Another Cock-Eyed Christmas
One Christmas Eve we woke to the sound of our dad driving nails through the trunk of our new tree.
“Tree stands are for Park Avenue swine!” Dad would say.
When most kids were snug in their beds waiting for Santa to arrive, we were snug in our beds waiting for dad to come home with the damn tree. In those poorer times our Dad would not bring a tree home until late Christmas Eve, when one could be had for free. The sellers having gone home, leaving behind a Charlie Brown thread bare pine or two.
The neighbors below the linoleum-covered living room floor didn’t complain half as much as my dad, as he pounded and cussed his way toward erecting a proper altar to the king of consumerism:
Jeezus fuggin’ Cripes!
Jeezus fuggin’ Cripes!
Ordinarily, my dad was quite capable in the art of driving a nail home. But with a belly full of beer and bourbon even a da Vinci was bound to come up with a cock-eyed Mona Lisa.
And a cock-eyed tree it was. You’d have to tilt your head a bit to make any sense of it. But even at that angle the tree simply looked weighed down by the gaudy baubles and shimmering garlands. As though the baubles and garlands were conspiring to take the tree to ground level and make their escape to a proper standing Scotch pine.
“Jeezus fuggin’ cripes!” my dad would say. “The floor’s in these old railroad flats are so damn crooked!”
Jeezus Fuggin’ Cripes - or JFC, as we came to call it - was Dad’s favorite expression. You knew you’d done wrong when a JFC was handed you along with the mashed potatoes. ’Tom,’ he’d say at the kitchen table. ’Tell me how you can get a 90 in Spanish and only a 65 in English? Geezus fuggin’ cripes! It’s your native tongue! And just where in hell is this Mexican gold mine of yours that you need to learn Spanish all of a sudden? And if you do have a gold mine, promise me we’ll spend next Christmas in Mexico. These New York city winter’s are killing me! Now give me back them potatoes!’
My dad drove a moving van for a living. Hauling commercial and household goods from one end of town to the other. Many of our Christmas presents could be traced back to junk left behind by grateful customers who were too cheap to hand over a proper tip.
Our least favorite junk Christmas present was the 25 inch black and white console TV that had to be smacked on its side every few minutes to keep the picture from distorting. Every once in a while Dad would yell, ‘Ed Sullivan’s coming on! Someone get in here and smack the TV for your old man! We didn’t bring you kids into this world for nothing!’
Then there was the cuckoo clock that hiccuped. That present I liked, until the cat figured out how to climb up the chain and knock the cuckoo off its nest.
After flicking the cuckoo around the linoleum floor a few times, the cat soon realized that the bird had no fight and, after a few sniffs, convinced himself that the cuckoo was inedible. Tuffy then padded off in a huff and slunk to a safe haven under our bunk bed to sort out his feelings on the days events.
We hoped this Christmas would be different. With a family gift grander than the wobbly chairs and tuneless radios of old.
Dad drove the last nail into the tree with a satisfying whack.
“Now that’s a Christmas tree,” said Dad. “More branches than last year. Don’t ya think?”
“Yes, dear” said Mom. “But it’s still a little crooked.”
“Old building,” said Dad. “Can’t be helped.”
My brother, my sister and I pretended we hadn’t heard the pounding of nails or spied on a boozy Mom and Dad slow-dancing in the kitchen to a tune my dad was humming. We were certain they knew we were peeking through the accordion door - the one that separated our room from the living room and kitchen - but we knew better than to show face until morning.
“I think the kid’s are gonna be surprised this year,” said Dad. “Better quality than last year.”
“Really?” said Mom. “No missing parts?”
“Nope. Tested it myself before I agreed to take it. Works like a charm. We’ll leave it outside in the hallway till morning. Don’t want to wake the kids. Now, where were we? Oh, yeah. . .”
Dad continued humming White Christmas as he slow-danced Mom around the kitchen.
We woke next morning to a familiar sound. But it was a sound we’d only ever heard outside the apartment. It was a sound from the Laundromat. A washing machine in agitation mode.
“Your dad was so excited,” said Mom, “that he wanted to make sure you kids woke up to something a little more exciting this year.
Don’t get me wrong. Our folks always managed to get us kids a particular toy we’d been pestering them about: a Barbie for sis, Lincoln Logs for my brother, a Wild Bill Hickok six-shooter for me. Used, of course. Purchased at a local thrift store on Third Avenue. But the big family present was what excited Dad. The newer looking the better. And this year’s was a beauty. It only had one noticeable dent and a tendency to dance across the floor when in spin mode.
“You hear that kids?” said Dad. “That’s the sound of the future in action. Better days ahead!”
Better day, indeed. We kids would no longer be dragging that big bag of dirty clothes up and down four flights of stairs. We could do laundry in the kitchen and hang it on a line outside the kitchen window. Dance, you beauty, you. Dance.
It was a happier kind of Christmas that year.