Long before I met my eventual husband, I met television. When I was a child my father didn’t let my sister and I watch television because he thought that watching it would turn us into idiots and, although I haven’t read the stats on that, there may be some foundational truth there. Poor Daddy. He forgot the first rule of childhood, which is: that which is forbidden is, ipso facto, precious.
Whenever I could, I watched as much television as possible and by the time I was 12 and babysitting at night, I could pretty much watch anything. I watched a lot of old movies. My favorite one was the 1949 black-and-white version of Little Women, starring June Alyson as “Jo.” I was an avid reader but it never occurred to me to read that book. I’m sure I would have been disappointed. Peter Lawford was the handsomest “Laurie” imaginable, in spite of having a girl’s name.
Without doubt, the deepest connection I made with that film, (other than Beth’s death, which I haven’t fully recovered from yet), was with the Christmas scene. It had been a very hard year for Marmee and the girls. Father was away fighting in the Civil War (Union side) and they didn’t know when they would see him again, or even if he was still alive. Beth was sick, but not yet dead. They were poor and it was cold. Everything about that Christmas could easily have gone another way. Snowflakes the size of ping pong balls drifted down as slowly as feathers tossed by angels on high and they had to make all their presents themselves. But by dint of sheer will and brute effort Marmee and the girls decided they would make Christmas and somehow, bravely, keep their spirits up. The icing on the cake was that Papa, or whatever they called him, miraculously made it home on Christmas Eve just as they were starting to celebrate so that Marmee and the girls had the best Christmas ever. As the camera pulled away from that brightly lit scene into the cold, snowy darkness I always teared up. There was something ineluctably beautiful about that family together, the magic of the Christmas tree, their determination to keep each other’s spirits up by faking good spirits themselves, the odd, perfect grace of all of them being home together on that special night for what turns out to be the last time ever ; the triumph of human love over the reckless, bloody, indifferent hands of fate, all of it, touched me deeply. I wanted to crawl into that scene, into a corner by the tree, wearing a worn but still perfectly lovely muslin dress and braiding my long chestnut colored hair up in braids and be that unobtrusive fifth sister silently darning or knitting or stringing berries or just…belonging there.
My family had holidays together all the time and we, too, had triumphed over a couple of tough things, but real life can never compare with the movies. That’s why we watch movies, because they are not real.
As much as old movies, what I liked to watch on television was shows about families: My Three Sons, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Menace, any one I could find. Without realizing it, I was subconsciously casting my next family, straight off the feed.
My parents were working class Jews who had emigrated from New York to L.A.. Their parents had been starvation class immigrants from Eastern Europe who got sent over to Ellis Island by themselves around the time they stopped teething. All alone. In the cold. It didn’t make for great parenting skills, even a second generation out, and they did not resemble at all the white Anglo-Saxon middle class families on tv.
For one thing the Cleavers and the Robert Young guys and all the others always seemed to be really happy. And not just happy, cheerful. They were inexorably polite to one another. They were even nice to all the working class people around them – the milkman, the repairman, the postman, the …well, all the men. Even when they got mad, well not mad, just irritated, they were always able to talk things through. Cooler heads, which were actually their heads but now cooler, would make good decisions based on certainty and feelings of communal worth.
By now, all this stuff has been hashed to bits by feminists, sociologists, media watchers, psychologists, even writers. Obviously, these early 60s sit-coms were just walking clichés. I got that now. Honest, I do.
But I didn’t then. I wanted those parents who never got mad. I wanted those large, well-ventilated houses on broad, tree-lined streets with like-minded people who never faced death, or crime, or cars that didn’t work, or poverty or disability or even weight control issues. I wanted a tall, slender WASP mommy who would wear pearls and heels while vacuuming. I wanted to belong to that phony perfect world And I knew that I didn’t.
But my husband, when I met him, a Mr. William Dennis “Denny” Stock looked like he very well might. He was tall and slim and had blue eyes and an adorable little nose.
On our first date he asked me about my family, and he filled me in a little bit about his.
