Sunday, December 25, 2005
So This Is Christmas...
I think my sister said it best as she was going out the door tonight: "We did it."
She was referring to the Christmas dinner she and I hosted earlier in the evening for about a dozen friends and relatives.
This holiday had a very special meeting to us since it was the first time we held a Christmas dinner at our home in four or five years.
My mother died in July 2002, and she had been in a nursing home for a long time prior to that, so we didn't do anything at home. No tree, no decorations, and certainly no guests.
After she died we held family get-togethers on Christmas, but always at a restaurants because, as I've mentioned previously, my sister and I dreaded the thought of looking at our mother's empty chair while we tried to conduct a celebration.
But this year our father is a bit frail and I think we're a little stronger. So we catered the whole thing, roped in the usual suspects, as my mother used to call our relatives, and had an old fashioned Christmas.
We even bought a tree, which we decorated on Friday night, and it looks fabulous, if I do say so myself.
Right now I am exhausted, too tired to sleep, and I can barely move from all the food I've consumed. But, like my sister said, we did it.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
In my mind Christmas and my mother are inseparable. She put so much into the holiday each year. Buying all of her four children presents, getting all the food, and then cooking her lasagna for a house full of hungry people.
She was always nervous that the lasagna wouldn't come out right, and she'd do a variation on Mrs. Cratchit from Scrooge, saying "I shan't be happy until the pudding is eaten." And her lasagna was so delicious you'd be ready to swap your presents for one more serving.
I didn't appreciate just how hard she worked until today, as my sister and I sat close by the kitchen to get up and get more food and drinks for our guests. And we didn't do any cooking at all and I did all my shopping online.
When I think of my poor mother, a small, fragile woman who was never in the best of health, fighting the mobs at the department stores in downtown Brooklyn and then coming home to start cooking, I just go numb.
She worked so hard and all I could think about when I was a kid was getting presents. Now I have some idea of what you went through, mom, and I surely do appreciate it.
My father used to take care of getting the Christmas tree. No artifical trees, for us, of course, and he always got the biggest tree he could find, so big, in fact, he usually had to saw the top off of them so they could fit in the living room.
And during a time when my parents' marriage was on the rocks--my mother would always refer to that period as "The Troubles"--our tree that year seemed to reflect the dismal state of our holiday.
If I remember correctly, our father didn't buy a tree, so it was up to me and my brothers to do it. We came home with a bedraggled reject that had one branch sticking way out from the trunk.
As one my oldest brother's friends said, the tree looked like it was signaling to make a left turn.
God Bless Us All
Growing up, Scrooge was the definitive Christmas movie. Channel 9 used to show it twice a day for a week on the old Million Dollar Movie program.
My sister, two brothers and I watched it so many times we had it memorized and then we took to performing the entire for our parents. We each had to play several parts, and, as the youngest, I played Tiny Tim.
Of course, as a child, Christmas is all about presents. I mean, the peace on earth stuff is great, but any normal kid wants to see what's under the tree with his name on it.
I think my favorite all-time present was a board game called Green Ghost--honestly--that my brother and I wanted so badly we could hardly think of anything else.
On that one Christmas morning we saw this huge box, like a child's coffin, all wrapped and waiting for us beneath the tree. My brother and I patiently opened all the other gifts, the shirts, the books, and whatever, all the while eyeballing that big, long box.
Finally, my father said we could open it, and the two of us tore at that wrapping paper like starved dobermans on raw steak. I recall my dad telling us to calm down, but I don't think it helped. We wanted to play Green Ghost.
As I look back, I realize it was a pretty crappy game. You played in the dark with these luminous pieces and this revolving plastic ghost who also glowed when you turned the lights out.
This was before the age of educational toys, when kids just played for laughs and parents were happy for a break. And while I think you'd could live your whole life without Green Ghost and be perfectly happy, the game is apparently highly sought after by hardcore toy collectors.
Jesus, who knew? Now I have yet another reason to clean up the cellar. Maybe I'll strike it rich on the nostalgia circuit.
