I'm sorry, friends. Not one of my happier posts. You might want to skip it today. I had to get this out, though. Just had to.
Behold the Hausfrau family's Christmas Bush. They sold it under the guise of it being a tree, but there is little tree-ness about it. It stands about 5 feet tall, there is no pointy top on which to place the vintage Noma twinkling star. The branches poke out haphazardly, here and there wherever they please. The traditional triangle tree shape has given way to a stout mass of needle-emblazoned branches. Hanging ornaments on this thing was actually easy, since there was no narrowing towards the top.
It's a bush. And that's perfectly okay with us.
When I was little, we had a fake tree. It came out of a box the day after Thanksgiving and went back into the box shortly after Christmas. I was a kid, it didn't occur to me that there were people who had real trees. All I cared about was the pile of presents underneath it, and why my brother had two more than I did and why did mom and dad like him better?
When I first met my in-laws, it was Christmastime. I walked into their charming riverfront home and was greeted by a majestic Fraser Fir holding court in the living room. Tastefully gaudy Radko ornaments twirled silently in the soft glow of tiny white lights. The smell...oh Lord. The smell was what got me. It smelled like love and forests and security and cookies. I wanted to throw the smell on the floor and roll around in it like a cat does catnip.
We've only ever had real trees. Before Divorce, we made a grand show out of going to a tree farm and cutting one down. The kids remember nothing of those trips except for wrestling in the snow and the hot cocoa. I'd like to think that some day they'll recall them with more fondness than they do now. But that's for them to decide.
After Divorce I was determined to carry on the tradition. Especially so when the kids came home from Dad's house and announced that his tree was a FAKE. That pronouncement, along with the one that at Dad's house, Santa wrapped gifts instead of leaving them free and unfettered under the tree on Christmas morning, cemented my decision to keep Christmas real at my house. Real and true. I attempted the tree farm, once. A single woman and four kids does not a fun tree farm trip make. The lots are easier and the trees smell just as lovely.
There are no trees, real or fake, at my mom's house anymore. She doesn't move much, her legs have mysteriously stopped working. Parkinson's was the guess for a long while but was eliminated after some tests. She lives in a room. A single room. When I visit her, I stand at the doorway of that room, the room that was my bedroom and is now her world. She has a toilet chair, a laptop, a small television and an ashtray.
"Hi Jenny, it's your mom" her messages always start that way, as if there is another person with a Harvey Fierstein voice calling me, ever. "I was wondering if you could come over...." The messages she leaves me are always the same. Sometimes I answer her calls, other times I can't handle it and I let them go to voicemail. And when I listen to the messages I am consumed with a sad anger, a bitterness that stings my eyes and squeezes my heart.
My mom loves her cigarettes. I've only known her as a smoker. She smoked while I was in her belly, she smoked when I was a baby and a toddler and a school girl. Mom and her smokes. I stole them from her when I was a teen, hiding the absurdly long Virginia Slim 120's under whatever kind of hat I fancied at the time. I quit when I was pregnant with Charlie and aside from a brief, pathetic backslide after The Divorce, where I'd hide in the garage and puff away when the kids were with their father, I haven't looked back.
I hate cigarettes. Loathe them. I hate the smell, I hate the way they bounce on the road after being tossed from some careless asshole's window. The bright orange coals bobbing and weaving and sparking beneath the tires of the cars, like a tiny meteor shower.
I have become my mother's own personal cigarette shopper. She can't drive and her husband won't get them for her. There are times I simply refuse. "No." I tell her, without further reason. "No, mom."
Other times I will give her my excuses: I'm broke. I'm busy. It's embarrassing for me to buy them.
But usually, I do it. I drive to the convenience store and walk from my car to the swinging door and filled with resentful shame I approach the register.
"I need to buy cigarettes for my mom" I always begin. I think sometimes they don't believe me. I want to show them my work badge, the one with the name of my school district plastered over the mug shot photo. "I work at a school!" I want to say. "I hate cigarettes!".
I'm a 47 year old divorced preschool teacher, buying a pack of Mistys. "The blue ones..." I say. "The long ones," I add.
When I bring the smokes to my mom she shoves money at me. "Take it" she croaks, her huge watery brown eyes meeting my contemptuous, sad blue ones. Some days I take the money. Some days I don't.
She opens the pack like a kid on Christmas morning, and before you can say "CANCER" the room is filled with the noxious scent. It makes my nose burn and my eyes well up and fills my body and my mind with memories. I need to escape, need to go back to my safe world, where there is no cigarette smoke and no bad feelings and no toilet chairs and cat shit everywhere. I need to go home.
I drive away from that house, my hair and clothes reeking even though I left just minutes after she lit up. I put the windows down, now it's freezing outside and I drive and drive, the cold air caressing my cheeks, making the tears on them feel like tiny sharp icicles. I cry, almost every time I leave her house. I cry and I get mad and I ask God or whoever why? Why can't I have a normal mom, a normal family. Why can't I have a mom who is busy golfing with her friends or gardening or curled up on a couch reading a good goddamned book? Why do I have the mom who is addicted to nicotine, who sits in a room day after day just waiting for the weather guy to come on and tell her what it's like outside?
Why did I have the just plain bad luck to be born into a family where dysfunction is as hereditary as the color of your hair or the tilt of your nose?
Somewhere inside of me is a good daughter. She reminds me of the times, the times I did have a fun mom. A mom who walked and drove and who sang along to Pat Benatar with me in the car. We'd sing at the top of our lungs "HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT" and I'd look over at her and admire her auburn bob haircut and her cool patchwork jean jacket and the way she could hold a cigarette and the steering wheel with one hand. I love her, I'd think to myself. Singing with my mom in the car. That made me happy.
Today I'm home. Home with my kids. Home with them and our dog and our Christmas bush. I have a ham to make and Roadside potatoes to bake. I can admit to you guys that when the kids came home from Big Daddy's last night and announced that Secretary's ham was dry and her cheesy potatoes sucked, I beamed inside. Today our ham will be moist and our potatoes will be crispy deliciousness.
Our home doesn't smell like cigarettes, there is no animal crap on the floor and no monsters come out at night to hit my kids. We opened presents this morning and now I look around, I see William with the body pillow he wanted, lying on the floor reading his new book. Henry is wearing the fuzzy Batman pajama pants I got for him and Molly has changed three times, trying on the jeans and the sweater and the footie pajamas. Charlie is sad today. But he'll get through it, I know he will. Christmas is hard for him and I get it.
We're going to a movie tonight, as a family. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", I think. We'll clamber into our little car and sing along to Justin Timberlake: "SIPPING FROM YOUR CUP TIL IT RUNNETH OVER (Jay Z: uh, uh)....HOLY GRAIL". We have fun together, my kids and I. I make sure that when they are my age they'll have good things in their heads, good memories of the times we had.
I never tell them that I worry. I worry that someday it'll be me sitting in a room, wearing Depends and staring at a little screen waiting for the weather guy. I worry that someday they'll let my calls go to voicemail and they'll listen to my message, the one I leave all the time. Asking them to bring me martini fixings or Red Vines or a box of wine or shrimp pad thai. I worry that they'll feel pity for me, or not.
Tomorrow, Christmas will be over. Life will keep chugging along and I'll buy more smokes for my mom. I'll stifle the rage and the grief that shows up whenever I cross the threshold of her home, shove it back down for the millionth time as I hand my mom the blue pack of Mistys and she slides a folded twenty at me.
"Take it" she'll say, her yellowed fingers already peeling the plastic from the box.
Her eyes will leave mine and look back at the screen as she lights her cigarette and waits for the weather.