Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nostalgic for that Aluminum Tree

I’ve been reading a short prose work by former poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Ted Kooser, entitled Lights on a Ground of Darkness. It was first published in 2005; my copy is the paperback edition published in 2009. It’s a memoir of a moment in his childhood when he was 10, and not a momentous or historical moment but an everyday moment – he and his sister swinging in a tree limb from a picnic table, and they’re waiting for his mother’s relatives to come over for the regular Sunday afternoon game of pinochle.

And he uses that moment to evoke stories about his mother’s family. It’s beautifully written.

What it put me in mind of was my own family. I grew up in New Orleans, where my mother was born and raised and where virtually her entire family lived. We were kind of the oddballs in the family. We lived in a suburb, not the city itself; my father was from Shreveport, not New Orleans, and so he had a slight Southern accent instead of the New Orleans (think Brooklyn) accent. In my immediate family, my older brother and younger brother both had, to greater or lesser degrees, the New Orleans accent. I had – something else. Everyone I knew thought I was from the Midwest; most people guessed Ohio.

We lived in a suburb, but we had one thing no one else in my mother’s family had – a large family room. My parent had turned what had been the breezeway and carport of our house into an enclosed porch. From there, the porch was further enclosed to become the family room. It could fit two long tables, which was exactly what was needed for large family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I don’t remember how many years my parents played holiday hosts, but it was quite a few. Starting about noon, my various aunts would descend upon us with my uncles and cousins, someone remembering to bring along my grandmother, and the house would be filled with people, noise and laughter. Kisses would rain down on top the children. Someone would bring a bottle or two of something, and one uncle always managed to find my father’s stash of alcohol, requiring naps both before and after dinner. Much to-do would be made over the turkey (for both holiday meals) and my father’s oyster dressing. Much to-do would also be made over the fact that there was one family member who steadfastly refused to eat my father’s dressing. Me.

My cousins and I would disappear outside, usually to play and, as we got older, to explore the woods across the street from my house.

At Christmas, our tree would be set up in the living room. We were very much a family of the 1950s and 1960s. To complement the Danish Modern furniture was a silver aluminum tree, shining in all its artificial glory, spotlighted by a rotating colored acetate film that alternated red, blue, green and yellow. Yes, it was quite, uh, artificial. We had real trees when I was younger, but artificial trees had become the standard of a modern Christmas.

There had been a mutual agreement among my mother and her sisters to limit the presents. Instead, there was food. Everyone brought something – desserts, candy, appetizers, bottles of stuff the kids weren’t allowed to sample (one of my uncles again). My mother left most of the dinner to my father; she would make pies, usually three pecan pies and one mince meat pie. Only one person ate the mince meat pie. Me.

Dinner was served between three and four. Plates of everything were passed up and down the tables. The adult’s table (yes, there was also a children’s table) had one thing ours didn’t – bottles of Mogen David concord wine. It was always Mogen David. No one thought it awry to serve a wine with a Star of David on it at Christmas.

I don’t remember family dramas or issues or arguments during these family gatherings. But what I do remember is all of the family, my mother’s family, in one place.

Most of the adults are now gone; my mother and two of her sisters still remember those holiday meals. All of the uncles are long passed away; my father, maker of the great oyster dressing never since equaled (I wouldn’t know but others tell me it’s true), has been gone 23 years. Most of the children are now grandparents.

But I can still hear the laughter and the veritable cacophony of New Orleans accents; I can still hear my aunt catching my uncle with a bottle of something before dinner; I can’t walk into my old room at home without remembering finding several relatives sleeping off dinner with a nap on my bed. The artificial aluminum tree with its changing colors is long gone.

Is it possible to miss an aluminum tree?


Over at Faith Barista, Bonnie Gray is hosting a blog carnival on faith. This week, the subject is the simplicity of Christmas, ways to celebrate simply or inspiring moments associated with the season, For more posts, please visit her site.

Photograph: Illuminated Christmas Tree by Pete Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

23 comments:

~*Michelle*~ said...

Sounds like you've been blessed with many great memories of your family gatherings......

.....exactly what this Season is supposed to be about. (even if it includes the aluminum tree, LOL)

robinmarnold said...

I remember similar gatherings, including the mince meat pie, which I loved! Blechhh on the oyster stuffing! I also remember Christmas cookies, lots and lots of different kinds, the result of weeks of baking, with each family having a specialty. My mom's best had a chocolate swirl in the center. Or maybe it was her spritz? They were all terrific!

Sadly, we never moved into the mid-century and I could only admire an aluminum tree at the neighbors.

Megan Willome said...

In answer to your question, yes it is. It's possible to miss the quirky and the off-beat and the just plain shocking, as long as it was part of your family.

JC Dude said...