He was from someplace called ‘Virginia’ and he had three brothers and his family were Christian. Goyim. They owned a house in a little town that had been where it was and what it was since the American Revolution. Until a few years past he’d had a Grandfather who doted on the boys and gave them candy (CANDY?!?!?) as a snack when they walked to his house after school. Grandpa had dinner with the family every night after he played a game of chess with Danny’s Dad, Bill. Bill was an executive at a Sears Department store and his mother didn’t have to work, ever. She cooked dinner for them almost every night and they had dessert and they were allowed to drink Pepsi as an ordinary beverage. She kept crates of Pepsi on the kitchen floor (and this was long before Costco) and they were allowed to just go and get one, any time, to drink along with their Twinkies. Of course, she always had a few sixes of Diet Pepsi for herself, because she was always, needlessly, on a diet.
All of this seemed almost profligately extravagant to me from every point of view. By the time I met Denny all of my Grandparents and replacement Grandparents were long dead. They had only come over for dinner on holidays, anyways, and none of them had ever played chess. I only met my paternal Grandfather once. He came out for my father’s funeral when I was 16 and he wept like a baby even though he had abandoned my father when he was 6 and had resisted all of my father’s very good efforts to try and know him. My paternal Grandmother was, I guess the word for it is, ‘deranged’. She hadn’t been much help, ever, and even though my father died of cancer of the liver, she said that my mother had killed him. So…..
Also – who gets to eat candy? We got to legitimately eat it exactly twice a year – on Halloween Night and during Hannukah. The rest of the year we had to sneak it from friends or buy it after school from the corner store and eat it before we got home. My mother, who fought overweight her entire life, would never have considered buying anything like Twinkies for the house. She didn’t even think it was an actual food, let alone a separate food group. And, Diet or not, we never had soda in the house. Soda wasn’t something you actually drank, it was a weird symbolic thing you served at barbecues and parties but not anything we associated with, like, thirst.
We also ate dinners as a family every night, just the four of us, and my mother cooked wonderful things from whatever meats she could afford – bean and barley soup, stewed chicken, salmon croquettes, flanken (don’t ask), vegetables, a fresh salad every night (true, with iceberg lettuce but that’s because it was the only lettuce that had been invented yet). My father was an early health nut who thought there was more nutritional value in cardboard than in white bread, a finding supported by science just a few years later, so we never had that. Dessert in our house might be a couple of cookies, and even that wasn’t a daily thing.
Of course my family didn’t celebrate Christmas. We are Jews. I have had the hardest time over the years trying to explain this to people and to be honest, I don’t think Denny actually believed me on that first date. I guess it’s just unbelievable.
After a few more shared reminiscences (I asked Denny what some of the ceremonial foods in his family were and he said that a good argument could be made for Cheez Whiz), he told me was that no matter where they were or what they were doing, on Christmas all his brothers came home. He said that his Mother was like a mamma bear and she wanted all her cubs around her.
More than anything, that was what sucked me in. The idea of that stability, that love and warmth and that family all wanting to be together with one another was very seductive. Listening to Danny talk about his family’s Christmases, I connected with my deep childhood yearning to one day find myself in that brightly-lit, homey Christmas scene with Marmee and the girls and, even though Danny was delivering a significantly different narrative, I think that while listening to him that first night, part of me decided that if I ever got chance, I would do just that.
He described Christmas morning in detail, how they would call his older brother Phil up and he would rush over from his nearby suburb and they would open stockings while they waited. Phil’s wife Cheryl never came because she was a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t believe in giving or getting Christmas presents, but Denny’s mom, Wendy, would give Cheryl presents, such as bedroom slippers, “for the house” anyways.
The menu for Christmas Eve, Christmas Morning and Christmas night was exactly the same every year and it sounded great to me. It was a veritable taref extravaganza. Wendy not only cooked oysters, she cooked them in cream, on the same day that they had both ham and quiche with bacon. Plus, they had pies, mincemeat pies. Apparently, she was quite a baker – Christmas cookies and fudge and toffee and banana bread.
He had me at hello.
As they say, the course of true love never did run smoothly and it took a while for us to get it together, but long before we exchanged vows, or rings, or registry lists, or, more importantly, before I went home with Denny for Christmas, I got a chance to meet his parents
The first time I met them they were out on vacation, even though it wasn’t summer or anything. They had flown out to Los Angeles to visit Denny and to have fun. They were big on having fun and that, too, was odd to me. My family went on vacations to the mountains or camping with other families or with relatives, but they brought the children, of course. They brought everyone. They wanted to show us something or they wanted to be in nature. Or we traveled to see family, to go to a wedding, or to a bar mitzvah. Or we went somewhere educational and did educational activities. But we never took a vacation just to have “fun.”
