Thursday, November 16, 2006

Don’t Get Up (Chapter 9)

I wish you a Malty Christmas
And a Hoppy New Year,
A pocket full of money
And a cellar full of Beer!
     — Anonymous Toast


Christmas and the winter holidays were always a mixed bag. On the one hand, they were magical times for a child with presents, visits to store Santas, baking cookies and family parties. On the other hand, there were parties. And that meant there were so many more opportunities for drinking than during the rest of the year. Not that Eddie necessarily needed an excuse, but he never missed an opportunity either. I don’t think I’d ever heard him turn down a drink if one was offered. It just wasn’t in his nature to be able to say no to alcohol.

My mother loved the holidays like nobody I’ve ever known before or since. It was a huge deal to her, and to my grandmother, too. There were immense rituals associated with the holidays in our house. The weekend after Thanksgiving, my grandmother would arrive for the day and the two of them would remove every single knick-knack in the house, carefully box them up, and stow them in the coal cellar in our basement. We no longer had a coal furnace, it was long gone by the time we moved in. But the separate room in the front of the house where coal used to poured in through a slotted window under the front porch made an ideal place to store the things that we didn’t need access to but once a year. So that’s where the boxes and boxes and boxes of Christmas decorations lived eleven months of the year.

As I got older, I was pressed into service more and more. And as much as I enjoyed the holidays, I resented having to work so hard over what was supposed to be my Christmas vacation. But this was one battle I never win, and so I perservered and made the best of it. I’d carry the dozens of boxes up from the basement and my Mom and grandmother carefully unwrapped each item, cooing over each one, as they found a place for them on our now empty shelves. Little by little the house would fill up again with holiday bric-a-brac of all kinds. Over the course of the previous year, my mother would come up with new theme for each Christmas and the tree would be trimmed with all new ornaments every year. Many years, her and my grandmother would make all of the ornaments for the tree. The strangest year was without question sometime in the mid-seventies when our tree was adorned with giant two-foot diameter tissue paper roses in rainbow colors that were handmade. It didn’t take very many of them to fill up the tree and they looked quite frankly, ridiculous, as if the tree had a very colorful case of the mumps.

Our tree itself was unspectacular, an artificial monstrosity with color-coded trunks I had to build every year. My mother was allergic to seemingly everything, including — with all seriousness — too much sunlight! And evergreen trees were on the list, so I missed the pleasure of that pine tree smell I loved when I visited other homes over the holidays. Oddly, enough real trees in other peoples’ houses never seemed to cause my mother any particular troubles. The first Christmas I spent on my own included a real tree that I cut down myself. It was my first kill. And I’ve had a real tree every since.

The one thing missing from our holiday decorations each year was Santa Claus, who for some reason had been banished from our house by my mother. She absolutely hated Santa Claus. What she had against Kris Kringle was never articulated to me with sufficient understanding, but she did not like the concept of Saint Nicholas at all. It wasn’t that she was overly religious — she wasn’t. My grandmother took a particular glee in festooning her own house with countless Santa idols, including a five-foot plastic one that was lit from the inside that sat on her porch, welcoming her guests during the holiday season. It was if she was rubbing it in my mother’s face that she had so many of them. Perhaps it was some odd rivalry in their twisted mother-daughter relationship, but if so, I never learned what it was all about.

For an entire day shortly after the decorations had been put up, my mother — again, always with my grandmother there — would bake cookies. And not just one kind but several different kinds of cookies. Also down in the coal cellar were countless cookie tins that seemed to breed over the years. Those would be brought up each year, too, so that they could be filled with homemade cookies. They’d make sugar cookies in a variety of cutout shapes, gingerbread, oatmeal, brownies and my personal favorites, peanut butter cookies. I’m not really sure where they all ended up, but I know I usually had my fill of them. I know she gave a lot of them as gifts, but there were an awful lot of cookie tins.

But the winter holidays were my mother’s favorite time of the year. Her birthday was in mid-December and between that, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Eve she really seemed to be in her element. She really went out of her way to bring family and friends together during the holidays. For as long as I can remember, we hosted a party every Christmas Eve that anybody we ever knew was invited to. I don’t how they knew, because she never sent out any invitations. But over time, people just came to know that there was always a party at our house on Christmas Eve. And since everyone also had their own family events, too, there was a steady stream of people coming and going all night long. It was nice that even though our friends had their own events, they always seemed to manage to stop by if even for just a short visit. I loved these parties because I got to see so many people in such a short period of time, almost all of whom had that holiday spirit and were happy. As I got older, my own friends and their families became part of the event, too.

Our house swelled with every room downstairs and in the basement full of people. Some would even spill into one or two of the rooms upstairs. Only the back bedroom, which was covered with winter coats, was always empty. As friends and relatives came and went, the one constant was wall-to-wall people. My mother always seemed happiest on those nights. She really came alive with other people that she cared about. Maybe it was that same instinct that led to her wanting to be a nurse.

