A Christmas lesson for later

As a child, I pitied her: No gifts would fit under that puny tree.

Linda Bleck

1959. I would have been wearing a dress, which wasn’t ideal. Even if it wasn’t scratchy, it limited what you could do, if you were brought up proper. Dresses enforced primness. So I would have been perched on the edge of a wingback chair.

What Mommy and I were doing was “paying a visit.” It probably wasn’t longer than a half-hour, an eternity to a little girl on a sunny day, but I was raised to be polite, which included practice in not having everything go my way. I understood my obligation to be on display. I would sit up straight and say “yes, ma’am,” “please,” and “thank you,” even for hard candies. This didn’t take much effort, but it thrilled adults no end – especially the really old ones, like this one.

The lady would beam at me, her face pleating every which way, and extract basic information from me about my age and grade level, and then I would be released to explore the apartment. It was a one-room apartment and it smelled funny: a sour kitchen odor from some kind of food we never had at home, face powder, and dust. Dark furniture prevailed, bone-fragile, watched over by antimacassars and tatted linens. Porcelain dolls in satin frills stared out from behind glass. I knew these were expected to delight. 

While I pretended to admire the dolls, Mommy absorbed compliments about me and assured our hostess that I could be quite a handful at times. When their conversation finally drifted into other areas, I edged over to the tray of captive African violets yearning toward the window light and patted their furry leaves.

“I’m so happy you dropped in, Hazel. My niece and her family are coming by Christmas Eve. They keep asking me what I want, but this is all I want. I don’t need a thing!”

“I know just what you mean. There comes a time you just don’t want any more stuff,” Mommy said. 

This made no sense to me. It’s not that Christmas was about the gifts, so much; I could make do with one stuffed animal. But the rest! Hanging paper snowflakes in the window and plugging in the electric candle; frosting sugar cookies and shaking on the sprinkles; all of that filled me right up. Every year I’d lobby hard for more lights on the porch, but ours was not a house of excess. The tree would be bought early on, but it had to wait propped up against the outside of the house for a few days, learning how to be polite. Then, just before Christmas, we’d bring it in. Mommy would put on a record of carols, my sister and I would work on smoothing out the wrinkles from last year’s tinsel, and Daddy would try to get the strings of lights working without using bad language.

The old lady had a tree up, too. I measured out my tour of the room, lingering at the sights so that I wouldn’t run out of them before the visit we were paying was over, and I saved the tree for last. The base of it was at my eye level, on a sideboard near the window. It was two feet tall. It was made out of tinfoil or something, like a sculpture of scarcity. Mommy was remarking on how nice it was, calling it a “tabletop tree” as though that were a real thing, but it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen. I felt sorry for the old lady. She couldn’t move fast enough to disrupt an antimacassar. She could wear a dress all day long and not mess it up. If she’d wanted presents, there wasn’t any room for them under her little tree.

“I just love old people,” Mommy told me on the way home, but that was another thing that didn’t make sense. To be old was to have accepted a life of deprivation, to me. And the proof of it was, I was considered to be some kind of highlight just by showing up.

2014. The season has really merried up since we decided not to exchange presents anymore. We have way too much stuff already, and more would be an anchor on the heart. Dave’s making pounds and pounds of almond roca and will deliver it all around the neighborhood. I’ll crank up Handel’s “Messiah” soon and see if I can score an invitation to go caroling. I’m sure we’ll get a present for the little boy in our life. We’re really looking forward to seeing him. 

All he has to do is show up and be himself, and it will fill us right up. We might get a little tree. We might not.

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