What is “fun,” anyways, I remember wondering. Is it like a party? Does it involve (fingers crossed), expensive champagne? Any champagne? Cocaine? Pot?
Denny’s youngest brother, Brian, was in middle school at that time, but he wasn’t with them. He wasn’t, I guess, part of the fun. Denny had told me that his parents were third generation Christian Scientists and the entire religion at that point was only about 150 years old so that was impressive. They didn’t, he said, drink or smoke, or even have caffeine. Except for the endless pots of coffee they brewed eleven hours a day, and of course, the Pepsi, but that didn’t count. I didn’t quite get why, but I was such a neophyte on Protestantism that I didn’t question it.
They were staying in a fun hotel in Hollywood not far from a famous Japanese restaurant with a fabulous view and blue drinks with little umbrellas. We picked them up at their hotel and Wendy, who was very attractive and slender and blonde, chatted gaily with us as she put the final touches on her cute outfit, primped her champagne blond flip, fixed her bright red lipstick and gave, first her own reflection and then us, a fairly dazzling smile. She was dressed in all red, white and blue with a big red/white/blue scarf around her shoulders and gold kissing-dragon hoop earrings and pearl necklaces and a fancy gold watch. She looked like a dream. In fact, she looked like my dream. She was camera perfect and ready to join the Baxters in some sunny sitcom heaven.
At brunch, the first thing she and Bill did when we got the restaurant was to order up a big pitcher of sangria because, she explained, they had been drinking that with friends nowadays, back home, and it wasn’t really alcoholic. I knew all about sangria and I was delighted because I was very nervous about meeting them and I’ve always considered alcohol to be a great social lubricant. It hasn’t always functioned as such for me, in fact au contraire, but in this case it didn’t matter. What I didn’t understand that morning, or for decades following that morning, was that it didn’t matter at all what I said or did or drank or didn’t drink because I didn’t matter. I wasn’t real. I was that nice looking young woman sent out from karmic central casting to play the role of Denny’s girlfriend at brunch that morning.
They were both very polite and convivial and Bill had a sweet, silly sense of humor and looked just like a TV Dad. We were all pretty much three sheets to the wind but we could be because the alcohol in sangria didn’t exist and, you know…like that.
The next day Danny and his parents went to Disneyland. I may have had to work. Even if I didn’t have to work, I doubt that I would have gone there with them. I don’t generally enjoy amusement parks. I am not amused. I had worked for years as a tour guide for professional French groups and a day at Disneyland had been part of the tour. It was ghastly. The French couldn’t get over how bad the food was. They were furious that there was no alcohol served in the park at the time. All the tour guides knew that you could take the Monorail to the Disneyland hotel and spend the entire day drinking at the bar, which is what every self-respecting tour guide in the region did, but it was kind of like an omerta thing and none of us ever broke the code.
I don’t remember the rest of that visit, it was brief, they had other places to go, but apparently I passed inspection or so I thought, and I didn’t see them again for over a year and by that time Denny and I had moved in together and actually fallen in love.
In between, Danny and I had our first Christmas together as a couple, my first Christmas, period. I mean I always had friends who celebrated Christmas, I went to parties, I decorated trees, I shopped for, wrapped, gave and received Christmas presents, I got Christmas bonuses and watched Christmas movies. In elementary school I learned many, many Christmas carols and performed them. But I had personally never “celebrated” Christmas because….okay…here goes: Not Everyone Celebrates Christmas. They just don’t. It’s great fun, good shopping, it’s all good. But there are people whose entire lives do not stop and on December 24th and resume again on December 26th. It is not a universal rite.
But for Denny and his family, it is. To be fair, Wendy and Bill were still at least occasional church-goers at that time. However, as anyone who hasn’t spent much of the last century under a rock knows, Christmas in America, whether on television or in what some call “real life” bears only a vague, remote connection with the birth of Jesus Christ.
Denny holds no religious beliefs. He is an absolute atheist and he already was when I met him. But he does believe in Christmas. Absolutely.
