By Jessica Anya Blau
It started when we moved from Michigan to California. I was seven and found friends for the first time (my only pal before this was the 72 year old neighbor who let me play with her sock monkey while we sat on the porch and drank tea). And with friends came an awareness that our house was not like other houses. There was much to be embarrassed about (bird droppings on the couch from my brother's free-flying cockatiel; etchings of naked, usually fat, women; my father on sabbatical in a thread-bare bathrobe that looked like used blue tissue), but the differences between our home and my friends' was never as painfully apparent than during the weeks between Thanksgiving and News Year's.
The Catholic kids had it the best. In Karen S. and Kathy F.'s houses, entire sets of dishes were traded out for plates with hollys or Santa faces. Fragrant evergreen boughs curled up the banisters. The Christmas trees were massive, starting in the living room and reaching all the way to the ceiling of the second floor along the open stairwell. At Karen's house there was a village with a train running around it set upon a soft cotton snow floor that surrounded the tree. At Kathy's there were sometimes two trees: one in the living room and one in what we called the rumpus room. Ornate, quilted stockings hung from the mantle, and on Christmas morning those girls got so many presents they had to walk the rooms and see them all just to remember.
Rena B.'s parents were divorced and her mother, unlike most moms in the neighborhood, worked full-time. Still, their giant fluffy tree was decorated in golden teardrops, golden balls and ridged gold donuts that perfectly matched the gold-fringed sofa set in the living room.
And then there was our house. The only home on the cul de sac without Christmas lights. As far as I knew, we were the only Jews in the neighborhood.
My mother had had an Orthodox conversion before my sister, brother and I were born, but declared herself unconverted when we moved to California. So it was there that we got our first tree. A compromise, clearly, as it was a potted thing about three feet high that sat in the family room beside the bird-poop couch. Mom made dough out of flour, water and salt, and we three kids sat at the dining room table and made ornaments from it. With cookie cutters we made gingerbread-cookie-shaped people, hearts and stars. Once they were baked, my mother got out the oil paints and we decorated what we had made. Having parents who frequented the nude beach, it wasn't surprising that my sister and I gave most of the gingerbread people breasts, or penises, and giant patches of 1970s pubic hair.
This tradition went on, year after year, the potted tree getting bigger and the homemade ornaments took many different forms (apple dolls, stuffed nylon doll faces, three-dimensional dough forms). Still, we hung the naked people in prominent spots on the tree, and front and center was always the dough penis my sister made that she claimed was a two-wheeled sports car.
My friends loved our tree, they'd laugh at the ornaments and I'd play along. But when I lay in bed at night and imagined my life one day when I was the mom, I saw myself with a tree like the Catholic families. There'd be a miniature town below it and a train with tracks so long they'd run from the living room tree to the family room. A small frosted tree would sit on the dining room table, a Charlie Brown tree would be in the kitchen, and I'd place a wreath on every door. And I'd be damned if there wasn't some fabulous hand-carved crèche sitting amongst the pine boughs on the mantle!
My husband was raised in a neighborhood that was so Jewish he didn't realize that other types of humans lived on Earth. To him, only people on TV had Christmas trees. And we aren't people on TV. I understood and let my tree fantasy remain a fantasy (the Pottery Barn Christmas catalogue is like porn for me). Then, last year, my younger daughter Ella was stricken with the same tree envy I've had since I was seven. And I just couldn't bear it any longer.
"I'm getting a tree," I told my husband.
My mother was thrilled; she packed up the naked gingerbread people, the penis sports car, the moldy apple dolls and shipped them to Baltimore where I now live. I went to Target and bought a fake tree. (I figured if I owned a permanent tree there wouldn't be an annual debate about whether to go out and buy one.) I opened the box of dusty ornaments, and gently laid them out on the dining room table. It was nice to look at them, like sorting through old black and white photos and feeling the coziness of childhood again. Then I got in the car, returned to Target and bought silver, white and glass ornaments that would have made Karen S., Kathy F. or Rena B.'s mother proud.
Both my daughters agreed: it was the most beautiful tree ever.
Jessica Anya Blau is the author of newly released Drinking Closer to Home, which has been called "a raging success" and "unrelentingly, sidesplittingly funny." Her first novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, was picked as a Best Summer Book by The Today Show, the New York Post, and New York Magazine. Jessica lives in Baltimore and teaches at Goucher College. Read her blog on Red Room.
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