Two Christmas Trees

20 Dec

We have only a very few Christmas traditions in my family.  The first, which begins without fail the day after Halloween, is my mother’s lament – part wail, part whine, and pitched to a particularly ear-rending note – “Don’t you just hate this time of year?”  Her lament lasts until January 2nd , and is heard with inescapable repetition after every television commercial featuring sleigh bells, holly, reindeer, and the jolly old elf.  (Her lament for Valentine’s Day will start soon thereafter.)

As a matter of fact, I don’t hate this time of year at all – I love it.  My birthday is three days after Christmas, and I have a theory that a person’s favorite season will inevitably coincide with their birth date.  I’ve never tested this theory out, of course; it is more in the nature of a personal observation because it certainly holds true for me.  I love cold weather, and the sweaters and heavy coats that go with it. The first sight of my breath curling in the air is New Year’s Day for me, the true beginning of my own personal year.

And my favorite part of winter is Christmas.  When the ornaments begin appearing in the stores, around the fourth of July, I wheel my cart slowly past the display, mentally deciding where I will use them in my home.  This year I made new wreaths for myself and some friends.  I hung mine on the front door even before Thanksgiving arrived.  My motto during these days is “Have glue gun – will travel.”

In looking back, it seems strange to me that I still have the resilience to look forward to Christmas, because my parents did everything in their power to make it a season to dread.  My mother, who never has had a single unexpressed opinion in her almost ninety years, will begin her aforementioned lament early on.  She was the banker in the family, you see, and dreaded the expense of the holiday.  My father, who died at 53, was (we now believe) bi-polar.  You just never could guess what would come out of his mouth next.  One minute he was the cheeriest of Santa Clauses, the next moment the Grinch.  His emotional mutability caused my childhood face to be set in a kind of permanent wince.  But it was great fun when he was in his manic phase – he’d decorate the house like it was Macy’s window, and we’d buy brand new Christmas ornaments for the tree.  But if he was in his depressive phase, watch out – he and my mother became two halves of a single pair of scissors, snip-snip-snipping at all the good cheer and merrymaking.

It was pure greed that saw me through those years, knowing that whatever problems my parents had with the holiday, I’d still have a good haul come Christmas morning.  When I was older, and had acquired most of what I wanted, I’d simply excuse myself and spend the holiday with friends whose families were decidedly less idiosyncratic than my own.  Nevertheless, I’d always get a bit wistful when I shared in another family’s Christmas, thinking how wonderful it would be if my own parents could just once actually enjoy the day.

Not my mom and dad.  Snip.  Snip.  Snip.

I wasn’t the only one who realized how strange they were, either.  My childhood friends informed me that my parents were known to the neighborhood as the “Witch” and the “Bitch”.  When I got home I threw this story into their faces, scornfully accusing them of souring my chances for social success.  They shrieked with laughter, mainly about the gender confusion of the epithets.  I mean – they were so hard-bitten.

And yet…and yet…there were a few times in my early years when something extraordinary happened at the holidays – like the years when we had not one, but two Christmas Trees.

I have to preface this story with the news that my parents seldom fought – they sniped.  It was rare for them to have a screaming “knock-down-drag-out”, as we used to call such fights in my family.  My mom and dad were like demented surgeons, thrusting in the scalpel to leave you bleeding to death before you even felt the incision.  We were all extremely verbal creatures in our household, and our tongues were our weapons of choice.  A witty riposte, a special bon mot dreamt up long before and saved for a special occasion, even a casual aside made in passing were what counted – the kinds of remarks that haunt you for life and leave the deepest scars.  Once when I was earnestly combing my hair in a mirror, my mother said from across the room, “Why bother?  It’s not like you’re any Adonis.”  (Of course that was very long ago; I scarcely remember it at all.)

But back to Christmas.  The big day of the season was the day we’d go to the lot and buy our Christmas tree.  It would be on the night that Dad got paid, and we’d eat a quick dinner and then bundle ourselves into the car.  During dinner, however, I noticed an uncustomary clipped quality creeping into their conversation, far different from the extravagant Sheherazadian narratives of Dad’s work day (he was the manager of a grocery store, and his stories invariably concerned all the outrageously beautiful women who’d shop there and flirt with him.  Mom would usually counter with how she, too, shopped at grocery stores and had never once encountered such goddesses in her own personal forays down the canned goods aisle.)  But there was none of this on Christmas Tree night.  They were polite.  They grew quieter and quieter.  It reminded me of those scenes in a Western movie, when the pioneers are listening to the distant war drums of savage Indians – “it’s when they stop you gotta worry!”