That year we shopped for our first Christmas tree together as a couple. I didn’t know the routine so I thought that you just went to a supermarket parking lot and grabbed a tree. That might be okay for Jews, or for the poor, but for Denny’s family that would not do. He told me that his family always got the biggest, tallest Christmas tree they could find. Even if it had to be cut quite a bit just to fit in the room. Even if it had to be delivered by a truck because the family station wagon roof wasn’t long enough. It had to be fresh, it had to be green, it had to be expensive, and it had to be huge. A few times the whole family had driven out to the country to saw one down, a la Chevy Chase, but now they just went together to special Christmas tree lots near their town and Mom would pick out the tree. Why Mom, you ask? Why not everyone? Or, er, at least Mom and Dad?
These are naïve questions of a sort that a Christmas neophyte neither deserves nor could ever understand the answer to, so none were proffered.
In the absence of “Mom,” Denny picked out the tree himself, with me watching. It took me more than a few years to understand that my suggestions, or even pointing to a tree or row of trees, was extremely unwelcome. There was a standard of excellence to all this, but I didn’t know what it was. I did know that I was supposed to admire the choice and help load the tree onto the roof of the car, tie it down, and carry it up the narrow stairs to our flat once Denny picked it out. Buying the Christmas tree always seemed, and still does, to make my normally good natured husband very crabby and nasty. For the first few years I thought it was because he was homesick. Later, I learned from a friend that her parents always had a Christmas tree fight when she was a child. Nu? You don’t like that tree, get a different tree! But then again, what do I know?
So, we got the tree and put it in the bay window of our flat on Wilton Place in Los Angeles and it looked so green and beautiful that I did not want to put anything on it. Again, that kind of stinking thinking was worse than even the troglodyte hypothetical 4th child at a Seder might present. Of course we had to decorate it.
True to my own Christmas fantasy I suggested that we string popcorn and cranberries and make orange pomanders and put tiny candles on the branches like in Marmee’s house, but those suggestions were roundly, immediately, mocked and eliminated. We needed to buy stuff. Lots of stuff – bulbs, lights, ornaments, tinsel, all that we, (at my home, not Marmee’s), would have categorized as chazzerei, which is a cute Yiddish way to say “garbage.” But I was down with it. I couldn’t wait. I went out to the drugstore and bought boxes and boxes of bulbs. I had a color scheme. Unfortunately, it was the color scheme of Hannukah, blue and silver, but I swear I didn’t do it on purpose, I just liked the way it looked.
Danny didn’t even consider it. For one thing all the bulbs were the same size, medium. He wanted them to be all different sizes and colors. He also had a plan for how the lights were to be wrapped around. It was a simple plan and yet one which he still, all these years later, is convinced that no one without a PhD in christmasbulbology could possibly hope to understand. This is his burden, putting on the lights, and it is, I guess, an onerous one. However, once that is accomplished, just as in our first year together, we can begin to decorate the tree and I get to help, although I apparently need both supervision and critical feedback.
That first year, Danny and I didn’t plan on spending Christmas itself together. He was flying back East to spend it with his family, and I was staying at home in L.A. which was good because I could take care of his dog, Odie. I could also drive him to the airport and pick him up. Except that the day before he was to leave, I became very sick with the worst flu I ever had, before or since. I was waiting at an audition when I suddenly ran an extremely high fever. I got so hot so fast that I was flushed and weak and dizzy and the casting agent’s secretary, (and they’re not known for being hypsensitive) sent me home in a taxi although she really wanted to send me to the Emergency Room. When I got home, Denny helped me up the stairs and into bed and then he finished packing and took a cab to the airport in the early morning hours.
I was really very sick. Maybe not as sick as Beth was in my dream Christmas but not significantly better, either. I slept for most of the next 10 days. I got my neighbor to walk Odie and my mother came over every day to feed me and make sure I was still breathing, and friends called to see if I needed anything. But not Denny. He called once, briefly, to make sure that Odie was okay. He was, he said, having a wonderful time.
The next year I went back East with him for Christmas. I had no idea what to bring as presents so I just got everyone a little something I thought they might like. Denny said that his Mom liked Christmas mugs so I went to Pottery Barn and bought her some, the nicest ones I could find.
