Monday, December 29, 2008

Country C-c-c-cold

Eskimos have about 30 different words for snow. So do New Yorkers, but most of them can't be printed here. On January 20th, 1961 in Poughkeepsie, NY, it was 30 degrees below zero. That day, in Washington, D.C., in a blizzard, John F. Kennedy was sworn into the office of the Presidency. He did not wear a hat and got very sick. I know this because throughout my childhood my mother mentioned it repeatedly, like it was a storm strong enough to make a President ill, especially an Irish one not smart enough to wear a hat. Seemed a mixed metaphor to me. She had several points to make, all conflicting. Hurrah, we had an Irish President, but he was still a man with rocks for brains for not dressing warmly.

Mom: Put a hat on. It’s freezing out. Don’t catch a cold like Kennedy.

Me: That was stupid of him, huh.

Mom: Are you disrespecting the greatest President of the United States?

Me: Didn’t you just say he was dumb for not wearing a hat?

Mom: And now you’re putting words of disrespect in my mouth?

In upstate New York, three feet of snow was on the ground, with more coming down. Even the blanket of snow was shivering. I had been due to be born at Christmas. It’s common knowledge that children born at Christmas time get ripped off in the birthday department. Jesus owns it and nobody’s upstaging him. Plus, in honor of my untimely timing, my mother was going to name me "Holly." I figured I’d lay low and be born in time for the after Christmas sales. Only thing was, it was bitter cold outside, so I kept hitting the snooze alarm.

By late January, however, my mother had had enough. 10 months pregnant, she decided to induce labor by shoveling snow in the driveway. In hindsight, this would have worked better if she had shoveled the hospital driveway, and if Poughkeepsie had not been a solid chunk of ice. In hindsight, this would have worked better if it were August. But we were Irish, so we were determined to give birth a month late, in a snowstorm, uphill, and sideways.

Despite most roads being impassable, the car not starting, and John F. Kennedy’s nose running, we somehow made it to the hospital, up the elevator and almost to the delivery room. Almost. In fact, when the doctor told my dad he was now a father, he denied it. “That’s impossible,” he argued. “I just got here.” He was a bit peeved that he wasn't able to pace the waiting room like the dads in the movies.

I've been trying to warm up to him ever since.

In Brooklyn, much of the cold and wind is deflected by your neighbor’s home, built within inches either next to, under, or on top of, your home. Buildings are so close you can hear your neighbor’s sneeze, perhaps even feel his moist breeze. There are many drawbacks, but one bonus of living wall-to-wall with other people is that you are never really chilly. Plant a spacious, airy house on top of a ridge in the middle of nowhere, however, and you’ll freeze your agrarian tail off. A lovely view, yes, if you make it to spring.

Winter’s like the fierce beast at the zoo – it’s great, but only when you have some serious fortification between you and it. On our windowpanes, frost would create the most magical little ice sketches. Tiny, delicate white scrollwork wending its way around the edges of the glass, the engravings were daintier than those on the finest crystal. The only problem was that they were on the inside of our windows. I thought I might wake up one morning, tattooed all over in the loveliest ice etchings.

To conserve energy, lesser-used parts of the house, like the den, were closed off. But the rooms got so cold, pipes in the baseboard heating system burst because they had frozen, flooding part of the house. Sadly, this ruined some of the best window ice engravings.

For my birthday, I’d invite some friends over for a sledding party. We’d have some birthday cake then head outside. Only as parents in the northern realm are well aware, in winter little kids can’t simply head outside. They need boots and hats and snowpants and mittens and help putting all that stuff on. They need staff. By the time my mother had finished dressing the last of the party girls and sent her out, the first one was back in for dry mittens and cocoa. It was a revolving door – warm dry ones out, and cold wet ones in. For three straight hours, Mom was hunched over putting on and taking off mittens and boots and hats on little girls. A dog wandered by, and Mom inadvertently dressed it in a parka.

One of the toughest things was getting up in the morning. Heating oil was expensive, possibly even more expensive than the treatment for frostbite, so the heat was turned off at night, or down as low as possible without risking a burst pipe. First one up (that would be me) had to build a fire in the kitchen woodstove. And before we went to school, the cows and horses had to be fed. Some mornings were so cold I half expected some of the livestock to be waiting for me in the kitchen:

Midnight the Cow: About time you got up. Get the fire going!

Me: How did you get in here?

Midnight the Cow: Door was unlocked, once I busted all the ice off it. You take milk in your coffee?

Me: Gimme my robe back.

