I picked one.

What I saw: the trees that were left.

What I did beforehand: the last few years we lived in the country and found places to cut our own Christmas tree. It was never a matter of looking them up; there would be hand-lettered sandwich boards on the side of the road. 

This year, the Bacon Provider has been traveling so much I was worried we’ wouldn’t find time to get one together. 


I asked Google. It offered Hartsdale, NY and Danbury, CT, both of which stretch the definition of “near.” I revisited the garden center mystery, which I have  tried to solve almost monthly since moving here; where do my neighbors buy plants, I ask. I found one a bit over four miles away, on a road I haven’t driven. I called.

“Do you have Christmas trees?” I asked.
“Yes, we still have some left,” a woman replied. “But all of the 11 foot ones are gone. We only have the 9 foot and 7 foot trees.”
“What kind are they?”
“Frasiers.”
“What are your hours?” 
“9 to 5.”

Something I ate: cereal.

What I wore: jeans. Waterproof boots. My biggest puff coat. 

Why I saw this show: my mother’s love of archly tasteful Christmas decorations and slavish devotion to giving us what we asked for color my every Christmas impulse.  

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Who went with me: the Bacon Provider was delighted to go. We took the truck. It seemed grumpy about starting, because of the cold. The steering wheel squeaked familiarly as steered out of the driveway. We talked about when we will get a new truck. 

How I chose: I didn’t know where to park since ours was the only vehicle. We were greeted by a guy in work gloves who seemed relieved to have a customer. He apologized for how few trees they had left.
“We only need one,” I said, though on the way over we had discussed the possibility of getting two.

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Things that were funny: the Bacon Provider always wants a perfect tree, and will gladly spend 20 minutes considering every angle of every tree available, including the ones that are clearly too tall. He and the guy who worked there stood trees up for me to look at. After the fifth tree I went back to the first one. 

“This one is the best,” I said. I didn’t mean it. I was bored. All trees are somewhat imperfect. As long as the trunk is reasonably straight, you can find a presentable side.

I opened the tailgate of the truck and went to look at wreaths.  



Things that were sad: another couple arrived, he a tall, dark-haired capitalist in a navy cashmere overcoat, she a gently aging blond trophy in a quilted Barbour jacket. They considered whether the enormous 48” wreath was the right size for what they needed. I tried not to smirk. A very pale, older woman came out and caught the capitalist’s wife’s eye. 
“Oh, hello!” said the capitalist’s wife. “So nice to see you. How are you?”
“Not well,” began the older woman. “I lost my son.” Tears poured from her eyes. 
The capitalist’s wife hugged her. 

I turned to the little live trees and engaged the attention of a third employee. 
“Do you have a matching pair in this size?” I asked. 
“Yes, we do.”
“Do you know how big they will get? If I put them in the ground, I need to know how tall they will be. You, know, eventually.”

Things that were not funny: when we went inside to pay, there was a stack of photos of the dead son. He appeared to have been in his early 40s. The sad, older woman came in. I told her how sorry I was. She told me he had run the business, and had done all the ordering. Then, he had gotten sick, but not very sick. And then, he had died. Just in a matter of days. The whole family had had to come and pitch in. She said everything felt like a dream.


Where I sat: I had driven there. The Bacon Provider drove back. I had to tell him which way to turn. I said that I thought that Christmas would be forever sad and ruined for the family that owned that garden center.


What it is: my mother’s birthday is 9 days before Christmas, and so, though she died in April, for me the holiday season is as much about grieving her as anything else.  

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Who should see it: we haven’t started decorating it yet.

Schwartz moves in for his inspection

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What I saw on the way home: the Bedhead Hills Office of Gravel and Thoroughfares regraded the dirt road on the way to our house, but I realized that they left many of the potholes intact. They function like speed bumps.

Massacre

I was gone from the house only a day and a half. Two nights. When I drove up, I felt that something wasn’t quite right. The dogsitter was parked in front of the garage so I couldn’t go in the normal way, but that wasn’t even it. I parked and grabbed my weird bundle of stuff (half a loaf of bread, a sweater that needs new buttons) and trundled in.
I didn’t have to look directly at the hornets’ nest to know that it had been violated. My stomach twisted in recognition before my eyes had registered what had happened. The nest was a damp, wet color, dark and greasy. It was quiet and limp. A dead hornet clung in the entrance, its body curled and its wings aloft. All around it on the siding of the house a great wet stain, glistening with poisonous wasp-killer.
While I was gone–and without my permission–someone came and killed them.
My dog sitter was in the kitchen eating her lunch. I was early, and had taken her by surprise, and I didn’t feel like ruining her lunch, so I said nothing of the stain on the house or the carnage it marked. We talked instead about the dogs. Her puppy brought me toys from the bin. I told her about Captain’s Hanukkah dog; the puppy brought me a Kong. She finished her lunch and left. 
I sobbed for the dead queens.
I realized that I was holding out for the promise of the queens emerging to get me through October. We are leaving. It’s true. October promises to be busy and includes a yet-to-be-scheduled move and packing and the long lists of things to remember. We don’t even have a place to go yet. The landlord has put someone to work scraping and painting outside, so I can no longer go out and see sunset o’clock without getting chips of paint stuck to the bottoms of my feet. No wonder the hornets’ nest was spotted. Someone was helping out.
I texted my husband a string of unintelligible nonsense, but including the word “hyperventilating,” correctly spelled, two times. The hornets were dead. The queens were dead. All their work was for nothing. All my hopeful waiting wasted.
I texted various other people who I knew would sympathize. I sighed a lot. The nest had been almost done. There was no reason to soak it in poison. The nights are getting colder, and the workers were dying off already. The whole future of these bald-faced hornets was in the few queens that were meant to emerge last. They would be over-wintering in the trees. I loved that hornets’ nest. I thought people knew. I talked about it a lot, I took pictures, and now the pictures are all I have.
I avoided going outside, but I couldn’t pack without crying. Finally, I resolved to run an errand. Two errands! I thought. I could do two at once! I exited by the patio door and walked the long way around the garage. I arrived at the drugstore and realized I didn’t even have my wallet. So I had to come all the way back. I finished the errands and collected my basket to go get veggies at the CSA. I played music loud on the way. Really loud. 
Sometimes, the flowers are the best part