Brother, I feel like I just went through a time vortex or something!
I was transported back to a young boy's Christmas experience and I
felt like I was actually there. Well done.

Jeri@GodsDreamsForMe Ⓥ said...

I remember that aluminum tree at many a relatives homes. I really enjoyed walking with you down your memory lane. That was fun!

Kathleen Overby said...

Oyster dressing is just plain wrong! hahaha.
I smelled the food and felt the congeniality. :) Sweetnessville.

Duane Scott said...

Sounds just like our family get togethers. Except there is no alcohol.

Family is awesome. Especially at Christmas.

That's all I want this holiday season.

JofIndia said...

A great piece of writing: the stuff of "Wonder Years"...
Your postings never cease to surprise me, Glyn.

Shaunie Friday--Up the Sunbeam said...

You wrote a window on your world and gave us a beautiful view! Thanks for sharing the sights and smells and tastes and quirks of your family's celebrations of Christmas!!

S. Etole said...

I remember the aluminum trees ... but only as seen through store display windows.

Kristine said...

We had one of those silver, aluminum trees with the spinning color wheel as well. Yes...it's very possible to miss. :)

Lisa notes... said...

I remember the aluminum trees! My grandmother always put one up in her house in Mississippi. I thought it was beautiful. Thanks, Glynn, for sharing some beautiful memories with us.

katdish said...

Ah, this brings back memories as well. For us, it was everyone at my aunt and uncle's house, the men watching sports on tv while the women played Canasta (sp?) or a game of Crap on your Neighbor. (That's not what they called it, but it was something close to that). Like many VA homes, we always had candles in the window. Only the bulbs on ours (and on the house and tree) were blue. Years later, I wonder if people thought we were Jewish. With a name like Dishman and blue light all over the place, you wonder...

okiewife said...

this makes me wonder if someday my grandkids will write memories of Grandma's fake fiber optic tree. It's only 6 yrs. old now, but I think it will last many more Christmases.

nance marie said...

your memories are contageous. i am sitting in maui and it looks very much like summer here. but, your post sends me reeling into holidays past. sometimes snow, always a real tree, noble, and big hot glass lights, glass ornaments,and aluminum tinsle. the tisle which had to be placed on one strand at a time. and to top off the tree, the face and wings of an angel in cardboard surrounded by strands of plastic something that looked like shining all around her.

i loved reading this post. and it makes me wonder just how southern your voice sounds. it might not sound any more southern than mine.
:-)

just bought a book at b&n down the road in lahina, yesterday... "what difference do it make?" ron hall.

i brought the contigency plans, but finished it on the flight out...very enjoyable read.

Bonnie Gray said...

Glynn! This was a fresh encouragement for me as a parent. I can get overwhelmed trying to communicate the true meaning of Christmas to my little boys, but your post reminded me an imprint a joyful mommy into their memories can be my special Christmas gift to them from childhood to adulthood. That, I CAN do! I love celebrating and really get into it! Thanks for this nostalgic and beautiful prose!

H. Gillham said...

Yikes, the aluminum tree --- we had one, and for some reason, we had only blue ball ornaments on it... our color wheel got all wonky one Christmas and melted -- LOL --

Not all the families in our neighborhood had one of those, but several did -- they were so 1960s.

BTW: I wrote a similar blog about Thanksgiving meals recently. You should read it.

*winks*

Hugs. I so enjoy your stories.. but you already knew that...

:-)

Sarah said...

Delighted to meet you today. I hope you don't mind if I splash around a bit to get to know you. This looks like a refreshing place to get drenched in His goodness.

Splashin'
Sarah

Linda said...

I have similar memories, Glynn, of our huge Italian family gatherings. I loved the symphony of voices, the laughter, the food! We were blessed.

Sheryl said...

What a delightful trip into your past. Your words brought up pictures of my childhood Christmas Celebrations. Thank you.

Deidra said...

These are great memories. I have to say, I'm a bit jealous of that aluminum tree. I always wanted one, but invariably there'd be a real, green tree in the living each year. Oh well.

Ted Kooser lives here in my town. Well, I guess it's really his town. He was here first. I see him at the grocery store, or walking down the sidewalk. He blends right in to the crowd. Whenever I see him, I resist the urge to run up to him and gush. I wonder if he realizes how many people he's touched along the way?

Brock S. Henning said...

"Someone would bring a bottle or two of something"

ha ha...that made me laugh, Glynn. What a trip to my own Christmas past after reading this. We'd usually have a full size tree on our main floor, but in the basement (where all the family gathered), we had a small, blue aluminum tree. This all sounds oddly familiar, and like you, I always felt like the odd one out with everything. Boy, that really takes me back. :)

caryjo said...

Yep, I do remember those trees. If nothing else, there wasn't much that had to be picked up or watered. I might not go that direction now, but ... not impossible.