Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Mother's Christmas Tree

The heat kicked on, and the hot air sent by nearby vents began to flutter the long needles on my mother’s Christmas tree. Oh, it was my father’s too, technically, but it was my mother who carefully placed homemade childhood ornaments, heavy beaded garlands, crystal icicles, and other accoutrements on each branch until it dripped elegantly. It was a work of art, that tree, every year a labor of love and pride. My father invited everyone in to see it, and the year I had my brain tumor and couldn’t travel to my childhood home for the first time in almost 20 years, it was the second thing he said to me during our Christmas morning phone call: “I’ll mail some pictures of your mother’s tree—another tall one,” pride mixing with worry in his gruff voice. I envisioned his dark fuzzy caterpillar eyebrows bunching together, like when I swung and (often) missed a softball in middle school.

My parents live in a small town—I’d say it was quaint, like a small town should be, but it’s more accurately labeled depressing—and calling upon one’s friends and acquaintances during the holiday season is still a treasured ritual. You show up with homemade baked goods (your specialty, if you have one). You sit for a pregnant moment if they’re elderly, or stand around the dinner table, scarf still tucked in to your coat, if they’re not, so you can get on to the next errand during this busy time. It’s the town where I grew up and where they still live, so despite its small size, there are many stops to make. 

During those stops, you see a lot of Christmas trees. According to my father, they shouldn’t even see the light of day, so violently do they pale in comparison to the museum-quality creation my mother makes each December. “It should be in one of those chateau castle things you like,” he tells me each year. He admires my mother’s skill in this and so many things. Were my husband to gloat about my talents (not with holiday decorations, sadly) as my father does about those of my mother, I’d be in a constant state of blush.

Fine snow swirled off the ancient sedan in front of me, tiny glittery diamonds flowing down its trunk and onto the road in front of me, forming a smooth, thin river. If I believed in magic, I’d say it was guided by a wizard’s wand, so deliberately and perfectly did it move, a fantasy sequence from a movie. My car seemed to lap it up, a thirsty cat at a bowl of milk—it disappeared under the Chevy’s nose as I drove down the two-lane highway (though most East Coasters would hardly call it that).

As I headed away from my parents’ town of New Farnham, population 228, toward the airport half a gas tank away, I glimpsed through windows many Christmas trees, no doubt deemed inferior by my father, who had visited most living rooms in town. Having visited this year’s Christmas tree after missing last year’s, the healing incision on my head keeping me from New Farnham for only the second time in life, I felt as though I had set things right, though that feeling might end when my latest test results are back tomorrow. All hail brain tumors for providing that one-day-at-a-time mindset the unafflicted so often lack.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Thoughts on a marriage inspired by rain and sun in Como

Is the rain-to-sun transition so different here? Or is it that I’m rarely outside, or possibly failing to notice light when the rain ends, quickly or slowly, and the sun comes out, quickly or slowly, bringing brightness to the very places which glow the most? Stone buildings, marble statues, fountains who’ve already had their fill of water: These things light up like magic, as though a misguided Hollywood special effects guru has decided something as awe-inspiring as Bordeaux’s unforgettable horse fountain somehow needs a boost.

But right now I’m not in Bordeaux, though it’s my next stop. I’m in Como, of beautiful lake fame, and I’m watching the crowd while eating a surprisingly good pizza with a nice red wine. My lunch perch overlooks the town’s cathedral, constructed from stones of pink, grey, beige, and colors unseen in other buildings. I look across the piazza toward the art fair in a sunken area with arches but am distracted by my phone vibrating, a trendy technical intrusion jarringly out of place in this eternal site which feels so solid and real.

It’s my husband, from his office in New York, no doubt, politely inquiring as to my whereabouts. He is too frightened to ask for a divorce but wants one, as do I, but I am punishing him for his infidelity and will make him complete the bad-guy circle. As I wait, I have decided to tour Western Europe, easing my pain with copious amounts of wine, fondue, chocolate, pizza, and sex with handsome Mediterranean men. Here in Como, my last stop on a two-week self-guided lake tour, it’s myself I’m punishing, taking long walks in sun and rain, thinking of the many times I pushed him toward other women. Emotionally unavailable most of the time, from the very beginning I did things like withhold physical and verbal affection, sex, and kindness in general. I skipped every one of his family’s gatherings, though truth be told I did him a favor as I would’ve been cold to them at best. It’s surprising he married me, and I’m still unsure why I married him.

I warned him about the famous moodiness and aloofness of writers, of how those of us drawn to writing (at least, myself and everyone I knew) are not warm and friendly but crave solitude and basically dislike people. I told him I would not be a mother—ever. (I think he thought I would change my mind…a silly and dangerous idea, and yet the most common, held by many about to marry.) In short, I was a bad bet for an outgoing, warm man like Jack, but I win no prizes for being right about that. No amount of chocolate or one-night stands fills that empty silver trophy cup.