For several years now, Billy’s aunt has asked us to come and spend Christmas with her. “We should finally do it,” I said. “You know she’ll be alone again.”
By mid-November, the dread of the obligations to festivities of the season begins. Plans have to be made so as not to be left out. I would wish to fit in with all the others who might easily pirouette through the year’s end of feasts, of songs and of lights that blink in the night. Christmas has layers of memories sweet and sad, joyous and horrific. I want to be one of the people who pile into cars and airplanes, just because they have been invited somewhere or bought themselves a place to go to. How often isn’t it a chore? How often aren’t prescriptions of good will and good times a trap? I have wrestled my life away from many such conventions. But Christmas claims me. At Christmas, I want a vacation from the free me.
“This year I will prepare Christmas dinner at your aunt’s,” I said. “Don’t you think that will be very nice?”
“Well, think about it.” Billy attempted to shield me from my Christmas machinations in the direction of seasonal goodwill. “How long do you think you’ll be able to stand Anna’s fussing and fluttering?”
I dismissed Billy’s concern. “Haven’t you noticed that Anna and I always find things to talk about.” Yes, that is true. We do. So much so, that I have often felt like the second old lady in the room. Two old ladies chattering about things that are of no interest to him. Certainly, without my Christmas obsession, Billy would gladly ignore the whole frenzied season altogether.
“She wants you to order a goose.” Billy was talking on the phone to his aunt. I listened on the extension. “A goose! Oh, goodness,..yes!” Anna, as promised was already fluttering at the other end of the line: “This will be, yes… Willy…a new experience for me… Yes!” She had never had goose for Christmas. Billy assured her that I would do all the cooking. We would be paying for all the food.
Out of my Swedish cookbook, I copied the roasting directions for goose as well as for the red cabbage and those glazed potatoes. Taking my little scenario on tour was the perfect antidote to potential Christmas sadness. I was going to find a fresh salvation just by preparing holiday food in Billy’s aunt’s kitchen.
The decision was settling. When asked by friends or neighbors in the elevator of our apartment building in New York City, I could say plainly, quietly, or viva voce: “We are going away. North. To snow. To New England. And you? Oh, how nice. Blah. Blah. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.”
The 45-minute flight on Jet Blue deposited us in Burlington Vermont. As soon as we were on the ground Billy called his aunt. “She has picked up the goose,” he said.
We stepped out of the terminal heading for the parking lot. Our rented car waited in the designated Avis spot. Our breath curled out of our lungs, meeting the pristine cold, cold air. We settled into the front seats of the rented car. The two of us driving again through the unsunny landscape of winter in New England. Inside the car, we were warm and cozy. I turned on the radio. Christmas music transformed the rented vehicle into a concert hall on wheels. It was Christmas Eve afternoon. I loved looking at Billy’s strong, beautiful hands on the steering wheel. I was happy.
At the door to her ground floor condo, properly located near the University in Hanover, aunt Anna, very thin and trim, bunny slippers on her feet, enveloped in a big ski sweater, embraced us both with the anticipated flurry of: “This is great, oh.,. yes, …this is nice… You see, yes… I am so glad…, She fussed and chirped: “Welcome, Yes…” Yes, this is really Christmas. Yes.”
We arranged our sleeping bags in the small extra room and unpacked our traveling bags.
“Your package from California arrived,” said Anna. I had asked my son and daughter-in-law to mail their presents for Billy and me to New Hampshire. Quite a few boxes of shiny wrappings and ribbons were arranged under the leafy plant, decorated with blinking white lights. It was not a half-bad compromise. She had opened all the mailed boxes and freed them from bubble wraps and clinging Styrofoam peanuts. We added our few packages to beneath the ersatz tree. Big, strangely lugubrious looking thick candles, quite a few of them, were arranged on tables and shelves in the living room of the small apartment.
“Now I’ll get rid of all this junk,” Billy said, moving resolutely toward the mailing cartons that were piled up by the entrance door to the apartment. He started to crush the boxes and packing materials. He carried the stuff out to the garbage dumpsters in the enclosed shed that sits in the middle of the parking lot available to the condo residents. The semicircular condominium of two-story units is neat and proper and safe and quiet as death.
