"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Holidays with Norman, Redux

This little story started life as a column describing my own family's trip to get a tree. I liked the concept, so I fictionalized it, toyed with it, juggled it, stretched it, yadda-yadda. Now, due to my sudden allergies, we've had to abandon the live pine tree and get an artificial tree. 

All that's left is this story. Enjoy.


     Norman Rockwell is visiting again. I never get any notice, not that I need one. He always arrives on the first Sunday in December. I sit down in front of my mirror to put on my makeup, and there he is, peeking around my shoulder.
     He looks a lot like he did in that famous portrait, holding his pipe firmly in his down-turned mouth, the glare from his glasses hiding his eyes. His neck looks more like chicken skin every year, although I don’t know why.
     After all, he’s just a hallucination. He shouldn’t age, should he?
     “Time to get the Christmas tree, Abby,” he tells me.
     Yes, Mr. Rockwell.
     “Oughta be fun,” he says. “Oughta be quite an adventure.”
     Oh, yeah, Mr. Rockwell, it’s quite the holiday escapade.
     Every year I have the same fantasy about getting the Christmas tree. I see my husband, Keith and our son, Jake, ahead of me, walking through the Choose-And-Cut lot, pointing to trees and smiling. There’s a dusting of snow on the ground, and we’re in our down jackets, bright scarves around our necks to keep the wind from whipping down our shirts.
     Keith turns back to me and smiles. “Jake thinks this one looks like his teacher.”
     I look at the small, wide evergreen and laugh.
     Later, after we’ve put the tree in our living room, I make popcorn and hot cocoa while Keith and Jake get the ornaments out of their boxes. We spend the evening putting up lights, and hanging stars. Christmas music is playing, and we are filling the room with joyous conversation, talking about nothing in particular.
     That’s the fantasy, the dream that Norman Rockwell always comes to feed.
     “It’ll be just like one of my paintings,” he says.
     “Just like,” I tell him. “Except that it doesn’t snow in southern California, we won’t need jackets and scarves in seventy degree weather, and – oh, yeah – Keith and Jake don’t look like any of the people in your paintings.”
     I stop feathering the light brown pencil across my blonde eyebrow and look at the photo propped against the mirror. Keith and Jake are in the scene, holding strings of catfish, smiling.
Keith’s skin is as dark as Hershey’s kisses, his full lips and broad nose identifying his African roots. His body is compact and muscular, his arms strong and sinewy.
     “Did you even paint any black people, Mr. Rockwell?” I ask the ghost still peering over my shoulder.
      He seems offended. “Of course I did, young lady. There was that little girl on her way to school.”
     “Oh, yeah, the one about desegregation.”
     “And how about the little kids and the moving van?”
     I look down and rub the black mascara wand into my pale eyelashes. “The black family moving into the all white neighborhood, right?”
     “And the little boy in the dining car?”
     “Oh, for Pete’s sake, Norman, the black guy was a waiter. You never painted pictures of black people just being people, having families, going to the doctor. For that matter, you never painted Hispanics or Asians or anyone of color, except that ‘We are the World’ piece you did-what was it called?”
     “You mean The Golden Rule.” He shrugs, but his expression remains the same. “That was my world.”
     I put my makeup back in the drawer and stand up, shaking the specter away. “Your world was so white, it was practically clear.”
     I look at the photo once more. If Norman Rockwell would not have painted Keith catching fish, he most certainly would not have painted our son, Jake.
     Jake is the color of latte, with his father’s broad nose and mahogany eyes, and my slender lips. His hair is not as wiry as Keith’s, but my natural wave has contributed to its tight curls. At fifteen, he is whippet-thin, with lean muscles and an expanding ribcage from running cross country five days a week.
     I check myself in the mirror. My red t-shirt needs to be tugged down over the top of my jeans. The color brings out the ruddiness of my Celtic skin, so I brush at my cheeks, wiping off some of the blusher I had applied. The scent of white ginger lotion engulfs me, and I wonder if I should switch to something warmer for the holidays, something spicier.
