Happy Christmitzvah


Christmitzvah

Get Christmitzvah

My sister Amanda and I were huddled beneath the wall in our living room. The Christmas tree stood to our right, kept precariously erect by fishing line tied to various sections of banister post. We had belly crawled from the foyer and then gingerly tiptoed between gifts that had come in the mail or from my parents’ work contacts. I hushed her with a finger. Above us, in the kitchen, my mother played Mah-jong with her friends. Their discussion jumped from Oprah Winfrey to the seasonal financial concerns. When the talk finally turned to gifts my sister and I made eye contact. This was exactly the point of our intelligence mission. Gifts. Our two younger siblings were upstairs sleeping or watching Christmas specials, but as the oldest I had a responsibility to get information. Amanda was next oldest, my second in command. So, we listened.

“I’m going to pick it up this weekend,” my mom said.

“Who’s it for?” one of her friends asked.

My sister and I goggled our eyes. The mother lode. But before my mom could say anything further, one of her friends laughed a short horrific cackle and said, “I had to give Michael the talk last week.”

“Oy, how did that go?” one of them asked.

My sister’s fledgling OCD thwarted our plan when she reached out to right an errant Christmas ball and upset the house of cards equilibrium keeping the tree upright. It listed, we were forced to hold it in place or become impaled by hundreds of pine needles, and my mother and her friends were alerted to our eavesdropping. I managed to convince my mom and her cross-armed Mah-jong partners that we were just snooping around the gifts under the tree. And, left without proof of any further misdeeds, she sent us upstairs where we joined the other two watching one of the dozens of Christmas specials on television in late December.

My external environment during the 1986 holiday season was probably the same as it had been in 1985 and 1984. My family and I lived just off the teardrop of a cul-de-sac on a hill high in a suburban development. We were surrounded by trees and fences and other houses. It was in that cul-de-sac, compacting snowball ammunition that my friends and I – Skip, Joe, Eddie, Mike, and Ben – were engaged in our seasonal debate on the rivalry between Hanukkah and Christmas.

Our neighborhood was primarily made up of Jewish families, my friend Ben among them. Skip and Mike lucked out by having both a Jewish and a gentile parent, thus reaping the benefits of two cultures’ worth of gifts and holidays. I grew up with Jewish babysitters, Jewish friends, Jewish enemies, and Jewish teammates in street sports.

Though technically my family was gentile, I was pretty much raised half Jewish. The four kids in our house used the language we heard our middle-aged Jewish neighbors use. A vexation would result in a “mano-shevitz!” While a hearty “mazel tov” was offered to anyone celebrating a victory. We were “verklempt” without irony and we referred to ourselves as “goys.” By the age of six, I knew that to be called a “mensch” by an old man was amongst the greatest compliments one could receive. We got away with cursing by simply saying bad things in Yiddish: “Shtup you!” or “You’re such a shvantz” or “Dad, don’t be a Kvetch.”

This is not to say that we didn’t have other cultural or religious influences in our lives. My siblings and I all attended Catholic school. I was baptized and had endured my Holy Communion. I’d been forced to admit my sins at first confession, during which I re-enacted for the priest and a horrified audience of parents and families how much trouble one got in at my home when they said “fuck it” and were seven years old at the same time. I had spent a great deal of my life hearing about Catholicism. I knew about the saints and the Stations of the Cross. I heard all about God and the beginning, when he created everything and said things like “Let there be light!” in a hackneyed English that I’d mark my students down for these days. I’d spent some eight years hearing all about his son Jesus. I heard about his sacrifices, his crucifixion, his teachings, his birthday, and, mostly, his disappointment in virtually every action I undertook.

At home there were constant reminders of my Italian heritage. My dad shouted curses in bastardized Neapolitan, vulgarities which would mark my first foray into second language acquisition. Italian was a pillar in my dad’s life themes. The others were food, baseball, and Boggle. But he adored everything Italian: movies, books, food, basketball coaches. He had bought Italian language books and tapes, and we could hear him practicing in his office, near his shrine built of Ennio Morricone soundtracks. We ate pasta at least twice a week, a ubiquitous piece of bread in our free hands to act as sauce sponge and coverall utility.

