Sunday, December 25, 2011


It’s Christmas day, and I’m taking a little break from all the excitement. The nieces and nephews have opened their gifts here at Grandma’s house, after a big brunch. Paper and boxes are strewn all over, as in houses everywhere this morning.

These children who have always had more than enough, now have even more. I don’t begrudge them this, of course--they are seriously good kids. They are grateful kids. And they are also, even at a young age, giving kids. They are eight-year-old triplets, an eleven-year-old, and a seventeen-year old. Though their lives are not trouble-free, by any stretch of the imagination, they have never gone to bed hungry, thank God. They have never worried the roof over their heads would be gone, and any doubts about the ground beneath them have probably been fleeting. Still, there is always great joy in seeing the delight in their faces when they open a box to find revealed something they deeply desired. There are smiles, even the occasional squeal.

My partner and I don’t have kids--by choice--but we love kids. Especially these kids. We’re glad to share in their Christmas excitement, even as it becomes rather raucous. But in between the gifts and the crazy quantities of food, something else this year has brought me to tears--the good kind--more than a few times.

This morning, in Staten Island, there is a child I have never met, a boy of three years, whose parent or parents are struggling, like many in our country now, and like I would be, too, but for some effort and even more good luck, over the course of my entire life. Perhaps for this boy and his parents Christmas feels like something of a crap shoot--maybe they’ll get lucky, maybe they won’t. Maybe the boy is too young to really think about it in those terms. I don’t know. But I do know that this year he was hoping Santa would bring him a toy car from the movie “Cars”, and a tee-shirt from the same.

I know this because not too long ago the man I love and share my life with told me he had bought a toy car and said tee-shirt for the boy in Staten Island. Through his employer, a company which encourages charitable giving, he found out about the boy and his Christmas wishes. He mentioned this in passing, really. He’s a modest sort, not one to call attention to himself for good or ill.  This is a man who insists on us having a portrait hanging in our kitchen of famous curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf, of Muppet fame (actually, he wanted it in the living room, right over the couch, but the kitchen, kind of tucked behind a door, was my compromise). He likes to say he models himself after them--and he can definitely be prickly at times, even in his humor. He doesn’t want you to know the truth about what lies beneath. But he can’t fool me. 

I watch him in summers walking along the beach with my nephew who worships him, and digging in the sand with all the kids, giving them his attention in a way that I think is sometimes hard for him with adults. I watch him this morning patiently and meticulously helping my niece fix her new gumball machine that isn’t working the way it should, and I know he has a long way to go if he wants to hang with his friends Statler and Waldorf. But deep down, I don’t think he really wants a seat in that balcony. That’s no place for a guy like him.

He is on the phone now with his family in Italy and Germany, loved ones far away, so perhaps he understands something of “doing without”--just like the little boy who desires a toy car that might otherwise be out of reach. Perhaps this big boy desires that he could be in two or three places on the globe at once.

This morning and this afternoon, amid time with family, I keep seeing this three year old boy. I keep picturing him, now driving his parents nuts as he pushes and drives this car along the floor of their apartment, making car noises, smiling, laughing. I picture his parents, perhaps relieved that “Santa” found their house, their son.  I see the boy’s mother smile, perhaps close her eyes, and not knowing to whom she owes this gratitude, she gives thanks anyway, for whatever heart has delivered these smiles and car noises to her home today.

And I give thanks, too. I know that heart. 
I know it well
And I give thanks.

To all those, like my sweet partner, who reach out beyond their own lives to touch those they may never meet, to give in big and small ways at Christmas and throughout the year, I give thanks for your spirit moving through this world.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Have Yourself a Mafioso Christmas . . .

She was Beautiful and Perfect, and we named her Clarice.

