My husband, J., has been feeling depressed for more than a week now. I’m feeling low, too, but having been depressed to the point of despair once, I know the difference. This is just the blues. This is just Christmas.
J. gets low around Christmas because he grew up poor. All his friends got presents, and he got nothing.
“It’s not their fault,” I tell him.
“You’d make a lousy therapist,” he answers.
I grew up only two blocks from J., in an apartment close to Yankee Stadium and the Harlem River. Yet my Christmases were blissful, except for the year I got an umbrella — an umbrella that I’d hoped would be a Wild West cap rifle. The two boxes were almost identical. The slightly longer one contained a rifle. “For Roy,” it said. Roy is my brother. He still loves Christmas. Why wouldn’t he?
I invited Roy and his partner, Chris, to come for Christmas dinner. I do this in our “off years” — when our son and daughter-in-law and granddaughter don’t travel from Wisconsin to visit, and it’s just J. and me. Roy declined, as he always does. Usually he says he’s worried about the weather and the roads, since we live upstate, a hundred miles north of New York City. But this year he had a real excuse: he had to work.
J. likes to say he’s worked every day of his life from the age of nine. He and his four brothers all helped support the family — a big Irish family with a struggling immigrant father who was active in the Transport Workers Union and always on strike. J.’s job was delivering papers: up one building, across the roof, and down the next — racing to get it all done so he could serve as an altar boy at the seven o’clock Mass, then hurry to school. Five boys working, and only the girls getting presents on Christmas.
Roy and Chris usually go to the Jersey Shore to have Christmas dinner with their friend Jack and his wife. At Jack’s house, Roy says, “everything’s over the top” — first the antipasto, then the lasagna, and after that the turkey dinner with a dozen different side dishes. “And so many lights on the house it could blind you.” This year, when Roy turned down my invitation because he had to work, I asked about Jack.
“We’ll go there after,” he said.
This morning J. and I drove over to the Hudson. The tide was flowing north with a strong wind blowing south, and there wasn’t a lot of ice yet. We passed three people on the road: a migrant worker all bundled up; a hatless man, unshaven and distracted-looking; and a teenager we passed both going and coming back. “Should we pick him up?” I asked on the second pass.
“He probably wants to walk,” J. said.
Last week in the paper I saw there was going to be a “Blue Christmas” service at the Hudson Landing Reformed Church. It was their fifth year doing it. Apparently it’s a growing trend: a special service with candles and poetry and reflection for those who are grieving or just feeling blue around the holidays. I thought about going but decided not to. I already had what I imagined most people got from it: the chance to acknowledge their misery.
Amy and Soren, the young couple who moved in next door last summer, are away at her parents’ in Connecticut. I know this because Amy called yesterday and asked if we could look after their chickens. J. and I both picked up the phone at the same time. He was already saying, “Sorry,” when I said, “Just tell me what to do.”
Usually around this time of year my friend Kathy calls to ask the words of the carols we used to sing in the Sacred Heart Elementary girls’ choir: “Sing Noel” and “Come Rise Up Early in the Morning.” They’re both rondos, and they’re not versions other people seem to know. They’re not even on the Internet. Kathy and I sing the verses we remember, and then we hang up. She has a thousand things to do. She’ll be having sixteen people for dinner.
On Saturday night J. and I went to the singalong Messiah in Hudson Landing. We had gone a few years back and had sworn we’d never go again. The conductor is a hard-ass. He separates you into sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses and drills you till you get it right. I decided to sit with the basses because I wanted to be with J. “I’m a bass groupie,” I told the conductor. He kept watching me for trouble.
Because it’s an off year, we didn’t get a tree, and we didn’t put up the fake-fir porch garland. Or the white lights that drizzle off the porch roof. Or the ones that dangle down the porch skirt. Or the ones that light the path to the road. Or the ones that drape the two bare forsythias out by the barn. A neighbor once told me those last ones are the most beautiful lights in our tiny hamlet — “because they look so lonely out there and give me hope.”
