Oh, and here comes the holiday season like a runaway Edsel, excuse me. It’s always a little surreal how suddenly it shows up. Another year? Really? Is that Jack Frost nipping at my nose or the taunting, flicked finger of the Grim Reaper? “It’s almost Christmas!” the little ones yell with unbridled glee. Yes, you tiny, careless immortals; it’s almost LAST Christmas. How’d the year pass by so quickly? Just a week or so ago we were throwing ourselves into the ocean in full-tilt escape from the brutalizing heat wave that we were sure would set the mountains on fire. Now, a couple of puny rain squalls later, the inevitable “fall” weather sweeps in as an almost reluctant little cold snap, and we Santa Barbarans respond by excitedly dragging on our pea coats and diaphanous, utterly useless Donna Karan scarves. We swoop our gossamer “winter” accessories around our room-temperature necks like NY hipsters or movie actors, turning up our collars and stamping our feet as if to shake the snow off our galoshes, we’re so giddy at the change of seasons and the prospect of candlelight and mulled wine. It’s the one time of the year you can gulp Tramp Juice from a soup-bowl sized mug without the other guests remarking about it behind their sleeves. The whole demeanor of the town changes
“Ooh, it’s a little chilly, isn’t it?”
No, not really. But let’s live it up. We get maybe 80 of these. It’s time to get about the business of Holiday Cheer. And what’s not to love? The city workers begin dutifully stringing the lights up along State Street, great arcing stars making of our downtown a glowing arbor. Suddenly the shop fronts all have paper snowflakes in their window displays, faux-Victorian carolers hunch and yell in close-harmony at every street corner, the chill evening air takes on that seasonally pleasant aroma as the town’s fireplaces gently surrender a fragrant bouquet of crackling cherrywood, and frightening soot-covered chimney sweeps flash-mob the rooftops with mad, high-stepping dance routines. Chim-Chimney, Chim Chimney, Chim-Chim-Cheroo, if you damage my ridge vent I’m likely to sue. Soon enough that strangely phallic Christmas Rocket erects itself near the Arlington Theater, they throw some lights on it and we’re off and running.
But first…ah, yes. First there is Thanksgiving to get through, the weird, uber-American ritual whose most famous visual expression remains that nightmarish Normal Rockwell painting of an aproned matriarch proffering a slain and naked bird; recumbent, belly-up, beyond embarrassment (the bird, I mean), its truncated little wing-arms relaxed at its sides, its formerly strutting legs now stiff and shortened and dressed in paper anklets. In the iconic painting, which like most of Rockwell’s stuff is meant to embody and crystallize the rubberized American Soul, the homespun Ma and Pa figures stand at the head of a table crowded with strangely leering family members in da Vinci-like attitudes of conversation, but strangely feral; all teeth and eyebrows and clasped paws. It’s an unnerving work of art. In the upper left-hand corner of the photorealist painting is a grinning boy with a slightly reptilian expression, and seated beside him a little sister figure likewise stares down the length of the table like a drowsy viper. In the lower left of the painting a man is laughing maniacally at the empty air, displaying a scary set of choppers, while a sunlit pear with a suggestion of humanoid countenance looks balefully up at him from a bed of grapes. In the lower right corner a man’s haunted eyes stare back at the viewer. Even for the diabolically exacting Rockwell, it is a strange and unsettling hymn to the Holidays, one of the most singularly dread-inducing paintings this country has ever produced. What did Rockwell call this thing? Freedom From Want. My alternate title, you ask? Horn of Plenty Heebie-Jeebies.
But Thanksgiving means well, and however cynically plasticized and oversold the “gather and be thankful” vibe is this time of year, however much it is leveraged by the Commercial Sector to brace us for the aptly named Black Friday, all doubts fly up the chimney with the cherrywood smoke when you start mingling with family and friends in closed quarters while through the windows brisk, happy breezes stir the trees and foliage in blanched autumnal sun. As hard as the numbskull forces of human avarice try, they can’t completely wreck Thanksgiving. They can’t strip away, for instance, my hard-won memories of my mom coming over on those Thanksgiving mornings.
