The House Without a Christmas Tree
Remember these? They were all the rage in the 1970s. People bought them ready-made, or, even more popular, bought a whiteware version which they then glazed at a "ceramics" class, and everyone's tree was fired in a big communal kiln. Then you would add the plastic colored "lights" and the star, and the entire tree would glow from an ordinary light bulb set within the tree. Some families added them to their other Christmas decorations, set on a china cabinet or breaking up a row of volumes on a bookshelf or used as a nightlight in a hallway.
The house next door to us was a big two-story home that had been built in the 1920s, and the land surrounding it, including our lot and the house on the corner as well as the land across the street, belonged to my godmother's family, the Danellas. My godmother grew up in the house and was part of the first class to graduate from Hugh B. Bain Junior High School in the last years of the 20s, and later she lived there with her mother and her husband, with her brother, sister-in-law, and niece living upstairs.
When her family sold that land and our house was built there, Mom and Dad must have found the two families next door good neighbors as well. My mother's mother quickly made friends with my godmother's mother, although both women struggled to understand one another as they were from different regions of Italy and the dialects were often quite disparate. In the empty lot next door that still belonged to the Danella family, an enormous vegetable garden grew each year, and there were pear and plum trees along the driveway, and a grape arbor in the small back yard. My godfather, Angelo Montella, was our fuel oil dealer, a genial, moon-faced man who was a soft touch for animals like my mother. If it were up to the two of them, they would have taken in every stray cat in the neighborhood. My godmother, Lillian Danella Montella, was a matter-of-fact, sensible woman. She kept an immaculate house despite the fact that she worked, went to the hairdresser once a week, and nursed her mother through her last years. Mother came to trust "Padina Lillian" ("Padina" being what you called your godmother if you're Italian) and when I was born she and Padine Angelo became my godmother.
I remember trotting across our driveway to her house on errands, to visit on holidays and on her birthday, which was August, and when I was tiny her mother "Zia Maria" and Victoria's mother "Zia Maria Antonia" (Victoria and her mother lived on the opposite side of the chain link fence from the old Speedway which separated our properties) would babysit me if Mother had to do an errand. In the summer she would come home to find me enthroned in one of the Adirondak chairs under the grape arbor, eating cantaloupe and grapes, and plums and pears from the trees.
My godparents never had children, and I was never nosy enough to inquire if they regretted it or not. It wasn't my place. But I always worried about them at Christmas, for they never had a Christmas tree. My godmother explained gently that they didn't really need a tree, they had no children. Trees were for families.
This didn't mean their house didn't have a festive air at all during the holidays. In our neighborhood front doors were only for company; in fact in winter, many people, like us, blocked up our door for the winter, which is why you would drive about New England in those days in February and still see Christmas bells, wreaths, spray snow, and other decorations on front doors. So you entered Padina's house through the side door, a big, stolid wooden door painted green, the entrance to the cellar on the very left, and up a short flight of steps to the back door (next to this door were the stairs to go upstairs to the apartment where Jimmy, Dotty, and Cindy lived). There would be something Christmasy on the door, a little wreath, perhaps, or a couple of Christmas cards. The door opened directly to the kitchen, which was, when I originally knew it, very old fashioned, with beadboard all around and a vintage gas stove against the left wall with a chimney pipe which went into the wall. For many years Zia Maria's rocker was right under the back window.
In the middle of the room was the kitchen table and there might be a Christmasy tablecloth or a little centerpiece, perhaps some curtains that were less summery than before. To either side of the door was a bedroom, and at the very corner of the kitchen was the glass-paned door with the glass doorknob that led into the formal dining room with the parlor and Padina's piano beyond. (The parlor was almost never used except at night when Padina might play her piano; in summer when the windows were open the classical pieces she played floated out the windows like heavenly birdsong.) I never knew them to keep a television in the parlor; after Zia Maria died, they made one of the bedrooms into a den and had the TV there, formerly it was always in the kitchen and so were they.
I loved that glass door. Just seeing Padina's neat-as-pin dining room, something we had no room for, and the shadowy parlor with the beautiful spinet beyond and all the lovely old woodwork was like looking into a magic world. At Christmas my godparents tacked up all their Christmas cards around that glass door and made it more magical still. But I was still always sorry that they had no beautiful Christmas tree to look at.
One Christmas season, and I have forgotten what year it was, or how old I was, Padina beckoned me in the house. The cards were already bedecking the glass door as she opened it and ushered me into the dining room, where it was cool and dim. Then she clicked a switch and the top of the buffet glowed with color. "There," she said matter-of-factly, but with slight amusement somewhere in the background, "do you feel better?" Set between the candlesticks was a ceramic tree that she had bought, or perhaps had been given, I don't recall longer. The details have blurred—did it have snow on the tips of its branches? or was the star large or small? the bulbs differently shaped?—but I remember the happy spectrum of color and the comfort of knowing they finally had a tree. It wasn't a big tree, nor one with shiny ornaments, or traditional tinsel icicles. But it was a Christmas tree, and in some way it was enough.