Tracy (mother’s caretaker): What are you going to do with all of the Christmas crap?
Me: Done! I invited the girls over to help me go through it. We nailed it in less than two hours.
Tracy: Sounds brutal.
Me: On the drive home I had to pull over to throw up. Angie said, “That’s what happens when you edit 40 years of Christmas in 90 minutes.” I just call it “speed grieving.”
Tracy: Holy crap.
Me: That should be a carol about materialism.
It bears mentioning that for having a minimalist design aesthetic, my mother made Christmas a big, “holiday house of hoarders” deal when I was growing up. Joann was the youngest of five and I guess she got short-shrifted in her own experience, because she was determined to make mine memorable — or at least the opposite of our regular routine of knickknack removal and clutter disapproval.
Our home was decorated from rafter to rafter in tasteful bits from the ancestral archives to the Bergdorf catalog. A choir of porcelain angels adorned one mantle, a vintage train set the other. An antique nativity scene (I called them “Jesus Barbies”) festooned an island. Homey, hand-knitted stockings were hung from fireplace to floor and garlands galore from door to door.
We always had a huge tree with Christopher Radko ornaments from tip to tail. (None of those charming, “Look what Nicole made” ornaments were allowed.) The all-white living room featured a “branch tree” that hailed from some obscure Scandinavian tradition native to my mother’s home state of Minnesota. Only glass and crystal ornaments were allowed on the branches and icicle lights added to the frosty (though we never mentioned the tacky snowman by name) effect.
All of this holiday hooplah came to an abrupt close when my father died in my 17th year, just a month before Christmas. We made a feeble attempt to celebrate the season — but there was more thistle in our hearts than mistletoe in the air.
That’s when we decided to bag the holidays. The next year, while the rest of the Judeo-Christian world was trimming trees, baking cookies, humming carols or polishing their menorahs, we retreated to tropical climes with nothing in our stockings but tanned legs and freshly waxed bikini lines. It was just the two of us — no children to dazzle with visions of sugar plums — so we went as low as we could go. We went to Key West.
The bottom of the barrel to some, the bottom of the bottle to others, but decidedly the bottom of America (being its southernmost dangling appendage.) Key West was as unlikely a Jerusalem as we could figure.
The first few years away from holly and folly were fine. Despite a brief run-in with a drag-queen Santa in ankle-length red sequins and pearls and five antlered poodles in tow one year, we had managed to find respite from holiday madness.
A few years later, we dragged another family along, went sailing, drank memorable wine, lingered over languorous meals and debated the merit of the mai tai versus the piña colada.
I think it was when we hit the nude, rooftop pool of a hotel where swizzle sticks were a moot point amongst the well-endowed waiters, that mother decided to change our holiday course for the following year.
After much procrastination and debate — Taos or Park City? Trinidad or Tobago? St. Croix or St. Thomas? — we were corralled into a last-minute venue. And so we found ourselves trapped for a solid week in a Bahamian air-conditioned nightmare resort surrounded by nouveau-riche bubbas, their tanning-embedded wives and a nasty cold front that forced us to seek shelter in a large, velvet-lined ashtray known as the Grand Casino.
We returned home as pasty as Frosty, as bloated as Santa from all the sugary drinks and as grumpy as Scrooge.
Needless to say, the next year we decided to revert to a scaled-back version of our old-school Christmas — a tradition we continued until last year. This year, I’m flying solo, so in honor of mother, I’m dusting off the Radkos, oiling the train, adding sparkle to the branches and — just to make it an authentic homage — making a pitcher of piña coladas.
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