Sunday, June 18, 2017

Everything Will be All Right (Published in The Amherst Bulletin, June 15, 2017)

I didn’t cry at my only child’s graduation from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana recently. The older I have gotten, the less sentimental I have grown, which somehow makes me think of Yeats’ lines on his grave, “Cast a cold eye/On life, on death/ Horseman, pass by.”
Still, there was one moment in the Baccalaureate Ceremony in the Wellness Center on Saturday morning—it had been raining with Biblical ferocity for days and all ceremonies were indoors--when one of the graduating seniors from a village in Kenya stood up at the lectern and said one sentence, in his sing-song African accent, that nearly unleashed a flood of tears inside me: “Everything will be all right.”
         Surely he must have said more, as so many of the commencement speakers did that day—reflections about the urgency of embracing lost causes, advice about tolerating uncertainty and adversity, metaphors about how humans are like stars in that none of us alone creates a constellation…and yet, it was as if those five words cast a spell over everything else—The Buddhist and Hebrew Prayers, the Quaker Quotations, the Spanish Poems—and created a stillness that quieted even the gestures of the interpreter for the hearing impaired. 
         Everything will be all right. Even though we are presided over by “the man in orange,” as one African-American student speaker referred to him, who seems hell-bent on applying a wrecking ball to every piece of progressive legislation of his precedessor, making it harder for Earlhamites from Muslim countries to travel back to their homelands. But courts have already challenged the constitutionality of this travel ban and graduating seniors have created The International Student Relief Fund to help Earlham students who might be affected by the travel ban, a fund which has already raised several thousand dollars, and to which this writer has contributed a modest sum.  
         Everything will be all right. Even though the world in which my son will be taking his place is increasingly bifurcated by the haves and the have-nots, those with many zeros behind their names and those who struggle to get by on a few dollars a day.
But all is not lost because my son and many of his peers are pledging to give back to their communities, determined not to model their lives after the self-aggrandizing offspring of the 45th president.  In August, my son will start working for City Year, an Americorps program for Apprentice Teachers in inner-city Boston. Forgoing many of the pleasures he grew up with, he will live close to the poverty level, helping students in under-served public schools reach their potential and graduate from high school.
         Everything will be all right. Even though my only child’s father and I have been divorced for four years, a divorce that was sometimes bitter, as divorces will be, as were the divorces of both sets of his grand-parents. Still, here we are sitting for many hours side-by-side in the metal folding chairs in the Wellness Center of Earlham College, watching our son being folded in the bosomy embrace of the Registrar, filing out into the sunshine of a perfect May day and meeting the kindly professor with a full, white beard who reminds us of Dumbledore in Harry Potter and who says that having our son in his Islam and film class every morning was a joy.
         Everything will be all right because we are held still in this achingly imperfect world trying not to cast too cold an eye on those who have come before us and those who come after us and struggling, in our imperfect ways, to put ourselves to right.   
 All posts copyright© 2017. All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced or distributed without attribution and/or permission of the author

