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.
“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
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
“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
“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
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
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.
“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
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
“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,
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
“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
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.
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.