This is, I’m almost afraid to admit, a true story. Different readers will take from it different things, of course. Some will find in it a poignant Christmas tale of love between humans and the natural world. Some, overcome by a wave of nostalgia, will turn to Sopranos episodes on Netflix. Some will find in it a good laugh, while still others will find in it confirmation of their long-standing belief in my mental instability. I think it’s fair to say that any of the above outcomes will warm the reader’s heart and satisfy during this holiday season. Now, as I was saying . . .

She was beautiful and perfect, and we named her Clarice. 
She was with us for only 4.75 months which, true, is a longer span of time than most Christmas celebrants can claim--so maybe in some ways this is a happy story. We loved her and we should be glad for the time we did get to share together, knowing the fleeting nature of all things of this world.

Clarice was our Christmas tree. But of course, she was so much more than that we rationalized.  It was many years ago, in the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, when I was living with my then-boyfriend (whom we’ll call Guido, even though that is not his real name), that we had just moved from a cramped studio apartment to a much more spacious two-bedroom place in a unique, quirky and very old building just a few blocks from the famed mummer-zone, Broad Street. We could breathe there, finally. We could get furniture out of storage, put books on an entire wall of built-in shelves, entertain friends, and we could get a real, sizable Christmas tree at last.

This had special significance for us, since my boyfriend’s grandfather had a Christmas tree farm in southern New Jersey. This was, I can honestly say, no ordinary Christmas tree farm. In a beautiful and touching display of possible Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, these trees were cared for like members of the family. Fed, watered and trimmed to perfection, each was its own little masterpiece, symmetrical with full and healthy bows perfectly scented. My boyfriend and his father had occasionally helped tend this tree farm over the years, and now the fruits of their bonding expeditions would pay off. 

We would go to the farm and after marvelling at the peaceful beauty of the endless fields of trees, basking in their unique perfection, focusing in on The One stately enough for a young couple of discerning taste, with a sharp and jagged implement we’d mercilessly hack cut it down in its prime

[Could this be what those in the biz call foreshadowing?]

Then, we’d oh-so-tenderly lash it down to the roof of the car with coarse ropes and subject it to the insane g-force of Guido’s racing-circuit-trained driving. Once home, after pulling my knuckles from the dashboard, we’d gingerly remove the tree from the roof, carry it inside the apartment, and jam it into the tree stand, screwing the bolts tightly into its trunk as it oozed its lifeblood sap. See? Heartwarming.

At this point, she was not yet Clarice. She was not yet even a “she”, as our compulsion to anthropomorphize had not yet reared its hideous adorable head--convenient, considering the aforedescribed tortures inflicted upon our new friend. Before stringing the lights or hanging any decorations, we sat in wonderment at its glory. She was the perfect height for our place. She was perfectly straight. There were no gaps in the branches to be found anywhere along her entire length. The gradual decline in her width from bottom to top was entirely soothing to the eye, with no jarring assaults on our aesthetic sensibilities. Surely we had never seen such a pleasing shade of green before. And need I describe her fragrance, because I’m sure I could not adequately do so, never having ascended to heaven, myself. Once we brought out cookies and consumed a half gallon or so of hot chocolate (the Christmastime equivalent of beer-goggles), we were sighing in the throes of adoration, like the parents of a newborn, entranced by every burp and smile.

Then came the white lights, strung both close to the trunk and on outer branches to highlight her sublime depths. It was at about this point that we realized the ridiculousness of “gilding the lily”, as they say. Why cover up what could dazzle all on its own? We scrapped the idea of tarting her up with ornaments, and went with the simple strands of popcorn and cranberries we had prepared ahead of time, and red bows. She had an understated elegance and grace, akin to those rare ladies-of-a-certain-age that one sees at Lord and Taylor who have not opted for cosmetic surgery and ample gemstones. That is, until we topped her off with not a star or an angel (for wasn’t she already our little angel?), but Barbie and Ken dressed in garish holiday garb. Don’t ask me where we got this--I can’t remember or have blocked it out.

