By Cathy Salustri
My mother and father don't put up a Christmas tree anymore. Sometimes I do; sometimes I don't. All three of us have December birthdays, and when I was little, the rule was that the tree didn't go up until after the last birthday.
I think this year I'll get a tree, just a small one. One that will fit the Specials. Most families have them: ornaments that have special meaning for us. Our Specials include one we bought on vacation in Rhode Island, a Dixie cup I covered in foil and shaped like a bell in kindergarten, and a laminated piece of newsprint announcing the purchase of my first home. We add to the Specials, but we never subtract.
One year, when we were new to Florida, my father found a rat in the toilet on Christmas Eve. My father, in the spirit of countless New Yorkers who had gone before him, attempted to handle the situation by cursing at the rat, who was, as I recall, nonplussed by the expletives. Next, my father tried to drown the rat (apparently, up north, rats can't swim), which only seemed to anger the rat. Finally, he maced the rat. That's not a typo. It's also not a valid way to kill a rat. If you want to piss it off, well, then, mace away. Finally, a Florida cracker who lived across the street came over and stepped on the rat. That's how you kill a rat. Of course, we had to spend the night at my grandmother's because, well, it was a small house and my dad used a lot of mace. I kind of wish we'd saved the empty Mace can as one of the Specials.
When we lived in New York, my dad made snowy bootprints through the house and left an open box of graham crackers on its side on the kitchen counter. My parents told me Santa liked the cookies I left, but Rudolph had wanted a snack, too. One of our specials, purchased right around that time, is a little pewter reindeer inside a bell.
My mom used to tell me that elves would go through my room while I was asleep and make sure I'd really kept it clean - they'd even check my desk and dresser drawers, under my bed, and in my closet, and if they discovered I'd just shoved stuff inside to make the room look neat, she said, Santa wouldn't leave me any presents. Guess what I've done for the past thirty-some-odd Christmas Eve's since she said that? Every year I look at the 1970s-era fabric elf with a plastic face ornament and get creeped out all over again, but still, he's one of my Specials.
In my family, my father's generation stopped drinking years ago, but if you think for one minute that took the hoo-ha out of the Christmas season, well, let me tell you that just isn't so. See, we're Italian: we don't need booze to get crazy. We're drunk on our own anger. Last year I made an off-the-cuff comment about my cookies not turning out right; joking that maybe my dead grandmother had cursed me. My father didn't speak to me for two weeks. But come Christmas, all was forgiven. I have a copy of my grandmother's biscotti recipe I'll laminate and add to the tree this year.
Christmas time makes me happy, but unwrapping the Specials every year, for some reason, makes me cry. I think it's because the Specials aren't just ornaments; they're loved ones and good times and crystallized moments I can never get back.
The Specials. Every year we added one. They're here in my apartment, waiting for my tree. I started to unwrap them the other night. I found a bluebird made of construction paper my mom made when she was little. I can't picture my mother as a child, but there's the proof, waiting for its rightful place on the tree.
Every Special is a scene from my life, frozen forever in that ornament. They make me happy and they make me sad, too. I'll never be a little girl, laughing at the mess Rudolph made in my kitchen. We have over half a million minutes every year, and not nearly enough of them are worthy of commemorating with a Special. Some moments, nicely put, suck. People die too soon, people we love leave, and life changes around you every second. But every so often, in the middle of the chaos and the ugly, something beautiful and wonderful swirls up out of it all, and it grabs hold of you and won't let go. Those are the Specials, and if you can gather enough of them to you, they can last all year.
Find your Specials. Hang them on your tree. Hold them to you for the whole year. And never, ever forget what makes them the Specials.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.