Along with the goose, Anna had obediently picked up potatoes, the head of red cabbage, onions and apples the day before. I moved full force into the kitchen. I made do with the electric stove, dull lightweight knives and thin pots that were not exactly chef Cuisenaire equipment. I chopped and mixed and stirred. Anna fluttered helpfully and was content to clean up dishes after me. The darkening late afternoon was filling with the holiday smells remembered from other times. In my mind, I was still preparing quantities of food suitable for more than three people. In cooking, the large head of cabbage shrank considerably. Before I refrigerated the concoction, both Anna and I dipped into it and decided that the Swedish sweet and sour traditional dish had turned out well. We ate some with the small tough steaks of an indeterminate cut, that Anna had supplied for Christmas Eve dinner.
I persuaded aunt Anna to come with me to midnight mass. She drove through the snowy, shut down, picture postcard town with the car window fogging up. I could not help her with the defroster, that she somehow could not find the appropriate button for. I thought it was foolhardy to make this woman venture out in her car on a dark icy night so that I could claim a need to add my voice to others singing Silent Night at midnight on December 24.
The town was empty. The church was packed. The pre-service carol singing was already in progress when we came in. Anna, who had been raised Russian Orthodox and not been in church forever was unsure of herself in this post-Ecumenical Episcopal church. We were greeted by a smiling usher and handed a program for the service. She followed a step behind me. I found us seats in the fourth pew directly behind a large lady dressed in a riotously vivid silk dress and black hat piled with flowers and veiling. Next to her sat a good old boy in blazer and plaid trousers. Both turned around and treated us to welcoming smiles. A young man seated next to me handed me a hymnal. Once a year I like to be the anonymous stranger at such a table. None of these people would ever know of the Nazis charging into the chapel of the Benedictine convent, in Krakow on December 25, 1944, to round up what remained there of Jews posing as Catholics.
The procession of the celebrants in white and green festival vestments and the robed choir entered from the refectory and came down the center aisle. The elaborate cross was carried by a young woman with long blond tresses. She was flanked on each side by two attendants followed by the pastor, the ministers, the acolytes… One of them swung the filigreed brass vessel on a chain. The church was quickly filling with the sweetish odor of incense. I looked around at this assembly of worshippers perfectly tailored to the Christmas scene in a lily-white small town in New England. The frail old lady who could not stand without assistance, the dutiful family members at her side. The white-haired gentlemen, their wives with sensibly trimmed short haircuts, tartan skirts, velvet blazers. Couples with impatient small children already on their way to benign indoctrination, pale girls with long hair in frilly dresses.
When the front of the processional passed our pew, I bowed along with everyone. Billy’s aunt did not bow. The very old lady in the aisle across from us did not have to. Her body was trapped in a permanent bow. At her side, a middle-aged proper son or in-law was steadying her. I needed to give myself to the embrace of Christmas. I genuflected, I participated in the responses. I sang. I joined in the Credo and the Lord’s Prayer. I am a pretender. If I know the lines, no one will suspect me. I’ll pass. In the part of the service when people extend the Greeting of Peace, Anna, the less experienced, churchgoer, was truly taken aback by the sudden outburst of shaking hands, embracing, offering greetings. I shook hands with the young man who had passed me the hymnal, the lady in the elaborate black hat, the gentleman in plaid trousers…, “Peace be with you. Peace be with you.” I was aglow. I hugged Anna. “Peace be with you, Merry Christmas.”
The minister who delivered the sermon was a thin, beautiful patrician woman of uncertain age. Her graying blond hair was cropped short and neat, in a style I have come to associate with members of the Episcopal female clergy or aging British actresses. Her sermon, suitable to the season, was a childlike story, an “uplifting” story, about a little girl who lived with her parents, who were part of an international medical corps, in a war-torn country.
The little girl had tried to gather, as best as she could materials to construct a crèche. She had been hesitant about the few little toys she possessed. Substituting a small teddy bear, an elephant, a plastic frog, for the sheep and cow and donkey that she knew were the animals that ought to be surrounding the manger. A clown doll was going to be the Joseph. “Do you think this is good, mama,” she had asked with each selection. Her mother thought it was just fine. Especially the choice of a Barbie in a nurse’s uniform with a red cross printed on the bodice, that made a perfect Mary. Not having a toy for the baby, the little girl finally came up with the inspired choice of a lighted candle stump for the Christ child. The parents were enchanted with their daughter’s imagination, her understanding of Christ as a shining light.
Well, yes, the minister did tell, there had been an attack on the village. The little girl and her family, hiding in an underground cellar, survived the burning down of their home. Throughout the delivery of her sermon, a perfect glow of a toothy smile never left the face of the minister. Hers was a calculated performance. When the sermon was done I had to stop an impulse to applaud. But, I couldn’t help thinking that, war tore land or not, the house fire might have been started by the candle stump Christ child.
