And so this is Christmas….

 And so this is Christmas….

 

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Charlie Brown might have settled for that tiny simple green pine tree rather than one of those garish white or pink flocked Christmas trees for sale in his neighborhood lot, but I kind of miss them. Miss seeing the numerous pop-up tree sellers that appeared on every corner during my childhood in the late ‘60s. When the only fake trees available were those silver metallic ones that would electrocute you if you hung lights on it and that now sell for big money on eBay as vintage antiques for the mid-century modern crowd pretending it is 1966 again. And who can blame them as this year cannot end soon enough for most of us.

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I do complain like most people when holiday decorations start creeping onto store shelves around Halloween, but I do love the run up to Christmas. We have lived in our current home for 25 years and have a closet dedicated just to boxes of Christmas trimmings. Since my earliest memory, Christmas shopping on December 26th was a big deal shopping for half price lights and next year’s Christmas cards at 75% off. When my son got his PH.D. and moved so far away,  there was no reason for me to shop after Christmas sales any more. Who needs wrapping paper when there are no children living with me?
Few people even mail Christmas cards anymore, my girlfriends with their cute Santa designed missives and nativity ones from my older family members used to fill my mail box. But all those relatives are dead now. My friends and co-workers seem to drool over how big a number their friends list is on Facebook, but before the computer age of email, I addressed my Christmas cards as early as Pearl Harbor Day to then anxiously await to see how big the colorful cornucopia of cards grew as I taped each day’s haul from the mailbox to a strip of fat red ribbon attached down one wall next to the television. Now even I have dropped half my list and the other half have dropped me. Just a handful of cards stand on my fireplace mantel this year.
As a teenager in the ‘70s, I loved the excuse of running an errand for some forgotten item needed for that early afternoon Christmas Day ham dinner. The only stores open in those days was either the liquor store or 7-11, either just far enough away to sneak in a cigarette or a joint during that escape from the folks for that freedom run for a bag of ice or gallon of overpriced milk. For years now, even stores like Target are open on the holiday itself and I can shop for milk or ice all day long on Christmas Day if I like at the regular grocery store on any street in town.

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My grandparents always scanned the TV Guide to ensure I saw those Christmas cartoons during my childhood. Later, even as rebellious as I fancied my teenage self, I still watched my childhood favorites on television every year starting with The Great Pumpkin right on through the Pasadena Rose Bowl Parade. Hell, I didn’t even need to be stoned to shiver at the sound of Boris Karloff’s narration of Dr. Seuss’ Grinch or tap my foot to Burl Ives or Jimmy Durante singing the theme of those other Christmas cartoon staples starring Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the bullied reindeer. I made sure my son had the same experience over and over since by then we could buy all those shows on videotape to watch anytime we wanted. I still remember the thrill of finding a rare copy of my favorite Mr. Magoo version of A Christmas Carol to watch with my son as I reveled in my memories of my own childhood.

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I still have fond memories from fourth grade when we learned the German version of O Christmas Tree and can even remember the beginning part of the song. O Tannenbaum, oh Tannenbaum……When a local radio station switches to only Christmas music during the month of December, I add it to my car’s radio tuner buttons. As a Beatles fan, I know it is truly the holiday season the first time the station plays John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War is Over) and I almost weep over the idea that we have now substituted several conflicts to send soldiers to rather than just the one in Vietnam Lennon was singing about. I guess some American traditions never change.

