Archive for December, 2014

Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae: Christmas 1991

December 24, 2014

Christmas Trees. 1989.

The bedroom was positioned over the backyard, supported by long planks of peeling wood with widows on all four walls. It was freezing in the winter and because it hung close in the tree branches, remained relatively cool in the summer. The room itself defied all building codes as it was obviously a balcony during its glory days and then one afternoon a greedy but innovative landlord secured walls and, adding windows, carpet and several coats of paint then-presto an instant extra bedroom. The landlord didn’t even bother to run electrical in the new bedroom, as we opened up the original window and fed an orange extension cord through the window and kept a small end table on the other side of the window that housed an aqua-green rotary phone that was rescued from my grandfather’s office. We picked through his belongings, as if we were excavating an anthropological site, carting off the phone, pictures, and for me a wide array of men’s nightgowns (just like Scrooge) shortly after he was shuttled to his final bedroom, the Whetstone Garden and Care Center which sounded more like a nursery than a center that sucked the shit and urine out of bedridden patients wobbling on their last breaths. Over the door hung a large poster of Morrissey, left over from previous tenants, it was a black and white photo of the singer’s face, he was looking forlornly over his shoulders and the photo itself could have been torn from the pages of Life magazine circa 1957 not from the bleached big hair, and torn jeans of the late 80’s. One night, in a burst of anger over infidelities, I smashed my drunken arms through the poster, withdrawing my left arm from the tattered poster and hunk of glass submerged deep into the back of my forearm, a cascade of blood pooling across the floor. Looking up, “well, that was stupid, Jenny get the car I gotta go to the hospital.” All scars have stories.

The July moon poked through the dark leaves, a soft wind blew through the open windows and a jazz record was playing, most likely Billie Holiday or Preservation Hall Jazz Band, as these were the favorites Jenny would play during the summer. The green phone rattled, “hello, oh hi grandma,” Jenny spoke into the receiver. “Now?” a pause and then, “But it’s July….no that sounds cool, we’ll be right over.” Tipping a can of Schaffer’s to my mouth, wiping my lip with my left hand, “what does grandma need?” Jenny was pulling on a yellow summer house dress that she seemed to wear daily, “oh, she wants us to come over and put up her Christmas tree.” At that time in our lives, nothing seemed out of sorts or to wild, “ok.”

Upon arrival my grandmother, with two canes and translucent blue eyes opened the door, “come in children, please. I am so happy to see you Geen-if-fer, Bela now go fix some drrrrinkss” her smiled widened, showing her perfect white teeth, her Hungarian accent was thick and she always had a knack of insulting me with every interaction. As I made my way to the kitchen feeling the comfort of her air conditioning as the summer heat in Ohio is as solid and sticky as tar-paper, I opened the refrigerator door. “Bela, you must wash your hands first, I know what you men do with your hands and its dis-gusting!” I hadn’t been in her house for three minutes and she was already making allusions to my propensity of masturbating.

Grandmother ordered a pizza from Pizzeria Uno, a large with everything and we had a few drinks and I went to pick it up, upon arriving back to her house both my grandmother and Jenny had made their way to the living room. There were several boxes of Christmas ornaments and upon entering the house and putting the pizza down I was instructed to go down to the basement and fetch the artificial Christmas tree. “Bela, it is under the stairs in de bazement, be careful, you are such a clumsy man and Pablo bought me that treeee, so be verrry careful. Don’t touch anything else vile you are down der.” A streak of paranoia has run through my family, the old woman was petrified that people were going through her belongings, taking note pads, pencils or even worse jewelry. She was a hoarder, with stacks of papers, egg cartons, small cut out pictures of animals, flowers and cartoon characters slipped between bills and letters, she coveted things as if she was in perpetual starvation for things. Anything. Her basement was stacked high with boxes, plastic laundry baskets bursting at the edges with more paper, photos and empty canisters of peanut jars, puffed cheese balls and fabric, unopened packages of sheets, tee-shirts and other clothing. To find anything was a chore and after three minutes the old woman would holler, “Bela, vat are you doing down der?!! Hurry up!” She was always thinking that I may be hiding things away for myself, while she never accused me of taking anything the thought that something may disappear was always present. It was not uncommon for her to call me after a maintenance man came to her house and have her think he took something from her, whether it be a bag of potato chips or a small elephant figurine. This paranoia was passed onto my father, whose bout with mental illness has left a chasm as wide as the expanding universe between himself and his children.

In the basement, there was luck to be found as the artificial tree was sitting right underneath the stairs, there was nothing else placed on top of it. My grandmother had a very difficult time going down the stairs at this point in her life, and while her memory was sharp, she could recall the precise location of her father’s cookbooks in the basement she would get anxious when she couldn’t see where a person was. Pablo had bought the tree in the year before, a thrifty man he would peruse catalogs and discount stores for the best deals and then purchase things in bulk. He had bought four of these trees the previous spring, two for him, one for my grandmother and another for a friend in Miami. We set the tree up, pushing her warped dining room table, that she bought at a fraction of the cost at Lazarus because well, you know, it was warped.

