hunker down and get through it. It is most regrettable to me that the Holiday season now begins with hunting season in early November. It is that much longer now that I have to thwart the funk that overtakes me during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mine is a complicated funk though, because I have such ambiguous feelings toward this time of year. There is the side of me that is joyous with the idea of making Christmas cards and cooking on Thanksgiving Day. I cannot resist Charlie Brown’s Christmas and Gene Shepherd’s Christmas Story. I can barely contain myself when I hear Elvis sing Blue Christmas. And probably my most favorite Christmas show? The claymation classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer -- it goes deep for me, into a place of my childhood that still exists in another dimension of time, I am certain of it.

But hunker down I must, despite the side of me that enjoys this time of year. I am a child of divorce and the holidays were an extremely odd time for me as a child. It was decision making time for me. Who will I spend Thanksgiving with? Who will I spend Christmas with? And I didn’t just have one Thanksgiving dinner, I got to have at least two, because the parent who didn’t spend Thanksgiving with me, made up for their lost day, by recreating it at a later date. The same happened with Christmas, sometimes the recreation of which came way past the 12 days of Christmas. My grandmother was very traditional in that she put the tree up on Christmas Eve and took it down on Epiphone, every year, like clockwork. But occasionally my father, who lived hours away from me, would request that the tree stay up just a bit longer, so that he could visit me and put my presents under the now tired looking tannenbaum, whose needles were tinkling to the floor. She was annoyed by this request. And me? I just thought it was strange, because to me, it wasn’t Christmas anymore.

So I have this biological time bomb that goes off every year when the holidays begin to loom. Although I am grown, I feel this pressure somewhere under my right shoulder blade that tells me I need to make a decision. Of course, I don’t have to decide on my holiday whereabouts at all anymore. I am not obligated to anyone to make a holiday appearance. I can stay right here, right at home and choose not to see anyone. But this feeling doesn’t go away until New Year’s Day and it drives me to make certain efforts to participate in the festivities, even though I would be happy to let it all slide. Some years, I ignore the pressure quite valiantly, but there are other years where it manages to overwhelm me. And because I have no children of my own, because my family has remained quite small and is getting smaller as time passes, the pressure comes not from within, but from my surroundings. I watch friends go through the intense maneuverings of this time of year and I see them look at me curiously, “Why doesn’t she have the same horrendous holiday schedule that I have?” They are perplexed by the simplicity of my holiday experience. I envy their being overwhelmed by family and perhaps they envy my freedom.

While growing up my mother instilled in me the beneficence of buying the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. You know what I am talking about, the little sad tree on the back of the lot that no one wants. Charlie Brown saw something of himself in that tree and he defied the fakery and the commercialism he saw in Christmas by giving the pathetic tree a home. The children of the Christmas pageant scorned him for buying such a waste of a tree, but it was Linus who recognized the import of the tree. He saw the Christian lesson in adopting a tree that would only end up on the trash heap. And lo, a Christmas miracle occurred, as the Peanuts gang began to love the tree, it became a shining beacon of Christmas.

My mother applies this idea of buying the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree to almost all facets of her life and I follow this “religion”. We adopt the saddest of dogs, one’s with behavioral and physical flaws, we take on horses that are not quite sound or of Show Quality. And we do the same with people, although we are less apt to forgive people as much as we do animals and Christmas Trees. We have slightly higher expectations of the people we surround ourselves with, but they get enormous breaks from us just the same.

When it comes to Christmas trees, it doesn’t always have to be the smallest most pathetic tree. I spent Christmas on my mother’s farm in Southern Pines, NC back in 1982. I was a senior in high school and it was a year in which I decided to spend the whole vacation with my mother, right through New Years Day. I left my father in the cold that year. My mother and stepfather were planning on having a party on Christmas Eve, a “payback” party, one of those parties we all have at one time or another, when we gather together all the people we owe a night out to. My mother’s house was a wonderfully small affair, with only one bedroom upstairs in a loft and an open first floor that had practically no walls between the kitchen and the living area. But despite being small, it boasted a living room that soared 25 feet or so to the roof with the loft dangling above it, only accessible by a spiral steel staircase, the kind you see in inexpensive Greenwich Village lofts. The backside of the house was sunny with French doors and windows above, very unusual for now stuffy Town and Country Southern Pines.

On the morning of Christmas Eve my mother and I drove downtown to find a Christmas tree. We went to a lot near the railroad tracks and they had a large selection of very fat fir trees, none that fit my mother’s requirement for something scrawny and in need of charity. But at the very back of the lot was a 20 foot fur that stood as proud as anything you would see in Rockefeller Center. We walked back an stood under the boughs of the great tree. There was a tag tied to one of the lower boughs and there were several prices listed. Each price had been crossed out leaving a price at the bottom of the tag of ten dollars. The tree had started its illustrious career at $350! My mother looked at me and I looked at her. We had found our Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. The tree man came over, “You ladies like that tree?”

“Yes, yes we do. Its so beautiful!” My mother was fingering the price tag.

“and Big. Nobody wants this big of a tree. Last time I buy a twenty foot tree!” The man said as he craned he neck to look to the top of the tree.

“Can you deliver the tree to my farm? Its too big to get in my truck.”

“We wouldn’t normally do that, but for you, I’ll do it. ”

We paid him ten dollars for the tree and ten dollars to bring it to the farm.