At the end of the service, the people filing out of the church were, as is the custom, greeted by the celebrants. Before heading out into the icy night, before climbing back into Anna’s Toyota, I wanted to stay connected to these docile strangers for another few moments. Barely stopping myself from saying, ‘good show’ to the minister, I said, “Thank you for that lovely sermon.” Face to face she really looked not unlike Vanessa Redgrave. She visibly basked in the certainty that she had given a good performance.
As if presenting a passport, adding legitimacy to my participating in Christian Christmas, I prolonged my moment with the minister: “It reminded me of the book of nativity poems,” I confided,” I only a few days ago read to a little girl.” Tacking on my coda I felt unctuous, but couldn’t stop: “The pictures showed the manger surrounded with elephants and tigers…. it even included a rat!” The churchwoman, her beatific smile never leaving her face, shook my hand and blithely said: “Oh, but then, we do know! the Hindus are so very inclusive.”
What? Hindus? Where did they pop up from? How did Hindus insinuate themselves into my mention of a Nativity poem? I was stunned. Something I said had been misunderstood. “Are they? Are the Hindus inclusive?” I said to this syrupy woman. “What about their caste system?” I added. The smile on the face before me was dimming. Hurrying after Anna through the church door, I tossed a final “Merry Christmas,” behind me.
“What did she say to you,” Anna asked, turning the key in the motor. I repeated the minister’s remark. “Why was it, I wonder. yes.” She was busy with the defroster problem again. Anna would never have started a chat with a total stranger, who might never again cross her path. Two minutes into the short night ride through the pretty, snowy deserted town, with Anna peering cautiously through her defrosting car window, it came to me.
“Anna,” I said. “She thought I was Indian, East Indian.” The self-satisfied example of the new, inclusive Episcopal clergy, so bolstered by the glow of her own performance, had presumed the right to let her light shine upon all god’s children! In that congregation filled with blond and grey-haired New Englanders, there I had been, with my long dark hair, my brown eyes, an old Aulander.
“You should have told her you were Jewish,” Anna laughed. “Of course, Anna. Of course, I should have.” I probably wouldn’t have. Even if I had been quicker on the uptake.
On Christmas morning, Anna and I peeled and chopped apples and onions. I added pitted prunes that had been soaking overnight. This mixture went into the very large, emptied out innards, goose cavity. I folded the skin over the stuffing and crisscrossed a fresh piece of string over the steel pins that I had remembered to buy at a household supply store before we left New York. It was all messy but lusty and promising. Billy had already built his fire.
“This is no way to work,” he said coming into the kitchen. “You have to have a clean surface. You have to have order.” He moved with the full force of a determined commandant sweeping the not very efficient kitchen counters of apple cores and onion peelings. Just, as the day before, he had crushed and removed all the mailing boxes that Anna had stacked by the door.
“Yes, Willie, yes.” Anna’s spices with extra affection the playing on his name. She, who had no children of her own adored her nephew. I never knew Billy’s mother who had died young of cancer, had serious bouts of depression and a miserable marriage to Billy’s father. Anna had made a promise to her dying sister that she would be a mother to the young man.
By the time we began to pick out and open one by one the presents from under the Christmas plant, the kitchen counters were ready for the next phase of cooking. The little apartment was pleasantly perfumed with smells from the roasting goose, morning coffee and baked pastries.
The presents Anna and Billy and I were about to exchange were not weighted with holiday importance. Billy unwrapped a package with several small bottles of cleaning fluid for eyeglasses from Anna. Anna unwrapped our present to her, the teapot, two cups and saucers, and little packages of an assortment of teas. To me, Anna gave a small blown glass vase from a local blower. There were three cans of fancy French sardines to Billy from me. And three pairs of socks. Billy had presented me with a new cell phone, the smallest, neatest object imaginable.
My boyish, blond, one-eyed Billy. Thinned hair now. Cleaning his glasses. Only one lens needs attention. The other eye gone forever with his antique biplane, crumpled like a yellow origami butterfly on that Vermont field, several, years before.
It was time to open the presents from my son and daughter-in-law and granddaughter from California. The ones that Anna had taken out of the mailing box and arranged under her plant festooned with a string of Christmas lights. I unwrapped a coffee table book about a shoe designer. An amusing tee shirt with studs forming a star. Some cats cavorting in an artist’s studio, some classic films on DVD for Billy.