At the CSA we got three pounds of potatoes. They are loose in big wooden boxes and coated in a layer of dry dirt. This time I tried to pick ones about the size of hen’s eggs. I got two heads of lettuce and ¾ of a pound of carrots (which was four) and a single head of garlic and a cucumber and a head of cabbage. A bunch of rainbow chard and a bag of arugula (I took less than my allotment since I won’t eat that much in a week). 1 1/2 pounds of onions. I chatted with someone about weighing the 3/4 of a pound of green beans and chose 3 red peppers (that I won’t eat). I went outside to pick 25 flowers and 30 cherry tomatoes and as I tucked them into my overflowing basket I heard a child screaming in the parking lot. Last of all I had four pounds of tomatoes to choose, so I headed to the front where the tomatoes were.
There are several mothers with young kids who also go get their CSA allotment on Tuesdays: one who speaks German and has her hands full with little blond M. who runs away when she calls to him, and another with an earnest four-year-old with large, dark, wet eyes and a mop of almost black hair. They must have reasons for bringing their young children here at the end of the day on Tuesdays and not coming on Saturdays. The hour before dinner is usually the hardest with youngsters. I saw M. disappearing behind a tractor when I came back in with my flowers.
I was weighing my tomatoes when the woman next to me turned to the dark haired boy and his mother, now choosing their carrots, said, “I can see it.”
The small child was flushed from crying, with a tear still balanced on his lashes, and turned and gestured up with a single open palm. “It’s going higher and higher,” he said.
I turned and looked up to see. There in the sky I spied the fast-disappearing pink dot that had been the boy’s balloon. He must have lost it when his mother opened the car door to help him out. And somehow because of what this woman said or what his mother said or because he’s filled with the miraculous bravery of being 4 or because watching things fly is magical and amazing, he was just able to watch the balloon rise impossibly high into the sky, away and away and up and up and up, until it was gone.