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My grandmother who raised me, loved her 7-foot Christmas tree loaded down with miniature toys collected over the years lit by a thousand multi-colored lights I’d put up with her after the Thanksgiving dishes were washed. When my son was a toddler, she told me I should take her tree and decorations to replace my own old fake tree with its sagging branches held up by green thread I tied to the branches above and turned to the wall to hide. Of course, I told her no. I figured she was just looking after me as usual, aware of my husband’s and my limited finances since I’d opted to stay home after giving birth, breastfeeding versus buying formula and foregoing disposables for cotton diapers I even hung on a clothes line outside to save on electricity. Nana loved her tree to much; I had accepted many things from her over the years, but I just could not take her beloved tree and decorations.
Her collection of toys was exquisite. Not your standard wooden painted toys bought by the dozen at the dime store. Nana’s habit of hanging out at malls and high-end department stores, especially at those after Christmas sales, had allowed her to amass many unusual tchotchkes to hand on her huge tree, like an articulated set of all the Wizard of Oz characters hand painted in Germany. My son was old enough now to appreciate their beauty without the temptation to pull them off the tree and possibly destroy them, but I could not deprive my grandmother of something she loved so much.
Imagine my shock when the very next year my sister ended up with Nana’s beloved bevy of baubles and her tree. I couldn’t even fault Nana when in confusion I tried to fathom how my horrible, manipulative sister neither of us particularly cared for ended up with the tree and all its ornaments. “But I begged you to take them the last two years,” Nana said, and she was right. I was an idiot. Nana had grown tired in her advanced years and wanted to simplify her life. She switched that year to a small three-foot tree whose branches folded up neatly after its simple colored glass balls were stored back into their corrugated boxes.
My son was 13 a decade later when Nana died suddenly that September. Three months later, I sent Christmas cards to all her surviving friends whose entry had not been crossed out in her Christmas card address book with its columns to keep track over the years of whether one had received a holiday card from each friend. As her executrix and first grandchild, I understood my responsibility to let her friends from decades past as to her death even though most of the names I remembered growing up had been crossed out. The veteran’s cemetery where we placed her ashes alongside my beloved grandfather was far out of town. But for the next few years at the beginning of each December, I drove out there to leave a small tree I decorated with two strands of colored lights that lit up with battery power.
As I grew older, I began to understand how Nana’s love of the holidays had waned. All that work putting the tree together, let alone decorating it and the rest of the house became a chore rather than the fun it had been for me while my son was growing up. My feeling of childhood wonder for Christmas had faded. The ceramic Victorian village lit up on my hallway entry table was such a lot of work. With our son living his life as an adult far from our home, my husband had no one to put up the little white lights the two of them would string through our trees and bushes every year. Besides we’d had an electrical fire in our house ten years ago that displaced us for five months and when we got to move back into our house and unpack our belongings that had been in storage all that time I fearfully threw out from all our Christmas lights with their “Made in China” origins.
When the Borders bookstore near my house went out of business years ago after the holidays, I purchased a small white foot tall Christmas tree that had been used as a display on a shelf. I decorated it with small green glass balls mixed with the same balls in a bright blue to match the mid-century modern stark furnishings I had redone my house in. My old Victorian style red and green Christmas decorations just don’t go with my home’s new look. I bought a plain blue and a plain green stocking to hang over the fireplace and a modern looking Dr. Seuss-looking Santa to stand on one end table. And how easy now that I slip a trash bag over the tree like some kidnap victim, balls and all, and stash the thing away in a small cupboard ’til next year. To honor Nana the tree topper is a small silver angel ornament I found when cleaning out her apartment when she died. That was when I lost my fear of death figuring at least there would be that chance of being with my beloved grandparents once again.

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Because my son just had his first child this year, I asked if he wanted any of the Christmas decorations he’d grown up with or even some of the items I had that had belonged to Nana to put out for his son. No, he wasn’t interested in having me bring even a single thing when I visited that autumn. I guess I’ll donate the contents of my Christmas closet to Goodwill since my husband and I will retire in a few years and downsize. I’ve already downsized Christmas. Its been years since I opened the boxes of skeletons and haunted houses I used to put out for my favorite holiday, but I will keep the handmade costumes I sewed my son each year when he was little, preferring to dress him in cotton flannel rather than those horrible plastic costumes sold in stores even back then. Maybe my grandson will be my chance to enjoy the holidays once more.