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Magic of Pussy Hats

On inauguration day—rainy and dank and “full of mourning,” as one friend wrote on a Facebook post—we gathered in my friend Christine’s kitchen in Hastings-on-Hudson and made signs, first trolling the Internet for catchy slogans. Christine, who had already knitted several pink pussy hats, liked “Keep Your Tiny Hands Off My Rights,” while I was partial to “If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention,” though I worried it could be too much work to block and color all those letters. We settled on WOMEN’S RIGHTS: NOW AND FOREVER and LOVE TRUMPS HATE, though Pat, a college English teacher, pointed out that grammar was key for this slogan because if you used the possessive LOVE TRUMP’S HATE, you could be mistaken for a supporter of the new president.  
         But with our pink pussy hats, pink scarves, and pink backpacks filled with clementines and hard-boiled eggs, we were instantly identified as women’s marchers. Riding the train into Grand Central the next morning, gathering on 42nd street to walk up Fifth Avenue to Trump Tower, with thousands of other grandmothers, mothers, and daughters memed out in pink, we didn’t spot one he-who-must-not-be-named supporter. (The only figure remotely threatening was a hulking guy in an oversized black jacket with letters on his back screaming JESUS SAVES FROM THE WRATH OF GOD, the last four words going up in flames.) Having read about outbreaks of violence in D.C. on inauguration day—a limo set on fire, a Starbuck’s window smashed—we had worried that we could be beaten up, pepper sprayed, or even arrested.
         But the mood was benign, almost festive. About an hour before our group, which included Christine’s daughter, son-in-law, and three children, was scheduled to march, I had hurried across 42nd street to use a café bathroom (the lines for the Ladies in Grand Central were epic). Returning, I spotted a platoon of some fifty New York City police decked out in biking gear, mounted on ten speeds and pedaling East. Along the crowded sidewalks, protesters and passersby stopped to watch, cheer, and clap. Wow! This was light years away from the sixties where the cops were pigs. It was as if all of New York were turning out to say no to this native New Yorker who threatened to take away everything—from the Affordable Care Act to Planned Parenthood to the fine points of the First Amendment—that New Yorkers held dear.  
         I took 173 photos that day, asking my friends to hold our signs so that I could record everything: the faces, the outfits, the signs, which outdid one another in manic creativity: CUT YOUR HAIR NOT OBAMACARE read one held by Christine’s ten-year-old granddaughter. A slight, sixtyish balding man standing alone in the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Hall held up a sign that he’d obviously spent some time creating: REPEAL AND REPLACE TRUMP: PROFESSIONALLY UNPREPARED, INTELLECTUALLY ILL-INFORMED, MORALLY COMPROMISED, and TEMPERMENTALLY UNFIT. He beamed when I asked to take his picture. Another guy brandished a MAKE AMERICA THINK AGAIN sign. But my favorite was the one crayoned in childish red scrawl on a raggedy piece of cardboard and held up by a girl in pig tails clinging to her pink-scarfed mother two blocks from Trump Tower: MY DOG WOULD BE A BETTER PRESIDENT.   
         The plan had been to walk to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza and then north up Second Avenue before turning west toward Fifth Avenue. But the crowds were so thick that we only got as far as Lexington before heading uptown. At times, there was human gridlock. We came to a standstill.  If you suffered from claustrophobia, being in such close quarters with others could be scary. But the faces—black, brown, white, young, old, male, female—of the marchers reassured you, and, as you got closer to Trump Tower, there were volunteers in orange vests on the sidewalks, some holding loudspeakers. On Fifth Avenue, you could hear bells from St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church playing “This Land is Your Land,” and somehow you knew that everything was going to be okay, that the spirit of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and Ghandi were with you.
         Later that afternoon, gathering for a glass of wine in the kitchen in Hastings-on-Hudson, we watched MSNBC, which had been covering the march in D.C. all day, the sister marches in Boston and San Francisco and Seattle, in London and Paris and Antarctica, we felt what I can only describe as a kind of elation. We had lived to tell our tale; we were part of something magical, something larger and bigger than anything we had ever witnessed in our lifetimes, and even though it was disturbing to watch Sean Spicer shouting at reporters in the White House press room that the media had falsified the numbers at the inauguration, that there were more people at Trump’s inauguration than at Obama’s two previous inaugurations, more people, in fact, than at any inauguration in history, assertions that would later be proven false, what Kellyanne Conway would call “Alternative Facts,” even though all this was crazy-making and even more crazy-making the evil executive orders President Trump would sign that very first week—cutting funds for abortion at home and abroad, building a wall against Mexico, limiting immigration to the U.S. from Muslim countries—still, what could not be taken away, not by Sean Spicer, not by Kellyanne Conway, not by Steve Bannon, was that we had shown up and resisted and permitted ourselves to be counted--all over the city, all over the country, all over world, and that we would not shut up until this mad dog of an illegitimate president was reined in by Congress or the courts. Yes, he was the leader of the free world, but he was accountable to us, the people, and we would not let him forget it.     
All posts copyright© 2017. All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced or distributed without attribution and/or permission of the author

