mom

Fake tree brought pure Christmas joy

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 20, 2015.

My brothers and I were home alone, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on our black-and-white TV, when the doorbell rang. It was Mrs. Ricci, bundled against the cold, here to drop off a fake Christmas tree from the store where she worked.

We lugged the large cardboard box through the doorway.

“Your mother’s going to love it!” Mrs. Ricci said before disappearing back into the night.

I wasn’t so sure. My grandfather had suggested we get an artificial tree from Mrs. Ricci the previous Christmas. She lived downstairs from him in his double-decker, three blocks from our house in Providence. But my mom had declined. Instead, we had gone to the farmers’ market on Valley Street and picked out a lopsided balsam fir, as we had always done — except now my older brother, Rob, not my father, tied the tree to the top of our blue Ford Maverick.

At 14, Rob did a lot of things that our dad used to do when he lived with us.

I sensed my mom, along with Charlie Brown, didn’t like fake Christmas trees. I also sensed she didn’t like being told what to do — least of all by her father. But she had apparently relented, because now there was this artificial tree in our living room.

“Let’s put it up!” Rob said.

“Without Mom?” I said.

“We’ll surprise her.”

My stomach tightened. I was wary of surprises, especially ones that involved my mother. Hers was a house of rules, many of them posted on the refrigerator at eye level. And I was adept in my compliance. I made sure to get home in time for supper, loaded the dishwasher, and looked after my younger brother, James, then age 6 — all to avoid incurring Mom’s wrath.

Rob had no such anxieties.

“We’ve got an hour and a half before she gets back,” he said, pulling the fake tree out of the box.

Our mom was at her class at Johnson & Wales, where she was pursuing an associate’s degree in fashion merchandising. We didn’t know it then, but she had visions of opening a women’s clothing boutique someday.

She hadn’t gone to college after graduating from Mount Pleasant High School. At that time, her father said she had to go to work at his children’s-wear store on Federal Hill — she would replace her oldest sister, who was starting a family. My mom sold christening sets and communion dresses until she turned 23 and got married. And now, after the divorce, she had gone back to the store, working six days a week.

James and I ran to the chilly basement to excavate the Christmas decorations from some cabinets near the washer and dryer. Upstairs, Rob positioned the tree in the corner by the hi-fi.

We draped the synthetic branches with colored lights and hung all the familiar ornaments. Our favorites were the ones that we had made: a Table Talk pie tin graced by a glued-in illustration of the Nativity; a Popsicle-stick reindeer with a red-gumdrop nose; a construction-paper chain lovingly looped by one of us at Robert F. Kennedy School.

James set up the manger scene, careful not to inflict further injury on the plaster donkey whose broken leg was held together by a Scotch-tape cast. Rob and I put the electric candles in the windows, igniting their orange bulbs with a twist.

We turned off the overhead light. The living room, with a faint scent of plastic, glowed. The artificial tree suddenly felt a lot less fake.

We were back in the den, watching TV, when the front door creaked open.

“How nice to see the lights in the windows!” my mother called out.

We ran to the living room.

“Oh, my,” she said, gazing at the tree. “It’s absolutely beautiful!” She looked around the room, her face beaming. “You boys did all this for me?”

“Yes!”

Our mom stood motionless and silent for a moment, and then wiped one of her eyes. We hadn’t seen her so happy in a long time.

Christmas had come early.

End of the road for Mom’s car

Breeze

I walked to the 1999 Plymouth Breeze, which was parked in the lot across from my house in East Greenwich. The silver car – champagne, according to my mother – had a fresh dent in one of its rear doors and miles of memories in its odometer. I turned the key. The rapid click-click-click reported a dead battery.

“Gonna need a jump start, Mom,” I said. It was a recent practice of mine: talking to my departed mother when I was in her car. A year and a half had passed since she died, and the car, with my mom’s Frank Sinatra CDs still in the console, was a comforting presence.

Sitting there in the beached Breeze, I recalled the day my mother had lost her driver’s license – an inevitability she anticipated with dread. She was thoroughly independent and had lived alone, happily, for decades. Having to relinquish her license was the latest, and most painful, blow thrown at her by macular degeneration.

She didn’t concede without a fight, which was no surprise to anyone who knew her.

“I’m taking the vision test,” she declared as I drove her to the Division of Motor Vehicles in Wakefield. The morning brightness glinted off her sunglasses. It was a little less than a week before her 76th birthday, when her license was set to expire. Barring a miracle, these would be her last days as a legal driver.

“My odds are 1 in 26, right?” she said, referring to her chances at correctly guessing any given letter in the vision test. “Beats the lottery.”

My mother had a feisty sense of humor, which helped her contend with the setbacks of aging. Her love of mischief was even more pronounced and gave her an irrepressible youthfulness.

When her number was called at the DMV, she strode to the counter with an assurance that belied her near blindness. She was resplendent, as always, a paisley scarf setting off her sleek, camel hair car coat with swirling reds and browns.

After a couple of formalities, the moment of truth arrived.

“Please read the letters on the third line down,” the clerk said.

“N … C … W …” my mother said, peering into the viewfinder. I choked back a laugh – those were her initials.

“Try the line above, please.”

“U … S … A? …”

“How about the first letter in the top line?” the clerk asked.

My mother looked up.

“Honey,” she said, “my eyes are so bad, I can barely see you.”

On the way home, we laughed about the exchange with the clerk, but the ride was bittersweet.

Stripped of her license, my mother bequeathed me the Breeze and moved on, without so much as a glance in the rear-view mirror. I always marveled at how well she navigated milestone events – a divorce, the sale of houses, the closings of two retail stores on Federal Hill. “You have to move on,” she said.

The car was a godsend for my family. Our three teenage kids drove it almost every day for the next five years. Like my mother, the Breeze was unfailingly dependable.

But that was all changed now.

I got out of the marooned vehicle and sized up its scars: creases in the fenders, a missing hubcap, red rust creeping up the edges of the doors. My mother – so attentive to her appearance, so proud of her sense of style – would have been aghast.

I decided, quixotically, to try starting the car one more time. But climbing back in, I clipped my head on the doorframe. The whack felt familiar – like the “scoopalones” my mother used to give my brothers and me when we were doing something foolish as kids. A brisk slap to the back of my head was usually accompanied by a pointed rhetorical question, often this one: “What are you, numb?”

“I hear you, Mom,” I said with a laugh, rubbing my head.

Forget the jumper cables. It was time to let go of my mother’s beloved Breeze.

It was time, in her words, to move on.

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