Say Hello to Hollyweird

 What better place to head off to for a bit of December R & R than sunny L.A.? Many Californians even string colored Christmas lights on their palm trees, so the sunny 75-degree days won’t stop you from catching a bit of the holiday mood. A lot of people I know are afraid to drive around Los Angeles and go to San Diego instead?  Are you insane people?   Yes, you are. Like the blue haired old lady in tony San Diego cut across three lanes of traffic and sideswiped my son the first time he drove through that cursed town. At least in L.A., the drivers are skillful.

The first spot to hit after landing at LAX and renting your convertible Mustang is the Farmer’s Market at Fairfax and 3rd Street for a bite of breakfast. The Market’s famous clock tower marks the meeting place for generations of the town’s shakers and movie makers who meet for a meal and make million dollar deals. The outside walkways between various small shops selling good eats to eat right there or gourmet meats and fresh fruit to take to your hotel room for later. Inviting a hooker from Sunset Boulevard to your room is illegal.  I repeat, illegal.

Next head to the Griffith Park Observatory with its perfect view of the HOLLYWOOD sign on nearby Mt. Lee. Although the destination of hordes of horrid schoolchildren on elementary school field trips, the spot is still the epitome of Hollywood. Rent the film Rebel Without a Cause before you fly out and you’ll already be familiar with both the inside and outside of the observatory as you watch Natalie Wood, James Dean and Sal Mineo acting out the famous film’s dramatic climax that was filmed on the observatory grounds back in 1955.

No trip to La-La Land would be complete without a trip down the pink marble stars of Hollywood and Vine Streets’ Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star of your day should entail a long stop at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard to try on the cement footsteps of Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Stewart and just about anyone else you have ever seen on an old movie rerun. Try some on for size and down the street watch for any ceremony awarding some D-list moron with enough money to snag one of the pink stars along the sidewalk. The whole cache of these sidewalk stars has been diminished when they started letting people like Wink Martindale and Howie Mandel.

Even if it is not Halloween season, I still love to visit a good graveyard. The lush lawns, serene statuary and thought-provoking tombstone inscriptions of Hollywood Forever Memorial Park at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard is the final resting place of such notable personalities as Jayne Mansfield, gangster Bugsy Siegel and punk rocker Dee Dee Ramone.  After years of free admission, the more recent owners now charge to enter the place and why not? It is worth every penny and even the dead have to eat? I mean pay the water bill for those gorgeous green lawns. Second best place to see not only beautiful grounds but famous past citizens is the Hollywood Hills location of Forest Lawn, which overlooks the studios of Universal and Warner Brothers. The historic cemetery is home to Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, and sadly not only Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, but also their son Ricky. My paternal grandmother is buried here I think.

Head to Westwood Memorial’s small cemetery to pose in front of the iconic marker where Marilyn Monroe is. Joe DiMaggio was still having roses delivered to the metal vase on her plaque when I was in my 20’s, but now only fans leave flowers there now. You can visit other stars who died tragically, like Natalie Wood, Bob Crane, Dominique Dunne and Dorothy Stratten.

If you crave a bite of lunch after hanging out with all those dead people, I suggest Cole’s in downtown L.A. at 118 E. 6th Street — rumored to be the 1908 birthplace of the French Dip Sandwich when a patron who just had some dental work done asked the cook to dip the bread into the au jus of the roast beef pan. Then again, Philippe’s Original at 1001 North Alameda in L.A. claims they created the first French Dip in 1908 too! Their legend goes that a cook preparing a roast beef sandwich on a French roll for a local cop dropped the bread roll into the au jus pan, and the cop told the cook to give him the wet bread on his sandwich anyway. A food star was born! And just like in Hollywood and Washington, D.C., who knows where the truth ends and the lies begin. Try both restaurants and make up your own mind.