Despite the fact that my mother’s maiden name is McFarland and that she could pose with poised dukes and end up on a Notre Dame shirt, she had assimilated into our Jewish surroundings more than my dad. She played Mah-jong with her friends and ended –er words to mimic ladies she knew. “It’s like Buttah,” she’d say, or “it was a disastah!” Her integration perhaps culminated in her purchase of a delicatessen when I was in the sixth grade.

My siblings and I were familiar with the Jewish High Holidays. We knew to offer “l’shana tova” to our friends on Rosh Hashanah and to tease them with candy while they fasted on Yom Kippur. And every holiday season we took part in our friends’ Hanukkah celebrations, just as they took part in our Christmas celebrations. Despite our knowledge of Hanukkah and the fact that I enjoyed celebrating it with my friends, there was no question in my mind that in this specific sphere of culture Christmas was the clear winner. We had a real personality in Santa. He was magic, could get into your house without you knowing, and flew around the world in one night transported by giant animals that did his bidding. He was surrounded by small men who built toys. Three years from that holiday season, Jon Lovitz would play a character called Hanukkah Harry on Saturday Night Live, thus creating a Hanukkah figure to meet Santa on the holiday field of battle. But for now, they had nothing. Christmas also handily won in the areas of music and food. We had Christmas carols, which were light and evoked a holiday mood. Who ever heard of a Hanukkah carol? Not me. On Hanukkah, my Jewish buddies got brisket, kugel, and latkas, admittedly not a bad deal as dinners go, but when you weighed that up against the feast of ravioli and meatballs that my grandmother made every Christmas Eve, it was no contest. On one of the high holidays Eddie and I frowned at the gefilte fish and matzo ball soup in front of us. When nobody from Candid Camera jumped out of the closet, we knew that this religion wasn’t winning any gastronomical holiday debates. Despite my trenchant analysis, the debate broiled.

“You goys, Christmas is all fun and games. My dad says Hanukkah’s about dedication and thanks,” Ben said.

“Sounds like a great holiday,” Joe said.

“You goys don’t understand.”

“You’re right.”

“It’s about suffering and appreciation and dedication.”

“Suffering? Ever been in a church, knucklehead? It’s full of suffering. Also Jesus suffered and died for our sins, so don’t you tell me we goys don’t get suffering. We get it. Every time I go in a church I suffer.”

“Jesus suffered. You don’t.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

Our theological discussions no doubt lacked a certain base in scripture, philosophy, and tenet. Most of them degraded into the “yah ha” “nah ah” mode of childhood courtroom debate. Despite having no real religious affiliation, my best friend Eddie was perennially in my corner or, at the very least, sort of on his own wavelength.

“Why do you guys have gefilte fish?” Eddie asked.

“That’s not Hanukkah,” Ben said, but then to back up his earlier point, followed it up. “Suffering. Suffering. All fish suffer.”

Ben’s knowledge of Jewish folklore and iconoclastic symbolism was tentative, but I’m pretty sure that he was banking on the fact that ours was too. Despite my ignorance, even then I had the feeling that he wasn’t in possession of the whole story. Still, he had stunned us. I spent a moment considering the depths of a fish’s suffering as was Eddie. Or he had moved onto his true passion in life: cheese sandwiches with mustard. In any event, Ben chucked a comment grenade to swing the debate back to his advantage.

“Plus, I don’t care if you get Christmas, cause this year I get a Bar Mitzvah.”

I wasn’t sure that he’d won, but I had a bad feeling that he had notched a point. If you have any experience with these things, you know that around the age of twelve or thirteen Catholics get a confirmation and Jews get a Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah. A confirmation essentially seals the deal that had started with Baptism, a sort of sacramental “gotcha!” A Bar Mitzvah is the corresponding rite of passage in the Jewish tradition. There are advantages to both. As a Catholic, all I’d had to do was choose the name of a saint, get through a mass, and let my family take me out to lunch. I think a lot of my relatives gave me money, but eleven seconds after the envelope touched my hand it was gone and ended up in the “special college fund” that my dad alluded to at the times that anyone gave his children money.

