Oh Tannenbomb

A Christmas tree inside a home.
Image via Wikipedia

Oh Tannenbomb

Before the ice is in the pools
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow —

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!

— Emily Dickinson

The holiday season is a time of grand irony. It is a wassail of potent ingredients — cinnamon tradition, candy-stripe anticipation, clove-scented memories, orange-peel nostalgia and egg-yolk dysfunction. The mélange simmers over the course of December, building into a highly combustible brew. Add in a few relatives, alcohol and close quarters and you are in for a Christmas full of secular surprises.

Our Titanic holiday season was officially christened with the thump of an ancient train set that would be heaved onto our playroom floor after being wrested from the spiders and dust mites that reigned supreme in our basement. It was followed by a six-foot plastic Santa, illuminated with a powerful 200-watt bulb, placed precipitously on the seldom-used balcony outside my parents’ upstairs window. To those passing by in motor vehicles at night, it appeared we were being overrun by extraterrestrials. “Good God, Norma, there’s an alien climbing in the window of that house!”

Christmas lights followed, faithfully tracing the eaves of our red-tiled Mediterranean home. Each light was nailed with a sharp swear word as my father blasphemed his way through the decoration process. The gods despised his profane embrace of the Christmas season and would torment him with strands of colorful light bulbs that would never fully illuminate. As a conservative, he considered these electrical outages a challenge to his American ingenuity and resolve. These lights were like small banana republics: If one light fell into communistic darkness, a domino effect of failures would surely follow, resulting in an entire house, perhaps even a neighborhood, yielding to yuletide ignominy. A house with broken bulbs said much about a man and his inability to provide for his family. His battles with extension cords, burned-out fuses and blacked-out gaps of lights were the stuff of legends and were always punctuated by unholy utterances.

“The man that lives in daddy’s mouth is saying bad words again,” reported my younger brother to my mother. He adored my father too much to accept the fact that dad had probably once won a gold medal at a sailor-cursing convention. When the defective bulbs were finally bested, the colored lights had no logical sequence and ran on in analog confusion — two reds, a blue, two greens followed by a white, and then two more reds. Across the Mason-Dixon financial dividing line known as Huntington Drive, St Albin’s Road homeowners would skillfully string alternating red and green lights across roofs and around each dormer window. Their 100 foot pine trees were brilliantly lit with a palette of perfectly numbered lights that flickered like a thousand roman candles, while our roofline and single hibiscus plant looked as if we were the home office for the Center for the Color Blind.

The advent calendar soon arrived as an important calculator as we counted down to Christmas Eve. This magical talisman with its fragile pre-cut “doors” elicited irresistible curiosity from each child, especially after my older brother told me that the Catholics used these calendars to pass messages to one another. It could very well contain the secrets of Fatima. By Dec. 3, every window had been vandalized by children willing to risk eternal damnation for the opportunity to decipher the odd illustrations that presumably had been sanctioned by the Vatican. Not far behind would be the old Gumps department store box filled with chipped and scuffed Nativity figurines. We would watch while my mother would faithfully arrange them, humming the theme song from the Harry Simeone album, The Little Drummer Boy. Within hours, the nativity was reconfigured into a highly inappropriate scene where all participants and its choreographer were surely going to hell. About this same time, Baby Jesus would disappear and miraculously appear days later in the dog’s mouth as he lay on the floor chewing what my mother had thought was a bone. It was now time to start lobbying for our Christmas tree.

My mother was the daughter of a German immigrant and was orthodox about the mechanics of purchasing of our tree. Der Weihnachtsbaum could be procured no earlier than two weeks before the Christmas Day. The tree must be at least 7 feet tall, a blue spruce pine and must be purchased at the local tree lot run by the YMCA. My mother was very loyal to the Y for keeping her boys occupied and out of jail. My father dreaded the entire process of acquiring the tree. To visit the Y lot in the fading glow of sparkling lights, with its army of clueless volunteers who could not be fired because they were in fact, volunteers, was the equivalent of being forced to attend a village idiots convention. He never referenced the tree lot by name, but instead chose to refer to it simply as “Clod City.”