In our “on years” we drive to a tree farm and cut a tall, wonderfully scented tree that will shed its needles everywhere. The rest of the year we’ll find them between the floorboards and down in the sofa. But first, on Christmas Eve, they’ll poke our hands raw as we fight to hang the ornaments among the boughs. “Hang them deep,” my mother would say, “so they won’t fall off.” God, how I love those ornaments, both the breakable and the unbreakable ones.
Our first Christmas tree came from the Acme Supermarket on Featherbed Lane. Despite its cozy name, Featherbed Lane was the center of our heroin-blighted Bronx neighborhood. Our supermarket tree was a real tree, two and a half feet tall, sprayed dark green with something like house stain. We bought a box of ornaments to go with it: twelve delicate, sculpted-glass decorations that are still the most exquisite ones I own. There are seven of them left, tucked in brown tissue in the attic with the rest.
We went to the Messiah because I was desperate for color and warmth and people acting like they were enjoying themselves. When it was time for “Rejoice Greatly,” I began singing, even though it’s only for sopranos and I’m not a soprano anymore. Besides, I was sitting with the basses. Yet I sang anyway because I badly needed to rejoice. I was singing as softly as a mouse, but the conductor caught me and said in front of everyone, “Someone is singing in the wrong register.” He was looking directly at me.
Kathy and I and the rest of the elementary-school choir used to sing at the lighting of the Christmas tree. Not the Rockefeller Center one but the one in Joyce Kilmer Park, east of Yankee Stadium. It was cold and dark, and no one came to watch, but we sang anyway, all sixteen of us, along with Mr. Rowan, our choir director, and the park employee in his green uniform, ready to insert the plug and light up the tree, which wasn’t much taller than the one we have in our living room now in our on years. “Sing Noel, I can never cease my singing.” No matter who’s listening, or who’s not.
In our off years I’ll suggest to J. that we drive up to the Albany City Mission to help serve Christmas dinner. There’s always a picture in the paper of someone who needs a hot holiday meal — usually a street person who looks vaguely like Santa and is probably a Vietnam vet. But J. is never inclined to go. Instead he’s waiting for me to cook the turkey dinner with ten different trimmings that my mother and grandmother used to make. Even though J.’s a better cook than I am. Even though it will be just the two of us.
Because my mother and grandmother were Swedish, we had to eat lutefisk on Christmas Eve. Lutefisk is whitefish that’s been soaked for days in a lye bath, and it’s every bit as slimy and unsavory as it sounds. My grandmother had been a cook for a wealthy family once, though you couldn’t tell it from her lutefisk. Later on, when my grandfather started squandering his carpenter’s pay in bars, she became a building super. Then she could soak the fish out in the yard, where nothing would be harmed by the lye. One year the lutefisk turned our forks black. “Those were cheap forks,” my grandmother said.
Though my father had to work both a day job and a night job to support us, he sometimes went to a commercial lender and took out a loan so he and my mother could shower us with presents. When I was four, they gave me an artist’s easel and an organ grinder’s box with a toy monkey and a dozen smaller gifts. My parents liked to tell me how I danced around the room in ecstasy, singing, “Heigh-ho, the derry-o, the farmer in the dell!” Now, that’s what I call “rejoicing greatly.”
When I went over to check on the chickens, I noticed that the door to their coop wouldn’t close. The coop was a crooked old garden shed, and someone had leaned a board against the door to keep it from falling open. I moved the board to get inside, and the three hens began circling me, making their burbly chicken sounds. “Hello,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. I checked that their food dispenser was still full and their water heater was still on. Then I took the eggs, as I was supposed to: two good eggs and a third that had been bitten open and all its insides sucked out.
On Saint Lucy’s Eve, twelve days before Christmas, Inga and some other Swedish kids my age would come singing through the hallways of my building. Inga was blond and pretty, and she’d be wearing a white gown cinched around her waist and a crown of pine boughs and candles on her head. Lighted candles on her head! It was mesmerizing and wonderful, and I wished I could do it. “How come you never did?” J. asked me once.