    Keith is in the family room, watching a football game. He sits forward on the chair, his shoes on the floor in front of him.
     “I’m ready whenever you are,” I say.
     He nods, engrossed in the play. My husband loves to watch sports; I love to watch him.
     I wander down the hall to Jake’s room. He is dressed in his holiday finery: a black AC/DC t-shirt and threadbare corduroy pants that I am not allowed to toss out. His room, however, looks like it has been tossed. Clean and dirty clothes mingle on the floor, along with video games, old homework papers, and the extra large drink he got at Carl’s Jr. last night. The room has that unmistakable smell of boy/man, musk and body odor and old socks.
     Jake looks up from his place on the floor, sprawled out, playing a nondescript riff on his guitar.
     “Get your shoes on,” I tell him. “Dad’s almost ready to go.”
     The truth is, I don’t know whether he’s ready to go or not. When Keith watches a sporting event, he is consumed by it. He does not make us stay home until it is over, but he will not leave the TV until some crucial play has been performed.
     I never know what that play is.
     My husband’s casual manner of getting from the house to the car vexes me, no matter where we are going. I cannot learn his rhythm. When he goes out to the garage, I follow and get into the car, thinking that we are on our way. We are not. Keith will have at least two more trips into the house to get something he forgot, then stop at the refrigerator to pick up a cold soda for the road.
     I’ll be waiting in the car, trying to keep my hands from reaching up and yanking my hair out by the roots.
     Today, I go out and open the garage door, then putter around, trying to waste time. Jake comes out just as I’ve found the coupon for five dollars off a Christmas tree. About ten minutes after that, Keith shows up. He immediately goes back in for his Angels baseball cap, comes out and looks for the tarp to place on the car roof so the tree doesn’t scratch the paint, opens the car door, shuts the car door, goes to the refrigerator and removes a bottle of water, opens the car door one more time, and finally gets in.
     We’re ready.
     “Where are we going?” he asks as he backs the car out of the garage.
     “Well, we can go around the corner to the Fantasyland lot, or down the street they have one of those Uncle Ernie Tree lots, or there’s the Pincher Choose and Cut.”
     Keith stops the car in the driveway and looks at me. “Where are we going?”
     I must make the decision. “I have a coupon for Pincher’s. Let’s go there.”
     It’s hard to keep a live tree from becoming a fireman’s nightmare in southern California. An artificial tree would be so much safer and easier, but I love the fresh smell of pine, and the feeling of energy that a live tree gives a room. Going to a “choose and cut” tree lot at least ensures that our tree is completely fresh, and hasn’t been sitting, waterless, at various truck stops on its way from Oregon.
     Our tires crunch along the gravel path as Keith winds the car up the hill and into a parking spot. There are rows of Monterey pines here, all tenderly nurtured and shaped into cones, canvases upon which glass ornaments and tinsel will be displayed. Young boys in oversized t-shirts and baggy jeans wait by the wooden stand to the right, saws by their sides. The stand sells fruit and vegetables in the summer, pumpkins for Halloween, and trees for Christmas. The owners have decorated it for the holiday, hiding the painted pictures of tomatoes and corn with garland.
     I want to leap from the car and scamper to the trees, but I restrain myself. That is not my family’s speed. I get out slowly and stretch as if we’ve traveled for an hour instead of ten minutes. Slowly, casually, my husband and son emerge and stand by me. They wait for my lead.
     I gesture to the right. “Looks like there are some nice trees up there.”
     We begin to walk into the forest.
     It is sunny, but not hot, and the breeze coming through the evergreens makes it almost Christmas-y. The smell of the trees is rich here. My fantasy returns, briefly, until I see the gap between my family members. Head down, Keith is trudging up the hill. Jake is wandering aimlessly, looking at nothing, his ears stuffed with music from his iPod.