“How nice,” I kept saying. “How thoughtful.” I wasn’t going to admit the disappointment I felt opening the somewhat perfunctory selection of gifts from the coast. Billy knew very well the care and time and money I had spent. “You are overdoing it,” he had said.” But, I love that trio.
On the East coast, daylight was beginning to fade. It was almost time to relight Anna’s collection of thick candles.
The roasting goose needed to be looked at. Anna and I opened the oven door. I lifted out the heavy pan onto a towel placed on the counter that Billy had cleaned so well. I removed the dome of tin foil. The big bird, cradled in the V-shaped rack was roasting according to schedule. A deep pool of grease had already collected in the bottom of the pan. The slowly measured cooking process was tempering the bird’s dead muscles and sinews, loosening flesh from bone. The meaty thighs clinging close to the body were almost done, according to the cooking instructions, ready when “the juices run clear.” The butcher had chopped off the useless lower legs at the knee joint. Not so long ago the bird had promenaded and honked and chased other geese on green grass. The two other protrusions, the remnants of powerful flapping wings, stiffly hugged the sizzling carcass. I replaced the tinfoil and slid the pan back onto the oven rack. Billy was sharpening a large not very promising knife, getting ready to carve. Soon the bird would be ready to transfer from the roasting pan to a platter. I shook the parboiled potatoes in the butter and sugar glaze. I was time to reheat the red cabbage.
Billy and Anna were looking forward to the dinner goose. Anna basked in the company of her darling nephew and his bustling lady friend. I knew she welcomed a different set of sounds and puttering, an interlude in her self-protective daily routine. I had not set out to have a thrilling time, but, I really wasn’t having a bad one.
It was when I called California that my small, unexciting, very well planned Christmas with Billy’s aunt Anna in New Hampshire, shattered.
”What charming presents,” I cooed into my cellular phone. “And the wrappings were so nice.” My voice, adjusted to the proper liquidity of holiday civility and motherly affection, poured into the compact three-inch box of communication at my ear and traveled on inexplicable waves from the east to the west coast. My daughter-in-law was busy in her kitchen. She sounded distracted. “I am cooking dinner for six grown-ups and four kids.” No comments on the gifts.
I asked if my son’s leather jacket fit. Oh, sure it was fine. I went down the list asking how he had liked his cotton shirts, how she had liked her silk shirts, the book on Matisse. How had the kid liked her party dresses, etc., etc. Everything was perfect. As I felt more and more foolish and deflated going down this list, I finally asked: “And your locket? “I am wearing it,” was my daughter- in- law’s response.
Through the tiny receiver clutched to my ear, from the coast on the other side of the land where it was twelve o’clock noon, came the question: “How did you like your chain and pearl necklace.” What in the world was she talking about? What chain. “Didn’t you open it?” I listened, helpless, while my daughter-in-law described the platinum chain, with inserted pearls, she and my granddaughter had found in a fancy and hip jewelry boutique. “The little pink box with the purple ribbon and the flower sprig,” my daughter –in –law was saying. No such gift had been among the other presents. I panicked. “You have to take another look,” my son’s wife said. ”We’re here. Call back.” I sat there with Billy’s Christmas gift silent in my hand. In my head the vision of Anna emptying the presents out of the California UPS box. And Billy crushing boxes and packing materials and carrying them out to the garbage.
“She must have missed the little box among the peanuts!” I hissed at Billy. ”Your aunt had no business opening the package from California.”
“I told her she could when UPS delivered,” Billy admitted sheepishly. “You told me she could.”
“I. what, no…” I didn’t… no, I… What peanuts?” Anna was completely flummoxed.
“And, you and your stupid cleaning,” I hissed at Billy. “You threw out my present. Just tossed it. Both of you did.”
Anna kept mumbling, looking at the sliding glass door. I hated her for not knowing what packing peanuts are. Hated her hesitant, incomplete phrases, her fluttering, her surreptitious turning off of lights to save electricity! That was it. She sat in the dark. It was easy to miss one small box hiding in the packing material when she took out the other presents and arranged them under her blinking plant, her ersatz Christmas tree. And he, he, his rules and tactics for cleaning and order. I hated Billy. I hated his aunt. I hated everything connected to him and her and the hazy, uninformed churchgoing people of New England. I only loved my family in California.
