Instructions: Click the “Play” arrow above. Please follow along silently, as I read aloud.
Christmas as I’d always known it changed radically when my Dad died in late summer 1990. Although their marriage was quite the rocky one, my mother had stuck by him through fifty-four turbulent years and he by her. In hindsight, I don’t know which of them was the worst instigator. Truth be told, they both could be pains in the ass. Now for the first time in her adult life, Mom had found herself alone. I remember a phone conversation about two months after he was gone where I asked her “so how are you really doing now?” to which she responded without missing a beat:
“Oh, it’s soooo lonely. There’s no one to fight with.” She’d said it with pure sincerity.
As the holidays approached, she was getting sadder, not better. I never expected this from her, because she’d always been such a free-spirited woman. Many times during her life she was held back because my father didn’t want her doing something she would have loved to do. She explained she dreaded sitting around the Thanksgiving table with her sister and brother and their families all by herself. I suggested she come out to Massachusetts and spend it with me and my then partner Alejandro. She leapt at the chance. We took her to a lovely two-hundred-year-old inn for a hearth-side turkey dinner. She adored it, but commented several times during the meal that she felt like a whore (that’s how she pronounced it), because only whores ate Thanksgiving dinner at restaurants. Each time she repeated the word, she’d grin a little more broadly.
So Mom went back to Ohio, and now whenever we spoke on the phone her conversation turned to dreading Christmas. She wondered how she could ever make it to New Year’s without my father. Mind you, the two of them hadn’t partied on New Year’s Eve since the birth of my older brother in 1942. I suggested she find a bereavement support group to help ease her way through the holidays. She did attend several sessions. But those phone conversations were not getting any better and her calls were coming closer together. The topic was still the same and growing more maudlin each time.
Finally, out of desperation, I tried another tactic. With a giggle in my voice I offhandedly joked “Mom, maybe you should think back to all those Christmases that Dad ruined by screaming and fighting over the Christmas tree”. There was a long pause as I waited for her reply. Then it came like a volley:
“Well…I’m sorry that your childhood Christmases were ruined”, and she hung up with a bang.
But it was true. Just as I remember looking back on fun hours baking Christmas cookies, I recall the angst and torture that came with merely the mention of the words Christmas and tree combined. My parents certainly never needed a real reason to have an argument. They could start a rip-snorter over the most insignificant thing imaginable. Like the thermostat on the wall. On one trip back to West Buttfok, I found the two of them hadn’t spoken to each other for three days, because each insisted that neither of them had touched the bloody thermostat and yet it somehow was set at 70 instead of 68 degrees. Is that the universally acceptable winter setting, I’d wondered?
So one can see how a relationship as explosive as theirs would certainly crumble under the pressure of dealing with the burden of a Christmas tree. And it often times began at home simply discussing the fact that it was nearing time to go out and buy a tree. Dad would say it was way too early to go looking, and my mother insisted that if we waited even an hour longer all the good ones would surely be gone. They would scream and curse and name call and insult the hell out of each other until one of them would end up grumbling “then fine-we just won’t have a tree this year”.
Once the two of them agreed it was the appropriate time, we all of us piled into the car and round two began-where to buy the tree. In the 50s and 60s there weren’t a lot of places that sold trees in our area of greater Cleveland, yet our folks claimed they could never remember where we got the tree the year before. I always remembered, but they didn’t trust one another, so why would they even consider trusting a kid? We were hardly down the driveway before the screaming began again, this time about which direction to head in. If Mom persisted in going to the tree seller she thought we’d gone to the year before, my father would threaten: “Stop tellin’ me where ta’ drive or I’ll turn the god-damn car around right now and you won’t have yer’ tree.”
It’s not my tree”, she would counter, it’s our tree.”
“Yeah, right”, he’d grumble under his breath, demanding to have the last word. I would sit in the back seat cowering, just wishing the ordeal would be over rather than only beginning. There were also years when she’d call his bluff and he did turn around to go home. Then usually my brother or I started crying. This caused Dad to scream at us and reach around with his right hand blindly smacking at our legs while he continued driving, one-handed, refocusing his anger on his sons rather than his wife the shrew. We never did suffer a Christmas without a tree though, but came pretty damn close a couple of years.
Invariably we ended up at a place near my elementary school which always had the best selection. My older brother and I started running down the rows of cut trees propped up on stakes. Our parents screaching at us to “act civilized, fer’ chrissakes”-ironic coming from the two of them. All of us were hoping to be first to spot the perfect tree for our tiny living room, which barely had space for the manger scene on the TV set and the four of us at the same time. Of course my mother always fell in love with the twelve footers, which was a total impossibility in our bungalow. My dad typically chose the shortest, bushiest, shrub-like arbor because his main criteria was fitting “the god-damn thing” into his car trunk. He never would be so cavalier to allow even one inch of pine to stick out of the car. He was far too lazy to expend the energy tying the thing to his roof. “It might scratch the paint” was his excuse against doing any extra work. This concern for a car he washed with Spic-n-Span once a summer-whether it needed it or not.
The one and only thing they did agree on was it had to be a Scotch Pine. Why, I’ve no idea, but every year it had to be our tree of choice. Short needle, long needle, bushy or spindly, my brother and I just wanted a tree to take home to decorate, and our parents to stop fighting and shut the hell up. They had no shame; they’d fight in front of the tree man. They weren’t the least bit bothered by each other’s behavior but I could have died right then and there. I bore their shame for them.
Round three was bringing the tree into the living room, setting it up and putting on the lights. This was something that only Dad could do, no matter how old we sons were. It was one of his few expressions of machismo, but of course, it came with a price. We were expected to help him if he struggled, while at the same time staying out of his way. So, if the tree began to lean dangerously close to falling, (as Mom hollered “towards the window!” and he queried “which window, fer’ chrissakes?”) unless he called for help we were NOT to attempt assisting. And when he did ask for our aid, we were, of course, told we were useless, because it was our fault that whatever had happened, happened.
He shouted and swore and G-D’d his way through the job. Once it was up in its stand and encircled in lights he parked his ass in his recliner and watched us hanging the years of accumulated ornaments and tinsel and candy canes. Intermittently supervising our work, chewing on a smelly cheap cigar, he would bellow instructions from his throne. He’d critique our decorating with helpful comments like: “Yer’ makin’ the damn thing look cockeyed now” or the ever-popular “Can’t you do anything right?”. Then when people came to visit over the holidays my father was the first to remark “isn’t our tree beautiful?”. We all wanted to wring his neck, leaving him dead-right there in his chair.
At the end of the joyous season came the final round…that being dismantling the dead pine and taking it out to the street to be carted away by the trash man. I won’t even bore you with that ordeal. I think you might guess that those memories are not half as pleasant as the ones putting the tree up had been.
I still love Christmas trees, despite my parents’ damaged sense of holiday cheer. I’ll admit that taking down dessicated live trees is nothing but ugliness and hell, and I often channel most of my father’s rage to assist me in the task. But still for seventeen years, David and I went out shopping for a live tree. It is a happy/sad time for us both, decorating and remembering Christmases past and family and friends no longer with us to celebrate the season.
This Christmas is our first foray into the world of the fake tree-and is it ever. A fantasy of mine for decades-inspired, no doubt by some uber queer department store window designer in the late 1950s-a six-foot tall PINK Christmas tree. It’s so gay it’s almost embarrassing. But it’s beginning to grow on us. Have a fabulous holiday! (whatever you celebrate).