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Black Lamb

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O Tannenbaum!

December 1st, 2004

BY TOBY TOMPKINS

unhappycouple.jpgChristmas trees have been part of my life since I was a baby. One of my earliest memories is the lovely scent of pine sap from the fresh-cut tree brought into the little basement apartment where my parents lived after I was born. World War II was still on. It remains in my mind nothing but a vaguely ominous blur, but also an ongoing Christmas, thanks to the lingering resinous tang of the trees.

My family was nominally Episcopalian, but not particularly observant, except when my mother fell into one of her black moods and began dragging the rest of us to the most formal, ceremonious Episcopal Church she could find. During my childhood my father’s job dictated that we had to move on the average of once every two years, which partly explained my mother’s bouts of religiosity. In every place we fetched up, she’d find a grand neo-Gothic “Smoking Episcopalian” church, so called because the services involved priests and altar boys in lace dresses swinging fuming pots of incense on long chains. Even when I was very young I was never bored. The pageantry of the High Anglican Mass dazzled me, the music and choral singing was haunting, and the smell of the incense reminded me of Christmas trees, even on a Sunday in August.

As I grew up I went on loving the trappings of Christmas in particular and of Christianity in general. I’d given up believing in the Baby Jesus at about the same time I’d stopped expecting reindeer hooves on the roof, although I have a vivid memory from a Christmas Eve when I was nine years old, when I sang, quietly, every Christmas carol I knew, in my bed on the second floor of the cramped little house we lived in then, not to summon Santa or Baby Jesus but to drown out the raging of my mother and father downstairs.

They were trimming the Christmas tree, or trying to, and they were both drunk. They were old-school Waspians, and booze was just part of Gracious Living. It was the time when the Little Woman was supposed to welcome her hard-working husband home to the house each evening with a freshly-made Martini, after she’d spent most of her empty afternoon cooking dinner and knocking back the gin herself. Neither of them had a clue at the time that they were alcoholics, and of course neither did I. I just wanted them to stop screaming at each other and finish trimming the goddamn tree so I could get back to sleep and wake up in the morning to parents who weren’t divorced yet. And yes, at nine I already said “goddamn.” Also “shit” and “fuck” and “bitch” and “bastard”: overheard lyrics to a hard tune I’d memorized, not exactly a Christmas carol.

That night I sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “We Three Kings,” “Silent Night,” and of course the English translation of “O, Tannenbaum.” I knew all the verses, and I sang the carols over and over again to make the angry voices go away, until my throat was raw and I gave up and finally went to sleep. And in the morning the tree was trimmed, and there were presents, and there were Mum and Dad, hungover and grumpy, but still together. And the tree looked magical: a brushy cone almost touching the ceiling with its golden star, so hung about with glass and metal balls, elaborate ornaments handed down from both my mother’s and my father’s families, ropes of tinsel and glass icicles, my mother’s own creations (sequins and varicolored bands of ribbon fixed to styrofoam balls), that I could barely see the limbs and trunk of the tree itself. It was a vast, glittering presence in our cramped living room, almost a living being. Despite its dense ornamentation, it still smelled ravishingly of the wild woods.

My parents did divorce a year or so later, and a little later, Mum married her college sweetheart, the man she’d been seeing before Dad swept into her life. The trees she and her new husband set up in the various places they lived sported the old ornaments.

Unfortunately, for a number of years they also had to deal with the ancient series-wired strings of Christmas lights, and although my stepfather was a kinder, more responsible and generally less bumptious man than my father, he was also an echt Waspian and partook of a good deal of holiday cheer on Christmas Eve, although not as much as Mum did. And the two of them generally picked fights over the tree-trimming, so things hadn’t changed much. My stepfather was seldom as drunk as Mum on those fraught Eves, and he’d usually react to my mother’s rising volume by retreating into the cellar. He was good with his hands, and he’d leave Mum to her Christmas demons while he made something or repaired something or just sharpened and polished his tools.

As a result, during those years — in Massachusetts, California, and Québec — the trees were a bit of a mess on Christmas morning, Mum having slung a few wads of tinsel at them before retreating to the bedroom to finish her last drink and pass out. Of course there were presents, and often my stepfather would get up early and try to make the tree look more respectable. I appreciated his effort, to be sure, although he was never a man I got along with very well.

But there was a Christmas season, during one of the years in Canada, when even the Christmas tree’s aromatic blessing couldn’t smooth over an eruption of terrible rage. I was eighteen, on Christmas vacation from my first year in college, and the girl I loved in the little Canadian town told me one evening that she didn’t want to see me any more. She was a year older than me, already in her first year at McGill, and she had another boyfriend. She was kind about it, and she even raided her parents’ liquor cabinet and got us both a little drunk before she announced the break-up.

I managed to say goodnight to her reasonably graciously, but on the walk home on that pure, cold, clear night, with a gibbous moon casting blue shadows across the snow, I burst into tears, sobbing like a child, falling down several times, getting up, and finally howling, with the tears and snot freezing on my face. My mother and stepfather and brother and oldest half-brother were tucked up all snug in their beds, and my stepfather, always sensible, had shut the furnace down to dead low. I ramped in, still blubbering, half-frozen, and the chill in the downstairs rooms infuriated me. The Christmas tree was set up in the living room, but its lights were off. I turned them back on, and of course another of the old series-wired bulbs had blown, killing the rest of the lights on its string, so there was a black winding gash in the spirals of light around the tree. This imperfection further enraged me. Without bothering to take off my snow boots or heavy parka, I snagged a bottle of bourbon from the liquor cabinet and built a huge fire in the fireplace. I was at least three massive slugs into the bottle, trying to replace the dead bulb in the string by the light of the fire I had lit, which was roaring up the chimney and spitting sparks on the carpet, when my mother and stepfather confronted me.

