Jenny, The Mister & the Christmas Tree | Jeanne Peck
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Ca 1925 – or so This is one of those well-worn, beloved family stories (all families have them) that is, with great relish, oft-repeated and never dulls – at least not to the family. It is however, the kind of a story that is incredibly boring to those outside the family, much as someone else’s home movies once were. But it is I who am writing this story, about and for my family. So it is mine to tell, and you who must suffer through it – or not. Your choice. But for you to fully understand this strange little tale of love and accommodation, some background information is necessary. “Jenny” is the wife in this tale (her given name was actually Jennifer, but much to her mother’s displeasure, she preferred Jenny. Her mother had been heard on more than one occasion, to allow as how the name “Jenny” was more appropriate for a mule than for a proper grown woman.) “The Mister” is the husband in the story. Jenny never referred to him as “my husband” or even “Charlie” (as he was known to friends and family). Whenever she mentioned him it was as “The Mister” or “Mr. DeMar”. If there ever had been an explanation for this verbal idiosyncrasy, it was not shared with me. Indeed it had been going on for so long, I doubt that it was ever considered a subject for wonderment by anyone. I certainly never thought to ask (although I wish now that I had). Anyway… Each year, as surely as August follows July, right after Christmas there would be a rip-roarin’ all-out battle between the couple. After so many years, their grown children not only anticipated it, but actually made bets about the subject matter. One year, strangely, it had been about facial hair. The Mister had a thick head of what his daughter always described as “the most beautiful horse-chestnut brown color hair you’ve ever seen”. His mustache however, grew in a bright red – the color usually referred to as “carrot-top”. It was really most impressive. Unfortunately his wife took exception to facial hair of any kind – never mind a mustache the color of a root vegetable. That year along about Thanksgiving, The Mister knew that what with Christmas coming, the inevitable ensuing argument would require a “raison d’etre”. Being a thoughtful and considerate man, he grew the offensive mustache. But I digress. That was a previous year’s battle and not the one of which I write here. Oh yes – I almost forgot. There is one more piece of information you will need for understanding – to wit: Jenny’s mother disliked the cold weather intensely, and so immediately following the holidays each year she left her husband in their New Jersey home to spend the Winter in her home in Florida. Jenny shared her mother’s disdain for the cold, but felt that it would be unseemly to just go off for three or four months leaving her husband and children to fend for themselves (even though they were more than capable of doing just that.) But – if there were a good reason to go home to her mother for a while… well… Hence the yearly dust-up. It was one of those family “secrets” known to all and mentioned by none. On the Christmas Eve of the year in question, The Mister did not arrive home until rather late. (No one recalled the exact reason – but it was an excusable absence.) Jenny had John, the only member of her brood who had not yet left the house for a party or a date, put the tree in the stand for her. (In those old-fashioned days, the tree was decorated on Christmas Eve – not a month before as is the current practice.) She proceeded to light, hang and tinsel by herself. Truth be told, she enjoyed the luxury of unpacking each ornament and placing it in just the right spot. Not to mention that the other members of her family had the strange notion that tinsel was to be thrown at the tree in clumps rather than carefully placed a strand at a time as the Good Lord intended. On Christmas Day family and friends declared it was the prettiest tree ever. Jenny beamed all day and all the next week. On New Year’s Eve the declaration came – and the gauntlet tossed. “I’m so glad you liked what I did with the tree this year, Mr. DeMar. It wasn’t an easy job you know, all by myself. So now it will be your job to take it down and pack everything away. I put it up. You will take it down.” “Oh no I won’t!” “Oh yes you will!” And this year’s battle was on …and on… and on…and on. You get the idea. On her way out the door to the train station and sunny Florida, Jenny’s last word to The Mister were, “You will take down that tree, pack everything carefully, and put the boxes in the attic.” The last response to Jenny from The Mister was “I will do no such thing.” On the day Jenny was to arrive home from her Florida trip, it was John who was sent to the station to meet her. Even though Jenny’s children had all reached the age of majority, the sibling pecking order remained in force. John was the youngest. It was he who was still pushed to the forefront at the first sign of parental displeasure. As the “baby” of the group he had, over the years, developed a certain disarming diplomacy in dealing with unpleasant family situations. (As an aside – I wonder whether this is true in every family – No matter.) The Mister and the siblings were all in the parlor (this story predates either the term “living room” or “Family room” – or the very recent “great room”) awaiting the arrival of wife and mother. Even though she had not yet entered the house, voices were hushed and one or two perhaps a pitch higher than usual. “She’s going to be really mad, Pop – I told you this was a mistake.” This from Sydney, the oldest He was grasping his violin, as a good luck talisman probably. (His mother loved hearing him play.) “She won’t stay mad long, the weather’s getting warm and we’ll be going up to the lake soon.” This from Joe, the somewhat unrealistic rationalizer! “She’s going to blame me. I know it. I always get blamed for everything.” This from Charlotte, the only girl living at home. The Mister just shook his head and smiled “You’ll see – don’t worry.” Finally they heard the car pull in and the back door open. They knew Jenny would be taking off her coat and putting her hat on the shelf above it. (Ladies always wore hats back then.) It seemed like forever until the footsteps finally stopped at the parlor door. (At this point whichever family member was recounting the incident would pause dramatically – trying to build suspense.) There was absolute silence while Jenny stood and took in the scene. There, in all of its pathetic, bedraggled splendor, stood an eight foot Christmas tree topped with a glistening and sparkly store – listing to port – draped in brightly lit dangling strings of lights, drooping ornaments and clinquant tinsel. With nary a needle on it. The needles once supple, green and fragrant were now beneath the tree’s skeleton in piles on the carpet – brown and decidedly crunchy underfoot. There was a hushed silence. The secondary players in the scene (the siblings) fidgeted and shifted nervously. Jenny calmly looked away from the tree, stone-faced. Then slowly and deliberately let her eyes rest on each of her offspring – the co-conspirators – in turn. Finally her gaze came to a halt upon her husband. Jenny and The Mister stood, eyes locked, expressionless, until finally the tell-tale upturn at the corners of the mouth and the simultaneous burst of uncontrollable laughter – abandoned, wild and extremely contagious. All who participated always swore it was the most delicious eyes-tearing, belly-hurting laugh any of them ever had. When, after a while, the hoots and hollers and giggles and guffaws finally subsided, Jenny looked at her husband with great affection “I cannot believe that you were willing to put up with this mess all winter just so we could all have a good laugh.” Turning to the group, “We had better get this place cleaned up before the neighbors decide to visit and think we’ve lost our minds. But it really was a very pretty tree, wasn’t it? And the best damn laugh I ever had. Sydney, why don’t you play something – I’ve missed your music. The rest of you – let’s get to work.” And Fade to Black