Each Christmas season we create new memories as well as cherish old ones. Over the years, through heirlooms, gifts and our travels, I and my partner have amassed a vast collection of ornaments and decorations, each with a tale to tell.
There is the beautiful, round, Belgian lace ornament purchased in Brugge. Reminding us of our visit to Venice are the delicate, miniature, glass Christmas tree and the figurine of Santa riding a gondola which have a home for the holidays each year in our china cabinet. A wooden string puppet of Pinocchio, bought on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, hangs on the tree. Further up in the branches is the tiny blue delft train engine we picked up our first morning in Amsterdam. A ceramic church from the gift shop of Florence's Church of St Croce shares space on the top of the china cabinet with a turn of the 20th century plaster figure of St Nicholas unearthed by my mother in the home of my great grandmother. There are delicate, vintage glass ornaments I cannot recall a Christmas without. My boyhood stocking hangs on the hall closet door. A set of small china bells, again I do not recall a Christmas without them, peer out from a shelf. Contemporary pieces by Christopher Radko and Wedgwood speak of the generosity of our friends.
The ornaments dangle from garlands hung in every window of our home. Hundreds more adorn the tree. Each one, as I carefully unwrap it from the tissue in which I have wrapped it with equal care the year before, brings back to mind a person, a place, an era or a particular moment in time.
One Christmas, prior to meeting my partner, the weeks leading up to the holiday had been bitterly cold. Some days the highs did not even reach zero. It was late afternoon on Christmas Eve. As I was standing on the heating grate in the store I owned at the time, trying desperately to stay warm, the phone rang. It was my landlord informing me that, although the pipes in the 3 flat in which I lived were intact the pipe outside which brought the water into the building had burst leaving my residence "high and dry". Due to the holiday repairs could not be made until the day after Christmas, leaving me, essentially, homeless for 36 hours. A flurry of phone calls produced a plan. I was scheduled to clean a friends apartment while she was visiting her family in Michigan. Housecleaning was one of several things I did in those days to keep body and soul together. I would stay at her apartment Christmas Eve. Several other people and I had been invited to share Christmas dinner with a friend and her family. I would spend Christmas night at the home of one of the other guests, sharing the couch with her 50 pound dog Mookie. So far so good. I was picked up at the store. We stopped by my flat to give my cats water, ferried in a pitcher from the store's bathroom, and enough food to get them through my absence. Changing into the clothes I would be cleaning the apartment in, I grabbed p.j.s, clothes for Christmas day and essential toiletries and we drove off to the first of the couches I would be sending the next two nights on. The remainder of Christmas Eve played out without further incident.
Christmas morning arrived. I hung around my friend's freshly cleaned apartment waiting for the call telling me when we would drive over to the dinner. The call came and I began the short stroll to the friends home where we would meet up. The cold snap had ended and the temperatures had climbed high enough for me to open my coat as I made my way.
The neighborhood had a large Mexican population. Along the way were a number of small, family owned discount stores. To my amazement they were not only open for business but packed with customers. Someone later explained that the people were out spending the cash gifts they had received.
On the way to the dinner we stopped at a grocery store to pick up a canned ham, our contribution to the festivities. Upon our arrival we met and greeted the other people we would be spending the holiday with. Our host and her genial, easygoing husband, his parents, quiet verging on banal, the hostesses father and....her mother. This is the point at which things began to "go south". To call the mother grossly unpleasant would be insulting to those people who are grossly unpleasant. She remains to this day, one of the most hateful, miserable women I have ever met. She seemed determined to suck everyone into her personal holiday vortex which appeared to emanate from the deepest, darkest bowels of hell.
The first issue was with my choice of a hostess gift, a wonderful, vintage holiday themed apron the hostess was so enamored with she donned it instantly and continued to wear it the entire time she was preparing dinner. Her mother, apparently, did not share the daughter's aesthetic. "Why would anyone bring something that was used and old" she queried?
Shortly we moved to the kitchen, in part to help pull dinner together, but mostly to escape Satan's mistress as she continued to hold court in the living room. Our tranquility was not to last as shortly the mother entered the kitchen and began to voice displeasure with virtually everything. She felt the kitchen was too small and crowded so ordered, me, a guest, to wheel the children's high chair down the hall to one of the bedrooms. I met up with the hostesses husband in the hallway pushing the chair in front of me.
"What are you doing?"
"Your mother told me to put this in one of the bedrooms."
There was an instant look of terror in his eyes."Then you better do it", he stated.
The worst moment came when we opened the canned ham we had purchased only to find it was frozen. As this was not mentioned anywhere on the packaging of the ham or at the market where we had bought it, it was an honest mistake. Instead of saying something such as "Oh how funny. Thanks for the thought, we'll enjoy it in a day or so when it thaws." Or something equally gracious so as to quell a guest's embarrassment over the incident, the mother raised her voice and screeched "A FROZEN HAM!!! WHAT SORT OF IDIOT BRINGS A FROZEN HAM!!!" She repeated a variation of this remark several times.
It was at this point the hostess produced glasses and alcohol. We drank the alcohol as if it were water and we had been lost in the desert.
The last humiliation was the dinner itself. The table in the dining room had been beautifully set with the hostesses best china, crystal and silver. The mother had decided that since we were not "family" we were to be seated at a small table in the kitchen eating off of mismatched everyday plates with equally plebeian utensils. Perhaps she felt offering us paper plates and plastic forks and spoons so they would not have to be washed would appear disrespectful and tacky.
We continued to drink.
As soon as politely possible, we broke into a dead run out the front door. We were somewhat surprised that the mother did not suggest we use the back one.
We arrived at the home where I would be sharing a couch with a large, willful dog. Although he and I were buddies several times over the course of the night he pushed my feet to the floor when he felt they were in his way.
As we got out of the car, as if in atonement for all we had endured, a Christmas miracle occurred.
There is a rare, meteorological event known as "thundersnow". The snow, as rain in a summer thunderstorm, falls fast and heavy. Through this opaque white curtain disbursed flashes of lighting can be seen. These are followed by the sound of thunder, the boom muted by the heavy snowfall. It is a spectacular experience. As this day neared it's end we stood in the yard covered in snow marveling at nature's magic as it created a new Christmas memory.