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Garlic and Sapphires in the Mud: Remembering Paul Priest, 1931-2015

He was my first cousin once-removed, which didn’t really count as family, something I was acutely aware of when the young doctor at Wheatfields appeared in the visitors room, looking grim and wanting to discuss Paul’s condition. After asking whether I was Hannah and finding that I was not, was instead this distant American relation, he disappeared down the hall. It would not be until evening that Hannah would explain the problem: Paul was getting better, or at least not getting worse, “stabilized,” as the doctor had called it. The average stay at Wheatfields was a week—Paul had been there for a fortnight--and the National Health Service wanted something to be done: a transfer back to his flat in Quaker House or into a nursing home.  
“I’m being punished for living,” Paul had wailed when Hannah told him the news. He was listing to the right in the bed he had not left since he arrived, the retractable tray across his food-stained, tee-shirted belly filled with yogurt cups, dried apricots, Sippy cups of fennel tea as well as envelopes, cards, and poetry books (a pocket Emily Dickinson, a chapbook by one of his poetry group members), far more lively than his fellow-traveler across the hall, a woman who lay open-mouthed and still as a sarcophagus, gone by week’s end.
         The password for Wheatfields’ Wi-Fi was DOTHERIGHTTHING, all in caps, a detail I noted in the black-bound journal I carried with me everywhere. I had flown over from Boston the day before, having received Paul’s e-mail explaining that a fall at home had precipitated his move into hospice: “The cancer is up and down my spine, bedecked, and I cannot get out of bed. But nurses are lovely, the food excellent, my life expectancy a matter of weeks,” he had written. I called him the next morning, a Sunday afternoon at Wheatfields, when he was surrounded by his children and his elder son Oliver handed him his cell phone and he was able to talk: He had loads of visitors. And he loved being the center of attention. His voice was faint and scratchy, but he did not sound like a man who was dying.
“Death is a joke,” he had said, but there was no bitterness, only a kind of brazen giddiness.
         Just a year ago, I had flown to the UK to attend a wedding in Wales and stopped to see Paul for what I thought would be the last time. I wasn’t much of a transatlantic traveler and had never been to Leeds: Paul and I had always met in Canada where our families had summer places on Georgian Bay or in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Paul lived with his second wife Helen and my mother, his first cousin, all of them sharing in the nursing care of his mother, the artist Hartwell Priest, who died at home at 103.
Although Paul and I were not of the same generation, we shared many things: a love for writing and all things literary (like him, I was an English professor); a need to parse our pathologic relations (there was craziness in our maternal line, and I needed Paul to assure me, as he always did, that it had bypassed me); and the fact that we both had suffered, in different ways, from the divorces in our families. Once, when I had whined on a walk along Eau de Claire beach in Georgian Bay that I felt my existence was marginal, because I was the product of an unhappy union that should never have been, Paul explained that he didn’t believe anything in this life—certainly not with regards to love—was an accident.
During those three days with Paul in August of 2014, we packed in a lifetime of memories. I rented a car at Heathrow and picked him up at Oliver and Lizzie’s house in Norwich and we drove halfway across the United Kingdom stopping to tour Sandringham (he was of the opinion that if you’ve seen one royal pile, you’ve seen them all, but agreed to indulge my infatuation with all things royal). We went out to dinner at Akmal’s Tandoori Bistro with Una, his good friend from Quaker House and discussed her recent trip to Prague to attend a co-counseling conference. The next day, he put me on a bus to Ilkley so that I might hike the Ilkley Moor, something he was not up to. When I returned, he made dinner of jacket potatoes and pork chops which we ate at his small, cluttered dining table. We were invited to dinner with his colleagues Joyce and Colin at Joyce’s home in Guiseley, where we talked of everything from the lost art of memorizing poetry to the history of Oxfam.
On the last day, we drove to Haworth and toured the Bronte Museum, discussing the triumph of Emily and the tragedy of Bramwell, both of us moved by Bramwell’s last words: “I have done nothing great or good,” then amused by Paul’s observation that the real tragedy of the Brontes was: “not a scrap of humor anywhere!” After the museum closed, Paul urged me to explore the paths beyond the car park to the ruined cottage said to be Wuthering Heights while he rested on a bench outside the gift shop. “Seize the day,” he had said, and so I had, taking dozens of photos on my phone of heather and sheep and stonewalls and skies tumbling with clouds. 
