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Tales of My Mother #9


I'm postponing the Tale of My Mother I was going to bring you next in favor of one more appropriate to the day.

So here I was in this family where my father was Jewish and my mother was not. But she learned. Of course, all she really learned was how to cook a few Jewish staples like brisket and latkes but that was enough. More than enough.  Remind me to tell you in one of these what it was that caused both families to drop their opposition to my parents' mixed marriage. (Hint: It was the birth of me…or actually, the impending birth of me.)

In our home, we celebrated Hanukkah. I always thought that since I was half-Jewish, I should only light four candles. We also celebrated Christmas and got a big tree. The acquisition of the tree — going to the lot, picking one out, haggling with the salesguy — was a big part of the holidays. My mother, being the least Jewish of the three of us, was more or less in charge of the tree. All my father contributed was to pay for the tree and drive it and us home.

My mother was a purist: No artificial colors on the tree. No flocking. Just a plain, simple green one. We'd position it in one corner of the living room in front of the fireplace that never had a fire in it, and we'd decorate. She and I.

We had two kinds of decorations. My Uncle Aaron was in the window display business. He sold low-cost, pre-fab ones that were made in Hong Kong or elsewhere in the Orient. He'd design them and sell them to stores that needed something simple and cheap to pop into the front window. He also sometimes bid on and would win contracts to supply street decorations to cities.

In Beverly Hills, the shops display window pageants by top designers and my Uncle Aaron was way out of their league there. But at the corner of Wilshire and Beverly Drive, a decoration would appear each year for which he was proudly responsible. It was Santa in his sleigh and eight reindeer, sailing diagonally over the intersection — a beautiful, traditional part of the Beverly Hills holiday environment. I never quite understood if Uncle Aaron designed or built it or just sold it to the city…but it was somehow his personal masterpiece and we'd go up to see it so Uncle Aaron could swell with pride.

One year, they brought in a ringer: Same idea but it was a Santa, sleigh and reindeer that he'd had nothing to do with. He criticized it as cheap and unworthy, and he got a few friends to write to the city to say, without mentioning that he'd put them up to it, that they should bring back the old Santa. The following year, they did.

Uncle Aaron had crates of Christmas ornaments. They cost him almost nothing and he'd give us boxes and boxes of them. We gave a lot of them to neighbors and sometimes, my friend Rick and I would invent a game that involved smashing a box of sixteen. I eventually outgrew thinking it was fun to break things but I enjoyed it at the time.

The hard part of decorating our tree each year was in not cluttering it with too many decorations…because we sure had too many. I'd usually put the balls in place, step back to look at my handiwork, then remove about half of them.

We also had to leave room for my mother's decorations. She had a small box of ornaments from her childhood, including a lovely star to place atop the tree. I don't think they were valuable in a monetary sense but they were priceless to her. I'd put on Uncle Aaron's ornaments and it didn't matter if I broke one or two or twenty. Like I said, we had crates. But my mother's half-dozen ornaments were handled by her and placed on the tree with great care. Then when Christmas was over and it was time for the tree to go away, the first step would be for her to carefully remove her decorations and pack them away for another year.

We did this until I was twelve. In 1964, Uncle Aaron died and we decided not to have a tree that year. It would have been festooned with his ornaments and would just have reminded us that he wasn't around. We didn't have one in '65 or '66 and a few months prior to Christmas of '68, we gave the garage-full of Uncle Aaron's ornaments — I almost just typed "Uncle Aaron's balls" — to a local charity that came and carried them away. My mother made certain that her memento ornaments were not included and I saved the lights and one box of Uncle Aaron's just in case Rick and I ever wanted to play one of our ornament-smashing games again.

As we approached Christmas of that year, my mother admitted she was a little depressed. '68 was a rough year in this country and it had finally "sunk in" for her that we were never going to have a Christmas tree again. When she'd suggested giving away the ornaments in the garage, she hadn't realized the emotional impact of that decision.

So I went out and got her a tree.

Not a big tree. A small tree. It was the symbolism that counted, not the actual tree. And besides, I didn't drive back then so I had to carry it home from the lot up on Pico Boulevard. I selected one that was under three feet, took it home when my parents were out and decorated it with the ornaments I'd saved to smash with Rick and the lights I'd kept. My mother was very happy to come home and find it…and to add her childhood ornaments to the display.

They'd been out buying the ingredients for our Christmas dinner. I think it was pot roast and latkes that year and the meal was a big hit.

So was the tree. Enough time had passed that it didn't bother Aunt Dot (Uncle Aaron's widow) to see a display that contained a reminder of him. It was, in fact, rather pleasant. And we never had another tree again. It didn't seem necessary and I didn't think we could top the short one. Maybe one of these days, I will…and I'll add in my mother's ornaments. That's assuming I can find them.