There is no better heat than that of a wood stove. It soaks into your skin like tropical sunlight, baking chilled bones and thawing attitudes. My usual stance was leaning against a wall reading a book, my back to the stove so the heat would melt the ice in my spine. I usually had to negotiate my way past several dogs and maneuver for the warmest spot. Lady, our Dalmatian/Beagle mix, was the biggest fan of the stove. If you happened to be in her favorite spot, she would often lean on you until you moved. We took extra care not to feed her potent leftovers, since the only thing worse than a dog fart is a dog fart on fire.

Brother Bob: What is that smell?

Me: I don’t sm-(gasp!) Oh, my! That’s horrible!

Bob: Did you put something weird in the stove again?

Me: No!

Bob: Smells like something died…or is dying…

Me: Lady!

Lady had been leaning against the woodstove. That was fine when the stove wasn’t fully loaded, but I had recently restocked it with wood, and I guess she slept through that key event, until the stove got going and the scent of her own pelt cooking woke her up. Now Lady was sporting a long, brown racing stripe the length of her body, looking like someone had made a feeble attempt to ‘connect the spots’ on her fur. It was the imprint of the stove – she had literally burned a line on her fur. Being half Dalmatian, the stereotypical firedog, she was quite embarrassed, and asked that we not make this event public, lest her mother find out. I assured her that dogs can’t read. At least not Dalmatians.

There were good sides to winter. We would ice skate on the pond in the back woods. It was a mile hike each way, and the pond usually had to be cleared of snow first, and fallen logs frozen in the ice made the skating interesting, but at least we got to skate. I likened it to climbing Everest - bust your butt to get there, take a picture, then go home.

Down the road, we’d gather a few friends and play pond hockey at a nearby farm. There was an added level of excitement because this particular pond had a spring at one end that never quite froze over completely. Sometimes we’d hear a monstrous craaaa-aack! and feel the ice drop beneath our feet. We’d leap for the nearest bank, feet flailing in the air like spastic, bubble-wrapped ballerinas, afraid to touch the ice again lest it give way completely beneath us.

One particularly spectacular experience was sledding down the driveway. Dad had his own snowplow, and instead of scraping all the snow off the driveway like a sane person, he packed it down like a bobsled run, even banking the turn nicely for the toboggans. We would all climb onto sleds and fly down the drive, dogs nipping at our mittens.

Dogs love mittens, especially when stolen off a sledding kid at 15 miles an hour. We’d zip down the hill, belly side down, hands on the sled handles to steer. The dogs would race next to us, growling, barking, teeth flashing, trying to swipe a glove or a hat. If you fought to keep your glove, you’d lose control of the sled and crash, often becoming a speed bump for the sledders behind you.

Brother Bob: Dog on your left!

Me: What? Car?

Bob: No – DOG!

Lady the Dog: Grrrrr…woof! (snap!)

Me: Mayday, mayday! I’m under attack!

Bob: Give her the glove! Give her the glove! Let it go!

Me: I’m going down! Aaaaagh!

I tuck my head as my body slams into a snowbank, missed by inches by oncoming sledders. My sled continues down the drive without me.

Sometimes it’s best to forsake the mitten to the beast, even if it means catching a cold like Kennedy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ow, Christmas Tree

My grandmother was proud of her fake tree. Feathery white aluminum with blue ornaments, I secretly giggled that it was a Hanukkah bush. I never said so because she had a nasty left hook. Each year she'd retrieve this faux ode-to-joy from under the house. Since she never took the ornaments off, and since it was a whopping 30 inches tall, all Nana had to do was whip its trash bag cover off, plunk the thing down in her living room, plop down in her recliner and sigh, "Merry ding-dong Christmas. Now fetch me some Kichels and rub my feet." I looked on in horror, not just at the thought of touching her feet, but at the idea that Christmas could be so grossly disrespected.

Shiny silver trees were probably quite stylish back in the city, where everything was chrome and quick. However, out in the country, things were a bit different. Chopping down our own Christmas tree had been a tradition in our family since I was knee-high to a pine cone. We kids would have an early breakfast and head out at sunrise, hiking through the pastures, northward to a pine forest, carrying rope, a hacksaw, and lunch. The rope was for tying up my youngest brother and dragging him through the snow when he got whiny. The hacksaw came in handy at lunchtime, trying to digest whatever Mom had made for us. To be honest, we couldn't tell if it was stale since by then it was frozen solid.