When we had said goodbye the next morning in the car park of Quaker House, Paul smiling Gandalf-like in the midday August sunlight near the vegetable garden, Una giving me a hug and a tea-towel which said, Force May Subdue but Love Gains, I had thought: This is it. The last goodbye. And yet, nearly a year later, when had I read his elegiac e-mail from Wheatfields, “So Hail and Farewell, bright, bright spot in my life,” I had cried. I wasn’t ready to let go.
So I rode the bus to Wheatfields in Headingly most days for the last two weeks of Paul’s life, carrying my black journal everywhere and recording everything: from the chalkboard in front of the cake shop on Woodhouse Lane, which read: “The more you weigh, the harder you are to kidnap. Stay safe. Eat cake.” To Paul’s commentary on the art in his room—the watercolor painted by his grandmother of the fierce-mouthed, head-scarfed Cuban woman and the reproduction by Leonardo of the heart-shaped face of the Young Woman with an Ermine: “See! The old woman is talking to the young one, and she is saying, ‘As I am, So shall you be.’”  
I recorded the Symposium-like discussions that seemed to take place most afternoons in Room 5 with Paul’s many visitors grabbing extra chairs and crowding around his bed to discuss whether Christianity was an instrument of Judeo-Greco-Roman imperialism or whether old age really was a second childhood. I noted the singular family tableaux that gathered one evening around the deathbed: Paul’s English ex-wife, Diane, whom I had never met; Martin, the affable English cleric whom Diane had left Paul for; Hannah, Diane’s daughter from her first marriage, whom Paul had raised from the age of 2 and loved as his own child; and Una, Paul’s faithful friend from Quaker House, who brought him ices in freezer packs every night. And everyone was getting along! Diane was telling me about Hannah’s father, who left her for another woman, and Paul was telling Martin about his ancestor, Diggery Priest who came over on the Mayflower and went directly back to England, unable to stand the climate.
“Garlic and sapphires in the mud/Clot the bedded axle-tree,” Paul was saying, his voice softer and weaker so that I had to lean in close to hear him.
I had been in the UK for twelve days and Paul was still at Wheatfields, the issue of whether he would stay or go still unresolved, though Hannah, Oliver, and Joel were secretly touring a nursing home in Headingly, despite Paul’s opposition: “I feel called to heaven,” he quipped, “but not to a nursing home.”
In the meantime, I was reading aloud to him from “The Four Quartets.” I had taken a side trip to Cambridgeshire to visit a friend in Great Gidding, and she and I had walked to the tiny, medieval chapel of Little Gidding, which Eliot had visited in 1936 and after which he had titled the last section of his poem. I had shown Paul photos of the church on my cell phone and he had been thrilled because he had never been there.
Paul and I were playing a game where I would read him one line and he would see whether he could fill in the next.  When I started with the opening of Burnt Norton, Paul said, “April is the Cruelest Month,” which was from “The Wasteland” “and I worried that the exercise would prove too frustrating. Then, a few minutes later and surprising both of us, he had sung out the lines about garlic and sapphires.
“Well done!” I said, clapping my hands.
“Keep going,” he whispered.
And so I did, and while he could not recite any more intact couplets, he nevertheless corrected my pronunciation of the German “Erhebung,” my Italian pronunciation of  “Figilia del tuo figlio,” and my English pronunciation of haruspicate. When I came to the line, “Like the river with its cargo of dead Negroes, cows and chicken coops,” and stopped to say, “Jesus, what a racist!” Paul did not miss a beat and said: “What did you expect? He was from St. Louis!”    
“Well, Becky, this has really taken our friendship up a notch,” Paul said, taking small, steady spoonfuls of chicken noodle soup. It was early afternoon on a Monday in the second week of September, and the doctors would take Paul off the discharge list that evening. A group of ten friends from The Struggling Christians had just left Room 5, having finished their repertory of Gregorian chants, Paul trying to sing along, though apologizing that he was “a bit off key.”
“I don’t have words for how amazing it’s been,” I said.
“The next time we see one another, I will have the entire Four Quartets memorized.”
 “Fantastic!” I said, patting his glistening forehead and thinking, magically, that maybe this was not the last time. I put on my rain jacket, squeezed his free hand hard, and attempted to give him a hug; it was absurd to say goodbye to Paul while he was eating his lunch, and yet if I didn’t go now, I would miss my train to London.
Thirty-three hours later, Paul passed away.
“PAUL IS LIBERATED!” Hannah had e-mailed, all in caps in the subject heading.
I would like to think that somewhere Paul is singing: “And all shall be well and/All manner of thing shall be well.”   
All posts copyright© 2015. All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced or distributed without attribution and/or permission of the author