After a few days and nights of eagerly plugging in her lights to watch her proudly gleaming, we sensed our baby was a “she”, and decided to give her a name, the better to personalize our accolades. I don’t know how or why we came to the conclusion that “Clarice” epitomized feminine beauty in tree form--perhaps the ump-teenth viewing of the Rudolph holiday special?--but that’s what we settled on. From then on it was “Oh Clarice, just look at you!”, and “It’s so nice to see Clarice when I get home”, “I think Clarice needs some water”, and so on. Remember that part in the beginning about mental instability? Yeah . . . don’t pay any attention to that.

Here’s the problem with anthropomorphizing something that you’ve . . . yes, I’ll say it . . . killed. It’s probably the same reason why slaughterhouse workers might be advised not to name the animals (“C’mon Fluffy, get in the truck.”). At some point, you have to let go.

We learned this the hard way, as December passed and Clarice showed the first signs of losing her bloom, so to speak. By January, the waterings became more frequent and more futile. By February, her unearthly green was becoming a decidedly earthy brown. By March (yes, that’s right, I said March), we couldn’t keep up with the sweeping of pine needles, or the excuses to our friends who were starting to worry about us. Of course, if we waited long enough, there would be no more pine needles to sweep. Great! We had only been able to bring ourselves to take off the strands of berries and popcorn, and the lights, lest a fire start. So there she was, like some aging whore decked out in only her too-red ribbons, like a lipstick smear, everything sagging that once was perky and enticing. Now it was, “Oh, Clarice. What do we do about Clarice?”

What we couldn’t do at this late juncture, and given the joy she had previously brought to us, was just dump her on the curb outside for the trash collectors to toss her into the crusher. I’m not sure they would collect trees in early April anyway (yes, that’s right, I said early April. Get off my case, already). But we had to come up with something before our landlord, accompanied by the fire inspector, hauled her off in cuffs.

Christmas tree murder scene. *

In a stroke of insanity genius and sentimentality, we decided to bring her back to her place of origin, kind of. We decided that we would give her back to the Earth. We decided she would rest with others of her kind. We decided that we would drive from Philadelphia to New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, and like so many before us, dump the body there.

“She can be gotten rid of . . . I’m just sayin’,” just said Guido.

But the shame. What to do about the shame? We weren’t about to tie this shriveled arboreal corpse to the roof of the car. That would invite questions. That would be undignified, and probably scratch the paint job. This is when it’s good to have Guido for a boyfriend.

“The trunk,” he said. “We’re buyin’ a hacksaw, and she’s goin’ in the trunk.”

Here’s where this little Christmas tale becomes something of a confessional, people. Hell, it’s practically a deposition.  I didn’t plan this, but here it is. We laid out a tarp, we unscrewed the bolts and took her out of the stand and there, in the middle of our living room, we cut off her limbs and put them in bags, then cut the stump in half. After sunset, with darkness on our side, we put the bags in the trunk and drove across the bridge to New Jersey in silence, except for one brief moment of revelation.

“We’re out of our [effing] minds,” I said.

“Shut up!” said Guido sharply, on edge, “ . . .Dammit, [sniffle, then quietly] I loved her, too.”

“You want a tissue, Guido?”

[It's possible that I’m not remembering that last bit of dialog entirely correctly]

There, on the darkest and back-est of back roads we could find, I stood watch while Guido shook out the bags of . . . refuse. . . until every last needle was gone. Sure, we knew people had dumped far worse things in the Pine Barrens, but who would believe it was just a Christmas tree we were disposing of, in April? We walked backwards to the car, obscuring our footprints, he put the empty bags in the trunk, and we crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t leave tire tracks, too.

On the way home it was left to me to break the awful, painful silence. “Your mother called. She wants to know if we can bring the dessert for Easter dinner on Sunday”.

“Yeah, sure. [regretfully, thoughtfully] And we can bring her some of those. . . whattaya call those frickin’ things . . hyacinths? In a pot.”

“Yeah. In a pot, Baby” I said softly, knowingly, touching his hand. “In a pot.”

*Photo Credit: Mattsenate, Wikipedia.