I remember singing Christmas songs, mostly to make sure the hunters didn't mistake us for deer. If I sang just right, kinda nasally, it would vibrate my nose and heat it. Early on I had learned not to rub my nose to warm it up. In low temperatures, the tiny hairs inside the nasal passage often froze, so if you rubbed your nose, you'd send icy needles into the sensitive lining of your sinuses. The blood would then drip onto your jacket and Mom would be furious.

It would take all morning just to reach the pine forest, longer if we heard a wolf or bobcat. After lunch we would choose a tree to bring home. This took a while because there were four of us, and in our short, frozen lives we had never agreed on anything. Eventually the boys would pick a really tall tree, maybe thirty to forty feet high. Since I was the oldest, it was my job to climb up and lop off the top of the tree with the hacksaw. Taking just the top of the massive tree made my sister happy, since we weren't really killing the tree, just maiming it. The tree would later die of bug infestation brought on by the decapitation, but again, she would point out, we didn't kill it – the bugs did. (She's now an attorney.) My brothers loved making me climb the thirty or so feet in the air to trim the tree. Try as I might, I was never quite able to hit them with the tree as it fell.

It was then time to tow the vegetative carcass home. We'd take turns pulling it with the rope, back through the woods, even through a small stream. In a Norman Rockwell painting, this is all so very quaint and rustic. In reality, it was, like many family traditions, a royal pain in the ass.

On the long haul back, one of us kids would start whining how we didn’t need a live tree, why we couldn’t do something like Nana and have a measly fake one. This was high treason, or considering the situation, ‘tree-shun.’ I would argue tradition, but truly, at that point, freezing, exhausted, I was in the minority. At least the arguing kept us warm until we got home.

Surprised and a bit taken aback to see all four of us alive and intact, ourparents would welcome us home before retiring for the night. Tradition held that we couldn't eat until the tree was up in the living room. Unfortunately, upon arriving at our house, the tree would somehow grow a foot or two wider, too wide for the doorway. We would push, shove and cram the beast until we had shredded the entryway and cracked enough branches to make the poor tree look like the cows came home right over the top of it.
Some years there was no snow, and the tree would become caked with mud, leaves, and whatever else we ran over. This could be a real problem when we went through the cow pasture. We'd get home a little after sundown, and the lack of daylight made it especially hard to spot any unusual attachments before the tree was inside the house. After getting it upright and tied to the curtain rod, we would notice an unusual odor. Cowpie ornaments don't do well in the heat of a living room, but at this point, we were too exhausted to take the whole thing back outside. Instead, we’d knock off the big nasty chunks, spray some Lysol, and call it a day. Most people turn the least attractive part of the tree toward a wall. We did, too, and it was usually the side sporting bits of cowpie.

Some of the ornaments we weren’t allowed to handle until we were much older. They were antiques, carefully handed down from the time of the Depression. Dark, worn, and fragile, for years I thought we kids weren't allowed to touch them because you could catch 'depression' from them. Why we put them on our tree I had no idea. Perhaps, I reasoned, to appease the gods of depression. I wondered how the ornaments felt, making it through decades of strife, poverty, and difficult times, only to be placed in a ragged pine tree right next to cattle droppings.

As I sat there listening to my brothers argue whether the tree was standing up straight or not, I'd get to thinking how I couldn't wait to have my own kids so I could share this family tradition with them. Whether they liked it or not.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Santa Unwrapped

One Christmas Eve, just as my teddy bear and I were toddling off to visions of sugarplums (whatever the hell those are), Dad took me aside.

“We need to talk,” he said.

“Is this about the birds and the bees?” I asked.

“No!” he stammered. “No. It’s about Santa.”

“Is he ok?”

“Yes, he’s fine. Well, no, actually, he’s not.” Dad sighed. “He doesn’t exist. Your mother and I have been um, covering for him all these years.”

It figured. If the pizza man wouldn’t even deliver to us, why should Santa? But I was finally in on the secret. It was quite the letdown, finding out Santa’s true identity. On the bright side, it was a relief to know a jolly, corpulent stranger couldn’t actually waltz into our house any time he wanted.

I had always expected the dogs to nail Santa, cornering him before he could make it back to the chimney, or at least ripping a chunk out of his gaudy red suit. Their lack of diligence had worried me. At least now there was a logical explanation.

“Now that you know,” Dad sighed, “Get down to the basement and start wrapping.” I soon discovered why he had told me at such a young age, and why elves are so short with everyone - gift-giving can be a real pain in the ass. Even with four kids and a limited budget, my parents still went all out, buying us toy upon toy upon toy. As a result, I suddenly found myself toiling in a dank, dark bunker, wrapping eleventy little bundles of retail joy for my brothers and sister. I had just been introduced to the ugly, sweaty underbelly of Santa.

