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Friday, January 30, 2009

It is Better to Not Give or Receive


I’ve worked all my life to get to the point where Christmas is nothing but a day off work. Gone are the days of fighting traffic, making lists, standing in line, and going into debt just so everyone I know can have the latest Chia Pet. Other Bill long ago introduced me to Jewish Christmas, which means going to a movie and eating out at a Chinese restaurant. It makes for a perfect day.

It wasn’t always this easy. For years, Christmas was a thousand points of stress for our family. After my Dad died when I was six, acquaintances who were mostly business associates of my dad would always drop by the house and bring to those poor semi-orphaned Wiley children gifts that would hopefully take our minds off our loss and contribute to a happier holiday. As if a Bolo paddle and a six-pack of sugary Pixie Stix were a suitable replacement for a dead father.

This parade of charity went on for far too many years, even after my sister and I stopped being friends of the children of those business associates. We gave. We received. It was what we did. The problem was, we couldn’t afford to go out and spend much, so beginning in October, Mom would start crafting ideas for cheap homemade holiday gifts that were budget-conscious responses for the store-bought crap that was given to us.

She started off by baking. My mother was a mediocre cook at best, but she could knead a mean loaf of bread, and she was a skilled candy maker. Peppermint fondant and gooey chocolate truffles were her specialties. Several weekends were spent punching down dough and cooking up exquisite smelling loaves of buttery homemade bread. It became a stressful race to make sure everyone on the list got crossed off once for bread, twice for candy. My sister and I would be put to work on the assembly line, sucking the air out of Baggies and knotting them up so the food could be safely frozen in a rented freezer at the local butcher shop. Mom would be consumed with fret, worry, amphetamines and cheap bourbon, wondering if she had forgotten anybody. Usually by mid-December she would accommodate this fear by cranking up production again for “extras,” edible gifts for people who didn’t exist, but might appear sometime in the following ten days or so. We had often been the taken off guard by acquaintances of the past, who showed up at the door, unexpected and unannounced, with Barbie clothes or Hot Wheels cars, and my embarrassed mother would bite her lip while thinking, “I wonder if they’d like those pillow cases I bought in August that are still wrapped and in the hall closet.”

These former friends, mothers who were blessed with the wealth of their professional husbands, would spend days cruising around town in their station wagons, delivering gift wrapped goodies to everyone, including the charity cases like us. Before long, it became the only time during the year we ever saw them. They’d pull in the driveway and honk the horn until we submitted, like curb service waitresses handing out receipts and peppermints in exchange for tips. They never even turned off the car or came inside. Like suburban Santas, they had many more deliveries to make before the wagon was empty.

I once told my mother, “Why do they even park? They could just drive by and toss their gifts into the driveway, as if they were delivering the newspaper.”

“But how would they get our gifts?” she asked me.

“Oh yeah,” I said. But I never really thought any of those wealth-endowed people took our bread and candy seriously. I mean, please, a loaf of white bread, and mis-shaped candy that wasn’t even individually wrapped in little paper fan-folded cups or shiny cellophane? God, how pathetic. Why not just give them a loaf of batter-whipped Sunbeam bread and a roll of Necco wafers and leave it at that? It would sure have saved a lot of time.

Eventually, my mother came to see my point of view, and as years went by and her government salary received tiny increases, she modified her plans. The first thing to do was to phase out the candy. It was a delicate operation to heat the chocolate mixture to the exact temperature for the precise amount of time. One blink, and a soft, luscious truffle would turn into nothing more but a crunchy, chocolaty sugar bomb. One year my mother was thumbing through Ladies Home Journal, and in the back she found genuine pewter plates for $3.99. A pittance to pay for what she called a semi-precious metal. Around the rim of the plate was the line from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine, and Thou.” This line had universal alcoholic appeal, I guess, and my mother immediately got out her checkbook.

That year, she continued the bread baking. Cases of nothing but the cheapest wine were purchased to go with the semi-precious pewter plates. In short, a pretty crappy gift. But she’d always lived under the umbrella of the universal cliché that justified cheesy gift giving: It’s the thought that counts.