I had been to one Bar Mitzvah, which featured my friend singing in front of a roomful of people. In Hebrew. His thirteen year old teetering-on-pubescence voice cracked and pitched, a deep crimson climbing up his throat. I watched with a rectus of sympathetic agony and overwhelming hilarity, thanking a god I had thus far only asked for candy and meatballs for not making me do this. This sentiment changed when I went to the magnificent party. Music, food, entertainers, every friend that boy had ever had was in the Hilton event room that evening. He was dizzy with glee, as one person after another smothered him with love, pinched his cheeks, passed along a few tidbits of wisdom mixed with good-natured self-deprecating jabs, said one or two things in Yiddish, then handed him a substantial amount of money in an envelope. I remember all of them men saying, “Well, Josh, you are now a man.”

What was this mishegas? OK, not having to sing in front of a huge group of friends and family, meant that I totally won out in the area of public humiliation. But the party was no comparison, with my Jewish comrades leaving us goys in their dust. And the money. But what had really bothered me about the analogous relationship between Bar Mitzvahs and Confirmations was that I was not a man after my rite of passage. Perhaps it was due to the fact that, as Ben had suggested, there was no suffering in our Christian rites. But I’d not just had to go to a mass, I’d had to go to a really long mass. And one in which I was a participant. Was that not suffering? I guess the Lord was looking for a little more pain in order to let me be a man. Jerk.

If that’s what He needed, then perhaps this Christmas would help, because I was surely suffering. To this day I love the holiday season and I eat up the atmosphere with abandon. When I was a kid, this glee was magnified with the euphoric knowledge that a mystical elf would drop off gifts for me on Christmas Eve. And yet, this year, something was not quite right. When my dad asked what I wanted from Santa, I sputtered out a few things, but my heart wasn’t in it. Additionally, my body and brain were making focus difficult. I was twelve years old. While I sat in my eighth grade classes at Assumption B.V.M my body was in revolution, hormones were popping out of me like fed-after-midnight-Gremlins. Depending on the time of day, my voice resembled three members of the same garage band but of different genders. A peach fuzz mustache had sprouted in early September and I began noticing with great alarm, suddenness, and appreciation just how different girls were from us boys. Somehow, the excitement I’d had for previous Christmases was different this year, more subdued. Like a good Catholic, I quelled and repressed these feelings, perhaps subconsciously holding them in reserve to relate to a therapist in the future. For now I put on a brave face and waited for Santa.

Exacerbating my unease was the fact that for the previous two months our street’s twelve and thirteen year olds had been slain by a rash of sex talks. Skip got his in a pumpkin patch in mid-October. Joe got his while watching the Thanksgiving parade and had, by his siblings’ reports, spent the rest of the day in the bathroom washing his hands. Eddie and I had no idea what it would be like and our friends were no good at relating their horrific tales; they were veterans trying to describe combat to raw recruits. We didn’t know what was coming, but we knew it would be bad.

I had a little more experience than Eddie, but I kept this to myself. The boys of our eighth grade class had been given a sex talk of sorts by Father Talen, a two hundred and eighty seven year old priest who did mass in Latin and whose eyebrows were on Viagra. Though my knowledge of sex was limited to late night gallivants on Prism and the depraved extent to which my imagination could develop shampoo commercials, it occurred to me that, theoretically, Father Talen should be equally as ignorant. This point was both proven and moot when Father Talen embarked upon his talk, the primary character of which he named the “one-eyed monster.” Father Talen had chosen a metaphor for our lust that sounded a great deal like the thing between our legs that had recently taken over the controls of our bodies. All I could imagine was my one-eyed monster rising up from my pants and ordering me to make him a stack of waffles or to do his taxes. And I was forced to assemble all of my dedication to stop my head from flying off in explosive laughter. I knew nothing more at the end of this “sex” talk than I had before it started and for that, I was grateful.

Though I didn’t realize it until much later, Eddie was actually much better off than I was. In the first place he was the youngest of three, while I was the oldest of four. His parents had given two other sex talks and were used to the story by now. That’s what this is, That’s what that is, Do this, Don’t do that, Clean up after yourself. Additionally, his dad was much less gregarious than mine. Eddie’s dad (Ed) was our Little League coach, he was a stocky guy, he did not suffer fools, he was an engineer. This is the sort of dude you wanted pointing out the birds and the bees. My dad was a dentist, a biologist, on the surface this seemed ideal, until you understood that most of my dad’s daily interactions with his kids resulted in him telling them to go ask their mother. It was going to be a tough one, no matter how and when it came.

