Friday, December 12, 2008

Oh Tannenbaum!

Birdie was asking about peoples favorite Xmas memories. So, I thought I would repost this story from last year. It seemed to be pretty popular, so I figured no one would mind rereading it and if anyone is new to the blog, I think it offers valuable insights into some of the more formative experiences of my childhood.

*RG has reposted his Xmas story from last year. For those of you who havent' read it, I highly recommend that you check it out. And if you did read it last year, I can say it is just as wonderful a second time around.

Oh Tannenbaum!

Say what you like about my parents child rearing skills, Christmas was always a big deal around the house. I think this was due in part to my mother's childhood experience of the Great Depression and the old man's toyless childhood. My Pepe was of a rather stern disposition and felt that children did not need to be playing with toys, they needed to be out working. In contrast, my Grandma did what she could to provide the furniture of childhood for my mom and her brothers and sister, but there wasn't much money. While some of this influenced my Dad's own parenting technique, he did make sure that there were toys under the tree, come the morning of December 25th. The fact that the situation by lunch time had deteriorated to a state of trench warfare didn't matter as long as the presents made it under the tree.

In this spirit, every year our family went through the agonizing ritual of “The Christmas Tree”.

My mother would announce that it was time to go out and “get a tree, before all the good ones are gone.” we would be shepherded into the Ford and off we would go on the annual quest.

My mother had been in charge of getting the tree, ever since the now infamous episode in our family history, where the old man had been allowed, while shithammered, to go get the tree unsupervised. To this day my mother still brings up the unlovely specter of the “Charlie Brown Christmas Tree”.

After that my mother exercised due diligence. The disgrace of the “stick” as she also referred to it, was never to be repeated and the entire family was dragooned into going out to find a decent looking tree. In all fairness to my mother, the tree did really look like it had been grown on a bare rock and then napalmed just before it was harvested. The specter of this tree seemed to haunt her every holiday and no matter what the circumstance she would dutifully head off in the direction of the tree lots even when she was actually sick as opposed to her ground state of hypochondria.

At the time, she was the only female in the house. There were my father and my 2 brothers to boss around, but my older sister had flown the coop by the time I was 8. Neither of my brothers had any patience for this, nor did my father. Eventually the spirit of rebellion against this holiday tyranny formed in the breasts of the male population of our household. Finally, my father and brothers refused to go tree shopping. However, it was also decided that my mother could not be expected to deal with a six foot plus Christmas tree by herself, so at the age of 10, I was volunteered to accompany my mother on her tree buying expeditions.

Among my mother's eccentricities was the belief that the perfect tree was at the next tree lot. What this usually entailed was visiting every Christmas tree lot in the area, only in the end to wind up back at the original lot, to purchase the first tree that she had liked.

Thus every year, a couple of weeks before Xmas, Mom and I would get into the car and start our search. She knew exactly what she was looking for. A Scotch pine. She had a deep seated dislike of firs because they shed too much. She did not like small trees. They had to have the right shape. She favored broad conical trees, big fat pyramids that could hold what became a vast collection of Christmas tree decorations. Over the years things changed and grew. Ugly decorations made by the eager hands of children were replaced by carefully chosen glass balls. The old fat incandescent Christmas lights that I still love with their saturated colors were replaced by the modern fairy light type of tree lights. The only constant was the angel that sat on top of the tree, “Suzie the Christmas Angel” which my Mom had purchased when my older sister, Susan had been a small child.

Being a little fairy, I really didn't mind. The prospect of decorating the tree was always a big deal for me. My mother was willing to spend ages making sure the ornaments were just so and if it meant taking every last piece of tinsel off the tree and starting over, so be it.

The penultimate tree experience came though the year I was 14. By then we had graduated to the 65 Plymouth wagon, a car that could seat 10 people with comfort. It was a car designed for my mother to finally indulge her every Christmas tree related fantasy of excess.

Our first stop was at a new lot. This was unusual in that ordinarily the first place, and usually by virtue of it being the first lot, it would be our ultimate destination was Polino's greenhouse, after having scoured every other tree lot in central western Vermont.

We looked around a bit and my mother was dismissing the offerings as being not nearly as nice as the trees that she usually got at Polino's, when she saw, “the tree”. I can only imagine that Ahab got the same look in his eye the first time he saw Moby Dick.

