Christmas, the day I used to wait for, counting down the days and hours, took place in the tall red house in New Jersey. Like many houses built around the turn of the last century, it was squeezed between neighbors, a driveway on one side, just barely wide enough for a car, and an alley on the other side. On that alley side, houses were so close, you could talk to someone from the side windows easily, and when there were times another girl lived in the bedroom opposite mine, we talked window to window.
All the houses on our street had porches across the front. Ours was closed in with 12 identical windows and overflow space for that extra chair no one knew where to put. A door with a long glass window led into a foyer, where my upright piano took up most of the space. The stairs with a nice chestnut railing emptied into the foyer, a railing which was fun to decorate for Christmas with a winding fake green garland, our stockings, and the sleigh and reindeer Dad had made that was just the right size covering the bannister.
The kitchen was straight ahead from the foyer, the living room to the right, and the dining room was behind the living room. Stairs in the kitchen went down to a side door in the alley, then continued into an unfinished cellar, where laundry got washed, hung to dry and ironed. A paritioned area hid an extra toilet, and outside the partition an extra sink. The old gas range was also down there, smaller than the new copper colored Jenn-air one in our kitchen. A corner was partitioned with an old coal chute, and this little unfinished room, really the coal bin, had many identities over the years.
The long narrow kitchen went out to al hall, then another windowed porch looking out on a small yard, an old stable, and something that looked like a garage but was too small for the automobiles of the decade, as it was built before cars were, and actually housed a woagon. The table had been home to a single horse. Together, the house’s original owner had delivered ice to area homes for their iceboxes.
A pantry connected the kitchen to the dining room, and that extra space was a blessing because the refridgerator fit there, and I never knew where we’d have put it if it had to be inside the kitchen. Dad had equipped the pantry with lots of extra cupboards for both groceries and seldom used kitchen items.
I think the dining room was my favorite. Compared to the other rooms, it felt generous in size, with room for a hutch, a small buffet, and a rock maple oval drop-leafed table that could, in a pinch, accomodate 17 people. Dad had removed old varnish from the chestnut plate railing around the room, the entry door from the kitchen and a splendid pair of sliding chestnut doors that could separate the dining room from the living room.
The living room had a three window bay that stuck out into the porch a bit, and where one the exterior ended. So, this was where the Christmas tree would be placed. But first, I decorated all the windows.
Mom bought me a set of poster paints each fall. Using old Christmas cards as models, I designed a picture for each of those three windows, the entry door to the foyer, the dining room windows, and one side window in the living room. I painted edges of holly with red berries. Some windows might have winter birds on snowy branches, Christmas ornamants, or, even one, part of a nativity scene.
The wide opening between the foyer and the living room was furnished with red string, on which I could place arriving cards, and there were many. Others went atop my piano, or on radiator covers.
Dad would unearth the outside lights from the attic a few weeks before Christmas. He’d made a frame he attached to the front door, and large outdoor lights went on that frame, the wires hidden by fake balsam boughs. He’d made a arched stand for the window to the right of the door, and in this stand, we slipped a strand of bubble lights one by one. Some gaudy lighted Santa face took up the window on the other side of the door.
The tree, tucked into the bay windows, stood in a metal stand. The family red star went at the top, after which lights wound around the tree. Tom and I had favorite ornaments of our own we enjoyed placing, and there were specialized non breakable ones for lower branches, because there were always cats in our house, and they were attracted to dangling ornaments. Our trees were well secured to the wall as well, because some cat, some year took a flying leap into the middle of the tree, toppling it over, and braeking some of the pretty ornaments. Boxes of tinsel, some recycled from the prior year, were like the icing on the cake. Sometimes I think a small fraction of Tom’s Lionel trainset was installed around the tree, and maybe a few fake houses and trees from the train table in the attic.
Our house was full on Christmas Eve. Grandma and Grandpa, at least one Aunt, maybe an uncle, and then te four of us. Lots of people for a little living room. Christmas Eve was magical, the lights from the tree giving the room a dim glow, the dinner on the dining room table on a red table cloth, every seat full.
I loved decorating for Christmas. But, now I do not. And I wonder why something so spendid then feels burdensome now. This year, I put up just a few decorations. No tree. No fuss. Maybe part of it because there are no children now to see it. Decorating seems silly when no one sees it but the two of us.
But, more than that, I think it just reminds me that all the people in the story are gone now, except Tom (who is sedentary and overweight and less likely to make it to a ripe old age). And with these thoughts, I just cry. Because I miss them all so much. And Christmas brings back the grief. So, I’m okay with just getting through Christmas, and moving on to normal life again.