This worry was pushed to the wayside by the Christmas crush. It was a few days before Christmas and the holiday world was bursting at the seams. Everywhere you looked was Christmas, the malls were teeming, the television was exploding with green and red and elves and it was all either delivering a Christmas trope or trying to sell us stuff. At school, there was the undeniable pressure building up from two hundred kids who were about to get a visit from Santa and have two weeks off. The hysteria was present in each class in our last full day, as the teachers had lessons on Christmas themes rather than diagramming sentences or long division. The next day, the day before Christmas Eve, was a half day; the excitement was palpable. Christmas was everywhere; that is, unless you were on our little cul-de-sac in the hills, where Christmas was in a few houses, but most other places were occupied by cool blue Menorahs and tunes of dedication. It was on this day that my father finished work early, came home, and asked me if I was busy. Being twelve, my calendar was naturally jammed with commitments.

“I’m going to the mall. Want to come?” he asked.

“Sure.”

We were in his Bonneville in moments; my father did not dilly dally when he had shopping to do. His shopping modus operandi meant we wouldn’t be in the mall for very long. We’d walk around for thirty minutes, his eyes peeled to objects in windows and shops, his mind constantly on the people on his list. In another thirty minutes we’d be walking out of the mall with two bags of random things. For now, I sat in his Bonneville peering at the road through cigarette smoke and listening to monotone sports talk on the radio. My dad interrupted every few minutes to ask what my mom was making for dinner.

In the mall we stomped briskly. Occasionally, he said “I’ll be right back” and walked into a shop full of clocks, home décor, clothing, or appliances. He’d come out minutes later with a bag. “Let’s go.” We popped into outdoor shops, shoe shops, and department stores. In a toy store he scoffed at a self-proclaimed “indestructible game” that he’d picked off the shelf for my brother, for whom toys provided fun as long as there was still a piece to be demolished. He asked nonchalantly, “See anything you like?” I looked around. The GI Joes that had so excited me the year before did nothing for me now. The same went for Star Wars action figures, Legos, and Transformers. I shrugged and shook my head.

Back in the Bonneville the sports talk lulled me half to sleep. Two bags of toys were in the trunk, some hideous sweaters for my sisters, and a kitchen appliance for my mother. We stopped at a crosswalk and a few girls my age danced through, one of whom flashed me a crooked smile. In that moment, I decided that this girl was the love of my life and pictured us running through the jungle dressed like Indiana Jones and his female sidekick. While my imagination couldn’t figure out the mechanics of sex yet, there were loads of symbolic touches to my fantasy: a steamy jungle, a secluded swimming hole, a waterfall bursting out of a cliff top. Far too late, I noticed that my dad was shooting me looks. I snapped out my revelry and squirmed in my chair. The heavy fog of discomfort settled in the Bonneville. My dad coughed and turned down the radio; I knew I was in for it.

“Ahem…”

“Why’d you turn off the radio?” I asked. We were still stopped. I looked at the door handle, but they instantly snapped locked and I cursed the Bonneville’s modern features.

“Listen, don’t screw anyone till you’re eighteen or nineteen and when you do, wear a rubber. Got it?”

I nodded.

Done. The radio was back on. Never had I been so happy to hear a man drone on about the Phillies offseason acquisitions. I shook my head. Was that it? Was that what had destroyed Skip so and sent Mike into an obsessive grooming regimen?

“I hope Mom’s making macaroni. Think she will?” he said.

“Maybe.”

It was pork chops, but had it been steering wheels covered in glass I wouldn’t have cared less. I had gotten my talk, it had taken four seconds, and it was clear by my dad’s demeanor that it would never be brought up again. Though my dad had created me and would go on to pay for my college education, I have never been more grateful for anything he’s ever done for me.