It was quite the tree. It was a scotch pine and it really was something else, thinking back, the tree had to be 8 feet tall. She made the man selling the trees hold it up for her as she circled it seeking out imperfections. At the base, it easily spread to a width of 6 feet and it was full and beautifully shaped. It was the type of tree usually only encountered on Christmas cards or in lavishly illustrated children's books of the more treacley holiday variety.

Still my mother is my mother. She sniffed and said she would have to think about it and off we went to look at what else was on offer abroad. However, she had the gleam of that tree in her eye. I might be making this part up, but it seems as though she was somehow motivated to seek out an even higher pinnacle of Christmas tree perfection after coming across this holy grail of the Christmas tree world. Through the cold dark evening, we scoured every lot she could find, as she tried with all her might to find a tree that would outdo this vision of perfection. Tree after tree was examined as we worked our way through every tree lot in the lower Champlain Valley. All were found wanting. Nothing could compare with the beatific vision that had been imparted unto my mother in that first full moment in the initial tree lot.

Finally, having exhausted every other option, we returned to the original tree lot, my mother filled with anxiety that “her” tree would have been snapped up by some other lucky family.

But the Xmas tree gods that had first inspired man to gather wood at the darkest time of the year and build bon fires to bring the sun back smiled upon my mother. Her quarry was still there, waiting for her in the cold, clear winter night. It was destiny. There probably should have been flights of angels, a celestial chorus and a ray of light beaming down from the heavens as my mother completed her transaction and we laid claim to this paragon of treeness.

We put down the back seat in the station wagon, and I loaded the tree into the back, while my mother supervised, continuously fretting that something might befall the tree to mar its perfection, finally, with my mother holding the top of the tree, I closed the tailgate and with the rear cargo window open, we drove off into the night headed for home, my mother radiating the same glow of satisfaction that some tribal huntsman must have displayed when bringing home the fresh kill that would sustain his family for a few days more in the harsh northern winter.

The next day my father had his first opportunity to admire Mom's tree.

“Jesus Christ, Mother! Why in the hell did you buy a redwood. We're going to have to cut a couple of feet off it just to get it in the stand. Well, I'm not going to do it till the weekend.”

What happened next was my father's own fault, by that point he'd been married to the woman over 20 years and he should have recognized the look on her face.

Dad went off on some self appointed errand that distinctly had nothing to do with Christmas trees and Mom went in to mix herself a drink. As the day wore on, my mother started making “we really ought to get the tree up” noises. My brothers were both off somewhere and it was just she and myself in the house. A couple of drinks later, my mother announced that we could get that tree up by ourselves and she wasn't going to wait around until dad was in the mood, or it might not be put up until Christmas Eve!

I found myself being instructed to drag the tree into the house. I expressed a few doubts, to which my mother answered, “Well, if we can't get the tree up, then your father will just have to do it, since he won't have any choice once it's in here.”

It was one of those flat statements of my mothers that over the years I had learned to just not argue with.

As I manhandled the tree into the house my mother, well, mother henned her tree with many an admonition to me to “be careful”.

Inside the house, the tree really was looking pretty big. Actually it was looking huge. I think even my mother was beginning to have some doubts about whether her goal could be achieved. However, my mother would not be my mother if she was not equal to giving some hair brained scheme a sincere effort and a will to die if necessary in the attempt.

We had got out the tree stand, the lights and the decorations beforehand and a saw to take off what I thought would be a good sized chunk off the bottom of the tree.

As I prepared to start sawing off a couple of feet from the bottom of the tree, my mother let out a shriek. “What do you think your doing?”, she demanded.

“Well, Dad said….” I began.

“You just saw off a few of the lower branches so we can get the stand on. You're father doesn't know everything, in spite of what he thinks.” I was informed in imperious tones.

I guess I felt as though any trouble I got into in the future with my father would be nothing in comparison to the trouble I would be facing immediately if I didn't do as I was told by the old lady. So I sawed off some lower branches under my mothers careful directions and baleful glare.

As it turned out we did have to saw off about 8 inches from the bottom of the tree to get it even close to fitting into the stand. With more cautious removal of lower branches we proceeded. I held the stand up to the stump of the tree.

“We're going to have to cut off a little more,' I said. 'the stand is still a little to small.”

“You are not cutting anymore off of my tree, young man! You just wait right there and I'll show you what we're going to do.” I was informed.

At this point I didn't dare disagree and besides, I was intrigued as to what she was going to do. She disappeared into the kitchen and I heard her rummaging around in a drawer. A few minutes later she was back with a hammer.