It was confusing, knowing how strict our parents were, yet how generous Santa seemed to be. Why be so ornery all year long and then pile on the toys? Looking back, I would have traded several candy canes in December for a few kind words in August. Eventually this keepsake family tradition would be better explained to me in my college psychology class, in the chapter on parental guilt.

As my back began to throb from wrapping, my parent’s crankiness became more understandable. Until recently they had been handling all this toy business by themselves. Now they had little me to help in their dirty work, and I quickly reached the point that if I saw one more Chatty Cathy doll, I would decapitate it.

It was especially weird wrapping anything for me. The next morning, I was expected to be surprised and joyous at such remarkable gifts, when all I really wanted for Christmas were some painkillers and a hot shower. Yes, I was growing up. And seriously considering converting to a religion that involved a bit less manual labor.

No wonder Santa used elves – they never grew big enough to overtake him. And at the North Pole, there was no way for them to escape without dying of exposure. The big guy sure knew what he was doing. But with all those high-pitched, whiny voices and a serious lack of quality entertainment before satellite television, I don’t know how he made it through the year without bountiful amounts of Scotch.

Beads of sweat soaked my bunny-suit pajamas as I lugged sleds, a doll house, several bikes, forty-seven damn dolls, even a cannon, from their hiding places in the basement. Sweat poured from my body because our traditional Christmas Bonfire to Roast Santa’s Ass was heating the house to nearly ninety degrees. My back ached from wrapping such a huge pile of guilt gifts. Suddenly this holiday wasn’t so jolly. More than a cheery wee elf, I resembled a clammy, muttering troll.

In a few hours, my littlest brother would be screaming at me to wake up, bringing the dogs in with him to jump on the bed and pound on my still-suffering muscles. I was tempted to use my newfound powers of x-ray vision to tell him what each of his presents were, but I figured since Santa no longer had my back, I was pushing my luck with my parents. They not only knew if I’d been bad or good, they wouldn’t wait until next Christmas to smack me for it.

It was a few years before I got any assistance in my elfin basement dungeon. My brother, Tom, was only a year younger, so I expected his help the following year. But apparently since I was doing such a terrific job on my own, my parents neglected to share the Santa-less truth with him. I soon realized that if I didn’t settle down, I’d be curling ribbon and gilding boxes solo until my siblings left for college.

For years after that, when my siblings would write their Christmas lists, I’d pray they’d ask for nothing heavy. Instead of bikes and large mechanical contraptions, I’d extol the virtues of stock options and cash. They never did catch on. Or it could be that they knew exactly what was happening, and enjoyed putting me through Noel hell.

Years later, I looked back at our weird traditions. Our tilting, teetering tree, cut and dragged from our back woods, with most of the ornaments hanging within three feet of the ground, since that’s how far up we little ones could reach. We’d bunch up wads of silver ‘icicles’ and launch them at the top of the tree, creating piles of wrinkled silver dangling in oddish garlands. And every time our mom regaled us with one of her Santa Isn’t Coming This Year scream-athons, I had Bing Crosby crooning It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas in my head. An odd song-association, yes, but part of my own personal holiday tradition carved from hours in our holiday basement sweatshop. I wasn’t real keen on hauling so many toys from the bowels of our house, but if that’s how our parents showed their love, so be it.

Besides, picture-perfect holidays are always suspect – it’s like that one flawless house on the street, with the housewife wearing a smile stretched so taut across her face you expect her teeth to implode. We're quietly aware that all her emotional baggage is crammed tightly into one closet. Open that closet door and bam! Emo-armageddon.

Having a bit of goofiness in the preparation comforts me, since I’m far from perfect myself. I figure if flaws are allowed to wander about like cattle, they will be less likely to build up in a closet somewhere and stampede through our lives unexpectedly.

Besides, the first Christmas was a mess, too – no vacancies, hay everywhere, guests arriving days late, and snoring farm animals. Never mind the gifting headaches - what could you possibly get someone whose father is God? Did you even bother wrapping it? I mean, he probably knew what you were going to get him before you did.

When viewed from a distance across decades, most old, family traditions seem quaint. But for a moment, put yourself in Mary’s place – nine months pregnant, riding a donkey, married to a guy who didn’t even have the presence of mind to call ahead to reserve a room. I’m pretty sure Mary uttered a few words too spicy for the Bible. But she got through and everyone’s happy for that. (For the second kid, though, I'm sure she did things way differently.)