     I stop at a tree, and gauge its height and heft. It seems to be about seven feet tall, well-rounded and full, except for one side, which is sparse. We place our tree in a corner of the living room, so this is not a problem; no one will see the ugly side.
     “How about this one?” I ask my crew.
     “It’s fine,” Keith replies. “Let’s get it.”
     I need a consensus. “Jake, what do you think?”
     For a fifteen-year old boy who has opinions on everything from my cooking to world politics, he is strangely noncommittal. “S’okay,” he says with a shrug.
     Not quite satisfied, I walk on and stop at another tree, slightly taller and fuller.“What about this?”
     My two lovely men give me the same answers. We do this for two more trees. At the last tree, I look up and see Mr. Rockwell again, peeking from around the evergreens.
     “Isn’t this fun?” he asks.
     If he wasn’t a hallucination, I’d throw something at him. Yeah, Norman, it’s swell.
     “Let’s get this one,” I say.
     Keith nods and Jake shrugs, indicating a quorum.
     I tear off the bottom half of the tag and tell them, “We need to go get the little lumberjack.”
     They both stand and look at me.
     I guess “we” means me, so I turn and walk toward the stand. A scruffy young man leans against the counter, joking with the young Hispanic girl as she collects money from a couple. He is in typical tree-cutter garb: a short-sleeved t-shirt over a long-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, and boots that Frankenstein might have worn, all faded, all well-worn.
     Handing him the tag, I gesture up the hill, and see Keith walking down toward the car. The next ten minutes are spent carpeting the roof of the SUV with the tarp and securing the tree onto the car with twine.
     Every time I see a Christmas tree on a car I am reminded of the time my brother and I took my ’67 Mustang to get the family tree. It was a particularly cold winter in Illinois, where we lived, so cold that when you breathed in, the hairs in your nose stuck together. We couldn’t get the tree in the car trunk, so we put it in the backseat, opening the windows so both ends could stick out.
     We never even thought of tying it to the roof.
     Keith pulls into our driveway and the real fun begins--getting the tree onto the stand, and into the house. Everyone has their assigned tasks. I move the rocking chair from the corner, and place a large trash bag on the carpet, then a towel, then a sheet, in the vain hopes of keeping the carpet dry. Keith removes the tree from the roof and brings it to the front porch, where he cleans the lowest limbs away. I join him, to hold the tree while he tightens the stand around the trunk.
    “Hmph t llm,” he tells me.
     At least, that’s what it sounds like.
     Translation: Get a microphone.
     “Hold. It. To. The. Left.”
     Translation: Get a hearing aid.
     We get it into the stand, then I open the front doors and Keith carries it to the corner. He maneuvers it a little more, making certain that it’s straight, while I get the fishing line.
     One December morning, when Jake was a toddler and Keith was away on business, the tree fell over. Instead of getting ready for work, I spent half an hour putting the tree upright and cleaning the glass shards from the carpet. Ever since then, we’ve tied the tree to a nail in the wall, using fishing line. It may not be attractive, but I’ll bet OSHA approves.
     Jake’s job used to be to stay out of our way while we got the tree positioned. Now, his task is to stand in the driveway, waiting for his dad to give him permission to drive the car into the garage. At fifteen, this is his weekly thrill. I watch Keith walk from the porch, give Jake a serious look, and then smile as he tosses the keys. Our son leaps into the car and roars the engine to life, then creeps into the garage, attempting to place the SUV in the perfect space between the shelves and my minivan. He backs up and retries this two or three times, either because he’s a perfectionist or because he wants the extra driving time.
     Keith retires to his football game, a bag of tortilla chips and salsa with him. His work is done.