Monday, July 6, 2015

Rebecca Rice: Juror No. 3 Reflects on the Case Against Leo E. Fugler, III: Published in "The Hampshire Gazette" June 13, 2015

The excused were giddy as schoolchildren on a snow day as they hurried out of the Hampshire County Superior Court, released from jury duty in the Commonwealth vs. Leo E. Fugler, III trial, grateful that they won’t have to spend days imprisoned in the jury box, hours listening to testimony about whether Fugler forced children to perform oral sex with one another some twenty years ago, relieved of ruling on whether the defendant is innocent or guilty of the 11 indictments of forcible child rape and sexual assault and battery, the details of which, read out in rapid fire by a granite-faced Judge John Agostini, elicited uneasy murmurs.   
     By mid-afternoon that day, after two impanelments in which lawyers for both sides questioned jurors, there were only seven of us left, seven out of 80 who hadn’t been disqualified—because we knew the lawyers or the witnesses or worked in the courts or didn’t believe children could be trusted in recounting sexual abuse or admitted we would suspect a defendant of hiding something if he chose not to testify.     
     When we returned to the bare-walled jury room on the third floor of Hampshire County Superior Court a day later, we discovered that subsequent impanelments from a second pool of 80 had yielded only six more jurors, bringing our numbers to 13 instead of 14. “What does that say about this case they couldn’t get 14 people out of 160?” one juror wondered. Then the court clerk was telling us to leave our belongings behind and line up by number to prepare to enter the courtroom.      
     “Juries are the better angels of our nature,” intoned a solemn voice from the film we watched on our first day in the jury pool, extolling the system that our Founding Fathers created which gives every man, innocent until proven guilty, the right to be seen, heard, and judged by his peers, a privilege that only three other countries in the world afford their citizens.
     During my six days spent as juror number 3 in the Commonwealth vs. Leo E. Fugler, III case, I tried to channel this better angel. As the judge instructed us at the end of each day, I did not read about the case in the local newspapers, did not Google the defendant or the lawyers, did not talk about the testimony to my son in college in Indiana or my boyfriend visiting from Maine or even to my fellow jurors. This last proscription was particularly hard as we twelve (our alternate was excused on Day Two) instantly became a little family, trading stories about work and local politics, sharing grapes, mints, donuts, and even clothes (the air conditioning was punishing and I lent my fleece jacket to juror number 4 on Day 2 and an extra pair of socks to juror number 10 on Day 3).         
     But what I could not do, which the judge urged before releasing us for the Memorial day weekend, was not think about the case. He might as well have asked me not to dream. I thought about it while shopping for organic blueberries at Whole Foods (one of the jurors worked in the florist’s department and I prayed I wouldn’t run into her). I thought about it while checking e-mail (a friend had forwarded a joke entitled Murphy’s 17 other laws, number 16 of which read: “When you go into court, you are putting yourself in the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.”) I thought about it while grading a student’s extra-credit paper on plagiarism (he had copied an entire assignment from the Internet, and instead of failing him for the course, I was giving him another chance).  
     At night, I shunned my boyfriend’s advances—engaging in sexual relations was as ugly as watching slasher porn—and wrapped myself in blankets and comforter, despite the summer heat. Closing my eyes, I met Leo E. Fugler, III: his massive body barely contained in its funereal suit, his huge, close-shaved head with his toothbrush mustache, his impassive face registering no more emotion than a parked front-end loader as his accusers testified against him. How did this man, sitting stoically between his lawyers--the soft-voiced, red-haired counselor to his right who did all the objecting and cross-examining and her grey-haired, yellow-tied partner to his left, mute except in sidebars with the judge—how did this fifty-five-year-old man match his twenty-years-younger doppelganger who had done all the evil deeds attributed to him? 
