December 1990 in Sacramento was balls-ass cold. The four days leading up to Christmas that year set record lows for each day respectively and downtown set a record number of consecutive days with lows at 32 degrees or below. Thirteen, to be exact. Unless we live high in the Sierra Nevadas, Californians panic in those conditions. Some of us didn’t put antifreeze in the radiators of their cars.
In my desperation I drove the van onto the grass of our front yard to get it as close to the hose as possible. I left the engine running and ran to the hose bib. My friend’s hose snapped in half in my hand about 15 minutes earlier so I was more careful this time. I needed to spray the radiator to thaw out the water inside. I turned the ice-cold handle but no water came out the end of the hose. Fuck. Defeated, I climbed back in the van and backed off the lawn and parked. The engine head was surely warped now. The temp gauge was pegged all the way home. Mom heard the commotion and walked out the front door, cigarette in hand, into the icy morning air in her bathrobe to the sight of fresh tire tracks gouged into the thickly frosted grass.
“What did you do to the lawn, goddamnit!”
“The water in the radiator is frozen, mom. I wanted to spray water onto the radiator to thaw it but the fucking hose is frozen too,” I stuttered in anticipation of her wrath.
“Those tire tracks are permanent,” she screamed. “Now it looks like shit.”
“No it’s not. The grass will pop back up when it thaws out, mom.”
Tears filled her enraged eyes. “BULLSHIT. That can’t be fixed. It’s ruined.”
“Mom, I’m sorry. It’s okay. It will be gone later today when it warms up.”
“No it won’t. It looks terrible. YOU RUINED CHRISTMAS,” she wailed as she threw up her hands and stormed back into the house.
I held back a laugh wisely. And yet the absurd statement stung anyway. Mom was prone to extreme bouts of dramatics, especially when her illusions of perfection were disturbed. I tucked the experience away for later comedic effect… Now, when I am witness to a mistake or accident I sometimes say, “Great. Now you have ruined Christmas.” If they don’t get it, I tell them this story. Then they laugh, sometimes uncomfortably.
Financially, we were nowhere near our appearance but mom had a talent of making things look good without throwing money at it. Wherever we lived, our house was the best looking inside and out. Trailer park or suburbs, our house was the shit for blocks and blocks. Our houses had the room you could not go in except for special events and holidays. The title of housewife was an insult. She was an interior decorator. She was a landscape architect. A master gardener. Everything had a place, balance and flow like some kind of personal feng shui. Messes that lasted hours were rare. She taught her children certain steps to follow when cleaning and doing yard work. She was a perfectionist. It was fascist art and her children were caught up in its rapture.
The hands-off room was a scene of spectacular perfection every Christmas, especially when it came time to decorate the tree. Silvertip firs were preferred. Mom hated the “bushy” kind because they lacked depth — this was crucial for ornament and light placement. Usually, it was a happy affair but took hours to accomplish. Barbra Streisand/A Christmas Album was put on the record player. Boxes upon boxes of ornaments were unpacked and arranged by size on the couches.
First: lights. The trick was to hide the wires by wrapping each branch individually. Then: ornaments. Largest on the bottom, decreasing in size in relation to height. Some in closer to the trunk, others on the branch tips. Mathematical, without exception. It was mesmerizing. Even once the ornaments were all hung, time would be taken to rearrange, stand back, mull, and then rearrange again until they were “just so.” Lastly: garland draped in golden Fibonacci ratios. The end product was a thing of fucking fractallistic holiday magic.
One Christmas, mom lost her shit. I can’t remember the reason, but she was a single parent of four incredibly bright children and money was always thin. She was lonely and overwhelmed chronically. Her emotions were tinder-dry, a spark enough to ignite a wildfire in her mind and send her demons dancing.
Smoke from her cigarette curled through her dyed and equally fiery-red hair as she yelled from the kitchen that Christmas was off and that we could open our presents. My little sisters and I were sitting in the living room watching TV as she raged on about what ungrateful shits we were.
My sisters blinked at each other in disbelief.
I watched in horror as they ran like ravenous blonde squirrel-dwarves into the hands-off room without a hint of shame. Mom had thrown a pile of half-wrapped gifts in the middle of the floor and I remember their feral stares as I ran into the room, commanding them to stop rooting through the heap.
Given her demons and flaws, my mother kept it together. She did the best she could with what she had. And usually it was just her keeping the ends together. Her love outweighed her failings.
I miss my mom.