Feel like Mexican food instead? Then visit the oldest street in Los Angeles. Olvera Street has been closed to automobile traffic since 1929 to allow pedestrians a leisurely stroll through the large Mexican mercado where vendors demonstrate their glassmaking skills, sell hand-tooled leather goods and make some tasty tacos and other treats. You’ll think you’ve been shanghaied and dropped off in Tijuana. At least you don’t need a passport to get home. (Friendly reminder- you damn well better not leave the country without a valid passport ever again after January of 2007 or good luck getting back over the border. Olvera Street with its cheap ceramic bulls and tiny colorful glass animals was always my favorite field trip growing up in the ‘60s.

No visit to California would be complete without a drive up PCH (Pacific Coast Highway). That crappy map the rental car company gives you will show it as Highway 1. Drive past Malibu and the hidden homes of everyone you’ve ever seen on the silver screen. You can pay a lot of cash and eat at one of the overpriced restaurants there or better yet, stop at the Ralph’s grocery store and buy the makings of a picnic lunch on the beach. You might even spot some celebrities at the grocery store picking up tampons or tuna. Walk down the dusty shoreline past those same celebrities’ mega-mansions because no matter how much money they have, the State of California keeps the beaches public for all of to use, so there David Geffen. Too bad for you when the state finally enforced your agreement to keep the public walkway open when they allowed you to build your uber-mansion and you tried blocking the people’s access. Shame on you.

Hey, who knows, maybe you’ll pass the home of some hot shot director barbecuing on his glass enclosed patio, who when he sees you pass his house, your perfect profile against the backing of a perfect West Coast sunset and he will call out to you because you have just the right look for the epic film he is desperately casting for just the right unknown to star in. CUT!

Yeah right, dream on…..then again, if you really believe that might happen to you, maybe you do belong in la-la land.

I’m Smokin’

Maybe I started smoking cigarettes when I was 14 because everyone I admired was a smoker.  Neither of my parents smoked.

Nana and BaaBaa both smoked.  Nana, even though she was an angel disguised as a human being, had smoked cigarettes since she was a teenager.  BaaBaa puffed on cigars. He bought brown boxes of Churchill Rejects, which were sold cheaper because maybe the hole was a little off center. All five of us kids used to hide Nana’s cigarettes, because we wanted to protect her health, so I will never understand how all five of us ended up smokers.

 

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BaaBaa was going to retire from Hughes Aircraft when he turned 65 that year. He and Nana wanted to move all of us from Southern California’s Simi Valley to Seattle, where BaaBaa had grown up.

“But I’ll never see the kids if you leave California,” my father complained, even though he seldom came to see us. So, in June of that year, he married ‘The Bitch.’ Everyone agreed that the five of us would be melded with The Bitch’s three boys into the Buena Park Brady Bunch. My grandparents’ sold our Simi Valley home and gave the profit to my father as a down payment on a big place in Buena Park, land of Disneyland.  We would all live as one big happy family!

The only thing that saved my sanity during the following 15 months was the sanctuary provided by our neighbors, the Cunningham family.  The Cunningham house was at the end curve of the cul-de-sac when we went to live with our father in 1970.  Everyone old enough to spell the work “cigarette” smoked them at the Cunningham’s. Renee with some standard filtered brand, while Don was hardcore with his unfiltered Lucky Strikes and the gravel voice to show for it. Renee’s mother, who everyone called Mamaw, lived with them and she smoked. Mamaw was simply an older version of Renee, big-boned with bleached blonde hair and a booming voice and presence. Renee was a housewife and held court all day at the kitchen table with her constant cigarette and cup of joe. Her nicotine habit added to her deep laugh.

I loved Renee because Renee hated my stepmother and was more than happy to do what she could to help my brother Mike, sister Katie and me avoid going home as much as possible. Kevin Cunningham and my brother Mike were the same age and partner in crime, while Katie Cunningham not only shared a name with my sister, but the same interests that led to them being constant companions.