The next day was a half day. I came home at one in the afternoon with my sisters and we had not a worry in the world. On the bus the kids sang Christmas carols. I found myself getting in the mood. It seemed as though the bad things were behind me, I had gotten the talk, school was out for two whole delicious weeks, and I had the serious beginnings of a Magnum P.I. mustache. My sisters and I sat on the couch in the living room, the tree precariously roosting in the corner, the fireplace decorated in Christmas stockings and yuletide minutiae. Decimated nativity scene. Matryoshka snowmen. Santa and his sleigh and four reindeer, the rest having been drafted into service by GI-Joe for various missions in the springtime. Snow frosted the bottom halves of window panes like cuticles. My sister snapped the cable dial until we found Emmitt Otter. Life was good. Two hours later a knock came at the door and I was beckoned outside by Skip and Eddie. I regaled them with the tale of my dad’s talk.

“I got my talk.”

“You did not!” Eddie said.

“Did so. And it was nothing.”

Skip chewed on his lip. “What’d he say?”

“Don’t do it till your eighteen and wear a rubber…whatever the hell that is.”

“Man,” he whined and shook his head. “Mine was way worse.”

“Well, you need to suffer, don’t you?” I taunted him. He pushed me and began packing a snowball. I ran a few yards away, knowing Skip’s aim wouldn’t allow him to hit a house let alone a man with a mustache who was ready for sex. He threw it nonetheless, it went wide and I taunted some more. “Happy Hanukkah!”

“Damien. Can you help me?”

My mother was climbing out of her Subaru hauling her ten gallon purse. I knew that I was needed to carry in about four hundred packages. Before I could argue, Eddie’s mother beckoned him home with a shout. He peered across the street and jogged away.

“See you later, Dame.”

“Bye Ed.”

In the forty or so years I have known my mother, she has never once stopped moving. But a few days before Christmas a pedometer on her belt would be granted worker’s compensation. She was red-faced and blustery, trying to have a conversation with me and the last cashier she’d interacted with at a store that now needed a cashier. “Get those bags…not those…those.”

My mother’s Subaru was loaded to the gills with bags and boxes. A Philadelphia Eagles helmet sat on the seat. Irv Homer groaned about something on the radio. I stood back. “You’re not pointing at anything, Mom.”

She breathed. Her hands were occupied with bags and keys. Like a pecking chicken, she pointed with her nose at a cluster of bags behind the driver’s side seat. “Those.”

“OK.” I grabbed as many as I could to be relieved of a second trip. Through a Herculean effort I carried the bags into the kitchen and dropped them on the floor. On the little TV on the kitchen counter Oprah Winfrey was interviewing a woman. Everyone was crying. Until I was twenty I thought that Oprah was a bully. I was taking the opportunity to stroke my mustache when my mom said:

“One more thing I need help with, please.”

I groaned. “Fine.”

When we got to the Subaru she sat in the driver’s seat, closed the door, and said “Get in.”

“What are we going?”

“I need something from Eleni’s mom.”

We began down the street. Eddie’s sisters were decorating a tree on their lawn; they waved as we went by. My mother shouted something festive at them as we passed, I jumped at her volume. Down the hill we turned and I waited. When my mother turned down the radio, I looked at her and tilted my head. In those last few seconds, I felt like a dog who’d been tricked into getting fixed at the vet.

“Damien,” she said.

I tried to shriek No no! What’s this fekakta business? This already happened! It happened. But my mother was too fast. She then left behind the typical phrases for beginning a sex talk, and instead started off like this:

“I know you know about masturbation.”

I would love to report my response, but I have no recollection since my brain drained of all its blood, and I was overtaken with a desire to self immolate by applying the cigarette lighter to my flannel shirt. I do remember her follow-up sentence.

“I was watching Oprah,” she said.

Oprah. The one who makes people cry. New arch nemesis. Things get vague here, but I did catch the gist while praying for an eighteen wheeler to hit us head on and end my suffering. Oprah had done a show in which mothers talked about their sons’ tragic deaths due to auto-erotic asphyxiation. And so while three days before Christmas I got a sex talk from my dad, it’s my mother’s “please don’t strangle yourself while you jerk off” talk that really impacted me.

When we returned to the house (there was nothing to pick up) my mother mercifully left me alone. She walked into the house, while I sat staring ahead at the dashboard heaters. When I finally stepped out of the car, Skip and Eddie were there, neither of whom looked very happy. Word would have it that Eddie had just gotten his talk too, his parents having lured him into the kitchen with a cheese sandwich with mustard. I approached my two chums and they could sense something had gone terribly wrong. I could bring myself to say nothing about the talk. I only said:

“Today, I am a man.”

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