Saturday, December 13, 2008
The Year of Our Charlie Brown Christmas
It was our worst Christmas tree ever.
Not that we Morgans were strangers to bad Christmas trees. Dad grew up during the Great Depression, and years of doing without had left him tighter than Brigitte Bardot’s sweaters. The only real surprise was that, with the holiday still more than two weeks away, he had already brought home a tree. Most years he refused to buy until the lots started slashing their prices. One year he delayed right up until Christmas Eve, announcing that we were resurrecting the old German tradition of decorating our Tannenbaum on the night before Christmas.
But even that tree was prettier than this one.
I pushed my glasses up on my nose and looked at it in disbelief. Beside me, my older sister, Cathy, snorted. The top branch barely reached the sash of the bay window. Dad had leveled the trunk before nailing on a pair of notched-out one-by-twos, but it still listed like a schooner taking on water, and each time Dad brushed against it, needles fell. Mom hovered nearby, broom and dustpan in hand. Across the room, our little brother, Ben, sat cross-legged in front of the TV, watching the Peanuts gang lampoon Charlie Brown for buying a Christmas tree that was Rockefeller Square material compared to this one.
“Hey, Ben, get the lights,” Dad said, rubbing his hands together. “Hang a few ornaments, throw on some tinsel and she’ll be beautiful.”
Ben, an easy mark because, at seven, he still believed in Santa Claus and didn’t want to wreck his chances just as he was coming into the home stretch, ran to fetch the lights.
“What do you think, Brain?” said Dad. “Is that a tree?”
He’d gotten the tree from Mr. Pinkus, an old army buddy who had a Christmas tree farm in Southern Ohio. Mr. Pinkus smoked smelly cigars, and talked in a booming voice that made our house seem too small, but he kept butterscotch disks in his pockets, which he produced with the air of a magician conjuring gold doubloons. When I was a little kid, I just loved that.
I resettled my glasses. “Pinus sylvestris,” I said. “Commonly known as the Scotch Pine.” Right after entomology, and prior to my current fascination with microbiology, I’d gone through a horticulture phase.
He sent Mom a look that said, ‘she gets that from your side of the family.’
Cathy, who had just celebrated her fourteenth birthday, directed the lip curl she’d perfected over the past six months at the misshapen little evergreen. “My friend Debby’s family has an aluminum tree.”
“You know how your father and I feel about artificial trees,” Mom said.
“It has a wheel that makes it change colors.”
Mom’s left eyelid twitched, and I could see that the battle they’d been engaged in for the past year was about to escalate. I grabbed Cathy’s arm and dragged her toward the hallway.
“We’ll get the ornaments,” I called over my shoulder.
Mom smiled warmly after us. “Why, thank you, Lori.”
"Let go of me, Brain,” said Cathy, trying to jerk her arm free. “That tree….”
“Sshh!” I opened the door to the cellar and she continued to grumble as we clattered down the steps. “What are you trying to do?” I said when we reached the bottom. “Destroy Christmas?”
“Me?” she said. “Did you see that pathetic excuse for a tree? Do you know what that means?”
Over the years, we had observed a correlation: our Christmas tree was a barometer of how bountiful Dad was feeling. The year he brought home a six foot spruce, our Christmas morning brought the mid-twentieth century equivalent of the gifts of the Magi. The year of Tannenbaum, we’d received matching sets of pajamas and robes, and stockings stuffed with tangerines and peppermint sticks. Although Mom had assaulted the after-Christmas sales with the intensity of a Mongol raiding party, bringing home china tea sets, hula hoops and rag dolls big enough to dance with, the searing disappointment of a Christmas morning without toys was something Cathy had never forgotten or forgiven.
This year she had been lobbying for a hi-fi, refolding the daily newspapers so that a parade of stereo ads stared up from the coffee table. So far, there’d been no sign that Dad or Mom had picked up on these hints.
For myself, I had my eye on the Tasco 300x Microscope Kit, complete with prep-ready slides. I had already started collecting hair, plant clippings and various foods and storing them under my mattress, planning to razor them down to see-through thinness, load them onto the slides and peer at them until 300x magnification unlocked the secrets of the universe.
