It’s the week between Xmas and New Year’s, and I have some of my kids home but not all. Mostly, we’re just cooking, taking out the trash, and doing dishes. Though the tree is still up, I washed and put away the red and green tablecloth today. It has pinecones on it, flecked with gold, and is big enough for my big dining room table; it was my mother’s. In my current state it seems unlikely I would ever buy a holiday tablecloth.
My mother really loved Christmas. Not in a religious way, but in her own joyous, restrained perfectionism. She chose her trees for their correct shape and symmetry, neither too tall nor too bushy, and decorated them according to a strict sequence of steps that I, having absorbed her teachings as the one, true way cannot yet deviate from despite years of genuine efforts to chill the fuck out. My mother had a stockpile of gorgeous wrapping paper, and wrapped each of our presents with an assortment of different giftwrap, finished with a tasteful explosion of hand-tied and curled ribbon and tagged with antique Victorian reproduction cards, our names written in her 50s textbook–perfect cursive on the back. Each child and grandchild got a stack of similar size on Christmas morning, so that no one had a sense that anyone got a single gift more than anyone else.
Ok, but the thing is, my mother was originally Jewish. But hers was the kind of mid-western Jewish family that has a very Jewish-sounding last name, but also has a Christmas-tree. My mother was so jealous of her younger sister Mary that she insisted her family say, “Sarah Christmas,” in addition to what she heard as, “Mary Christmas.” And anyway, what kind of Jewish family names their second daughter Mary?
My mother was not a joke-teller, but she did on occasion indulge in telling a Jewish Mother joke, on the grounds, she said, that she had one. Strictly speaking, my grandmother was like Baptist or something, but married a Jewish man. They had a Christmas tree in their living room. Was that what you did, to fit in, living in suburban St. Louis in the 50s? Or, was it what Grandma wanted?
Growing up in St. Louis in the fifties, most of my mother’s best friends were Jewish, too, and she ran with a popular, smart, and beautiful crowd. The stories she told me about their Jewishness were these: that had my mother been born in 1940 in Germany, she would have been a “mischling, second degree,” and therefore just Jewish enough to be persecuted by the Nazis; that my grandfather worked in sales under the name of “Nickels” because “Nussbaum” was too Jewish-sounding; and, that she was introduced by a different, less Jewish-sounding name, by a high school boyfriend to his parents.
In December of 1961, she was up in the middle of the night, feeding my older brother, then a 7 month-old baby. From her chair in the kitchen of their third floor, walk-up apartment, she saw flames flickering in a window of another apartment across the way, and she call the fire department. Imagine her embarrassment when she found out it was the guttering flames of her neighbor’s menorah, during Hanukkah.
When she told this story to me, she expressed the perfect abashment of, “I should have known. I certainly should have known.”
There were stories she didn’t tell, like why she and Dad chose to be Episcopalian, or how Dad’s father handled her half-Jewishness. My parents sent my older brother and I to Sunday school for some years when we were young, but then we stopped. Why did we stop? Maybe it conflicted with hockey games.
When I was 13, my mother arranged for me to be confirmed in the Episcopal Church, with the reasoning that I would want to get married there someday. I did get married there, fulfilling the perfection of her circular logic: because I had been confirmed there. I hadn’t been to Sunday school in a number of years at that point, and there was a fair amount of memorization, some of which meant canceling my charmingly bizarre mondegreen of the Lord’s Prayer, and I’m sure I never mastered the Apostle’s Creed. I wrote the Apostle’s Creed on a piece of paper that I slipped into my pantyhose and could read by sliding up the hem of my skirt. Though I was a practiced liar, this is the only specific memory I have of cheating, in or out of school. I got away with it. The other kids were mostly from other schools, so I had no one to pass notes with. I endured this privation by doodling earnestly in the margins of my bible. The teacher was from my brothers’ private school and he reassured us that the bible was allegorical. I left confirmation class believing that I could go on being Episcopalian even if I didn’t think the bible was literally true.
Many Sundays, we were asked to read aloud, and this had served as an informal audition, for when it came to the Christmas Pageant I got to be a reader.
Of course, I was active in children’s theater in those days, having already played a retired roller derby queen, a horrible, evil gnome, the ugly duckling herself, and an assortment of reading, speaking, or screaming roles. I knew how to read, and project. And I knew the pageant’s prestige went to the three readers. Everyone else got to wear robes and carry a staff and hold very, very still. I had to stand at the dais and read Matthew 1:18 “Now the Birth of Jesus Christ came about in this way….”
The music at our church swelled from tall pipes, driven in joyous familiarity by a skilled organist, and with the candles and lush Christmas decorations, midnight mass on Christmas Eve was a sumptuous hour and a half. In my memory, it stands out as the most traditionally Christmas-y thing I ever did. The pews were packed. Mothers and daughters wore matching Christmas dresses. Children old enough to stay up this late wore sport coats and ties. It seemed like everyone we knew was there.
I stepped onto the footstool provided for me before the dais, and stumbled on the “Jesus,” in the opening line. So, it sounded like “juh-juh-jeezizz,” and then, I shouted out the “Christ!” I distinctly heard both my dad and a friend of his snorting with laughter. In the reception to follow, I stood eating cake, dripping powdered sugar on my velvet skirt, and drinking cider from a tiny plastic cup and Dad and his friend were both still laughing.
For my troubles, I had been promised a gold ring with my monogram on it. I still wear it. The letters engraved on it are almost completely rubbed away. On the inside it clearly reads, “1977.”