Billy was heading for the door. “I’ll go through the garbage in the dumpster,” he was calm. Anna was already putting on her big sweater, ready to follow him. I threw on my parka and trooped through the snow in my flat, thin indoor shoes. I felt hopeless. Betrayed. I said nothing. I didn’t feel the cold. All I could think of was my pretty charming granddaughter, her little hand reaching up to the counter, fingering the necklace I would never see, proudly telling the sales clerk what a perfect Christmas gift she and mama had been so clever to find for her nonina.
The dumpster in the center of the condominium circle was filled to the brim with freshly discarded boxes and Christmas wrappings. It was neat suburban garbage, as proper as the church people from the night before had been. Billy climbed up on an empty garbage can. How in the world could one possibly imagine that a tiny box would not be lost forever in this massive stack of properly arranged detritus?
Billy was balancing on the upturned garbage can bending over from the waist thrusting his arms and hands in among the crumpled recently discarded packing materials. Christmas day. Freezing cold of late afternoon in New England.
“Here are some peanuts,” Billy’s voice came from where he was bent in half reaching into the overflowing dumpster. Hundreds of peanut filled packages must have been thrown into the dumpster. “You know that this is futile,” I was resigned, spent. Now, I was shivering. I wanted to go home. To New York. I wanted to go to California.
Billy’s head reappeared over the edge of the dumpster. He climbed out and stood tall on top of the garbage can. Hovering above us, his right arm lifted in the air, like that of the Statue of Liberty with the lighted torch. In his hand, he held a small box wrapped in pink paper, tied with a purple ribbon. It had a sprig of miniature dried flowers attached where the ribbon was tied in a bow.
“It’s a miracle,” laughed my very Jewish daughter-in-law, when I called. “It’s a real, fucking Christmas miracle. Do you like it?” I hadn’t even opened the box when I rushed for my new phone. “Whatever it is I will love it,” I cried.
I sat by the fire trembling with the unopened gift in my hand and forgiveness in my heart. When I finally unwrapped the miraculously retrieved box, it contained a very pretty short chain of platinum, somewhat resembling a bicycle chain. Inserted in each link was a small pearl. It was a chic necklace for a young, snappy person. Or, for a hip older one. An object to flatter a woman who loved to ride on the back of a motorcycle and also loved to hang pearls around her neck when she went to the opera. It was a thoughtful, witty gift. I loved it.
We sat down to the Christmas goose dinner. In spite of the make-do knives in Anna’s kitchen, Billy managed to carve the roasted bird into presentable thin slices. I had shaken the potatoes to their glazed perfection. The red cabbage, reheated, tasted as it should, better than the day before. The jar of Swedish Lingonberries, that I had insisted on, completed the meal. “This is a new experience, yes” Anna kept repeating, “yes….
Billy, relieved, after the drama of the necklace in the dumpster, was eating lustily. “Goose meat tastes gamey,” he said, reminding himself, his aunt, me, of his hunting days with his father. “Almost like a deer steak. I like it.”
“Yes… delicious… yes,” Anna agreed. “A new experience for me. Yes…” If the dark, somewhat stringy meat of the decimated bird didn’t exactly repulse me, it didn’t really tempt me either. The Christmas dinner was just something to end the day with. My hand kept reaching up to my neck. I was convinced, that if I didn’t keep touching it, my necklace would evaporate.
In the end, the necklace would have been just another generous but obligatory gift for Christmas. Over time it would become just another thing. But, right there and then, the value of the little bit of metal and nacre warming my neck could never have been assessed by a jeweler.
The next morning, after saying proper goodbyes, I took the wheel on the trip back to the airport. The road to Burlington, Vermont was properly plowed. The sun was shining. The hoarfrost was melting. Under my coat and scarf, I felt for my necklace. Christmas with Billy’s aunt Anna in Hanover, New Hampshire was over.
Editors Note: It is a privilege to publish Anita Lobel’s Christmas story on StatORec. Anita is an award-winning illustrator of children’s books and the hippest holocaust survivor I’ve ever met.
Anita Lobel’s memoir of her childhood experiences during World War II, published as young adult literature, has moved readers of all ages throughout America and around the world. It is simultaneously disarming and surprising in its point of view
No Pretty Pictures was started in 1996 as individual pieces of writing in a downtown New York writer’s group. It was completed in Vermont in the summer of 1998.
Published by Greenwillow Books in 1998, it was nominated for the National Book Award in November of that same year.
No Pretty Pictures has been translated into French, German, and Japanese.