With boxes upon boxes of Christmas ornaments, many of them carried within the confines of a bruised and dented leather crate that help everything my grandparents owned. Traveling by foot, truck and train from Budapest, to Lake Balaton, into the mountains of Austria, then lugged onto a freighter chugging across the Atlantic to Caracas. Later, they would be packed again in boxes, carefully wrapped and folded into pink and white tissue paper, to be transported by bus, train and finally the trunk of my father’s car from Caracas to Columbus. These were the precious ones, the ones my grandmother would hold in her hand as if they were made of baby skin, softly eyeing them, her wide blue eyes sparkling as the candles and lights of the room shifted and shimmied off the golds, reds and silver of the ancient ornaments. She would hold them up to the light and smile to herself, they were treasures for her and as I eyed her removing them from these dimpled boxes, I understood why she wanted her Christmas tree hung up in July. The putting up of the tree took several weeks, all of the decorating done on a Thursday night after I got off of work, she would buy the pizza, I would wash my hands, make the rum and cokes and we would commence to decorating. Grandmother would sit in her plush E-Z-Boy recliner and bark out orders to me on where to place specific ornaments, she had what appeared to be thousands. Almost all of them laced and tied with green or brown thread that she had tied, so they all hung at the same length. Some branches would be holding up to ten ornaments, all stacked in a row: a drummer boy, a plastic cat, a snowman, a wooden cross, a plastic candy-cane, a fabric Santa, a miniature race car, a tiny hippopotamus and a toy soldier. These Christmas trinkets were ready for battle. In her perch, the old woman was in total control, and Jenny sat next to her talking about plants, food and gossiping all the while pointing her finger at a branch of the tree and having me hang one of these billions of tiny plastic ornaments, which, let’s face for the most part WERE NOT ornaments but tied junk that she called an ornament in certain places and when I failed to do so her dis-satisfaction would hurdle down upon me. “Beeeelaa, how can you be soo stooopid?! Look, my finger, put that little green Santa on dat branch, NOOO!!!! Not dat one, DAT one!!” Her chubby finger wagging in the air and turning to Jenny, “Genn-i-fer, how could you love such a stoopid man? Ok, yes that is ver you put it, very good Bela. You know in Hungary, we celebrated Christmas in the right way, it was none of the dumb tings you have here.”

Flashing back, I remembered sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, we were playing Monopoly. Well, my sister, my brother and my grandmother were, little Bela was too young, placing all the hotels in a row on the table, driving the silver car to each of them, “brrurrriggrrrrrr, brrrecggghh, hey we are here for Christmas” my little voice would go to each hotel. “Stop it Bela! God, you are annoying!”my sister would stammer, “Mom, Bela doesn’t know how to play and he thinks he does!” On the television, a Sonny and Cher Christmas was flickering in black and white, the red bird feeder outside the kitchen window glowed with an several inches of snow piled high and the backyard was windswept with snow, tiny lines carved by the wind mimicked the waves of the sea. Above her red shed almost collapsing from the mountain of snow, a lone lamp bathed the backyard in yellow light that could have been a beacon from heaven showering this Christmas Eve night for the birth of the baby Jesus. “I do too know how to play” I would whisper, puttering the car all over the table. There was eggnog, pastries, the smell of chicken paprikash, duck and onions filling the air and a curtain separated the kitchen from the living room, where the adults along with the help of the boy Jesus and a host of angels would be decorating the tree.

On the other side of the curtain, the booming sounds of Spanish, Hungarian and English split through the curtain like miniature bombs, popping into our ears and we heard the laughter that followed. Latin music was blaring and my uncles would periodically shuffle in, yelling over their shoulder, eyes laughing, cheeks red and bobbing their head to the sounds of Angel Cusodio Loyola and Oscar D’Leon whose clopping and shifting beats and melodies would make even the most stubborn hips sway to the pitter-patter of the percussion. “When is Jesus coming?” I would ask, “oh, soon, the angels are already here but children can’t look or they will leave and Jesus won’t come” Uncle Pablo would answer slyly as if the decorating of the Christmas tree was an x-rated adult burden. There were in fact many woman who helped set the tree up as both uncles were charming men who loved to have the company of pretty women by their sides. The idea that Jesus Christ would be in the next room terrified me, I wanted to see the angels but Jesus was scary, more so than Santa Claus and soon, as the anticipation of the next morning grew too great, I collapsed in my mother’s arms. She carried me through the curtain and into the guest room, where our stuffed animals were piled high on the floor and around the bed, protection from the ghosts that danced through the hallways of my grandparents house. I stole a peek over her shoulder, and saw my Aunt Bellin twirling her short white pleated skirt and caught a glimpse of her pink panties, I thought I saw an angel but dropped my head on my mother’s shoulder. The next morning, the tree appeared to be miles away as presents stacked high and far from the tree, they almost reached all four corners of the room. They did indeed come and it seemed like we opened presents for hours, and all the toys we opened had to stay at my grandmothers, we were not allowed to take any home. Which was a relief to our mother, who was certain we had no room for all the toys we were given.

My grandmother’s Christmas tree stood in her living room for nearly five years, until she finally decided to take it down as she worried she would fall into it as she got older, and after seven years she was carried out of her house by five paramedics and spent the last few years of her life in various homes. She always had a several ornaments up in her room.

 

a longer version of this story will be broadcast on Jon Solomon’s 24-hour Christmas show on WPRB: http://wprb.com/

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTjPEreVrmsIMG_5689 IMG_5688

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