     Late at night, when I couldn’t sleep and failed to lose myself in a Dickens novel, I thought about the victims. The prosecution had projected school photos of them on two TV screens in opposite corners of the courtroom. The eldest girl broke my heart: an exuberant, soccer-playing teenager, her face was heart-shaped and dimpled and pretty and her smile open and unaffected and trusting, as if life would forever offer up its gifts like a succession of happy Christmas mornings. How had this girl turned into the thirty-three-year-old obese woman who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Type II Diabetes and alcoholism and drug addiction? Whose swollen hands and feet were shaking from the side effects of all the medications she was taking? 
     Courtrooms, despite how they are portrayed on TV, are not dramatic places. After the prosecution rested its case in the second week, the defense called several witnesses, none of who offered new or germane information. There was the repeated trotting out of an architectural drawing of the floor plan for the house in South Hadley where the abuses allegedly took place—pretty useless, as one juror pointed out in our deliberations later as the drawing did not include doors. Fugler’s attorney made much of the discrepancy between testimony about where the abuses first took place—on the third floor or the first floor.  
     To my surprise, the defendant did take the stand. Speaking in a preternaturally calm voice, he fixed his gaze upon his attorneys—not once looking at the jurors—and denied the accusations, claiming that the three children had gotten together as adults five years ago and cooked up the charges because one had not been invited to a Thanksgiving dinner and another had not been given Christmas money and another had not been given a car.    
     “Someone is lying,” said one juror at the beginning of our deliberations, “and we have to figure out who.”  
     “I believe the kids,” another said when we first went around the table to see where each of us stood.  
     “It’s hard to imagine that someone would make up a story about being forced to have sex and stand up in a courtroom and admit to this humiliation without it’s being true,” another juror said.  
     “But there’s no evidence.”  
     “There rarely is in childhood sexual abuse.”
      Back and forth we went like this for almost two days, writing the names on a blackboard of all the witnesses in the order in which they had testified, going over our penciled notes on the legal pads we had been given, asking the judge to explain “beyond reasonable doubt” to us again. In a much slower voice than the judge had used seven days ago, our jury foreman, a dignified retired newspaperman, read aloud each of the eleven indictments, so many times that I no longer winced with the multiple referencing of sex organs. And because we were eager for unanimity, we haggled with one another on which charges we could rule not guilty because there was only one person’s testimony and which we could rule guilty because there was more than one person’s testimony.  
     We lined up for the last time to file into the courtroom to deliver our verdict on a thunderstorm-threatening Friday afternoon. The seats behind the prosecution and the defense were full. Most of the witnesses who had testified were present. When the bailiff delivered a guilty verdict for eight indictments out of eleven, the three grown children cried. Throughout the trial, I had kept my eyes pinned to the floor when proceeding in and out of the courtroom, but when I walked out, I nodded to the district attorney and then to the eldest girl witness who had so affected me.   
     Some of the jurors talked about going out for a drink afterward, but none of us felt like celebrating. Instead, we said goodbye and hugged one another in the hot sun on Gothic Street and headed home to mow our lawns and hug our kids and call our friends and try to process this experience which had affirmed the better angels of our natures while, at the same time, weighing our souls down with acts which the judge, a week later in his sentencing, called “beastly.” 
Published in The Hampshire Gazette, June 13, 2015. No part of this blog may be reproduced or distributed without attribution and/or permission of the author