The men rubbed their chins and walked around our car. There must have been six of them. “How you want to put this on the wagon?” asked an overweight, ruddy-faced fellow holding a hand axe. “I got an idea,” shouted a tall, dour mortician of a man, “let’s swing it across the back and push it forward.” My father would be apoplectic with contempt at this point, imagining the deep scratches in his Fleetwood station wagon’s roof. Invariably, he could tolerate the confederacy of dunces no longer and would order us to help him hoist the evergreen up and over the luggage rack rails that lined the roof of the car. The men, already sensing my father’s distain for their logistical retardation, melted away mumbling something to the effect, “it’s all yours, *&%^$!” Christmas seemed to be a time where everyone swore. A half hour later, our car would ease into our driveway, after an excruciating snail’s pace 5-mph drive across town. Our spiritual education was not yet complete.

The tree would be trimmed, adorned with lights, festooned with ancient ornaments and carefully positioned in the far corner of our living room where the dog would be least likely to urinate on it. Our tree stand had been handed down, presumably from Italians, which caused our tree to lean like the famous campanile of Pisa. The perpetual tilt of our holiday sapling was an emotional hemorrhoid to my father, leading him to constantly manipulate its position with primitive joists of newspaper and magazines. This, in turn, would guarantee its continued instability until the inevitable day arrived, when a door would slam, a person might raise their voice or the wind would blow outside, and the tree, on cue, would crash to the ground with a shatter of ornament and light bulb glass. The “Crashing of the Christmas Tree” was a rich tradition in our stucco cocoon of abnormality and as with all family dysfunction, seemed quite normal. Years later, I would become restless and irritable as Christmas approached, not understanding that the ritual of going to Clod City to curse our way through the purchase of the perpetually falling evergreen was as important to me as the presents, ceremony and gilded glitter. It was, after all, a familiar and reassuring routine.

Years later, I visited my parents at Christmas time. They had long since retired and were living blissfully in a seaside empty nest. I noticed their tree, fashioned out of wrought iron, presumably designed by some famous sculptor catering to those who are still recovering from post-traumatic tree disorder. “Nice tree, Dad. I’m surprised Mom let you get out of going to Clod City.” He thought for a moment and then flashed a mischievous smile. “Those guys were the stupidest human beings on the planet. Why, I remember….” I looked at my mother, who was laughing, and smiled, “Merry Christmas, Mom.” 

Resolution Number 9

Gloria Steinem wdydwyd
Image via Wikipedia

 

Resolution Number 9

 

“May all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions.” ~ Joey Adams

It was the time of year that fatigued my father most.  Christmas was a brakeless, high speed joy ride down a boulevard of excess – the profligate purchasing of gifts, a succession of business and neighborhood parties, a month long garland of decorations, and sheer exhaustion that weighed you down like lard laden fruitcake.  The week between Christmas and New Years arrived like the eye of a hurricane offering a momentary respite where we might reconstruct our predictable November routines and gather up the debris of December celebration.

The dead calm worried my father.  He knew the toll the holidays took on my mother.  Like a seasoned meteorologist, he knew the back half of the holiday storm still packed high emotional winds and potential for damaged feelings.  He was useless at this time of year. This generation of men in grey flannel suits were as relevant as flightless dodo birds when separated from their workplace.  The normal midweek rhythms of my mother’s matriarchal rule were shattered when five men were suddenly home and idle.  It was an extreme time that exaggerated the normal warts and imperfections of life.  The soiled laundry and dirty dishes grew in geometric proportions.  The perfect storm of lazy teenagers on vacation coupled with a husband who kept saying “ whaah?” with a mouth full of food, seemed to only increase steam in the family pressure cooker.  In a startling role reversal worthy of anthropological study, mother and father temporarily switched places.

Mom would shock us with a sudden flash of impatience or an actual curse-word. We thought only fathers swore.  She would talk to herself as she picked up clothes that had been littered as if the owners had all caught fire.  She began to exhibit all the signs of a person ill with the radiation poisoning from broken routines, serial thoughtlessness and excessive family time.  My father was bewildered.  Only he held the tenured role of moody shape shifter and mercurial overlord.  It was my mother’s role to be a placid lake of restraint and a predictable oasis that offered protection to all from the rise and fall of the testosterone barometer.  When she was in a foul mood, the entire equilibrium of the family unit was destabilized.  We all prayed it would not result in one of her resolutions.

Despite our best efforts to navigate my mother’s eggshells and landmines, someone would inevitably trigger an invisible trip wire and there would be an explosion of self pitied emotion and dreaded pronouncements.  The catalyst may have been as prosaic as a freshly laundered towel thrown into the hamper after just one shower or a half-gallon of milk left out to sour.  As myopic men, we did not understand that her cumulative frustration was like magma rising into a volcanic chamber.  Our chronic insensitivity and my father’s inability to protect her as domestic wingman created the fissure that would trigger a sudden and violent eruption – sometimes heard several blocks away.

