12/26/2012 05:38 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2013

Mary Christmas

Unimpeded by Yuletide spirit, Mary complained each year
of the hundred Christmas cards from people expecting
replies. Too old at 90, she was, at last, at last,
too old to shop, too old to burrow, blue head tucked
down through the mob crammed on the bus up Second or
down Third, too old for wrenching
sale items from the hands of fellow
Alexander's denizens, but not too old
yet, to hobble over to First National
for fresh-smelling Christmas Club tender,
crisp currency to slide into cards with holes
through which presidents peek. And Mary was
just the right age for taking care of Father Peyton
who (according to Mary who lacked any understanding
of what photocopying and computers could make
possible) "writes to me personally,"
nor too old for staking Saint John's, Saint Jean's,
the Maryknolls; the Blue Army Rosarians,
Holy Name Society, Knights of Columbus and sundry
solicitors too numerous to name who, come
Advent, step up shake-down efforts targeting
the elderly in honor of Baby Jesus. O, what radiance
I beheld in Mary, those nights of her last
decade when I carried the tree up the four flights!
I'd choose some weeknight just after the Feast of
the Immaculate Conception, and present myself
huffing at her door bearing a miniature
evergreen. I'd find Mary with "Live at Five,"
nursing a vodka. She would fill two rocks
glasses with screw-top Chablis and push
one into my hand scowling as I set
the squat botanical wretch down atop
the television set. "Now why d'ye go
wastin' yer money on that?" she'd scold, then
take her spot in the rocker, and swig a gulp
a swig of Boucheron and shake her head,
thinking 'Who but a spendthrift sucker drops
20 bucks on an agricultural gift? A gift soon to be
dead, a gift stupid as flowers.' "Take that bloody thing
home with you. I don't need it."
You could always tell how much Mary liked a gift
by how obstinate she was in giving it back.
Each year, it was always the same.
Mary would rock and quaff and chastise,
and I would hook tinted balls upon gummy
limbs and striped canes of sugary mint
upon prickly boughs and tiny angels
among half-desiccated needles and string
garlands and pearly green beads and velvet
bows upon the lame-ass boughs of the bush
which, once adorned, became a tree sufficiently
towering to over power her Ebenezer self!
Then Mary would change
her tune! "Oh!" Herself would cry
out, "Will ye look at it? It's ba-yoo-ti-ful!"
Tilting her glass, bending into a toast to the oncoming
season, season, Mary would call out "Slainte!"
And "Merry Christmas!" drawing her
syllables out more and more as she repeated
the yuletide felicitations, the wine over-loosening
her mouth, stretching out her words, while lending
a glassy brilliance to her dark
elfin eyes. But Herself could not allow the evening
to end without getting a bit more
scolding in: "I can't carry that bloody thing
to the garbage. You'll have to come back
by the first of the year, or at least, by the Epiphany."

"Mary Christmas" appears in 'Black Irish,' a collection of poems.