Monday, December 29, 2014

My Mother as a Five-Pointed Star

The holidays bring out the dead like dust on Christmas ornaments.  Here is the knitted green and white stocking embroidered BECKY in red block letters pinned to the sofa every Christmas morning of my childhood and stuffed with gifts. Here are the hand-painted red candelabra that Mom brought back from Sweden after her divorce, braving her fear of flying to visit a dying man she had loved as a teenager. Here is the Christmas-cookie-thin five-pointed gold star etched NANCY RICE above birth and death dates.

“Mom as a Christmas-tree ornament, that is beyond tacky,” I complained when first retrieving the star from its plastic baggie inside the Christmas-tree-edged mailer from the funeral home.

But my soon-to-be-ex husband said it was “kind of festive,” and proceeded to attach it to a branch of the tabletop tree that Mom had bought years ago in Florida. Since I didn’t know whether he was being sincere or sarcastic and since the holidays tended to manufacture more marital discord than elves made toys—fights had erupted over broken glass ornaments and a shortage of wrapping paper--I decided not to object. The ornament stayed right where he had placed it, on an upper branch of the fake forest-green tree with its tiny, phallic-shaped lights and Lilliputian Santas.   

When we divorced six years later and divided up our stuff, I got the tabletop tree and the ornament, along with the Swedish candlesticks and my childhood stocking. The first holiday season, heady with the mulled-wine independence of keeping Christmas any way I chose, I considered leaving the tree and its creepy star in the basement of the rental unit where I had moved.

But I had a lot of time on my hands during that first post-divorce Christmas—my son lived mostly with his father and I had only brief filial sightings. To avoid feeling sorry for myself, a female Scrooge supping alone on grog and gruel, I fled not further away from Christmas but deeper into it, like a driver in a winter storm steering into the skid.    

After inventorying of my remaining Christmas-themed items—a tin full of reindeer cookie cutters, a couple of stained red felt tablecloths, my mother’s gargantuan Christmas tree stand that some wag at The Christmas Tree Shops had dubbed “The Last Stand”—I made an executive decision: time to restock.

Money was tight that year—I got my tree at Ace Hardware, when they went on sale for $10 a pop—but fortunately my redeemer was at hand: in the aisles of The Fisher Home of the Hospice Shop in Amherst, where Christmas could be had for a song, or, to be more precise, a Halleluiah chorus, recorded on a gently used Mormon Tabernacle Choir CD. At this elegant thrift store on University Drive, staffed by a platoon of welcoming, elderly ladies, I filled up shopping basket after shopping basket: I scored Santa tea towels, gold-tipped ceramic angels, Reindeer pillows, Frosty the Snowman candles, garlands of colored Christmas lights, boxes of antique Christmas ornaments.

Coming home with my Christmas booty, I spent afternoons descending into the twilight and obsessing: three Christmas pillows on the couch or two? Two strands of chili lights on the bookcases or one? Christmas wreath or antique horn above the pellet stove? One afternoon, with the thrilling strains of the Messiah urging me on, I clumped down to the basement, hauled my mother’s tiny tree from its cardboard box, smoothed out its arthritic branches, set it on an antique end table, plugged it in, and pondered: Star? Or no star?

In the end, I let the star stay on the tree, where it remains on the same end table in yet another rental unit. When my son comes home from college this year, we will bake Christmas cookies and play Handel’s Messiah and talk about his grandmother in the days before she became a five-pointed star and I will tell him, as she told me over and over again: “Your presence is the best Christmas present I could ever have.”
All posts copyright© 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced or distributed without attribution and/or permission of the author