On the way to the tree lot the atmosphere in the car became cloudier than the cigarette smoke that filled it.  I was in my usual position in the back seat, nose pressed to the window, permitted to roll it down a quarter of an inch so that I could inhale pure ozone.  Any more than that and they’d scream at me for letting in the cold air.

It was probably around 7:00 in the evening when we arrived at the tree lot, located next door to my dad’s grocery store.  Though he was a baptized Catholic, we never went to the lot owned by the Knights of Columbus.  His loyalties were to his paycheck, I suppose.  I was first out of the car, breathing in that magical scent of pine resin and balsam that is like no other.  My parents reconnoitered at the entrance to the lot, which is to say where the chicken wire fence had been rolled back.  A small tented enclosure was at the far end of the place, where those who had the extra ten dollars could have their trees flocked in white, pink, or blue.  I could already see my father’s eyes straying towards it.  He loved flocked trees more than any other kind.  I did not love them, at least at that time, for the flocking was spewed on the trees with all the subtlety of a fireman spraying retardant on a gasoline fire.  There was something about the texture I never liked, either, for it reminded me of cotton candy; something I still loathe because of its stickiness.

My mother must have noticed the direction in which her husband’s eyes were straying, for she determinedly led him toward another part of the lot.  She hated flocked trees as much as I did, not from any aesthetic consideration, but because of the $10 surcharge.  If it were up to her, we wouldn’t even get a tree.  She had come along mainly to monitor my father’s excesses.

My own concern that night – other than getting a tree – was to avoid the area where Santa had set up his chair to ask all the children what they wanted on the Big Day.  Next to clowns, and (later) transvestites, Santa Claus scared me more than the devil himself – him being a weird hybrid between, well, clowns and transvestites.  I had long before figured out that the Santa Claus story had to be nonsense anyway.

Now, if there had been reindeer in Santa’s enclosure that night, I probably would have risked it.  I was a sucker for anything that had four feet and fur.  In fact, my parents had only gotten me to surrender my nursing bottle a few years before by saying that Santa needed it to feed his reindeer.  I had handed it over instantly and never looked back; by then I was already drinking black coffee from my own mug, anyway.

Luckily, this tree lot featured one of the poorer Santas in town, and reindeer had been deemed superfluous.  Therefore I was free to wander with my parents.  Had I known that they had saved up all their own slights and injuries and taunts for this one night, I probably would have felt safer with the cross-dressing Santa.  This was to be the night, however, when it all exploded in one gigantic meltdown, becoming one of their “knock-down-drag-outs” of all time.

“How about a Scotch Pine?” my father said in his opening gambit.

“How much is it?” my mother countered.

“Maybe we should go with a noble fir,” my father mused, seemingly distracted.  “They hold the ornaments best.”

“They’re the most expensive, too,” mother observed flatly.  “No.”

“Well, let’s just stroll around and see if there’s something that suits us,” my father said evasively.

We strolled around.

“Do you like that balsam?” offered my father.

Mom looked right past the balsam to a tree whose tag said $7.  “How about that one?” she said, pointing.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” my father snapped.  “All its back branches are missing!”

“We could put it in a corner.  Who sees the back of it anyway?”

“I want to put it on the den coffee table,” Dad said, “in front of the window.  We’ll put a floodlight on it, so people can see it from the street.”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” my mother snapped.  “What people are those?”

There was distinct drop in the temperature as they began to glare at one another, and it had nothing to do with the weather.  We strolled some more.  A few more trees were discussed and rejected.  Too full.  Too expensive.  Too scraggly.  Too expensive.  Too many brown needles.  Too expensive.  Finally it was decided that perhaps we should all split up and case the lot individually.  Three sets of eyes were better, anyway.  “Then, maybe to Christ we can get the hell out of here and go home,” my mother added.

I remember that I spent the rest of the evening moving uncomfortably between my parents, when one or the other would yell in delight upon finding their perfect tree.

“Look at this one!” I heard a shout from Dad.

I’d rush to where he was, and Mom would already be eying his selection skeptically.  “Well, it’s just about the ugliest thing you could have picked,” she said.  “And twenty dollars, too – ”

“I suppose you’ve found something better.”

“As a matter of fact, I have.  It’s right over there.”

We sped past startled shoppers, horribly intent on our quest.

“Look at this!” Mom said proudly.

“You mean that pile of sticks?”

“What do you mean, sticks?  Those are good firm branches – strong enough to hold all that crap you ladle on it every year!  And look at the price – a bargain at $12.”

The vein in my father’s forehead began to bulge – not a good sign.  “You are one cheap bitch, y’know that?”

The light of battle came into my mother’s eye – not a good sign.  I began to wish I was back in the smoke-filled car.

What did you just call me?” she asked, eyes narrowing.

“Cheap, that’s what I called you!”

“You called me a bitch!”