Unfortunately, the Hobby Hound had only one microscope left, and it would be long gone by the time the after-holiday sales rolled around.
“The tree is a problem,” I said, “but yelling at Dad won’t help. He’ll just get mad, and say how ungrateful we are, and how we don’t do enough to help Mom and maybe they should just take all our presents back.”
“If there are any,” said Cathy.
I nodded glumly. Our last survey of Mom’s favorite hiding spots had yielded nothing, and she was not a good hider. “It’s Mom we need to work on. She does all the shopping, and she’s the one who can soften him up.”
“And just how do we do that?”
Why did I have to come up with all the ideas? Cathy was three-and-a-half years older, but as far back as I could remember it had been my job to figure things out. I pulled a box of ornaments off a metal shelf and handed it to her, then lifted down a second box. The cartons had been in the basement for the past year, but they showed no trace of dust because Mom wiped down every surface in the house at least once a month. I thought about her, standing by the tree, broom at the ready and smiled.
“Just follow my lead.”
The next day, while Mom was upstairs putting away laundry, Cathy stood sentry while I grasped El Pathetico’s spindly trunk and shook it. I was a little concerned that I’d dislodge one of Mom’s prized ornaments, but at the merest shiver, needles cascaded to the floor. I returned to my homework at the dining room table.
I hadn’t even finished my spelling assignment when I heard Mom say, “Well, for Heaven’s sake!” She trotted to the kitchen, retrieved the broom, and then hurried back to the living room. When she didn’t return right away, I got up to see what was going on.
Beneath the tree, on her hands and knees, Mom was prying needles out of the crevices between the floor boards. A few minutes later she marched through the dining room, carrying the dustpan like it held dog doo.
When Cathy and I got home from school the next afternoon, we found Mom pulling individual packages wrapped in newspaper from a large cardboard box with Grandma Morgan’s return address. Mom placed our annual gifts from Grandma beneath the tree, using them to camouflage the latest windfall.
“Are you just going to leave that mess on the floor?” said Cathy.
“Yes, I am,” Mom said, but, as she got to her feet, she grazed a branch, triggering another needle-fall. Her eyelid twitched, and a second later she was back on her knees.
The next afternoon I stopped by the Hobby Hound on the way home from school to find a lady in blue wool coat with a fake mink collar looking at my microscope kit. Pretending to check out some slides of Yellowstone Park at the View-Master display, I hung around to listen.
“We could put it in lay-by for you,” Mr. Orton was saying, tilting the box so that the chrome gleamed under the fluorescent lights.
She took it from him. “How much is it?”
I held my breath, my fingertips leaving sweaty whorls on the red plastic binoculars.
“That’s very expensive,” the lady said, inspecting it through the cellophane.
“It’s a very nice set.”
She handed it back to him. “Let me check with his father.”
I walked the rest of the way home, praying Mom’s cleanliness had overwhelmed her godliness, but when I got in sight of our house, I was crushed to see Quasimodo through the bay window.
It was time for desperate measures.
My next operation was one of such delicacy that I couldn’t let even Ben and Cathy know about it. Too dangerous to involve my siblings and too complex, at any rate, to leave in the hands of amateurs, it would require split-second timing and nerves of steel. If things went awry, whoever was implicated could very well wind up with no Christmas presents at all, not to mention being grounded till she left for college.
As the tree had grown drier, Mom had become more and more paranoid. It was still over a week till Christmas, and she wouldn’t let us turn on the lights anymore. Dad, who spent every January poring over the December electric bill and trying to assess just how much lighting the Christmas tree had cost him, was not heartbroken.
What I had planned was a controlled burn. After reading up on pyrotechnics at the library, I was certain I could char just enough of Mr. Pygmy to make Mom and Dad afraid to leave it in the house for one more minute. All I needed was sunlight, a magnifying glass and a carefully stripped branch.
Upstairs, Mom was lying down with a romance novel. Cathy and Ben were ice-skating with the church choir, but I had told Dad I needed to finish a report for school.