Her new year’s pronouncements were communicated like a centurion announcing an edict from Caesar.  “In direct response to my repeated attempts to get you boys to hang up your towels, put away your laundry or refrain from eating all the lunch snacks, we will now do the following:  1) The linen closet will be locked with a pad lock Monday through Friday and you will not be issued a new towel until Saturday.  2) You are now responsible for your own laundry.  I suggest you wash and fold it over the weekend.  3) You will now make your own lunches and if you forget to make your lunch, you will go hungry. “ She was angry and defiant.  We glanced at our father.  If you had looked up the word “eunuch” in Webster’s dictionary, his facial expression would have been the word’s illustration.  Earlier in the day, she had given him a “ detailed” list of complaints and resolutions that got his complete attention.  He simply looked at us and said, “She who must be obeyed has spoken.” For her sudden surge of feminism, Gloria Steinem would have pinned a medal on Mom. Hell hath no fury than a mother when she has had enough.

We dreaded her resolutions especially those involving food and logistics.  “We are all going to eat healthy”, she declared one New Year’s Day.  This translated into several weeks of culinary experiments whose nadir was a dinner menu featuring brussel sprout soup ,“pizza fish” and flavored tofu cake.  Even the dog would not eat it. Other resolutions included a transportation pool where each child was allowed a maximum two car rides a week.  This lead to a black market of transportation credits being swapped by boys with the laziest paying dearly for someone else’s passenger slot. There were mandates for time to be spent studying, playing games, showering, talking on the phone, and playing sports.  There was even talk of removing all toilet seats after a near-sighted teen had failed to put the seat up in her bathroom for the fifth consecutive day.  This gave rise to much speculation – was she actually going to carry her own seat around with her?

The first week following any declaration was a pathetic black comedy as the four blind mice struggled with their new responsibilities – – washing colored and white laundry together to produce a whole line of shrunken pink and gray clothing.  Lunches were routinely forgotten.  Laundry was not really folded but instead chewed and shoved like wads of gum into drawers guaranteeing that when worn, one looked as though they had been dragged behind a Chevy truck. Inevitably, martial law softened.  Her resolutions had the life expectancy of a housefly. We were pitiful recidivists and she knew it.  The day one heard, “ here, let me do that!” was the moment that we knew that sanity was being restored.

As we married and formed our own families, my father bore the brunt of Mom’s annual fiats around health, fitness, and life.   He became a human lab rat being subjected to the latest new age cures that hawked salt free diets, pyramid power to preserve food, biorhythm devices to monitor one’s life waves, erogenous zones and transcendental meditation.  Dad would sneak cheeseburgers and Cokes like an alleyway addict while quietly complaining to us that new age communists had invaded his home.  He finally drew a line in the sand when she suggested that regular colonic cleansing would do wonders for his temper.  We would remind him that her brief but inspired storms of self-improvement would eventually pass and might even do him some good.  He would grumble like Lurch from the Addams Family and shuffle off hoping that the current fiber diet he was on would not take him too far from a restroom.

Years later, we find ourselves making these same declarations to our kids.  More exercise, less fatty foods, Sunday dinners together, reading more, less TV, one hour of computer time strictly regulated, no chores means no allowance… Our declarations and good intentions stretch like a long kite string across a sky of generations.  Like my mother, my resolve weakens as the reward of behavior modification is always overpowered by the hassle of resolution enforcement.  As I write this, my kids rooms look like the KGB has just finished an illegal search, dinner dishes have been abandoned on the table, the trash has not been put out, the dog is gnawing on a pair of sunglasses and my ten year old has been playing a computer game called Spore for three days straight.  I could swear he has a five o’clock shadow.  I can also feel the magma growing in my spouse.

It’s time for one of those New Year’s resolutions.  “Ok, you guys, starting January 2nd, there’s going to be a few changes around this place – starting with bedtime and limits on the computer.”  I get no response.  In fact, no one is looking up from their cell phones where they are text-messaging friends. “Uh, sure Dad, whatever you like, say”, someone mutters absentmindedly to their chest.  I realize I, too, have become the emasculated reformer. I think it’s time to call my Mom and ask her for her recipe for pizza fish, brussel sprout soup and tofu cake.

That ought to get their attention.