Too Many Words About Annual Giving

I do believe in supporting educational institutions, both public and private, and I have a record of doing so. I attended six colleges and universities in getting my degrees, and have contributed to all but one. My children’s schools have always been well supported by us, also.
The house I grew up in
In the summer of 2004, perhaps a month and a half after my mother died, my mobile phone rang while I was driving west on 520. I answered, about halfway across the bridge, using the speaker phone. There was rowdy cheering in the background, and a voice identified the caller as someone I went to high school with. His message was simple: he was calling on behalf of our high school. It was their annual fundraising call-a-thon. He rattled off the names of some other classmates I could hear carousing in the background. “You guys have money,” he said. “You should donate.” This was followed with a roar of laughter in the background.
I do not remember saying much in reply. I may have even hung up on him. I would prefer to think that I used the catch-all I like to use in such occasions: “I am not in a position to help you right now.”
My mother’s death was widely publicized in the local papers, as she was a high ranking administrator at a prestigious university there. My high school published their condolences in the quarterly newsletter, just as they had for my father a few years before. I can certainly imagine that for the purposes of fundraising, using classmates to make the calls is a good way to get participation; it’s someone you know, if not an actual friend. The problem with this system is that if you invite a group of obnoxious drunken bullies (who were obnoxious drunken bullies in high school and seemingly never stopped being obnoxious drunken bullies since) to make the calls, they will behave in the obnoxious, bullying, drunken ways that they have always behaved. The call was an error whether or not I had just lost a parent.
I was not in the worst possible state of mind for such a call. I was still very hardened to bad news. My mother was never old, not even a little old. She was only 20 when she had my older brother and 22 when she had me. She battled brain cancer her last year and a half, so she was sick, but she was never old. My dad had died after a year and a half of bad news about his cancer, and then my mother had died after a year and a half of bad news about her cancer. I had arrived at the point where both my parents were gone, cut down in their prime, and I was still barely feeling like a real adult myself. I had arrived at the point where the unthinkable had happened, where I was among the oldest trees in my woods: my brothers and me. A phone call from obnoxious, bullying drunken idiots from my (seemingly) distant past was like squirrels playing chase up and down my trunk, for I was the unimaginably old elm. What are squirrels to a 300 year old tree?
Back when this elm was a sapling, she went to an exclusive, private non-religious, college-prep high school in suburban St. Louis.  I received what I considered a quality education; I sailed through my freshman year at an elite college with mostly As and a few Bs, feeling completely prepared for rigorous writing assignments. 
The high school partying scene was alcohol-fueled, though kids from the classes above mine were still smoking pot and a few of my peers regularly dropped acid. It was not a come-to-school-shitfaced thing, more of a get-plastered-on-the-weekend thing. Bad choices were made on a frequent basis. If my children partied today like we did in high school, I would be very, very alarmed and would probably not let them out of my sight.
In St. Louis in the late 1970s, our parents played tennis and golf, rooted for the Cardinals, went to church on Sunday (but were disdainful of actually religious people), and went to parties and had parties where they got drunk. My parents were different, in the end, because they liked to go camping, my mother was a fine artist, and my father ran marathons; we did not belong to a country club like my classmates’ families did. We were different, but we were also the same.
About a year after my mother died, in the summer of 2005, I went back to St. Louis to go through her things. This was a painful process, and I made a few mistakes which leave me with some regrets. It was a thing done as quickly as my brothers and step-father and I could manage, and it was a big task. I have not been back since.
I almost went back this past August. The previous August, I saw pictures on Facebook of a gathering of my girlfriends one weekend. Their kids were all there, and so were many of my old friends (and none of the obnoxious drunken bullies). I had just moved to New York, and pretty lonely, and St. Louis is an easy flight from here. I was sorry to have missed it. I promised to go the next year. When this August rolled around, I was invited, but I was in the midst of the move from North Dreadful to New York City, and really could not manage it.
I went to our tenth high school reunion and our twentieth, but I do not think I will go again. I did enjoy seeing some of my old friends, but there were just enough obnoxious conversations, just enough bullying questions that I did not feel like answering, and just enough drunken gossiping for me to say, “No, thanks.”
Lately, I have had to make many (if not almost all) of the folks I went to high school with invisible to me on Facebook. One of my classmates likes to post videos of business leaders who sell cheap goods (mostly made in China) in their big-box retail stores, but claim that we need the presidential candidate they endorse to create good jobs for college graduates. Another accused me of being “brainwashed.”  
Missouri is the home of some famous obnoxious, bullying public figures, including Phyllis Schlafly (who certainly deserves her very own blog post at a later date) and Todd Akin. Akin is one of the many members of the GOP who have used the extra attention of this election season to share with the world their interesting and unusual but appallingly unscientific and degrading thoughts about acts of violence towards women and human reproduction. I was wondering what kind of terrible high school was responsible for Akin’s obviously poor science education. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he went to my elite, college-prep high school.
I try to be a person who is hard to embarrass, but Todd Akin makes me embarrassed to be from the state of Missouri.  When someone who publicly and willfully flouts facts to serve what he claims to be his religious calling turns out to be an alum of the school I have been more or less proud to say I graduated from, I am chagrined. My first thought was one of, “Well, now I can continue not to contribute to annual giving.”
After some more reflection, though, it has become obvious to me that a donation is in order. If we allow the manipulative idiots and the drunken, obnoxious bullies to completely control the conversation, everyone loses.  I am thinking about contacting the school library, to ensure that they have the books I have found particularly influential to my current mindset. I am compiling a list, but, for now, two such titles that come to mind are Alice Sebold’s rape memoir, “Lucky,” and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” I plan to buy the school copies of any books they do not have.
I believe in education: that when we expose good ideas to people, the world becomes a better place.
Readers, I strongly encourage you to add your suggested books in the comments, below.


A Letter to my Mother

This letter was written  five days after my mother died.  At her memorial service, I read a poem written by Wallace Stevens. 
My mother was always very careful not to criticize me, saying nothing even when she might have wanted to say something.  Yet I heard her tell me I had on too much jewelry or the wrong shoes or that a sentence ran 0n or that I parked too close to the wall in the garage or that she did not like one of my friends.  With what ears do we hear what people are thinking? 

18 April 2004
Mom,

When I should have been composing the lines of a poem to you,
I was stuck on a word
And the big idea got away from me while I chased down the little thought.
Instead of twenty lines of measured prose readied in a file,
Or ingredients and cooking technique jotted on an index card,
Or a ledger whose columns sum you up,
I have no formula or calculations to sum you up.
I might have made a song with it, the words set to a stolen old folk tune we already knew.
And I didn’t.
I don’t finish things.

I think we drove you nuts when we were little,
But you liked us,
And you liked that we were funny and smart and good at things. 

When we grew up,
You found we were interesting, which was worth something,
And maybe even a revelation.

I learned some good curse words from you.
I know you wouldn’t want people to know that.
I also know that you knew I would tell, because that’s what I’m like.

Grandpa remains
A remarkable specimen of improbable endurance.

The day your mother dies you are unchained from the shackles of your cruelest critic
And you will hear her criticisms in your mind
Until you yourself die.

I can now chew my food
Like the surf chewing rocks.  


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