I took the precaution of soaking a heavy wool blanket stowing it on the porch, behind the glider, along with a bucket of water. To ensure the fire didn’t have much fuel, I chose a branch near the top, with nothing but air above it so that the fire wouldn’t ignite any other branches. I removed most of the needles and trimmed the remainder to a quarter-inch. After relocating all the nearby ornaments to other parts of the tree, I positioned my magnifying glass inside the window, focusing the pale December sunlight on the cluster of pine needles.
In a surprisingly short time, a wisp of smoke appeared, followed, a few moments later, by a tiny flame.
Then something I hadn’t expected occurred. No sooner had the flame appeared than it licked its way up the bare branch and burrowed into the heart of the tree. As I watched in horror, a demon with flames for hair possessed our Christmas tree. In an instant, the top half was ablaze.
“Lori Alexandra Morgan!”
Mom’s voice broke my paralysis. Racing out to the porch, I pulled the wool blanket from behind the glider and threw it over the tree. Half a dozen ornaments crashed to the floor. There was a sizzling sound and smoke rolled from beneath the blanket. Running back to the porch, I hauled in the bucket of water, slopping a little onto the floor as I came, and tossed it over the blanket. Clouds of vapor rose up, filling the room with an odor like dog shampooed in Pine-Sol.
Mom’s eyes traveled from the steaming blanket to the bucket to the soaked floor littered with shards of ornaments, finally falling on the magnifying glass I’d dropped when I ran outside.
In a quiet voice that was scarier than shouting, she said, “What were you doing?”
“I was…it was an experiment. For my report,” I said.
She shook her head. “The truth.”
I hung my head.
“You know,” she said, “you’ve always been an odd child, but I never thought of you as dangerous. Not even that time when you stuck that magnet in the lamp socket.” She took a deep breath and her voice rose. “But now…. Were you trying to set the house on fire?”
Shock made me blurt out the truth. “Not the house. Just the tree.”
“The tree.” I saw her mentally review the past week and make the connection. “You’ve been trying to get rid of this tree ever since Dad brought it home.” Her gaze sharpened. “Are your brother and sister involved?”
I shook my head. There was no point in dragging them down with me. “Not in this.”
“Why? What in the world made you hate a tree so much you were willing to risk killing us all to get rid of it?”
The enormity of what I’d nearly done finally sank in and my eyes welled with tears. “It was because of the presents,” I whispered.
She shook her head. “What are you talking about?”
“When Dad buys a crummy tree, we get crummy presents,” I said.
She closed her eyes, took another deep breath, and then opened them again. She looked at the wool-draped tree, which had stopped smoking. As we watched, the wool blanket slid to the floor, revealing the blackened tree. If it had been bad before, it was nothing to how hideous it looked now. Mom’s ornaments, which she’d been collecting since the first Christmas she and Dad were married, were black with soot. Many lay smashed on the floor. Grandma Morgan’s presents were sodden balls of newsprint.
Without being asked, I got some rags and began to sop up the water, tears joining the water in the puddle. When the floor was once again dry I went to my room and lay down on the bed, trying not to think about what would happen when Dad got home.
Finally, around seven o’clock, there was a knock on my door.
“Come in,” I said, my voice rusty with tears and mucous.
The door opened and for a moment Mom’s outline was silhouetted in the doorway. Then she flipped the switch and I squinted against the light. She was carrying a tray with a bowl of chicken noodle soup, a glass of milk and some crackers. She placed it on my desk. I saw her nose twitch and she looked around the room.
“What is that smell?”
Too broken to even make up a lie, I peeled back the corner of the mattress, revealing my samples. Mom wrinkled her nose and blinked a couple of times.
“In case I got my microscope.”
She collected them and tossed them in the trashcan.
“Eat your dinner,” she said. Her voice was gentler than I expected, and my spirits lifted a little. I ate some soup and part of a cracker before pushing the tray away. I thought she’d leave then, but she sat down on the bed.
“Is Dad home yet?” I said.
“What are you going to tell him?”
“I haven’t decided.”
I took heart from that. I might yet get out of this without a spanking.
“Do you realize,” she said, “how close you came to burning our house down?”
“But I didn’t,” I said eagerly. “I was careful. I did my research, and….”
Then Mom slapped me, so hard my head whipped to the side with the force of it. I stared at her, open-mouthed, my cheek burning. She’d never done that before.
