Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Silent Night

A friend/coworker of mine recently wrote on her Web site a long, detailed account of what it was like to experience Christmas while growing up Catholic. Another good friend, JB--one of my oldest and dearest friends, in if truth be fully told--read that account and agreed with much of its detail.

My holidays had no such structure. Mom was a "lapsed Catholic"--a necessity, as Dad had been married and divorced before and the Church frowned upon such unions. So we never went to Christmas Eve mass or sang carols with the choir or any such community activity.

Instead, we had simple rituals. We'd open our presents Christmas Eve morning, amassing enormous piles of wrapping paper and bows for the (many) cats to savage. Then, Christmas Day, we'd go visiting. Grandma lived in a small cottage off of Western Avenue in Bucktown--a ten-minute bus ride on a good day, a half-hour walk on a bad one. Mom would bring dinner. If we were lucky, it was just ham or turkey. But if we were truly unfortunate, it was the kidney stew that took hours to cook and made the whole house smell like a sweaty foot. And Grandma would spend most of the time offering her food to me, my brother and her cats.

Mom and Grandma would spend much of the time bitching at one another. Grandma was a master packrat, saving the likes of toilet paper rolls and empty cat food cans in drawers, under dressers, etc. And Mom would go on continuous "search-and-destroy" missions, throwing out the salvaged bits of plastic wrap and the wrapping paper carefully preserved from the previous Christmas and whatever else she could find. (Yes, theirs was a complicated relationship, and my mother has, in her later years, become much more like Grandma than she'll ever admit.)

After such frolic, the family (minus Grandma, who had badly swollen legs and rarely left her cottage) would walk over to the house of some family friends who also lived in Bucktown. They often had large gatherings on Christmas Day, with children tearing through the house while adults stood in clusters, beers in hand, telling dirty jokes and laughing about how much bigger the kids were this year than they were last. And every year, the family friends would set up the coolest Christmas tree on the planet: a tall, wide aluminum tree with a color wheel rotating at its base, making the whole living room sparkle in blue, then red, then yellow, then its natural silver. (Try going into a hipster vintage store these days and buying an aluminum tree; if there's anything left in your wallet when you walk out, I'd be damned surprised.)

Our tree, by comparison, seemed downright frumpy. Mom always picked out a nice "live" tree (as "live" as any tree that's been cut off at its trunk, stuffed in a truck and sold in a grocery store parking lot could ever be), but then attacked it with lights, beads, tinsel and ornaments until the tree itself was no longer visible to the naked eye. Our cats still managed to find it, though, swatting at the lower branches and knocking loose glass balls or unlucky angels.

One year, my own personal cat, a Russian Blue who never did have a proper name beyond Gray Cat (a long story for another time) and managed to live to be 20, clambered up the middle of the tree and, being surrounded by a veritable fortress of festive decoration, couldn't quite make good her escape before Mom, returning home from her job at the plastics factory, stared into the center of the tree, only to find it staring right back at her. (All of our cats were declawed shortly thereafter.)

We followed this routine, year in and year out, through bountiful holidays when we young ones got whatever toys we'd pleaded for (like the Mego Fonzie doll with "thumbs-up" action, or the huge rubber gorilla that my brother later operated on with a very, very sharp knife) and through lean holidays with gifts wrapped in aluminum foil and the mistletoe-accented carton of Salems waiting for Dad under the decoration-clotted pine.

But years passed, as years have a way of doing, and things changed, as things always must. The mom-half of the family friends passed away, and the dad-half, some time later, remarried (to her twin sister--yeah, that sounds weird, but they're happy to this day, so who am I to say shit?) and moved to Iowa. Grandma died not that long after, and the little cottage was gutted by fire the following February.

So we just spent the holiday with ourselves, worried that each would be the last with Dad who, after too many years of too many beers and almost as many cartons of Salems, was in fragile health, with his heart rebelling every few months or so and his kidneys trying their damnedest to give notice as well. For Christmas in 1994, I gave Dad a couple of CDs: Hank Williams' Greatest Hits (Hank Sr., NOT Hank Jr.) and a collection of songs by Johnny Cash. Dad was from Alabama, so country music had always filled our house. And since Dad couldn't get out much anymore--he walked with an aluminum cane, and just making it to the end of the block was a chore--he'd often just rest in bed, Hank Sr.'s voice warbling out "Your Cheatin' Heart," singing my father to sleep.

Those CDs wound up being the last Christmas gifts I gave Dad. He died the following June.

Now, the routine is simple: Go to Mom's house Christmas Day, spend a few hours petting the cats and hugging her when she cries because she misses her husband and her mother, and head back north with a bag full of leftover ham or turkey (never kidney stew). I walk up the three flights to my apartment, shoo the Girlish Girls out of the way on my way in, and head for the living room, where I turn on the red pepper lights and the small, fake pine tree Grandma always had in her window. Then I light a candle, say something as close to a prayer as an avowed agnostic can manage, and feed the Girls before they attempt to gnaw off my leg.