That morning we left in great spirits, however, as the flight went on, Denny became increasingly more anxious. He wasn’t afraid of flying so I wondered what was making him so tense. He was bringing his girlfriend home to spend Christmas, his favorite holiday, with his family.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, at first, nothing. In those pre-9/11 days, people could come up to the gate to meet passengers and Denny’s Dad came right in and helped us with our bags. Bill was such a sweet guy, always very warm and welcoming. Later he told me that he had seen me first in the crowd and that I had looked so worried to make a good impression that he wanted to reassure me. In fact I was very anxious that Denny’s family wouldn’t like me, that I wouldn’t fit in, but it seemed like as soon as the plane landed, Denny became completely unavailable to me so I had no one to run those doubts by.
The town where Denny grew up is a lovely mid-Atlantic place. Although they were bare, there were oak trees everywhere and Denny’s family lived on the corner of a cul-de-sac on a hill surrounded by woods. It was probably a typical middle-class suburb but it seemed much more beautiful to me. It was the first time I saw electric candles in windows and some of the houses looked colonial and had tasteful, subdued wreathes and lights as decoration, completely dissimilar to the kind I was used to back home in California where gigantic plastic Frosty the Snowmen often vied on the same small lots with Santa-fied Mickey Mouses and, of course, fluorescent creches.
The Stock home was very pretty. Wendy had furnished it in early-American style. All the furniture was maple and there were Currier & Ives prints on the wall and pewter knick-knacks all around, and every single inch of the four bedrooms, three bathrooms, large family room, extra room (for the dogs), staircase, kitchen and dining room was covered with Christmas decorations – small golden trees, lights, figurines, bulbs, Santas, reindeer, teddy bears and elves. It must have taken days, if not weeks to do. But none of it compared to the Christmas tree in the capacious family room downstairs.
The tree looked like Marmee’s tree on steroids. The room it was in was a furnished basement nearly the length of the entire house but it was dwarfed by the tree which took up all of one corner and protruded out at least a good ten feet. In addition to all the usual decorations there were many figurines – angels, porcelain toys, little Santas, tiny wooden trains and sleds and figurines and houses, brass trumpets, silver bells – some of which looked like they had been in the family for years. Underneath, where presents would eventually go (if Santa came!) were many, many, many stuffed animals, all wearing Christmas togs.
I was mesmerized. Little by little I felt myself moving closer to that elusive perfect Christmas of my dreams.
It was an exceptionally cold winter that year. No one expected snow but there it was, all over the ground, and it wasn’t going anywhere. I was delighted. However, I had neither snow boots nor a hat, nor anything close to what one wears back East during a cold winter.
Denny’s brothers came home and I met them one by one. They were all sweet and friendly, if a bit reserved. They spent most of the day out with friends but we all had dinner together every night.
Denny and I spent most of the days before Christmas hanging out with Denny’s mom. Whenever we went out, shopping, Denny and his mom would sit in the front of the Lincoln in their full-length down coats, chatting away happily and listening to the kind of canned Christmas music one hears in malls and elevators. For some reason, the heat only reached the front of the car and I sat in the back shivering in my Los Angeles-weight winter coat. Every once in a while Denny would look back and ask me if I was alright (sweet) and I would say, “actually, it’s really cold back here” and they would turn the heat up for several minutes, after which Wendy would say, “Oh, it’s much too hot” and they would turn it back down.
That first Christmas Wendy didn’t actually speak directly to me, except once. She had gone to France with a few girlfriends the previous Fall, rented a car and had a splendid time. Wendy had always wanted to travel and over the next decades she and Bill did quite a bit of it, but this was her first trip to Europe and going to Paris had been a lifelong dream. I think Denny must have told her that I lived in France for two years and that I spoke perfect French. By the time he told her that, my French, which had never been perfect, was barely even passable but it sounded okay in restaurants, which is the only place he’d heard me use it. I had spent two years in France but I had done it the cheapest way possible. I went to a California State College and they had a Junior Year Abroad program and I declared myself a French major in order to go. I stayed a second year by reapplying for the same loan/grant that had gotten me there the first year and spent much of the next five years paying back that loan. In the midst of talking about her wonderful trip, she turned to me and said: “You know, I had to wait until I was over 50 to go to Paris. I didn’t get to just go whenever I wanted to, like you did,” and then went back to describing what sounded like a really good time.