When my mother began to yell at me I went mad. I screamed curses at her and ran into the kitchen. When she followed I pulled a carving knife out of a drawer and waved it at her. I’m not sure if I was really serious about cutting her, but I was a good-sized boy, and she retreated around the kitchen table. I was already beginning to feel seriously stupid, but she was still raging at me, so we got into a ghastly, absurd little roundy-round dance which went on until my stepfather, a strong man several inches taller than I was, managed to grapple with me and get the knife away.

Whereupon I turned on him, grabbed him under the armpits, and actually lifted him up and threw him against the kitchen wall, a feat I certainly could not have accomplished under normal circumstances. He was stunned, though not much hurt, but meanwhile my mother had gotten to the phone and was howling into it. I ran blindly into the living room, thinking to escape through the front door into the snow. But the booze and adrenalin caught up with me, and I puked and fell down. My stepfather jumped on top of me, trying to subdue me or at least silence the curses I was screaming.

The town where we lived was too small to have a regular police department, so it was a genuine member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who answered Mum’s call. I can remember feeling a little disappointed that he was wearing a blue parka and a fur cap, instead of the scarlet tunic and wide-brimmed hat the Mounties wore in the movies. It was the early Sixties, and the small Canadian town, a little Scots-English enclave of eminently respectable middle-management executives surrounded by French-Canadian communities, regarded murderous brawls like the one I had started with my mother and stepfather as merely embarrassing, the sort of stuff one expected from the “Frogs” but not from a decent white-collar family of Americans who had “landed immigrant” status and were friends with all the old Anglophone pillars of the community. The Mountie went away without filing charges, and after a very grim two or three days, I went back to college.

My freak-out had preceded me, and I was ordered to see a therapist from the university’s Department of Mental Hygiene twice a week until I was certified sane enough to go on being a college student. I was pretty faithful about my appointments until I finally got bored. After a couple of months I stopped showing up. The shrink never complained to the university authorities, or to my mother and stepfather, and I was left alone to work out the rest of my years at the school as a more-or-less normal undergraduate. I was already deeply involved with acting, spending so much of my time performing in plays in the university’s undergraduate drama group that my studies suffered. I was eventually given permission by the dean to major in drama, something the university didn’t offer to undergraduates officially in those days. I expect he mostly wanted to get shut of me without actually flunking me out.

I did become a professional actor, and I married an actress I had met in summer stock. Her mother was an Italian-American, widowed early, and she always had a splendid, gorgeously ornate Christmas tree laden with ornaments which had been borne across the Atlantic decades before from the town in Calabria where her own mother had been born. Never any fights over the trimming of the tree: my young wife and I drank a little red wine while her mother, her younger sisters and her brother put the ornaments on. Everyone went to bed early and got up early Christmas morning to open presents and help my wife’s mother start the ragù, a rump-roast of beef in a deep pot with peeled and crushed tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil and a chopped carrot, with a wineglass or two of good vino rosso. In southern Italian tradition the ragù simmers on very low heat for as long as it takes to attend morning Mass, and my wife’s mother followed that rule, taking the younger children. I have never forgotten the enchanting mingled aromas in that house on Christmas morning: the smell of the simmering ragù on the stove blending with the pine sap scent of the tree. To this day, even though my first wife and I divorced amicably in the early Seventies, I try to cook an Italian-American Christmas dinner, the rich tomato sauce served over pasta as a first course, and the beef, reduced to half its original size but dense with flavor, as the main course. I’m always tempted to substitute Greek retsina for the Italian red wine, to get the pine sap of the Christmas tree into the meal. But I don’t have to.

Later on I took up with a red-headed woman I’d known since she was a child, and we are still married. We spend part of our time in New Hampshire, where we have a cabin in what we still call the woods, even though our Monadnock Region is steadily turning into suburban housing for Yuppies. When we first moved into the cabin in 1987, we cut raggedy “Charlie-Brown” Christmas trees in our own woods to bring into the mead-house and trim for the ancient pagan holiday. But nowadays we generally get our Tannenbaums from a local cut-your-own tree farm: Scotch pines and balsam firs, their limbs cut back into perfect pyramidal shapes. Inevitably I curse and roar while I try to hack the trunk of each season’s tree to fit the cranky tree-stand, but I do it outside on the porch, and so far I have never had a serious argument with my wife about the tree-trimming. Christmas lights today are better wired, and we have boxes of treasured ornaments, from both our families: my mother’s sequined styrofoam balls, my wife’s mother’s wooden angels and stuffed cloth hobby-horses, and an angel made of straw my oldest brother gave me thirty-five years ago.

Even though we have no children, we “keep Christmas,” as Dickens wrote. We buy one another too many presents, but they are always useful, since we know one another so well by now. And we sit around the Tannenbaum on Christmas morning opening the presents we have given one another, and inhaling the resinous tang from the tree, and thinking that yes, something has been born, or reborn, and spring might return again this year. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Christmas Issue, Tompkins | Link to this Entry

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