“Because I was Catholic,” I said, “and the Catholic canceled out the Swedish.”
On Christmas morning my uncle Arne would show up to escort my grandmother to the Swedish-language church, which is now a Black Muslim mosque. After the service my Swedish aunts and uncles would come to our apartment for dinner. Our family was the only one in my grandmother’s line that hadn’t left the neighborhood, the only one that had any children. The only one with toys and noise and singing. It gave the day a festive feel — the women stirring pots in the kitchen, the men sipping whiskey in the living room, and Roy and I playing under the table, which had been opened up and set with a linen cloth.
The year I turned eight, my mother spent three months making doll clothes for me as a Christmas surprise. All day while I was at school and every night after I went to sleep, she bent over the treadle sewing machine in my grandmother’s room, making fur-trimmed coats for the walking dolls, soft flannel layettes for the babies, and satin gowns for the glamour dolls. But how could she have forgotten that I didn’t like dolls? I squeezed a teddy bear into the red satin gown, a panda into the gold one.
In my freshman year of high school we had to buy presents to bring to the preschool children in a Staten Island orphanage. I went to Louie’s Five & Ten and bought a teddy bear. Two little orphan girls got into a scratch-your-face fight over a doll someone had brought, and it took me forever to find a third girl who’d trade her doll for a teddy bear so everyone could be happy. When it was all settled and the girls went off to play, a fourth girl told me, “After you go home, the nuns take everything away. No one here gets to keep anything for themselves.”
J. gave me a card this morning. He rarely gives me presents, and he always apologizes when he doesn’t, as if he’d somehow forgotten and I might have been expecting something. Sometimes I think he doesn’t give me gifts because I’m choosy and he’s afraid he won’t pick anything I like. Other times I think it’s because he’s too busy, or maybe too cheap, or because he regards Christmas as a fake, commercial holiday. Or maybe because, when I was a child, I had tons of toys and decorated cookies and a towering tree and boxes of ornaments and everyone singing, and he didn’t.
On our first Christmas together I was a sophomore in college, and J. was in law school. I’d gotten pregnant on our honeymoon, so we were dealing with full-time course schedules, part-time jobs, late-night studying, subway commutes, and morning sickness. Yet in our two-room Bronx apartment with the el train rattling our windows, we put up our supermarket tree. We put it on J.’s desk, and we were too busy to think about it again until Easter. When we lifted it up, all the needles fell off at once.
When our son, J.J., was young, J. made certain that every Christmas there’d be tons of presents and decorated cookies and a towering tree and boxes of ornaments and everyone singing. We still have those things in our on years, when J.J. and his wife and daughter come. When there are people here.
J. and I ran into our neighbor Larry at the firehouse meeting Monday. “We missed you at the Country Store party,” Larry said. The Country Store is two blocks from our house.
“What party?” I asked.
“Saturday night. The neighborhood Christmas party. Everyone was there, and there was way too much food. We all sang carols.”
“Where were we?” J. asked me. And then I remembered. We had gone to the singalong Messiah because we were feeling lonely and depressed.
I went over to see the chickens again before dinner. I kept worrying about how their door wouldn’t close. It didn’t even have a latch. That board leaning against it might be enough to stop the chickens from getting out, but what if something wanted to get in? Something that could nudge the board until it fell? A fox, for instance. Or a coyote. I brought some plastic twist-ties and secured the door handle to an old nail in the frame. “God rest ye, merry chickens,” I said. “Let nothing you dismay.”
Every so often J. goes all out and buys me a terrific Christmas gift. My first electric typewriter, for instance. And my Bose CD-radio. Once he gave me several shopping bags full of fancy items from a New York boutique. He had flirted with the clerk, and she’d chosen a designer handbag, a luxury watch, a chenille sweater, and a sexy teddy. Another time he went to the women’s section of a big-box store and picked out a plaid flannel shirt, jeans, and a hoodie — the kind of things a guy might buy for himself.
