On a frost-tinged December morning, I feel battered and befuddled, squinting bleary-eyed out a back window at a brown patch in the woods. Was it a deer or a dying bush? Usually, I’m pretty good at playing animal, vegetable or mineral – especially with visual aids – but not this Sunday. Perhaps my confusion resulted from my decision to forego my morning coffee in favor of a deep mug of green drink, a pointy-hatted Elphaba-flavored concoction of kiwi, barley grass, broccoli, lemon grass, blue-green algae (really), Nova Scotia Dulce (whatever the f–k that is), toxic sludge (oh, does it really matter at this point) and spinach.
I really need coffee today. Bernadette, Penelope and I are headed out to pick up our Christmas tree. Picking out a tree with Bern is a bit of an odyssey. While we won’t be gone for 20 years, we will undoubtably wander aimlessly about the local tree farms until Bern embraces the Orson Welles of the Christmas-tree world.
On this day, Bern wanders about with her arms stretched wide in front of her like a chubby Frankenstein measuring the width of every tree in the lot. Penelope, her red nose running faster than the Delaware River, stumbles behind her singing “The Poopy Song.”
When I remind her to mind her manners, she asks, “How about ‘The Farting Song?’ ” “No, honey, no farting song.” “Well, how about ‘The Mommy Song?’ ” “Absolutely, Pop Tart. ‘The Mommy Song’ would be perfect!” Penelope sings: “Mommy’s farting! Mommy’s farting!”
Eventually, at our third stop, Bern approaches a tree, arms spread wide, and giddily announces, “We have a winner!” We throw the tree atop the Volvo which, while belching smoke and burning oil, lets us know that a 12-year-old vehicle with 210,000 miles on it is too old for this shit. Yes, the car’s nickname is Murtaugh.
We get the tree home and carefully balance it in its solid cast-iron stand. We check to ensure the tree is perfectly straight. We screw each peg into the tree’s base, first by hand and then with a wrench. We give the tree a little shake. It moves. I slide back under the tree like a mechanic fixing a 12-year-old Volvo and tighten it some more. Another shake. This time the tree doesn’t budge. We entangle ourselves in the white lights and shake them off ourselves and onto the tree. Next come the needlepoint angels Bern made by hand back in the day when she didn’t have her hands full with a Chinese child. And then the ornaments. We carefully hang the breakable ones on top while Penelope places the nonbreakables on the bottom. When all is done we stand back and admire our tree — safe, snug and glowing in all its celebratory brilliance. . . .
So, I have no explanation why 10 days later the tree topples over onto the living room floor. Bern and Penelope are in another room eating lunch at the time — which means the dogs are with them, of course — and I am at work. Fortunately our neighbor James has fishing line and a studfinder (and yes, I, like every other American male out there, can’t help but annoy Bern with the studfinder joke: ‘Honey, take this thing. Every time I hold it, it goes off.’) Bern, the biggest Christmas Wienie south of the North Pole, has been collecting ornaments since she was a girl. She calmly surveys the damage, and after slowly exhaling a deep breath, reports that most of her favorites are intact.
“I’d suggest that we convert to Judaism, but with our luck we’ll light the Menorah and burn down the house,” I tell her.
Two weeks before Santa Claus comes to town, Penelope announces proudly to Bern that she wants to buy me a Lincoln book as a surprise for Christmas. For those of you who don’t know, Penelope now recognizes two famous people: Abraham Lincoln and Frank Sinatra. Sometimes she confuses the two. My telling her that Lincoln didn’t sleep with Ava Gardner doesn’t help. The pair (Bern and Penelope, not Abe and Ava) head off to the local Fox Books. Bern tells Penelope that Papa will be so surprised on Christmas eve when he unwraps his new Lincoln book.
When I arrive home from work that evening, Penelope is practically bursting: “Papa, I bought you a present. Lincoln book!!!” The kid just can’t keep a secret. Later, Bern and I sit with Penelope and attempt to re-explain what a “surprise” means.
This time the message gets through.
A week later, we travel to the New York City Macy’s to see Santa. After a short wait, Penelope climbs atop Santa’s lap. She giggles and whispers in his ear what she wants for Christmas. Santa laughs and pats Penelope on the head. We exit the beautiful holiday scene and are promptly dumped into the women’s outerwear department.
“Penelope,” I ask, “what did you ask Santa to bring you for Christmas?”
She nods her head and theatrically purses her lips.
“Really, you can tell me.”
“No Papa! It’s a surprise!” she says.
It’s almost a week later and I still can’t get her to tell us. Another lesson learned.