We were not Greek Orthodox, by the way. The fact that they recognized Christmas in January instead of on the twenty-fifth of December was just the excuse my father needed to keep the Christmas lights on a bit longer than suited my mother’s preference.
“Why weren’t the lights on yet?” My father would bark as he returned home to a dark house after work.
“Because Christmas was ten days ago,” my mother answered through clenched teeth.
“Not to the Greeks,” Dad would respond, with my brother, sister and I mouthing the words in perfect synchronization
“We’re not Greek,” Mom would remind him, but it didn’t matter. Every year the conversation was the same, with my mother refusing to back down and my dad simply not acknowledging her unhappiness.
Mom liked change. She thrived on it. If she could recruit one of us to help her rearrange furniture, she was happy. Dad, on the other hand, hated change. He only tolerated the new placement of his recliner or the removal of his great-aunt’s end table because the 'newness' of the room tended to make Mom a bit amorous. Once, when they didn’t realize I was playing behind the sofa, I saw her snuggle up to Dad and whisper in a sing-songy way, “Gina helped me move the couch … wanna christen it after we get the kids to bed?”
“If we must,” Dad playfully responded.
Then I watched them kiss and remember feeling a little sick to my stomach. The next time Mom asked me to help move furniture I told her I felt like I was going to throw up, so she put her energy into feeding me Saltines and ginger ale. There wasn’t any cuddling when my father came home.
Taking down the Christmas decorations – and there were plenty of them – seriously depressed my father. He grew sullen and quiet. The darkness out front, where for one month’s time there was red, green, gold and blue light, seemed to swallow up the joy that was evident in him in the weeks leading up to the holiday. I never understood it.
After Mom died, Dad was only able to stay in the house for one more Christmas. My brother, Joel, helped him to put up a few lights outside, but the display had lessened over the years, as lights burned out, cords frayed and Dad’s arthritis got the best of him. The house was too much for him to handle as well, and in March, eleven months after we buried Mom, Dad reluctantly agreed to move into Wellspring, the assisted living community on the corner of the town square.
His room was fair-sized, not too small. He had enough room for a single bed, the tall chest of drawers from the set he and Mom bought on their honeymoon in North Carolina, a TV stand, small refrigerator and, of course, his favorite leather recliner, duct tape patches and all. Joel, Jennifer and I divvied up the furniture and furnishings of the house before we sold it, including the boxes of Christmas decorations. An attic full of memories.
“Not to the Greeks,” Joel mimicked as we separated the outside lights, and the three of us laughed until we cried.
“Why was Mom so stubborn,” I asked. “Why couldn’t she just let him be?”
“Why wasn’t Dad willing to take her feelings into account?” Jennifer snapped.
“This is just great,” Joel interrupted. “Now we’re fighting about it. Good lord.”
“Can’t you see Mom looking down at us and shaking her head?” I started to laugh again. Christmas always brought a mixed bag of emotions for all of us.
“What about the tree and all the ornaments?” Jennifer asked.
Joel knew the answer to this one. “We’re to hang on to them and take them to Dad’s next Thanksgiving.”
“Whattt?” Jennifer and I were a bit thrown by this one.
“That’s what he wants,” Joel shrugged, “I’m certainly not going to argue with him about Christmas. He had enough of that with all those years with Mom.”
“But what are we supposed to do with them?” I asked.
“I’m going to keep them at my place.” Joel explained. “I told Dad I’d take care of them for him.”
So, the day after Thanksgiving that year, and every year that followed, Joel took the artificial tree, the strings of lights and the hodgepodge of ornaments to Wellspring. We all helped Dad assemble the tree, all the while enduring his endless complaints about it.
“You know, kids, I always hated this fake tree. Christmas just didn’t seem like Christmas without a real tree.”
“But Dad,” I interjected each time, “Mom was allergic to pine …”
“So she said,” he grumbled.
“But Dad …”
“Leave it alone, Gina,” Joel cautioned me. I just rolled my eyes and proceeded to put branch into base, branch into base.
“Don’t forget to fluff ‘em.” Dad was never without his instructions to us.
It wasn’t until the third Christmas that the stories started to unravel. I had just finished putting the lights on the tree and we were unwrapping the first of the ornaments.
“Look at this one,” Dad said, holding it out in the light and turning it, as if admiring it for the first time. It was lovely; a small red glass pine cone, beautiful in its simplicity.
“I remember where we were when we got this one.”
“You and Mom?” I asked. “Where were you, Daddy?”
“We had taken a trip down to Kentucky and on the way we did some antiquing – you remember how Mom loved to stop at those little antique stores. Well, we were in one and we were talking to the guy who owned the place – told him about you three kids and that we were about to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. Well, wouldn’t you know, he pulled out this here ornament and handed it to me. He told me to hang it on my tree every year in honor of our marriage. It was a gift.” Dad smiled in remembrance. “Isn’t that somethin'?”
“Dad, I don’t ever remember you and Mom going to Kentucky.” I was a little confused, but he ignored me as his bent and swollen fingers carefully hung the ornament in the middle of the tree. I noticed a tear in the corner of his eye.