“Lori,” she said, “you are more intelligent than 95% of the people in the world. You’ve been given a gift most people don’t have. But there’s a responsibility that goes along with that gift.”
She waited for me to answer, but, outraged and furious – Mom, not Dad, but Mom, had slapped me -- I refused to meet her eyes. She sighed.
“From now until you return to school after New Year’s, I want you to spend your time thinking about what you did. You may not leave the house except for church. You may not watch television, you may not listen to the radio, and you may not read.”
Not read? My long-anticipated Christmas break was instantly transformed into a prison sentence.
When I came downstairs the next day, the tree had disappeared. All that was left were two boxes of ornaments, now half empty, and the scorched remnants of Grandma Morgan’s gifts. Ben and Cathy kept their distance, staring at me like I might torch the furniture at any moment. I wished I had finked on them.
Dad glared at me, his lips pressed so tight they all but disappeared, but all he said was, “Consider yourself lucky I wasn’t home when you pulled this stunt.”
Mom’s eyes, when they rested on me, were troubled.
And nobody called me “Brain” anymore. I was pretty sure that was Mom’s doing.
Through it all, I wrapped myself in the knowledge of the injustice that had been done to me, and treated everyone with frosty courtesy. I said “please,” “thank you,” and “may I” at every opportunity. If my mother wanted a polite drone who never thought for herself, then that’s who I’d be.
It was our tradition, on returning from candlelight service on Christmas Eve, to gather around the Christmas tree and open our gifts from Grandma Morgan, saving our presents from Santa (i.e. Mom and Dad) for Christmas morning. This year there was no tree, so Dad tuned the TV to Perry Como’s Christmas special and Ben passed out the packages, bits of charred newspaper falling to the floor as he handed them around.
As the youngest, Ben opened his first – a metal fire truck. He immediately dropped to his knees and began to run it across the carpet, pressing buttons to make the horn and siren sound.
Cathy and I went next – matching scarves and gloves, Cathy’s in day-glow orange, mine in a bilious shade of green.
“Don’t those look warm?” Dad said.
Mom peeled L’il Abner and Dick Tracy from her gift, a mustard-colored sweater. She held it against her chest and her face took on a yellow hue, as it always did when exposed to anything yellow.
Dad didn’t seem to notice. He opened his present, a leather wallet. “My mother certainly knows how to shop. Remember the year Ben was born and she did all your Christmas shopping for you?”
Cathy was staring sullenly at her new scarf and gloves, which she knew Dad would insist she wear to school. For once, I had to agree. I wasn’t exactly a fashion maven, but puke green was not my color. It reminded me of the year we got robes and pj’s. Suddenly I made the connection. My eyes flew to Mom’s. She looked steadily back at me, neither confirming nor denying.
Dad had just put his arm around her, looking around with satisfaction, when a thunderous knocking sounded on the front door. Outside stood Mr. Pinkus. Instead of letting him in, though, Dad stepped onto the porch. In the halo of the porch lamp, I saw Mr. Pinkus hold out some bills, but Dad pushed the money back toward him.
“Go on, take it,” Mr. Pinkus said in that voice that could be heard for half a block. “I got my check from the government – they declared Lorraine County a disaster area because of the pine blight.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Dad said, so softly we could barely hear him.
“I can replant, and, thanks to you, Lily and the kids will have a good Christmas.”
The last piece of the puzzle fell into place. Dad hadn’t bought the tree because he was cheap. He’d bought it to help out a friend. And he hadn’t bought us the robes and pj’s; Grandma had.
My entire plan had been based on flawed logic.
Dad and Mr. Pinkus came into the house and Mr. Pinkus produced a silver and white striped shopping bag from behind his back. He pulled out a Man from U.N.C.L.E. pistol for Ben and the Beach Boys Christmas album for Cathy. She stared at it for a moment, then squealed and threw her arms around Dad and kissed him.
Mr. Pinkus pulled the last item from his bag. It was a set of pre-prepped microscope slides. My face lit up with a blazing grin, then just as quickly dimmed. I turned to Mom, waiting for judgment. Her eyes searched my face and then she smiled.
“Tell the man thank-you, Brain,” she said.