Per the yearly ritual I would have dropped in on my mom’s apartment at Villa Santa Barbara the evening before to remind her of our Thanksgiving breakfast the next morning. She would inexpertly and comically disguise her uncertainty as to who exactly I was, and we would have our usual bemused summit for a couple hours, watch the home movies for the several-hundredth time, bat the same over-familiar questions and answers back and forth. I’d long since stopped being maddened by mom’s endlessly repeated questions, and came to be charmed by a universe that oversaw our elderly parents exasperating us with the same ninny repetitions they’d had to suffer when we were mindless little non-stop blabbermouths. Fair play.
The next morning, Thanksgiving morning, I would stop in to nab mom for the drive over to our place and explain our Thanksgiving date all over again. “Hey! What are you doing here? And who are you, again?” She would laugh nervously at her own question sometimes, but she knew in her core that I was on her side, that we shared something. “I’m your son, mom. Jeff?” “Right!” she would laugh again, making comic gestures of dismissal, still not quite believing it. But she would grasp my arm, dance me into the elevator and veritably skip from the Villa Santa Barbara lobby to my car parked on the street outside.
We would take the long way to our place, the miraculous, palm-lined, ceaselessly stunning Cabrillo Drive, the unlikely Pacific sparkling off to the left like an over-earnest special effect. At our condo, mom would be greeted like royalty, Judie and the kids rushing her at the door. Mom’s face would be simultaneously aglow and bewildered, Judie’s Dutch broodtafel likely adding to her dislocation as it featured breads and cheeses and sliced meats and hard boiled eggs. This isn’t what the Indians and Pilgrims ate, is it? I can clearly picture mom sipping delightedly at her mimosa as the rest of us blab away in conversation she only half follows, her sated half-smile turning to each of in turn as we speak, her expression a sort of uncomprehending exaltation in the moment. She didn’t know I was watching her watching us, her indefinable love and gratitude shining like an aura. She’s gone. This year will be our second Thanksgiving breakfast without her, and I’m unspeakably grateful for the sometimes harrowing 14 years we had her in town.
Sometimes after Thanksgiving breakfast we would flop onto the couch and flip through a photo album, one of the weird old ones I’d known since childhood. It had a dissolving, nautically-themed cover and stiffened pages to which the fading photos had been sloppily fastened an eon ago with now-opaque squares of yellowing scotch tape. I’d seen all these pics a hundred times or more growing up. When I was a kid I was bored silly by the album (as by everything else to do with my parents), all the black and white snapshots of laughing men in government-issue khaki, lots of pics of my mom – the beauty, the dreamer – now an 89 year-old with failing faculties and loose-fitting flesh. Of course as I grew older I became forensically interested in what the album held, particularly a photo of my dad, now long gone, as a 14 or 15 year-old. Wonder of wonders.
And here was a curling picture of Crashboat Beach, in Puerto Rico, 1956, at the foot of Ramey Air Force Base, that particular stretch of sand and surf a scene of so many storied parties and languorous afternoons during that time, my parents, Bob and Aloha, drinking and talking and laughing with Air Force chums and wives, a rough circle of lawn chairs, the men leering comically at the camera and hoisting cans of Falstaff beer, my dad there with a can in each hand, his smile-worn dimple catching the late afternoon shadowfall just so, his black curly hair already hinting at the premature gray that would soon compel comparisons to the actor Jeff Chandler. In the fading picture the seated women are wearing scarves over their hair, and Capri pants, and beautiful bug-eyed sunglasses. Just a lovely thing! Their legs are crossed, they’re all laughing with their lady heads thrown back, happy yaps aimed skyward forever. The men and women and the kids present are all turned toward the camera in a posture of hilarity (one! two! THREE!). Over the sea, in the sky behind the party, a single towering cumulonimbus cloud boils straight up into the sepia sky with frozen, explosive force, and mom has her feet up on the lawn chair and is hugging her knees. Though her face is turned away, the flesh is seen to follow the smooth cornice of her jawbone where it meets her neck, cleaves as snugly as the velour skin of a new love seat. Unlike the rest of the gang, she’s looking away from the camera and out to sea.