Now, while it’s true that television has failed me over the years in some fairly important ways, in this one way, not standing up for myself with Denny’s mother, I completely failed myself. I was to do it again many times in the future. I think I expected Denny to stand up for me in some way, to correct his mom or to smile at me or to somehow indicate that he was the reason I found myself sitting in that kitchen listening to that story, because we were together. But he never did. I guess he never knew how to and, sadly, neither did I.
Wendy liked to talk and she entertained her family with lighthearted anecdotes of her daily tribulations with the folly of the world. She had slender, long-fingered hands and wore fake oval nails in shocking pink which she waved about in big arcs or used to pick maniacally at the tablecloth. She had a lilting chortle of a laugh that just made one want to join in. But it was hard to, because these follies always involved Wendy’s gentle triumph over one of two different categories of people: 1) people who were ‘funny looking’ – this included poor people, fat people, ‘colored people’, ‘orientals’ and Mexicans; and, 2) people who had a funny religion – this covered every Christian denomination except hers. (Jews didn’t even make it into that food chain until the following Christmas and Muslims not until several years later.) And her family, including my anti-racist, liberal boyfriend listened in rapt delight. It was like they were under some kind of dark enchantment.
Wendy was very obviously the “star” of the Stock family. Denny and his brothers competed with each other childishly for her attention and approval, and she adored that. But there was no contest. Denny looked like her and it was apparent to everyone that he was her favorite.
You know…there are few human situations which cannot be made considerably worse by soaking them in alcohol, fumigating them in marijuana, quickening them with cocaine, covering them with sugar, dousing them in flour and frying them in the hot fat of dashed expectations, unvoiced resentments, faulty memory and botched communications, and this one was certainly no exception.
Everything that was already wrong with me – eating too much, drinking too much, smoking too much, talking too much and, on occasion, being snide and sarcastic — became much, much wronger and there was nothing I could do to stop it. The more left out and isolated I felt, the more worthy of dislike I became. Especially to myself, and I was the only one actually looking.
Christmas for the Stocks was the unquestioned apotheosis of the year and the concomitant traditions were iron-bound. After dinner each night the Stocks played various board games together, which was great fun. They seemed rather intense about winning, especially Wendy, but I just thought that’s what people did. Whenever we had holidays at my house, we always had people in, aunt and uncles, cousins, old friends The Stock family Christmas seemed to be for the nuclear family only. Phil was married, but his wife didn’t come. Friends did not come over. There was no extended family. Neighbors didn’t stop by. The phone did not ring. Christmas was an island in time for them; an island in stopped time.
But here’s the thing, it was also an island in time for me: it was an island frozen not only in time, but on film. Christmas for me, that is Christmas at Marmee’s house, was stopped in that moment in pre-adolescence when my deep yearnings for love and connection and meaning and life all coalesced around a celluloid fantasy of what I thought ‘normal’ families and ‘real’ Americans and even actual history was. Wendy and I had both been dazzled by a whirlpool of make believe Christmases. But, while both our visions may have been firmly rooted in televiseable hype, we were clearly not looking at the same movie. I don’t think Wendy’s movie ever included any additional cast members. It was a closed set.
That first Christmas, and for several others to come, I was the only outsider. Mom, Dad and the kids. And me. Just like Marmee and the sisters and finally Father, and, finally, me.
Except that in Marmee’s house, as I visualized it, we all loved each other and we were having a really good time. In Marmee’s house, Christmas brought out what was best in everyone – kindness and generosity and the ability to be there for another human being. In Wendy’s house, I was so anxious to be liked and so apprehensive about my sequential and unstoppable and inexplicable faux pas that it took me a while to see that everyone else was also anxious. There was a frantic, almost driven quality to those days before Christmas as if we couldn’t listen to enough Christmas music, talk enough about Christmases past, eat enough sweets, play enough games, have enough fun or be happy enough. I felt so uneasy that I did not at first notice that everyone around me was uneasy as well. My anxiety was because I wanted to fit in, to please them, to maybe earn a little approval, maybe even a little, you know, love. What was causing theirs?
There were some calm moments. Christmas Eve was exactly as Denny had described it and as we stood over the beautifully set table and lifted our glasses of cranberry juice for a toast (an homage to the years in which the Stocks didn’t drink alcohol, at least in front of their children), I felt a moment of peace. There was genuine affection around that table and I basked in the warmth of this tight-knit family and the specialness of a family Christmas Eve, something I had never experienced before. Except, you know, on television.