And This is For You
My job on Christmas morning was to hand out the presents. I don't know how that got started, but it goes back as far as I can remember. I gave each member of the family one of their presents, picked up one with my name on it, and then, like the start of the Kentucky Derby, we all ripped at the wrapping paper.
My father insisted we keep a large plastic garbage bag nearby so the brightly colored trash could be easily managed. He was trying to prevent total anarchy but it didn't go beyond the first present. After that it was just mayhem, with paper flying in all directions, the dog bouncing off the four walls, and voices saying things like "oh, look what I got!" and "thank you so much!"
Each year my mother would ask us what we wanted as a special gift; something for our soul, she'd say. And most years she delivered the goods or told us why it didn't happen and take care of us later. On those occassions we'd get a wrapped index card with a crudely drawn image of the missing gift across the front of it. It was like an IOU from the North Pole.
My mother always that she had treated her four children equally and every year I'd tease her by counting one of siblings' gifts and saying, "hey, he got six presents and I only got five."
She'd get all upset and say she tried to make sure we all got the same amount of gifts. Poor Mom, she fell for it every time. Her heart was so big she couldn't stand the idea of any one of us feeling shortchanged.
All is Calm, All is Bright
I think I had my most spiritual Christmas experience a few years ago while my mother was in a nursing home.
Obviously having a loved one, especially your mother, in the hospital on Christmas Day is not pleasant, but I was determined to make the best of it.
Now I had this strange attitude about Manhattan. As a Brooklyn native there's a part of me that's obsessed with "the City" as they say in the outer boroughs--what goes on there, why can't I live there instead being out here in the sticks?
Earlier that week I was riding the crosstown bus through Central Park. As I looked at Tavern on the Green, all lit up and ready for the holiday, I kept thinking how great it would be to live around here in some fabulous apartment overlooking the park and have a real Manhattan Christmas, whatever that meant.
Well, meanwhile I was heading to a nursing home in Staten Island. As my mother was resting in her room, my sister and I went to the top floor where the nursing home was holding a holiday party for those seniors who, unlike my mom, could get up there.
At one point an older black man sat down at the piano and began singing "Silent Night" with great florish and, as everyone joined in, I realized this was the closest I had ever gotten to the true meaning of Christmas.
It wasn't presents, it wasn't tons of food, it was being together with the people you love the most. I wouldn't have learned that lesson going to Tavern on the Green.
There's a scene in Scrooge where a poor old Irish lady who, despite having nothing to her name, brightens up when Scrooge's former fiancee tends to her.
"Cut me throat," she declares emphatically, "slice me liver right down the line, this is the happiest Christmas I've ever had."
I reprised my role as the giver of gifts today and it came back me, just like riding a bicycle.
I missed my mom, of course. The dinner was good, but it could never compare to her lasagna. At this time reflective time of the year, I see that I have not accomplished a lot of the goals I set for myself, and I was so lonely on Christmas Eve I just wanted to go to bed and hide under the covers until April.
But just one year ago at this time I was unemployed and sick as a dog. Last Christmas Eve I had to get up at 7 a.m. and walk through the murky streets to the one doctor in Bay Ridge who had hours on the day before Christmas. I was depressed, sick, and miserable.
So at least things have improved since then. In the new year I'll make an effort to find someone, so that when next Christmas Eve comes around I won't be sitting in front of the TV by myself watching old Sergio Leone videos.
I realize now the holidays are meant to be a struggle. For years I'd say I want a smooth holiday season, but that's like asking for a gentle earthquake. There's no such animal.
After the guests left, my sister and I sat down to watch Scrooge for the first time since my mom died. And got through it without falling apart.
Yes, my mom is gone, but I see now that she is not just empty chair. She lives within every inch of this house and in every part of my life. I thank God for the time I had with her and I will take the goodness she showed me over the years and spread it wherever I go.
Merry Christmas, happy New Year, happy holidays, and may God us bless all, every one.