My Cunningham pal was Donna, who was in 7th grade, a year below me. Donna was always laughing just like her mother Renee. Donna had perfect, naturally blonde white straight hair and skin that could tan in two days to a golden hue. She was tall and big-boned, but had the confidence to wear a bikini.

I spent hundreds of hours hanging out with Donna in her upstairs bedroom. Renee let Donna paint her room hot pink and bright orange and the fluorescent walls were hung with psychedelic posters that glowed at night when Donna’s black light was turned on.

Renee provided sanctuary by encouraging the three oldest of us five kids to spend as much time at her home as we needed, away from the stepmother hell. My father’s new wife made my household chores torture. Her three troll sons were all bedwetters and my job was to open the lid of the plastic trash can in the garage where their pissed on bed sheets were held until I laundered them. I used to love helping Nana Windex the windows in Simi, but my father’s wife made me used a horrible product called Glass Wax, a thick pink liquid that I had to wipe all over the glass and let dry to a chalky finish.  Then I had to use soft rags to buff the dried on substance.

I gladly pitched in to help Donna do her chores. Around the Cunningham house, the two of us would laugh like crazy as we helped Renee around the house. We would take turns vacuuming the long shag carpeting in their living room, and then use a carpet rake to leave the nap perfectly combed. I loved dusting the things Renee had hanging on her walls, like the giant tiki fork and spoon set that hung in the eat-in kitchen, and the oversized pair of scissors with a strategically draped swatch of cloth between the giant blades that decorated a wall over the sewing machine.

Don Cunningham owned a company that painted the white stripes in parking lots. He didn’t say much, but when he did his rough voice reminded me of those crusty character actors who always played the sidekick in those old black and white sea epics.

Don sounded cantankerous but was a sweetheart. When my brother Mike was playing with some bottle rockets and one shot through another neighbor’s open car window, my father was anything but understanding how scared and guilt-ridden Mike felt about the burned up upholstery. “You’ll have to figure out a way to pay for that new front seat. I’m not paying for it,” my father told Mike and walked away.  Mike was in the fifth grade.

Don heard about what happened, how Mike had not slept all night worrying over how he was going to take care of this impossible situation. “Don’t worry kiddo,” Don rasped. “You can come help me stripe a lot I’ve got scheduled for Saturday and I’ll pay the tab for your little mishap.”

Renee and Don had plenty of parenting experience with their huge clan of seven kids panning in age from 2 to 22. Their oldest son and daughter were already out of high school. Cindy was my age but we didn’t hang out together because she had been in a serious relationship since she was 13. Her boyfriend was at least five years older and drove a small import truck with an aluminum camper shell.

That’s why I was surprised when Cindy showed up at our front door after school one day when my evil stepmother had grounded me for forgetting to come home from the Cunningham until after dark one night.

“You wanna learn to smoke?” she asked when we got up to the room I shared with Katie and closed the door.

As a kid, I used to hide Nana’s cigarettes to keep her from smoking and really had no desire to smoke myself, but I was flattered that Cindy wanted to hang out with me. “Sure,” I agreed.

We went into the bathroom down the hall and closed the door. Cindy pulled out a short fat cigarette from the soft cellophane pack of Lucky Strikes. After two tries, she finally got a match to light and held it up to one end of the cigarette as she puffed on the opposite end. The two of us stood on tiptoe on either side of the toilet and passed the lit cigarette back and forth.

I sucked the smoke into my mouth, trying to keep the smoke from curling up and burning my nose and eyes, then quickly blew it out through the metal mesh of the window screen. I caught a quick glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror and marveled at how much older I looked with the white burning cigarette between my fingers; my features looked sophisticated behind the smoldering cloud.

Some of the raw tobacco stuck to my lip from the unfiltered end as it became damp from our lips. When the glowing end of the butt got within an inch of our fingertips, Cindy held it between her thumb and middle finger, and then flicked the burning butt into the toilet, where it extinguished with a hiss. The motion was quick and accurate, and was the coolest move I had ever seen. Even now, decades later, I have given up smoking and hate the nasty habit; but seeing a man toss a cigarette butt with that quick flick of a finger impresses me.