The next morning, like children, Denny and I woke up early and crept downstairs to see if Santa had come. This was against the rules, the procedure was to go upstairs, have coffee and sweet rolls and wait until Phil, sans wife, came to open stockings. There was a special deliciousness to doing it, for me, because Denny and I were doing it together. Denny and I already had some history of doing forbidden things together so this was, for the first time in days, familiar territory for me.
Denny and I met when we were both in our late twenties. We shared, and still do, a somewhat overdeveloped sense of irony. No one, to my knowledge, has ever accused either of us of being mature beyond our years. We made bad jokes, laughed at bad movies, broke more than a few bad laws on a regular basis and reveled in the harmless, renegade adventures of each other and our friends. We both considered gainful employment, outside the professional theater, to be something of a scam and it took us years to actually rework that concept. I had been an actress in Hollywood for several years by that time and I have to say that I’d seen a few things that, while they didn’t make me cynical, probably made me harder to shock than some of my peers.
But when Denny and I opened the pre-fab door to the finished basement family room that morning, the sight of that tree actually made my jaw drop. It was overwhelming. Nearly the entire floor was covered with presents. All those days we had been out with Wendy, Bill had been in his study wrapping and taping and labeling and ribonning. I couldn’t believe that all these presents were for only six people. It looked like what I imagined a Unicef tree might look like if presents had been collected for, say, the entire population of Uganda.
Wendy must have spent the previous weeks and months shopping every single day for her family. The presents beneath that tree represented not only a substantial financial outlay but also hundreds upon hundreds of hours shopping and choosing and comparing and deciding and schlepping and organizing and storing away. It was, by any standard, a prodigious piece of work.
And here is another way in which television failed me. I had watched hundreds and hundreds of hours of Christmas specials, and seen Little Women more times than I could count. None of that prepared me for the typical Stock Christmas. Santa hadn’t only visited the Stocks, he’d set up a FoxConn installation there. The specials on TV always had families being reunited and poor kids getting that one special little toy that they really, really wanted. I could not imagine anyone wanting the amount of stuff that lay beneath that tree, for any reason. These were middle class people who could easily buy themselves anything they wanted or needed, and they did. What could possibly be in these packages that would warrant not only the expense but the sheer excess?
There are rituals involved in almost all repeated human interactions, but some rituals are more opaque than others. The Christmas rituals I saw on television were very easily discerned. Anyone could have learned them from a few cartoon specials, and everybody did. In America, everyone knows about wassail and caroling and Christmas trees and Santa. They may not know that a Russian Jewish immigrant named Irving Berlin (nee Israel Balin) wrote the song “White Christmas” but they know the song, the wistfulness, the movie. We’ve all seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” and many, many others like it. Most of us enjoy getting presents and most families have a certain ritual about how they present them. Still, I was as baffled by that first look at the Stock family Christmas tree as I have ever been.
We silently slipped back upstairs to have coffee and open stockings. Bill and Wendy made stockings for the kids every year, even when they were in their 40s, but they didn’t have stockings themselves. Wendy had been kind enough to include some things for me in Denny’s stocking – girlie things, hair knickknacks, gum, nail polish, a magazine and the boys all quickly tore through their stockings and pronounced themselves ready to go downstairs.
A hush fell over us all as we went into the family room, a collective “aaahhh” of reassured happiness was heard as the family saw what they expected to see. Everyone took their place around the presents: Wendy, Denny, Tim and Brian and on the opposite banquette, Phil. I was given a seat on the distaff side of Phil and that is exactly where I sat, on Christmas morning, for the next 10 years.
The Stock family procedure was for Wendy to indicate to Bill who was to get a present, in rotation, in order to be fair. Bill would find one for that person and we would all watch them open it and react. Later, when there were wives and children, the children might be given a small gift first, but then they had to wait their turn again. The brothers gave each other presents, small ones, and they gifted their parents, but by far the largest group of presents were from Wendy and Bill to their kids. Some of these said “from Mom and Dad” and some of them were from “Santa” although I never figured out what the criteria was there.
Every year Wendy would be concerned that somebody’s present had gotten lost in a cupboard somewhere and that the amount of presents might be uneven and also that Bill might have mislabeled a present. Every year she said in mock sheepishness that she had tried to “be good” about not shopping too much, but that obviously she had failed. Everyone smiled at that. How could there ever be too much?
