“You wouldn’t know what to do with me if I were normal.” Those were my mother’s words whenever I would get frustrated with her behavior.
“Normal is boring,” is another one. Like most things in life, in hindsight, I have to admit she was right.
This time of year, the world is in a state of chaos making holiday plans. Christmas decorations have been meticulously hung around our houses, and families come together to spend a couple days together in celebration. Every family has their own holiday stories, and a lot of those stories involve loved ones who are sadly no longer around to celebrate. Some families probably tell about the time their kooky uncle, filled with too much Christmas cheer, told inappropriate tales about their aunt. There’s always that one relative who can’t help but give the absolute worst gifts. Me? I have a bittersweet relationship with Christmas. We’ve had some wonderful times in our family, to be sure, but not without some bumps along the way.
My Christmas memories start like most who came of age in the mid Seventies. It wasn’t Christmas until I dog-eared pages and pages of toys from that most hallowed of holiday publications– the Sears Roebuck Wishbook. Thanks to the Wishbook, I would rise at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day with the hope Santa had left a ton of Minnesota Vikings gear in my living room. As you might imagine, all of the Vikings swag made me the envy of every elementary school kid in Cleveland, Mississippi. (Or not.) My parents would wipe sleep from their eyes, and slowly trudge to the den where we would open presents just like every other family. My dad would always get cookbooks and shirts, and my mom would almost always get a new bottle of her favorite perfume. Besides my Vikings gear, I remember my older brother giving me his collection of Hardy Boys books one Christmas, but not before leading me all over the house on a scavenger hunt. I never knew my mother’s father but I know he used to give Mom $100 every year on a whiskey bottle. How do do I know? Because Dad used to put a $100 bill on the same bottle of V.O. every year and wrap it under the tree for Mom to keep alive her father’s traditional gift. Our Christmas traditions were our Christmas traditions until they weren’t. (For many years, we visited relatives and clients all over the county on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for various holiday gatherings. I remember one year Dad brought me downtown to Rubenstein’s Department Store on Christmas Eve around 4 p.m. to “shop,” but I don’t recall him buying anything. I do recall him having a couple drinks with his friend Irving, and I had around 10 cookies waiting for them to stop talking. That same Christmas Eve, we then made a trip 25 minutes west to Rosedale to my dad’s aunt’s house for her family’s Christmas party, and Dad and I were able to get a little more bourbon and cookies, respectively. We ended the evening enjoying the Aguzzi family’s annual Christmas party, and I don’t recall anything eventful happening there. Well, other than I am fairly certain that last stop also involved more bourbon and cookies. As I recap that night now, I finally know why Dad never wanted to rise at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning.) At some point, Mom decided Christmas brought forth too many painful memories from her past, so we had to abbreviate the holiday festivities.
[Before going any further in this little story, I should first probably make everyone aware that my parents were extreme “cat” people. Growing up, we always had two or three cats around the house and my mother was known for feeding stray cats downtown by my father’s law office. Mom even had the local newspaper write a long article about her feeding the downtown cats- the pinnacle of small town fame. When I was about 15 years old, one of our cats had a litter of six kittens. Usually, despite his love of cats, Dad made sure we had homes for those kittens almost simultaneous with their birth. But this time, one of the kittens, a grey striped tabby tomcat with a pink nose, took a liking to me. From the moment the little cat opened his eyes, he gravitated to me. Every night, I would take my usual television viewing spot on the floor in our den and this little grey ball of fur would lay on my chest and purr loudly while I rubbed his back. After a couple weeks of this exercise, Dad told Mom we were keeping this new little cat because “that kitten should be able to stay with the boy he loves.” (Notice Dad framed it in favor of the cat, and not his son.) We named the tabby “Nagin Avalonni” after an Italian pen pal of Mom’s, and the cat quickly took over our home as if he were in charge. (The foreign pen pals are another story.). Nagin strutted around our house and ate pretty much anything and everything. He grew to be quite obese, mainly due to his aversion to outdoor exercise. As his waistline grew, so did his demands. He would jump up in my lap, and immediately start pawing at my hand to rub his belly while he purred and passed noxious gas that would almost make you choke if you were in the general vicinity. At some point, Dad coined him “King Noosky,” and explained to Mom and me the Nooskies were a special breed of striped fat cats throughout the world and Nagin was their King. As I look back, Dad’s creation of the Noosky legend is probably solid proof of the old adage “if you can’t beat them, then join them.” Rather than fighting, Dad just joined in the craziness that was our house.
What does all this cat stuff have to do with holidays, you might ask. Be patient. You will find out very soon.]
After Mom had what I would term a nervous breakdown during my late teens, she decided we would no longer have a Christmas tree at our house. Her reasons were long and many, and I won’t delve into her reasoning in this story. I was at an age by then that I wasn’t wishing from the Sears Wishbook anymore, but I still wanted a Christmas tree. Everyone else had a tree, but I also knew that not everyone had my Mom as their mother. Dad resigned himself to no Christmas tree, and it was what it was. Like I said earlier, Christmas brought back bad memories for Mom, and we were all trying to do what we could to just get through the holidays without a disturbance. (As an aside, mental illness is real. Don’t forget that.)
After a couple years of our treeless Christmas tradition, Mom found a grey and white striped stuffed plush cat sitting on its hind legs one afternoon while she was shopping one afternoon on QVC. The cat’s stomach lit up in the middle like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial while its little paws flew up and down like a stuffed Chris Farley. Unbeknownst to any of us, Mom pulled this little creature out of a box as soon as it arrived at the house, put a little red bow around its neck and placed it on the couch in the den. We later found out she named it the “Christmas Noosky,” in honor of our cat Nagin who was still ruling the roost.
Dad and I were both unaware of the Christmas Noosky’s existence until a couple days before Christmas when Dad and I both came in the back door at the same time late one afternoon. He had a couple wrapped presents under his arm, so I held the door open for him. As was Dad’s custom after a long day at the office, he poured himself a tall drink in the kitchen, and then walked into our living room to unwind. I walked in the den shortly after he did.
Both of our eyes immediately went to the warm yellow glow emanating from the top of the couch. In the darkness of the den, we clearly saw the vision of a glowing, stuffed grey and white feline. At its paws, Mom had placed wrapped Christmas gifts.
Dad took a long pull from his scotch, and looked over at me.
“Son, your mother has put a stuffed animal on our couch.”
I nodded in return.
“And we are now putting presents under it instead of using a Christmas tree,” Dad finished.
Dad shook his head slowly, as if he had lost another one. He lifted his cup for another drink while he stared at the glowing tabby pumping his arms like a stuffed track star. Finally, Dad let out a sigh, shrugged and placed both of the presents in his hand at the toy’s paws.
“Well as long as you know what we are doing. It makes sense to me.”
Dad then sat down in his chair and began reading the evening paper with a bemused look on his face. Every now and then, he would peer over at the Christmas Noosky and chuckle. Mom came down the hall from her room shortly afterwards for dinner, and life was normal.
Or as normal as it could be around there.