Our neighborhood was comprised of large, two-story homes with professional landscaping and new cars in each driveway. But down the street lived two sisters I met in gym class and I would sometimes go there instead of the Cunningham’s. Instead of a shiny, new car out front, their house had a 1955 two-door Pontiac usually parked at an odd angle. The beat-up car had a huge silver frown of a grill that was flecked with dark green overspray from its last paint job, when the sister’s stepfather had them use up a case of spray cans to give the thing a fresh new color. The freshness did not last long, when three months later someone pelted the car with a dozen eggs. The residue left faded streaks and dried eggshell.

Jackie was the oldest by a year over Judy, but they were both in the 8th grade. That was the only thing the sisters had in common. Jackie was tall with big boobs already and large coarse features she coated with a thick layer of pancake make-up that ended in an obvious dark line of demarcation that outlined her lower jaw from her white throat. Her cheeks were a straight slash of heavy pink rouge that came in a large stick like a giant tube of lipstick. Her pouty lips were kept coated with white, pineapple-scented lip gloss. She lined her eyes with black pencil, the same color of the mascara that clumped alone her lashes.

Younger Judy might have had the more feminine name, but she was anything but feminine. While Jackie was tall and thick, Judy was short and wiry like a high school boy from the junior varsity wrestling team. She even dressed like a boy, in men’s button-up shirts, with the sleeves rolled up just past her wrists, and plain cotton pants. Her dishwater blonde hair was short and wispy, and rarely combed. Judy was tough, and ready to fight anyone who made fun of her sister’s clown-like make-up.

The girls’ father was nowhere to be found but when I knew them, their mother was remarried to a Hispanic man who supposedly taught school somewhere in the barrios of Los Angeles. He made enough so that the girls’ mother did not have to work and could lie on the red velvet couch watching her “shows.” She was very thin and bony and I do not ever remember seeing her off the couch. The sisters did all the housework, but poorly. The entire house was furnished in that Mediterranean-style furniture that was popular then, all dark wood and all the tables had grilled insets lined with dusty red velvet.

Jackie and Judy were also responsible for getting dinner ready each night. Neither could ever remember to thaw anything, so there was always a frozen cellophane package of hamburger floating in the kitchen sink.

They shared a bedroom which was a whirlwind of Jackie’s clothing and the bathroom they used in the hall had drawers jammed full with pots and sticks of cosmetics that Jackie shoplifted by the purse full.

Their mother had a passion for Elvis Presley and even Jackie and Judy would get excited when they told me about the time their mom had taken them with her to see Elvis in Vegas once. Still, the three of us were in their room listening to a 45 record called Whole Lotta Love by a new group called “Led Zeppelin” when their mother hollered from downstairs. “Jackie. Judy. Get down here right now.”

Their mother had run out of cigarettes and her daughters knew just what to do. The girls would plunder the overflowing green glass ashtray of its old butts, carefully pinching and rolling each stubbed out cigarette for that little bit of tobacco left at the end of each dark stained filer. Judy would cut a two by four inch rectangle from a sheet of notebook paper and roll up the threads of old tobacco into a homemade cigarette held together with a lick of spit. The girls’ mother would light the lumpy cigarette, which would only last long enough for her to get a few quick hits of nicotine.

Who knows where Renee, Don and Judy’s mom are now, hopefully not all dead from lung cancer. Unfortunately, my father’s second wife is still alive; it’s a shame she never smoked. I, myself, smoked for thirty years until a bout of pneumonia convinced me I never wanted to feel as if I were suffocating ever again. Anytime I feel the urge for a cigarette, all I have to do is picture Judy’s mom lighting up that homemade notebook paper cigarette and the urge disappears.