The Stocks gave each other things they had asked for, but they also got lots of surprises. For example, a person might have asked for ski gloves and they would get ski gloves and also skis, ski pants, ski hats, ski goggles, a book (later a DVD) about skiing, a sweater, another sweater, a pair of pants, two sets of socks, TV trays, a frying pan, scarves, shirts, pajamas, a box of candy and, very often, a joke present like a wooden bass that flapped its tail or a snow scraper fashioned like a Yeti claw, and then we all knew that our household would get one as well. For girls, which at that time was just me, potpourri, pot holders, scented candles, bubble bath and of course a sweater, a cute top, a house robe, slippers, funny socks, another sweater, hand lotion, gloves, a pretty tray, tout quoi! There were a lot of presents. The boys would open each present, nod at it and look up and say “thanks.” Phil was never very happy with whatever his presents were and that always made Wendy rather cross but that, too, was part of the routine. Every year Bill would get Wendy something she had asked for, a toaster oven or a casserole or a throw rug, and whatever it was, it was never exactly what she wanted and every single year Wendy would turn to Denny and say: “You know, I should have asked you to get it,” because apparently while Denny lived at home he always shopped for Wendy’s present from Bill. Later, I would shop for Wendy’s Christmas gifts and also Wendy’s birthday gifts and she would smile her sweetest, warmest smile and tell Denny that he “always knew what to get her.”
That year Denny and his parents gave me several presents: a watch, a chenille bathrobe, lovely hair combs. All I gave them were some things for the house – a hurricane lamp, some fancy jam, the Christmas mugs. I gave Denny a beautifully bound book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and he and Phil joked that he had given me all these nice presents and I had only given him some dumb book. Now, I realize that was a way to make me feel included, and also that sometimes men joke in ways that women don’t, but after that year my husband and I didn’t exchange Christmas gifts again for many years, mostly because we were broke, and that suited me just fine.
We started opening presents at around 9:00 a.m., broke for snacks (and alcohol) at around 11:00, and by 2:00 it was all over but the shouting. It was an exhausting routine and no one looked very happy about it. We had a self-serve sandwich lunch and thanked one another and then everyone went to their rooms to put their things away, or went for a walk, or took a nap.
A warm, empty silence would then flood the house and in the decade or so that I went home with Denny for Christmas this was always one of my favorite moments. The worst, and the best, was now over. Little by little we could all return to ourselves and our ordinary lives and by that time each year my ordinary life looked enticingly seductive. I couldn’t wait to get home.
On the plane ride home Denny and I spoke little. We were tired and hung over and we had both thought horrible things about one another in the space of the eight or so days. At least I had. I was disappointed in myself and in Denny and in our relationship and in Christmas. My parents stopped giving my sister and me gifts for Hannukah by the time we went to college. Instead they cut us a check, which is what we both needed and suddenly, instead of seeming drab and minimalist, this looked like a huge advance in civic culture. My mother’s directness and secularism and my father’s genuine effort to try and live an authentic life now elevated them in my regard onto spiritual heights neither one of them would have appreciated. I wasn’t making comparisons, there were none to be made. My lifelong longing to be someone I was not and to be someplace where I did not belong had finally backfired on me and I had brought it all on myself. It turned out that my father was right, television had rendered me senseless.
However, if television has taught me anything, and it has, that thing is resilience.
My real Christmas miracle was that Denny and I recovered from that Christmas and continued to do so for the next decade until I finally, at the urging of friends, therapists and what little common sense God or DNA gave me, refused to go back East for Christmas. Soon afterwards the other brothers and their wives did the same.
In between, Denny and I grew up and had children and got better jobs and all that stuff. We worked hard to understand and value our differences and when we couldn’t, to accept them. It hasn’t been a television journey.
But every year, we celebrate Hannukah together. We both appreciate the quiet beauty of bright candles on a dark winter night. And, of course, we continue to have Christmas and trim trees and play games and wrap presents and go crazy trying to make everything perfect.
And some years, in the mad afterglow of Christmas day, as our friends and family gather with us around our smaller, gorgeous tree, I tear up a little thinking of all that we have gained and lost over these many years, and I find myself listening for the faint snort of horses and sleigh bells wending their way to us through the warm California snow.
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