“Darndest thing,” was all he said.
The next ornament was a bit flashier. Bright green and magenta swirls around a pointed sphere.
“Ahh,” he brightened up, seeming to absorb the mere festivity of the ornament. “That was one of my favorite trips.”
“What trips, Daddy?” From what I knew about my parents, the last time they actually left the state was on their honeymoon when they drove to North Carolina. They didn’t go on trips.
“We were in New Orleans during Mardi Gras,” he continued. “You should have seen your momma. Whooey!” Dad shivered at the memory. “She was decked out!”
“Wha…” I started to question him, but he just kept going.
“She had on the most beautiful red dress. Your momma was quite a looker, even at forty-five.”
“Forty-five? Dad, you weren’t in New Orleans when Mom was forty-five.”
He didn’t seem to hear me … or care.
“We were dancing, right along with everyone else. She looked so young and fresh. That red dress swirled and swirled as she danced and her laughter was like music. That was some time we had ... Go ahead, hang that pretty memory right beside the pinecone … no, to the other side … that’s it. Perfect.”
The next ornament, a glass bird of silver, pink and turquoise with a plume of stiff feathers, simply clipped to one of the branches. I snapped it on quickly, hoping to avoid another story.
“Ahhh,” he started. “Ahhh … that one. The bird. The bird of paradise we called it. We always wanted it to remind us of that week in Hawaii. Paradise. That was my nickname for your mom for awhile there, did you know that?”
“Nnnnooo,” I hesitantly answered, and then, against my better judgment, pursued the question. “When did you call Mom Paradise?” I wanted to add, I bet it wasn’t the week of January seventh, but I refrained.
“Oh, I had a lot of nicknames for your mom. Lily was one; Gypsy was another … I’ll tell you why when we come to the ornaments. Most of them have a story. Like this one here.” He was unwrapping a round gold ornament with holly painted on it. “This one brings back a lot of memories …”
The decorating went on like this for the rest of the afternoon. At one point, I excused myself and went outside to call Jennifer on my cell phone. I repeated the stories to her as I stood under the gray clouds of winter, shivering. A flock of Canadian geese flew overhead and I watched as they reshaped their V, honking as the reconfiguration occurred.
“What is that sound?” Jennifer asked.
“Which sound?” I replied. “My clanking teeth from my shivering, the geese flying by, or the sound of my brain spinning in circles as I try to process all of this. What the heck is going on, Jennifer? Of all years for you and Joel not to be able to be here! Is Dad finally losing it?”
“I don’t know what to say,” Jennifer answered and I could tell she was as perplexed as I was.
Dad died on January eighth, a little over two years after that day. He made it past the Greek Orthodox Christmas and managed to get out of the dreaded task of taking down the decorations for one last time. As we cleaned out his room to make way for the next resident who was leaving his life behind, we discovered a small diary that belonged to my mother. It was twenty years old and when I opened it I started to cry. Here in my hands was a gift, a rare glimpse into a woman I lost nearly six years ago.
I sat down on my father’s bed and started to read.
I got up early and made Cal’s favorite breakfast. We had a fun day ahead of us and I wanted it to be special from the start. He got up to the smell of bacon and yelled down to me, “Gypsy, I’m coming down there. You’d better be decent.” I laughed, remembering how much I’d dreaded this day in the past. Funny how things can change.
We fed each other morsels from our plates, acting like newlyweds. I wish the kids could see us like this. I feel so badly that their post-Christmas memories are filled with such ugliness. Cal’s depressions were so dark that even I started to hate Christmas. What an awful thought! Thank God I figured out a way to see him through this. And it’s worked. At least the last couple years. January 8th is now our secret day…a day that only we know about. A special day. My favorite day of the year.
I stopped reading to try to process what she was saying. Why didn’t I know anything about January eighth? I wondered. What changed? As I looked back, I realized things were different, but I never acknowledged that. Isn’t it funny how we tend to look at something the way it always was, long after it changes? If we grew up in a pink bedroom, we’ll still refer to the room as pink, even if the walls were painted green ten years ago? Our minds are funny that way…as are our memories.
Cal brought all the boxes down out of the attic around 11 and set them in the family room. We turned on the Christmas music and started our new ritual. As we took each ornament off the tree, we told each other a story about it. We pretended to be world travelers…well, U.S. travelers! Each ornament came from a different place we visited. We had the grandest vacations ever and with each one an ornament was born. The un-decorating of the tree was such fun today. Why hadn’t I thought of this years ago? Half way through the afternoon of stories and laughter, Cal grabbed me and kissed me and, well, it was awhile before we resumed the undecorating!
I wonder what the kids would think if they knew how their parents acted in their absence?
It’s been a good day. I was Gypsy. I was Lily. I was all things in my husband’s world. And he is everything in mine.
We buried Dad with a few of the ornaments – a couple of his favorite handmade decorations we gave to him as kids and a red glass pinecone that reminded him of a love he held so dear.