“Now, I'm sure you can just tap the stand onto the tree.” I was informed.

The tree wasn't in fact all that much larger than the opening on the stand and while it took a couple of whacks to get it over the widest part, after that it was more like getting a fat lady into a girdle, it just took a little wiggling.

After the little knurled screws in the stand had been screwed into the base of the tree the moment of truth arrived. We hoisted the tree up and the legs on the stand immediately splayed out flattened to the floor. The tree began to sway.

My mother made a mad grab for the tree and caught it before it could topple over.

“ I guess we're going to have to wait for dad to come home and….” I never got to finish the sentence.

“You just hold this tree up!” I was commanded.

At this point, my mother had the light of battle in her eye. She disappeared into the kitchen once more and once again I could hear the rattle of the utility drawer. In a minute she was back with a hand full of nails. She stood back, looking appraisingly at the tree and began to have me position the tree so that it was upright. Once it had been adjusted to her satisfaction, She told me, “Just nail the tree to the floor, that should take care of the swaying.”

“I don't think Dad is going to be very happy if I start putting nails in the floor.” I offered weakly.

“I'll worry about what your father thinks, you just nail that tree to the floor.”

I was faced with the immediate threat of not nailing the tree to the floor and dealing with the consequences of not doing what my mother told me and the future prospect of my father coming home to find a scotch pine nailed to the living room floor. I looked at my mother and took the hammer and crawled under the tree.

Let us leave our hero for a moment industriously nailing a Christmas tree to the floor of the family living room while I explain a little bit of history about our house that will illuminate what was to happen next.

My parents bought the house they live in, in 1960. When we moved in there was no heating system, no plumbing and the electrical wiring had been installed in the early 20th century. Over the next few years, the old man installed a furnace, baseboard heat, plumbed and rewired the place and dry walled and insulated walls, so that by 1969, two things of historic significance occurred. The Americans landed on the moon and the old man had finished dry walling and painting the first floor of our house.

After I crawled out from under the tree, I got my first good look at it. It was pretty impressive. The top of the tree practically touched the 8 foot ceiling and it stood there in all its holiday glory.

Slightly swaying.

The damned thing was still about as stable as a top that was winding down. My mother however was not about to have victory snatched from her when she was so close to her goal. However, her plan was going to need the full support of her meager troop of one. But drastic times call for drastic measures.

“Why don't I just fix us both a drink while I think about this,”, she said and we walked into the kitchen while I wondered what Mom had in mind and exactly how much more trouble this was going to get me into. That being said, at the age of 14, a cocktail in the hand was worth an asskicking in the future, and with any luck would help to, at least metaphorically, soften the blow.

Mom made us gin and tonics and then began to rummage through drawers again. Eventually, she pulled out the roll of kitchen twine that usually only made an appearance when she was making roast pork or gigot. She sipped her drink thoughtfully as I tried not to gulp mine down. She tapped on the glass for a minute with her fingernail and then told me to go down cellar and to get a couple finishing nails. Not quite sure what she was up to, but having a bad feeling none the less, I at this point was resigned to my fate and dutifully went down into the basement secure in the knowledge that at least when my father killed me for whatever was about to happen, I could meet my maker not entirely sober.

I came back up the stairs with the nails and a sense of foreboding. My mother was waiting there, hammer in hand. She took the nails from me and then walked over to the newly painted and plastered living room wall and carefully tapped the first nail in. She then went to the other side of the tree and repeated the process.

“Dad's really going to…” I began.

“I told you, I will deal with your father, now hand me that twine.”, was the only answer I got.

I have to hand it to her. The guy wire system which she devised, going from one nail around the tree and to the other nail really did the trick! The tree was now standing straight and tall and not weaving drunkenly.

I guess Mom felt that one sober person, or in this case tree was plenty. I think she also felt like she had thrown caution entirely to the wind anyway, so she made us both another drink which is probably why we decided to string the lights without the assistance of my father.

Now, my mother is 5 feet tall, and if I am remembering correctly, at the age of 14 I was still a bit shorter than her. Somehow, with the aid of a step ladder and a lot of direction from Doris, we got the lights strung on the tree in a manner that met with her approval. At this point I was in a happy haze of gin and I guess my mother had the feeling of , in for a pence, in for a pound, because the decorations came out and over the next hour or so we got out all of the garland, ornaments and tinsel and decorated the tree.