It’s now tree trimming time, so I begin my ritual. First, I select a bottle of wine, a deep cabernet. I open the hutch and remove a wine glass. Norman is staring back at me.
     “Hot chocolate?” he asks.
     “More like hot toddy,” I tell him.
     I see him frown a little, and wonder if the artist was a teetotaler.
     “Don’t worry, Mr. Rockwell, I can drink and decorate.”
     Jake’s voice startles me. “Who are you talking to, Mom?”
     “Just myself, honey. Want to help me hang ornaments on the tree?”
     He scowls a little. “Not really.”
     I pour a glass of deep red elixir as my son wanders out of the room. Soon I hear his guitar wailing softly. I plug a Christmas CD in the stereo and turn it on. Eartha Kitt purrs to her Santa Baby while I get to work.
     The ornaments are still in their boxes. I take them out, one by one and set them on the dining room table. After they are all out, I begin. There is a process, a rhythm, that must be followed.
     I pick up a small, muslin mitten, grey with age, its edges cut with pinking shears. There is a green tree outline painted on one side and my name painted on the other. This ornament was made for me when I was six, by Mrs. Miller. Pete Miller was my boyfriend in 1st grade. I look at my name and remember Pete’s mom. She was a great cook, but not highly educated; the “y” in “Abby” is backwards.
     The first ornament I owned must be the first one on the tree. Then the first ornament Keith and I bought together, then Jake’s first baby ornament. After that, the ornaments from friends and family who have passed, and then those who are still with us, and so on.
     Norman reappears as I hang a handmade porcelain angel in the upper branches.
     “This isn’t right,” he says. “Where’s the family? Where’s the popcorn?”
     It’s okay, Mr. Rockwell, tree trimming is just not my family’s thing.
     I am about halfway through it all, the wine and the trimming, when Jake comes back into the room.
     “Need help, Mom?”
     “Sure. Grab an ornament and find a limb.”
     When he was younger, all my son wanted to do was sort the ornaments according to size, color and shape. The only year he wanted to hang ornaments, he hung them all on the same branch. I tried to let it alone, but after the bough touched the ground, I had to re-position them.
     This time, I promise myself I will not re-hang anything he puts on the tree, although I secretly pray that he will spread them around a little.
     “Jingle Bell Rock” starts playing, and we sing along. We are getting to the end of the ornaments, the boxes of gold balls that were bought on sale and have no meaning. Our work goes faster, as we fill all of the unadorned nooks on the tree. At last, we look back at the table. It is empty, just like my wine glass.
     Jake extends his long, muscled arms and engulfs me.
     “You’re the best mom,” he says. “What’s for dinner?”
     “Leftovers,” I reply. “Still think I’m the best?”
     He laughs and wanders into the kitchen. I hear him foraging in the refrigerator.
     After our dinner of re-heated minestrone and salad, I pour one more glass of wine and sit on the couch in the living room. I’ve turned the lights out, so that only the Christmas tree is lit. The colored bulbs sparkle in the darkness. I can hear the football game on TV, the crowd roaring from our family room. Otherwise, all is silent.
     Keith sits down beside me, wine glass in his hand. We watch the tree together.
     “Pretty, huh?” I ask.
     He nods. “I’ll put the outside lights on tomorrow.”
     “Do you ever worry that we don’t really do things family-style? I mean, I decorate the tree, you put up the outside lights… it’s not very team-oriented.” I can’t help but add, “We’re not exactly a Norman Rockwell painting.”
     Keith shrugs. “It’s just the way we work. Everybody does what they are good at.”
     He leans over and kisses my temple. His lips are soft and warm.
     “Besides-” He sweeps his hand toward the tree. “This is prettier than anything Norman Rockwell ever painted.”
     Suddenly he stands up. “Halftime’s over.” He returns to the family room, leaving me alone.
     I watch the lights flicker. Norman’s shadow is dancing around the tree.
     This is my world, Mr. Rockwell.

1 comment:

Jennifer Silva Redmond said...

And it's a beautiful world. Thanks for sharing this story.

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