That year she had completely overspent her budget, and she was livid that the Rubaiyat plates turned out to be the size of a saucer, nothing big enough to break bread on. To recoup some of her money back, during a mild alcoholic rage during which she caught my sister sticking her tongue out at her, Mom took back the $100 she gave to her that year. It was a cruel punishment for Kathryn, but a bourbon bonus for herself.

So the next year, again from some magazine, Mom discovered a recipe for something called brandied fruit. All sorts of fresh and canned fruits were sliced up, put into a big ceramic jug and covered with cheap alcohol and granulated sugar. The fruit would ferment, turn brown, sweeten the pot, and make this thick, brown, vomity-looking, toxic compound that Mom and her new boozer husband enjoyed as a lumpy dessert cocktail, served over ice cream. In September, production began for large-scale distribution as large ceramic vats were procured. Each night the mixture was gently turned (not stirred), for whatever reason, and by the third week in December, cases of mason jars were brought into the home and filled with this lethal brew. Slowly, pints were ladled out, and each spoonful was inspected to make sure that it wasn’t contaminated with roaches. We had sometimes woken up to find inebriated palmetto bugs staggering around the kitchen after drinking some of the slop that spilled outside the crocks during the daily turning. As far as we knew, no vermin had found its way inside the vats, but we wanted to make sure that if they did, they were picked out before serving them up to our acquaintances, who just refused to let go. Hey, it wasn’t as if we were going to have to eat that crap. Mom’s personal brandied fruit stash contained more expensive, out of season fruit soaked with pricey brandy. The mass-market crocks contained nothing more than Del Monte and grain alcohol.

These pints, given to our former friends, were called “starters.” Mom typed up directions on what to do with these starters (put in a crock, keep adding fruit and sugar and occasionally a fifth of something flammable to provide you with a lushy dessert for an entire year.)

Most of the society lady recipients put on brave faces of delight when learning about this remarkable potion, but I suspect most of those pints were, if not tossed out the window on the way home, then quickly received by their new owners’ garbage disposals.

These former friends flaunted their two-parent families by sending us Kodak Print Christmas cards of crew-cutted males and French-twisted females gathered around something expensive, looking so white and Christian and Republican. Staring at these pictures of my peers, I would never even consider that any of them would turn out less than model citizens. It wasn’t until adulthood that I learned they had problems and scandals that would make my homosexual admission as lame as an episode of Leave it to Beaver. The pictures, sometimes shot at poolside or pointing Carol Merrill-like at the new Cadillac, gave off the Scotch-pine-scented air of perfection and wealth. We knew these photo-cards cost four times as much as the scratched-and-dented cards my mother picked up eleven months earlier at the half price after-Christmas sale at Woolworth’s. We weren’t dirt poor, but we had to cut corners and make do whenever we could, so finding the crappy half price cards that no one wanted in the first place was quite a step up for us.

Up until then, we had developed the Christmas Card Recycling Program. Here’s how that worked: We would cut the fronts off all cards that didn’t have any writing on the back side of them. Then we would tape a blank piece of card stock cut to the same size as the front. Bingo: instant free card to be used next year. How we cursed those who wrote on the inside back covers of those cards, especially the expensive Hallmarks. White Out hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had been we surely would have painted over a lot of ink. Since Christmas cards were of all shapes and sizes, none of which would fit an a regular business sized envelope, cards that had to be mailed out would be sent in big manila envelopes swiped from the Small Business Administration, where my mother worked.

Finally, it was time to pass the torch to a younger family member to shoulder the responsibility as Trinket Curator for the Non-Friends. The following year, my Aunt Judy, a crafty and bright woman with unlimited imagination and creativity, had gotten into candle making. In the fall of that year, she showed us this thick, hexagonal candle about the size of a cantaloupe that she hollowed out and, with tweezers, inserted a teensy nativity scene into the hot wax until it solidified and surrounded little two-centimeter plastic swaddling Jesus in paraffin. Joseph, Mary, and several barnyard animals were also skewered into the hot wax until they stuck there for all Christmases to come.

