The Christmas tree lots were presided over by eager ruddy-faced guys, the cold turning their breath white, the orange lights on their menthol cigarettes poking from their gloved hands. My dad made deals, slipping crisp twenties from his billfold to a palm.
We were lucky and privileged and safe. Something I took for granted, as we carried our tree home, and placed it in front of the bookcase. My mother kept a shoebox filled with aging ornaments, some of which I’ve retained for my own family tree: the tiny red sleigh with a noseless reindeer, the pink ornament with sandy sparkles, the skiier missing a ski, the soft puppy, the angel, the yellow suited Texan guy, and more.
The spirited music started days before. Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, show tunes. My mother complained that she had to “run around getting all the presents for family, friends and my father’s associates and secretaries,” while my father, who was ever generous, complained that he was the one buying all the presents. A long box, a joke present, wrapped and placed under the tree early, was a gift for my mother: a carton of Winstons. Oh, honey, you shouldn’t have, she’d say. This saved my father the hassle of having to go around the corner when my mother crumpled an empty soft pack in despair on Sunday morning.
In beautiful boxes with careful wrapping, there were sweaters and records, perfume and jewelry and hardcover books. Often a holiday puzzle consumed my mother. She’d make her way through instant coffees and cigarettes, selecting and organizing in corners the cloud pieces, or the perimeter of the Jackson Pollock splatter print, or the pinks of the candy-themed stripes.
Christmas Eve parties included guests from the worlds of film, advertising, theatre, art and publishing, who joined us for a buffet feast. There were people my dad new from college in Chapel Hill, a famed beat poet from Upper West Side high school days, a judge who put away a few mafia bosses, an actress who starred in several Warhol films, and some shiny-haired younger actresses Pat new from the Actor’s Studio, who were invited mostly for the pleasure of my dad and his married male friends, who were a decade older than my mother.
There was lots of drinking and exchanges about politics, but mostly a fun, intimate evening that often included a turn at the piano, where Marvin, a songwriter of note, played his hit song, “Sonny” and several other popular hits dating back to the 1940s. I learned the lyrics to “The Lady is A Tramp” as sung by Frank Sinatra. All the guests joined in for that one.
When everyone left, if my mother had had too much to drink, there was often a fight that broke out between my parents. And though we had opened the presents, finished off the booze, and eaten the ham, the salad, and the potato souffle, there was a storm brewing in the living room, from which I had nowhere hide. No siblings to confide in. I worried that my parents would not make it through the storm, that all the tenderness I’d seen earlier in the evening had vanished and the festive mood had been replaced by rancor.
I worried always that my mother was unhappy in ways that I couldn’t understand. Triggers. Hauntings. Causes unknown. It seemed like a soft but consistent rain began to fall on her and she hadn’t the strength to move out of the way. I saw that when she drank it was not just to be lively but to forget. She let a new Pat take over. Her lightly freckled face would shift throughout the evening from its glamorous, angular shape to a softer, somber version. And by the time we sat in our small wrapping paper pond, my mother’s hazel eyes were a wistful, seaside green. She seemed to be thinking not of Christmas, but of things that made her angry or tired or defeated.
More than once I woke on Christmas Day wondering what I would find. Would my mother still be asleep, on the living room sofa with bobbie pins in her thick dark hair, mascara smeared from weeping, and one elegant shoe dangling from her foot? Would it still be Christmas?
I get too hungry, for dinner at eight
I like the theater, but never come late
I never bother, with people I hate
That’s why the lady is a tramp — Rogers + Hart