And, usually, I sit in the dark for a while, letting the red glow of the pepper lights duke it out with the twinkle of the tree and the unsteady flicker of the flame. Maybe I'll spend a few minutes contemplating the years already passed and the one about to join them in memory. Or maybe I'll feel like I'm being a fucking drama queen, blow out the candles and surf the Web for porn. But in those few minutes in the not-quite-dark, memories will come and go, and I'll either laugh to myself or cry to myself, all the while petting Lottie and Ms. Christopher, who no doubt concluded long ago that their guardian is either an idiot or a weirdo--or, most likely, both.

But when all is done and said, I can't complain too much. I'm alive, employed, and blessed with wonderful, eloquent friends. No, things aren't what they used to be and can never be so again, for bad or good. And no, things aren't as good as they can get. Not yet, anyway. But things aren't too bad over all. And that's good enough for me.

Happy holidays, people, and peace in the approaching New Year.

Wednesday, December 5, 2001

'Tis the Season to Be Snarly

My regular readers--all, um, five of you--may be wondering what crawled up my butt and died this holiday season. It's fair to ask. After all, I'm healthy, employed and blessed with great friends. What do I have to be so pissy about?


Part of it is just my personality. I can be, as has been noted by more than one friend, moody as hell. And when I get in one of my "moods," I can be a chore to deal with. This personality "quirk" is only enhanced by Christmastime, which can be a time of great emotion even if you're not an emotionally unstable freak monkey.

But it's not just that. My Christmas spirit--what little of it I can find under the microscope, anyway--has taken some hits, including last year, when I was compelled to take down my holiday decorations at work. It wasn't just that I was asked to remove the "Sandy Claws" Jack Skellington figure (with matching Sally, of course) and the tin windup Santa and the Pez dispensers from the top of my cubicle wall. That was bad enough, especially considering that many of my co-workers had commented on how much they enjoyed the, er, festive nature of the display. But what made it worse was that the company higher-up who had the problem with the decorations made my supervisor, who had no problem with what I'd set up, do the dirty work and make me take it all down.

This wasn't even the first time such a thing had happened to me at work. At a previous job, the company president complained to one of my supervisors (again, not directly to me) that the red pepper lights I had strung in my work cave were "too much." And he told said supervisor this loud enough for me to hear it. Before the supervisor was even out of her office, I'd literally torn the red pepper lights down. And I would have taken all of my decorations--including the 3-ft. artificial tree loaded with ornaments--home that day if not for the fact that it would have been an enormous pain in the ass to do so.

Am I being overly sensitive about this? Probably so. Work is work, and I'm certainly not required to be the "holiday morale officer" in the office, even though the company I currently work for is so devoid of seasonal cheer that we don't do a tree or menorah or really anything. (We do have a wreath in the lobby, but I'm not sure whether we bought that ourselves or whether the building we work in provided it for us.) But decorating my cubicle helped get me in the mood for shopping and singing and drinking myself stupid (like it takes much to get me to do that or to make me stupid). And this year, aside from Rudolph and Clarice action figures flanking my work iMac, my cube is bereft of holiday cheer.

So I'm trying to pull myself together on the home front, lighting pine-scented candles from Walgreen's (which have the price listed as ".99¢," which would literally mean that they cost less than a penny; as a co-worker pointed out to me, though, bring this up as an issue with the checkout clerk would likely get me maced, and that's not very festive, now is it?) throughout the apartment, turning on the pepper lights and the tiny lighted fake tree on my end table, and cranking up the tunes on my CD player.

Among the holiday-themed CDs getting the most work this year:

THE VENTURES' CHRISTMAS ALBUM. Holiday standards recast into a surf-guitar-rock motif sound surprisingly fresh. And it's really short (as are most holiday CDs by specific artists), so it amounts to an audio snack.

THE MOST FABULOUS CHRISTMAS ALBUM EVER. The title is a vast overstatement, but this CD does feature some signature tunes, including Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," Perry Como's remarkably snarky "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" and Guy Lombardo's "Auld Lang Syne."

BOOKER T. & THE MGs: IN THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT. Just as the Ventures recast traditional songs in their style, so R&B legends Booker T. & the MGs do here, with Booker's keyboard work (on both piano and organ) complementing the guitar play of Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn (both of whom later played in the Blues Brothers Band). Their cover of "White Christmas" is downright beautiful, and the whole album manages to be respectful and playful at the same time.

SWINGIN' CHRISTMAS. It begins with Louis Prima, end with Louis Armstrong and has lots of jumpin' and jivin' in between to a holiday sandwich that's truly tasty.

ELLA FITZGERALD'S CHRISTMAS. The oddball in my Christmas collection, as I'm agnostic and all of the songs on this CD are religious. But Ella's voice makes them special and effective, and the arrangements are straightforward and simple rather than overly jazzy. A beautiful album.

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. Just about everyone I know owns this one. And if any one of them ever claimed to have never done the Snoopy Dance around their living room, I'd call 'em a liar.

There are a couple of other CDs I've been spinning of late, but I'll talk about them another time. And there are holiday movies that I favor; these, too, will be discussed at another time.

The whole point, though, is this: I'm trying. I really am. I may be trying too hard or not hard enough, but I'm making the effort to get into the spirit of the season. And maybe those efforts will pay off. Maybe.

For now, though...I'd better get cracking on those Christmas cards, hadn't I? Less than three weeks to go...