My mother and I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Ed about the tree. We busted in the door and all the dogs came running and Ed was watching football. This was his lunch break. They had alot of race horses in the barn back then, as many as 20 yearlings and he and my mother did all their own stalls. The horses had the day off that day, because we were having a party. There was housework to do, food to be made. We were expecting 15 or so people for drinks that evening, and there was no time to work the yearlings.

“Ed, we found the most marvelous tree!” My mother started moving some furniture out of the corner she planned to put it in.

“And where is the tree? Do you need me to get it out of the truck.” Ed said this while his eyes remained glued to the football.

“No, no, its being delivered, they are on their way with it.”

“Delivered? When did we get the money to have trees delivered? Why couldn’t you and Shannon just put it in the truck?”

“Because its 20 feet high!”

“Great Scott!”

“Nobody wanted it. It was too big!”

“I don’t want it.” Ed got up and started to look at the area my mother was clearing. “And what are you going to decorate it with? We don’t have decorations for a tree that large!” My mother looked at me and I looked at her. We hadn’t considered that.

“Oh no, I don’t know. I guess I’ll need to go back to town and buy lots of tinsel!”

But suddenly Ed smiled. Ed is brilliant really, he’s an old stunt man from Hollywood, and he has a world of experience like no other person I know. “I know how to decorate it. We’ll decorate it with snow!”

“What?” My mother was confused.

“Ivory Snow! You and the kid go to the grocery store right away and buy as many boxes of powdered Ivory Snow as you can get. And tinsel, lots of silver tinsel. No lights, we won’t need lights, just one lamp to back light the tree.”

“What the heck are we gonna do with Ivory Snow flakes?” I piped up the only way a teenager could pipe up.

“Just go with your mother!”

The tree was in the house when we got home. Ed and the guys had pulled it in through the French doors and unfurled its boughs from its burlap wrapping only to figure out they had no way to stand the thing upright! They went out into the barn and found a two by four which Ed sawed in half. He nailed the two pieces to the bottom of the tree making a large X. It was slightly unwieldy. My mother looked at it askance. “Don’t you think we ought to secure it with some rope? I would hate for a drunk to bring it down on all of us tonight!”

“Jesus Sandy! Now you have regrets?”

“No, its gorgeous!” My mother and I started taking the boxes of Ivory Snow out of the grocery bags.

“Four boxes? You could only get four boxes?”

“Ed, we’re lucky we got that, nobody uses powdered Ivory Snow anymore. So what are we going to do with all this?”

“Kid, go get me bucket in the barn.” Ed was opening the boxes an rifling through the kitchen drawers. “Sandy, where’s the egg beater?”

So I brought Ed the bucket and he rips open the boxes of soap and pours them into the bucket. He puts the bucket in the sink and adds some water, not alot of water, but a little at a time so as to make a paste. “Kid, get the tinsel. And see those scissors? Start cutting up the tinsel into tiny pieces, I mean tiny, like confettI”

“So Ed, what are we doing here?”

“We’re making snow a la the Waldorf Astoria!” Ed’s father was the manager of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel while Ed was growing up. Like the anti-Eloise, Ed grew up in the hotel among the staff and the great food and the famous visitors. “We used to have Christmas trees all over the hotel at Christmas time and decorations were very expensive and fragile and tended to get stolen. One of the staff told us that he and his wife decorated their tree with Ivory Snow during the Depression, because that’s all they had...all they had was soap. So we used to mix great vats of it and decorate the trees all over the hotel with it. You’re not cutting the tinsel small enough, real tiny, and put it in the bucket.” Ed used the egg beater on the paste to whip it up into a fluffy tinselly concoction that looked like meringue. It looked good enough to eat.

Once he made the first batch he told me we had to work fast or the snow would harden in the bucket. Ed got a ladder and he worked at the top of the tree and I worked at the bottom. “Now spread the snow on top of the boughs, just like snow would fall onto a tree. No too much, or it weighs the boughs down and the whole thing will droop!”

So we worked all afternoon, making snow in the bucket and spreading it on the tree. My mother would come out every once in a while from the kitchen and make exclamations of joy.

Evening fell, the horses were enjoying their Christmas Eve mashes and the guests began to arrive. Ed and Sandy and I had washed all the residual snow from the floor and swept up the tinsel. The guests were astonished by the tree, especially my godmother Ginnie who hailed from Savannah. She was the Master of the Foxhounds and owned several thousand acres on which my mother and everyone in Southern Pines hunted and rode their horses. “My goodness,” she said in her Savannah drawl, “That has got to be the most spectacular Christmas tree I have ever seen!” And it was the most spectacular Christmas tree. Its stood proud and covered in freshly fallen snow which caught the light of the party candles and reflected in the ice cubes in the party goers glasses of cheer.

We partied late into the evening, with stories of race horses and fox hunting and some of the adventurous things my mother had done when she was young and some of the insane things Ed had done in Hollywood. We stayed up so late that although the guests had arrived on Christmas Eve, they departed on Christmas morning.


Caitlyn Hentenaar said...

"And we do the same with people, although we are less apt to forgive people as much as we do animals and Christmas Trees" - so true :)

Francis Smith said...

Lovely, so glad to have read this finally! XO FS