My mother was simply awed and insisted that Aunt Judy show me exactly how it was done. This, she proclaimed, would be the present of all presents, containing all the Christmas essentials except for alcohol. Lights, candle, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, ACTION! A Ball of Wax, a Plastic Christ, and Thou.

It was discovered not by accident that my stepfather, a petroleum tanker truck driver, had access to a warehouse where 44-pound cases of paraffin were stored. Gulf Oil, the company he worked for, was one of the primary manufacturers of paraffin for home canning. In the grocery stores, you could buy little one pound boxes that sat perfectly positioned right next to the cases of mason jars. From the warehouse, Ray made off with 132 pounds of it for the Christmas Candle Project. Having free, stolen wax made this gift project even more of a dream.

At a craft store, we found teensy nativity scenes in stapled plastic bags with card stock covers that hung from pegboard hooks. They were 29 cents a crèche. The candle molds were purchased, It took two days to make one candle, and it was a long, drawn out procedure. The wax had to be cut off an eleven-pound slab, then melted in a pan over boiling water so that it would not ignite. Then the wax was colored, scented, and poured into a greased mold and left to harden overnight. The next afternoon, the candle was removed and painted with whipped, frosting-like wax to create a snow-like finish. Next, a red-hot ice pick was driven through the candle, where the wick was inserted. Finally came the microsurgical procedure of inserting the wee Christ family and barnyard animals into the hot-knife-melted floor of the carved-out candle. It was not only not fun, but it was potentially dangerous.

I had to make fifty of those in 90 days in order to make the Christmas deadline. I grew impatient with the slow-melting-over-boiling-water method and soon stepped it up to the directly-on-the-burner melting process. I did a lot of the work on the weekend, where I was left home alone while my mother partied across the state with the Wax Procurer.

Once, while I was on the phone with my back turned, the old aluminum coffee pot filled with hot wax started smoking and then burst into flames. Fearfully, I grabbed the handle with a potholder and dashed over to the sink and opened the faucet into the pot, which caused the flames to mushroom out over my head. Hair was singed. Polyester curtains were melted by the flames. Thousands of pin-head-sized droplets of wax blasted all over the kitchen, my face, arms and the front of my shirt. I was damned lucky I didn’t burn the house down. Cue the carolers and sleigh bells, please. Come on, it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together.

After that incident, as always, my mother included our dime-store Christmas cards with the candles that were picked up or delivered (which saved on stamps.) But that year it was different. Inside each card was a hand-written plea requesting that we no longer continue the charade of holiday gift giving. The request was bold and left no room for second-guessing. It was stated that we would not be giving them gifts next year and to please cross us off their gift list in the future. And then there was the token line about always cherishing the friendship and some bullshit about not having to prove that with gifts. This Christmas nightmare was now over, and I am sure everyone was relieved. I always admired my mother for being the only one with the balls to cut the cords with these people, most of whom we never saw again.

So now in my fifties, I am proud to have no shopping to do. My sister and I called it quits on the gifts years ago, and all of my friends are happy to have the day off for big breakfasts and playful sex, or whatever it is they do. The nephew is 28 now and makes more money than I do. There are no children in my life, and children are what modern Christmas is all about, anyway. I want a bumper sticker that reads: “Greedy Children are the Reason for the Season.”

During the year, I always like to send my sister little echoes of the past. Maybe I’ll pick up a game on eBay that we used to have as kids, or send her links to websites of people we used to play foursquare with. Or a can of Pssssssst. I was in the grocery store the other day and looked up and saw mason jars and paraffin right next to each other, and I wondered two things. How many one-pound boxes of wax would it take to replicate that candle, and do they still make those little plastic micro-Christs that come in stapled plastic bags? I’m sure it could bring back some loving memories for my sister.

Merry Christmas to all, and pass the chop suey.

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