In our off years I usually give J. sweaters and Levi’s and flannel shirts. He thanks me, says I didn’t really need to, apologizes for not getting me anything, drops his presents back in their boxes, and asks if I want to take a drive to the Hudson. A few days later I’ll gather the boxes from the floor, where he’s left them, and put them in the spare-room closet. When it’s our next off-year Christmas, I can wrap them and give them to him again.
My elementary-school choir once sang carols at a nursing home. We stood in a semicircle, facing the residents in their semicircle. We were ten or eleven, and they were in wheelchairs, which made them shorter than we were. We went through our repertoire: “Sing Noel” and “Come Rise Up Early in the Morning.” And as we sang, I watched a woman’s urine bag fill up.
On my mother’s last Christmas her speech was mostly unintelligible — she’d been in a nursing home for six years — yet she remembered all the words to all the carols. We sang them together: “Silent Night,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High,” with its long, lilting “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-ria!” J. took pictures of the two of us singing cheek to cheek, our mouths forming those endless o’s. Her eyes are closed, and she looks barely alive, but we sounded wonderful. We had both become altos.
Each year before Christmas, J.’s mother used to call to ask what we needed. Nothing, I’d say. So she’d give us robes or sweaters. She was five when her own mother died, and as the oldest on the Irish farm, she had to take over the farmwife’s chores. “What does J.J. need?” she’d ask about our son. Nothing, I’d say. So she’d give him pajamas or sheets. Snoopy pajamas or Star Wars sheets. But they weren’t toys. No, they weren’t toys. They were things he “needed.”
I once asked my mother if she’d ever had any toys. Yes, she said, one: a small stuffed horse with leather skin. Its name was Spark Plug. “Children didn’t have toys then,” she told me. But she had books. She had all the Bobbsey Twins novels, and she saved them in case she ever had a daughter. When I was old enough, she gave them to me for Christmas. And what did I do? I made fun of them. I made fun of them, and she put them on the dumbwaiter so the super could haul them out with the trash.
We’d been married for just a few years when J.’s father stepped off a bridge into the Harlem River one night. It happened two weeks before Christmas, but we didn’t know he was dead yet — only that he was missing. I told the director of my college choir I didn’t feel like singing at our holiday concert that year, even though I’d been practicing for it all semester: “Uns ist ein Kind geboren,” “Hanukkah, O Hanukkah,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” But J. and I didn’t hear anything about his father. Not for three months. Not until the ice melted.
Last night was Christmas Eve, yet ours was the only house in the hamlet that had any lights on. I tried to fool myself into thinking that everyone else was away or at a holiday party, but I know that one neighbor has a boyfriend in jail. And another, a wife recovering from a breakdown. And another, a son just diagnosed. Ours was the only house that was lit up, the only house anyone could see. But sometimes the lights make the darkness seem darker.
I don’t remember much about our first Christmas together, except that we got a crib and set it up right away in that apartment. The crib and the tree. The crib empty. The tree ignored. The tree came down on Easter. The crib in June after our daughter was born and died a few weeks later in heart surgery. I was nineteen; J., twenty-two, and he held me every night for a month while I cried myself to sleep. That’s what I remember. The needles falling. The empty crib. And J. holding me.
How can you help remembering it, all of it, when Christmas comes? Christmas is like drowning and seeing your life before your eyes. Every year — and it’s the darkest week of the year — someone strings lights on a tree, and you stand in front of it with whoever or whatever is supposed to make you happy. And you smile, maybe in honest, naked joy, or maybe you fake it because you got an umbrella.
Before I went to bed, I took a flashlight and went back to check on the chickens one last time. That bitten-open egg kept weighing on my mind. But there they were, huddled together in the glow of their heater. I still wasn’t sure what to say, so I sang to them instead: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!” I sang it as loud as I could. And they looked up at me, the daughters of Zion, their feathers all aglow.