Many of the guests I only saw once a year, at the party. There were family, of course, Eddie’s, my Mom’s, and my estranged father’s. A lot of them often came early and stayed all night. Then there were Eddie’s friends and their families, people he knew from work, not to mention drinking buddies. There were people my mother worked with at the hospital, doctors, nurses and even the occasional patient. My mother was still close with a number of women she went to high school and they usually came with their families, too. All of our neighbors were invited, making it a block party of sorts.

Then there were my own friends. I had a close relationship with a number of people from an early age. Because of my own home life, I spent a great deal of time — as much as I could — away from home. As a result, I had an entire coterie of spare parents. Perhaps not in reality, but I did get along very well with a number of my friends parents. Many of them knew my situation and were sympathetic. They made me feel welcome and gave me a place to escape to from time to time. They fed me quite a lot, too, for which I was always grateful. They were really good people who helped me out when I needed it. And they often came to our Christmas Eve parties, too, along with their kids, who were among my best friends.

My mother put out quite a spread of food. There were all the cookies, of course, but she also put out of plates of cheeses and meat, vegetables and dip, chips, pretzels, popcorn and who knows what all. She’d have soda for the kids, A-Treat usually. A-Treat was a local soda company that made root beer, birch beer, cream soda, lemon-lime, sarsaparilla, and grapefruit soda in quart bottles. And Mom made the eggnog every year, pitchers of it she made ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator. Not surprisingly, Eddie took care of the rest of the alcoholic drinks. He had a well stocked bar already and augmented it considerably for the party with bottles of Jack Daniels, whiskey and other spirits. He really liked playing host and being the life of the party.

The downstairs refrigerator would be filled with beer. Whenever our relatives from New Jersey would be in town for the holidays, they’d bring Ballantine Ale with them. It was very different from the local beers we usually had. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Ballantine was one of the few ales being made at that time, and certainly the only one among the major brewers. It always seemed so exotic.

Eddie picked up an actual home bar at some point and set it up in the basement, too, then later added a pool table, as well. As a result, the basement became a great party space which worked out well since the annual party grew larger year after year. My friends would usually congregate downstairs since we could usually count on fewer parental eyes down there, at least the ones who might complain if we stole a beer or other libation.
The biggest problem with the party was that our tiny house had only one bathroom and there were hundreds of people drinking. So there was almost always a line to use it. Another odd feature of our bathroom was the door had no lock on it, a fact that caused embarrassment from time to time. One memorable year, probably in high school, my friend Phil was sitting on the throne when Eddie’s mother Helen, stewed to the gills as usual, walked right in and announced to Phil. “Don’t get up.” We’ve never been sure if she thought manners would dictate that he should stand because a lady had entered the room or if there was another reason she said that. That she was trying to save him from embarrassment when, duty bound, he might try to stand up made an odd kind of sense. Helen, somewhat ironically, did stand on airs and thought manners were of the utmost importance. She insisted on them from children in particular, believing it to be a sign of good breeding or something.

I think Phil was pretty freaked out, naturally, but we laughed and laughed about it for years. In fact, we’re still laughing. Whenever I see Phil or other friends from that time in my life, “don’t get up” often comes up. It was probably the funniest moment — for us, at least — at my family’s annual Christmas party. They were, for the most part, one of the best days of the year and the one I looked most forward to, more so even than Christmas Day. But like everything else in my life, over the years even the otherwise sacrosanct party became tainted by Eddie and his pathology.

The last one my family hosted, just a couple of years before my mother died, effectively put an end to the party. Eddie’s psychosis had grown steadily worse after I’d left home for the Army. I was home for the holidays and parked my car, a lime green VW Rabbit that Eddie hated because it was foreign. Eddie, like many of his generation, had a jingoistic streak in that “my country love it or leave it” mold where patriotism was unquestionably the idea that trumped all others, even above common sense or reason. He hated hippies or what he perceived to be the hippie counter-culture as reported by the media. He was of the generation just before that and believed Vietnam was a necessary conflict and whatever America did, it was right simply because we chose to do it. So my having bought a German car was deeply disturbing to someone so mired in superstitious patriotism. That may have been in fact the reason I bought it, looking back, but at the time it just seemed like a good, basic car that got much better gas mileage than the lumbering giants Detroit was — and still is — pumping out.

So when I had the temerity to park my car in the back alley, despite that being its usual resting spot, Eddie’s addled brain could not allow it. At some point in the evening he took a fire extinguisher and smashed both the front and back windows of my car. I didn’t discover it until later in the evening when I tried to leave. The fire extinguisher was resting in the backseat and there was glass everywhere inside the car and spread out all over the alley’s gravel and dirt. My mother actually called the police — one of the few times she ever did — but Eddie sped off in his car and nothing came of it. She never pressed charges and neither did I. We were still much too afraid of reprisals. Eddie did have my windows fixed a couple of days later, but my mother’s beloved annual Christmas Eve party never again took place. It was yet another casualty in the war her marriage had become. It was a war she would ultimately lose and in many ways Eddie won, as walked away from it unscathed. I was merely collateral damage.

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