Finally, my mother had me do the honors and I plugged in the lights. The tree was beautiful. The angel was bumping its head against the ceiling, but finally, my mother had found a suitable canvas upon which she could demonstrate her vision of what a Christmas tree should look like and it held every ornament that she had collected over the years without looking crowded or having to banish any of the glass balls for another year and another tree.

We stood there, gin in hand admiring our handiwork and the old man came in the house.

He just stood there for a minute, agog.

“How the hell did you get that thing up by yourself? Jesus Christ, Mother! Why didn't you wait for me to trim it down. It's touching the ceiling for Christ's sake!”

“I think it looks beautiful.”, was my mothers reply.

“Yeah,' I announced happily under the influence. 'We had to nail it to the floor.”, with the happy idiocy of a tipsy teenager who knows he’s about to die and is beyond caring.

“What”, the old man bellowed. Walking over to the tree for a closer look he saw the nails in the fresh walls.

“God damn it all!', he yelled. 'Who put nails in my fresh walls?”, he demanded looking directly at me.

“I did.” Mom announced flatly.

Glaring like a thunderhead, the old man stomped into the kitchen to get himself his first beer of the afternoon with my mother directly at his heels. I could hear a lot of muffled “God dammits, Jesus Christing, dammits, a couple of Jesus H. Christs an assortment of shits and knowing Dad, I am sure the words stupid bastard and son-of-a-bitch had a prominent part of his side of the discussion. There was also a fair amount of muffled but stern sounding Mom sounds that tended to indicate that things had better go the way that she had decided that they should go, or she was damned well going to want to know why.

I will never know what Mom said to the old man. Or should I say what instructions he received about what his behavior was to be, but I never heard another word about the nails in the floor.

After a few minutes, the old man stomped out of the kitchen without a glance at me and went into the TV room and threw himself into his recliner to steam in front of the set.

My mother and I returned to our contemplation of the tree, It was in its own way the most perfect thing of its kind we had ever seen and we basked, cocktails in hand, in the warm glow of a job well done.

It was at that moment our 20 pound tomcat, Boots chose to make his annual attack on the Christmas tree.

And with the exception of a couple of ornaments falling to the carpet in front of the tree, I have to say, Mom's cable stay system held up beautifully, even as she shouted the cat out of the tree.

That may well have been one of the happiest Christmases of my childhood.

Bettie Page

I was very saddened to read that Bettie Page passed away.

I remember her from my childhood and rather enjoyed the fact that she developed a second career in the 90's as a cult figure.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It's a gray day. It really feels more like late autumn than winter. Gray and wet. Not really cold but the damp makes the cold in the air feel raw. Not on the whole, in my opinion, a great day to be out.

I had planned on walking into the office as usual regardless of the fact that I had already tortured myself on the aerobic machines at the gym however, with one thing and another I was a bit later getting out of the house than I had planned. By the time I had reached Mass. Ave. I decided that if I wanted to get into the office early like I had planned, then I had better take the bus.

For those who do not live in Boston, the number 1 or Dudley bus has a reputation for being one of the worst lines in the city. I've known a few people who have worked for the T as drivers and the impression I have received from them is that the Dudley is a combination rite of passage for junior drivers and form of discipline for senior drivers that have pissed someone off.

I should say right now that after over 30 years of using that particular bus line that over all my experiences have not been that bad. It does tend to be very crowded during high use hours and very slow because of rush hour traffic. More than once I have beat the bus over the river walking. However, this morning I needed the bus.

Just as I got to the corner of Mass. Ave and Boylston. I saw the bus come into the intersection. This tends to be one of those "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situations. I had to decide if I was going to try and run, creating a little amusement for the driver so he could close the doors and pull away just as I was getting to the bus, or just walk and have the bus pull away just when I was within 10 feet of it.

As I said, I had got enough exercise, in my opinion, this morning on the stationary bike, so I opted to walk. As fate would have it, traffic was a bit snarled this morning and so by the time I was within 20 feet of the bus, it appeared that if I ran I could still catch it. So I ran and naturally the bus started to pull away.

Then it happened. The clouds parted, heavenly hosts sang, the bus driver looked in his mirror, saw me and.... stopped.

Not only stopped, but missed the opportunity to blow through a yellow light!

The day might be a wash out in all other respects, but I have been convinced that miracles really do occur.

I hope this doesn't keep up. I am not sure I want to find myself believing in god. Even if it's just the mass transit god.