Many of our own Christmas traditions were probably nerve-wracking or simply stupid, but we made it through, and now we can all sigh and think of them as quaint. So odd little traditions don’t bother me so much anymore. Mostly because they’re in the past, and I now have access to Santa’s best Scotch.

When we get obsessed with the stereotypical postcard Christmas, straining to make our holidays faultless, we’re basically guaranteed to be in a foul mood by Boxing Day. The real Christmas is not tidy packages under a perfect tree, a silent night, a shiny home. It’s getting an emotional handle on the holidays, a firm grip on love in whatever odd form it may take, and holding on for dear life. Because before we know it, we’ll have New Years and Valentine’s Day staring us in the face. And from what I had just discovered about Santa, I figured the Easter Bunny wasn’t gonna be much help.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mom's Recipe for a Traditional Holiday Meltdown

As kids, we never doubted there was a Santa. We did, however, worry that he might not make it past our parents. For some reason they were both out to get the chubby guy in the weird suit.

Dad created the lovely tradition of a Christmas Eve Bonfire for Santa. Right before bedtime he'd build the most glorious blaze in the fireplace, flames leaping and licking the top of the firepit. "Let's make it nice and warm for the fat man," he'd chuckle as he brought in more firewood, his eyes glowing red by the light of the inferno. Helpless to intervene in Santa's roasting, we kids would gloomily head off to bed, hoping against hope that Saint Nick's suit was fireproof.

But compared to our mom's traditions, Dad's meddling was child's play. In the month before Christmas, as the big day approached, Mom's temper would get shorter and shorter, and the vein on the side of her forehead would get bigger and bigger, like some sort of bizarre Advent calendar. Day by day, her desperate grip on sanity would tighten into a deadly stranglehold. She would bark orders quicker than ever, her sharp, practiced tongue clipping the ends of her words off almost before they left her mouth. I would stare, transfixed, at the vein as it popped and bobbled in time to her protestations. That may explain why I didn't hear much of what she said. The coronary traffic jam on her temple was much more interesting.

Sometimes she got so mad at us she couldn't even tell us what we did wrong. The anger would boil up in her face to the point she was speechless, and we’d stare, blinking and clueless. If we ran, we’d be cut down in our tracks. Stay and we risked mental annihilation. It was almost amusing, seeing her so mad that she nearly forgot why. But we dared not smirk, lest we found ourselves assigned to some hideous task like cleaning the chicken house, or scrubbing toilets, or the worst – scrubbing the chickens’ toilets.

Suddenly she’d remember what had piqued her anger, catch her breath, and launch into a tirade, sparks spitting from her mouth. Dogs would dive for cover, birds would make a beeline south, and we kids would scramble for an alibi or excuse or dark corner, all desperately seeking safe haven from the storm.

I figured the thought of a chubby, cheery guy dropping in uninvited, tramping soot and reindeer poo through her living room, and probably raiding the fridge must have really made Mom nuts. After all, she already had Dad for that.

About a week before the big day, as the four of us kids re-enacted our traditional holiday squabbling, she would finally come unglued. "That’s it! Santa’s NOT coming to this house this year!!!" At first we were terrified. Santa always brought the best toys. Without him, all we had were bunny-suit pajamas from Nana and educational tedium from Mom and Dad. We would do everything in our power to placate Mom, petrified that the big guy would pass us by.

Then one year we figured it out. My brother had recently given the cat a bb-gun enema. We thought for sure he'd get coal or worse. Instead, Santa brought him more ammunition. My sister had spent the entire fall semester staring oddly at classmates just to creep them out, and when Christmas rolled around, she got twenty-three dollies with stares just as creepy as hers.
I called a sibling meeting and shared my suspicions. We graphed our naughty vs. nice annuities, and compared it to our gift receivables. The truth was out – good or bad, you could set your watch by the fat man. Mom must have simply been jealous that Santa gave us cooler toys, and she was conniving enough to garner a couple weeks of household peace by pretending she could stop him from coming. The knowledge that she was bluffing was kid gold.

Still, it was scary to defy her. The first year after we knew, we at least pretended to be good. But we no longer quivered in our beds, sweating the daily errors of our ways. To be on the safe side, we carried on the family ritual of superficial fear and cordiality. When Mom raised the traditional holiday roof, we struggled to look scared, but we had found an inner peace knowing Santa didn’t listen to her. Her bombastic tirades were now merely a harmless holiday habit, much like fruitcake, only louder.

Santa made it every year without fail. Even Dad’s attempts to roast him didn’t shake us anymore. We knew the big guy would never let us down, except once, when my little brother asked for new parents. But that was probably because he forgot to say 'please.'