She said this very loudly, and I was conscious of every head in the place beginning to turn in our direction.  My mother’s voice was a marvel of volume.  She had been in the Navy WAVES during World War II, stationed in Hawaii.  Though only 97 pounds at the time, her voice carried so far that she was chosen to call out marching maneuvers during drill practice; even the most distant recruit on the farthest part of the field could hear her.  Later, when she would call me home for dinner in the evenings from the neighborhood park, every kid who was there with me ran home as well.

It was this voice that she began to use that night, and my father began to match her.

“How about this one?” he snarled.

“You poor bastard,” my mom said as though speaking to a mentally retarded infant.  “Any idiot knows you’d have to saw it in half just to get it through the front door!  Are you blind, or just stupid?”

“We’re getting it!”

“No, we’re not – we’re getting this one!”

“And I’ll be having it flocked!”

“I doubt that!”

“Watch me!”

By this time I had backed up to the sales tent near the entrance, not wanting to be mistaken for their child.  People soon came up to the cashier, complaining about the couple who were screaming obscenities at each other.

At that point I decided to wait in the car, but I had to tell them I was going there.  There was no trouble finding my parents again; they were still screaming at each other.  I interrupted them long enough to inform them that I was bored and was going to wait in the car, and could I please have the keys?

“Good,” my mother said, handing me her set.  “Wait there.  We’re going home in a minute anyway.”

“You stay right here!” my father said.  For some reason he always wanted us to witness his tantrums.  “It’s going to take twenty minutes to flock this fucker!”

“Can I help you folks…?” asked one of the tree vendors nervously, approaching them as though they were caged leopards, ready to rip off an arm if he got too close.  He wasn’t too far wrong.

“We’ll take this one!” they shouted simultaneously, each clinging to their own tree.

That was when a bosomy matron interrupted.  I guess she couldn’t help it.  “Look at this poor child,” she scolded them, pointing to me.  “What kind of parents are you…?”

If anything could have united all three of us in an instant that was it.  “Oh, blow it out your ass, lady!” my mother told her.

“Mind your own goddamned business!” my father said.

“You leave my mom and dad alone!” I cried.

She went away shaking her head and I took the opportunity to go to the car as planned.  Twenty minutes later my parents emerged from the lot, each trailing their own tree, mouths set in a line of stubborn defiance.

“Wow,” my friends said later in our den, gazing at both trees stationed at opposite ends of the room.  “You’re so lucky – you got two Christmas trees!”

“Yes,” I said with only a trace of condescension.  “Two.”

I dimly realized that the Witch and the Bitch had finally come through for me just by being themselves; I was a social success in the neighborhood at last.  Neither my playmates – nor their parents – had to know that my mom and dad still glowered at one another night after night, all the while sitting possessively beside their tree, or that another war had been waged when it came to dividing up the lights and ornaments.

And lest you think this was an anomaly of sorts, I’ll have you know that this event occurred over three Christmases in a row.  Their war was declared over only when fake Christmas trees came into vogue.  My parents were able to finally agree on one of those.  And the tree was wonderful – like a series of white plastic pocket combs that had been somehow epoxied into a single unit, snapped together like a set of tinker toys.   My father decreed that it should be decorated in only magenta bulbs, and there it sat on the coffee table for many a season afterward, spot-lighted in the den window by a rose-colored flood…

Just the day before yesterday, my now-aged mother laughed to herself as we sat watching television.  “Jesus,” she said, “do you remember those fights your father and I used to have in the Christmas tree lot?  Over a damned Christmas tree!”

“You weren’t fighting about any Christmas tree,” I muttered.

She thought about that for a moment.  “Yeah,” she answered.  “You’re probably right.”  Then she turned again to me, saying, “Don’t you just hate this time of year?”

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7 Responses to “Two Christmas Trees”

  1. fooddrinkandbooks December 21, 2011 at 12:19 pm #

    I LOVE this post. I think that your parents and mine may be related…

    • Brad Geagley December 21, 2011 at 4:53 pm #

      Thanks so much, and don’t you just hate this time of year? (Me neither!)
      Brad

  2. JoeD December 22, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    Brilliant and entertaining, as always.

    • Brad Geagley December 23, 2011 at 9:31 am #

      Thanks, JoeD! I’m so glad you liked it. It’s true, you know!

  3. Cheryl December 27, 2011 at 9:24 am #

    That really made me laugh. so those were YOUR parents! lol mine fought every Easter. Cheryl

    • Brad Geagley December 28, 2011 at 9:40 pm #

      Cheryl, Write about that. I can’t wait to read it! Brad

  4. theunlikelyone January 4, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    I’ll have to contest your theory. Birthday in June, my favorite season is the autumn. It’s a nice thought though.

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