When I was a very young child, I was baffled, bewildered, mesmerized and amazed by the whole “holiday” experience. From the moment Santa waved in my direction at the end of the Macy’s parade to the knuckle-gnawing night spent blearily searching the skies for the hint of a UFO, I was one exceptionally well-behaved, cooperative, cheerfully confused, oft-dumbstruck little kid.
Despite being a very spiritually ambiguous and socially diverse household, the Gareys of yore certainly knew how to celebrate a multi-cultural, non-traditional festival: Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyeaux Noel, Feliz Navidad, Frihliche Weihnachten, Buon Natale drenched family conversations as thoroughly as the perspiration that soaked the velvet, lace and ribbon bedecked costumes my parents, brother, cats and I wore for our annual studio portraits. Golden menorahs and dreidels made of clay. Advent calendars, greeting cards from who-knew-who, blue candles and lantern-lit windows. Daddy atop a ladder, staple gun in one hand, gargantuan tangle of red, green and white lights slung over the other, very naughty, un-Christmasy words muttered under his breath as he transformed our home into a gingerbread house. Candy canes, gefilte fish, egg nog, potato latkes, roasted chestnuts, bagels, hot chocolate, strudel, cider, surreptitious sips of peppermint schnappes. Bing Crosby, Rudolph and Frosty, rustling wrapping paper, curls of ribbon, tall, lush evergreens covered in priceless porcelain baubles, bubbling lights and “silver sauerkraut” topped by the star Daddy had made from precious tin foil, cardboard and painted with nail polish during the frugal years of World War II. Warnings that the slightest infraction of family rules ensured a stocking filled with coal; veiled hints that proper behavior would bring me the Betsy-Wetsy doll I craved. It was a month-long season of sensory overload that oft-times stunned me speechless and scared the hell out of me. I loved it… I think.
Did the cats love it? Who knew? As I recall, they appeared to enjoy stalking the tinsel, attacking errant strands of ribbon or lights and couldn’t resist investigating crumples of paper or empty boxes. They tolerated it – temporarily – when I daily adorned their heads with stick-on bows. The holiday snacks seemed to entice them and, if memory serves, happily wrestled with their colorful new schmousies. Best of all, they listened solemnly, attentively, as I mulled over what marvels each day had brought or might bring, and never objected when all I could do was hug them in mute delight. But did it really matter that to them that it was called “Christmas?”
This holiday season, it’s the cats, our home and children who matter to me. An untimely series of recent family mishaps have left the Garey Gang in diminished spirits, limited energy and severe economic distress. None of the usual ornamentation adorns the outside of our house; not a single of the many pink plastic flamingos in the yard is sporting its Santa beard, cap or scarf. But the holly bushes bravely sport their carmine berries. Flitting cardinals – the birds, not the religious personnel -stop by long enough to dazzle my eyes with their brilliant crimson feathers. The wintery skies are usually very, very blue and at night the stars are simply dazzling. There’s even been just enough short-lived snow to call to mind a Currier and Ives painting.
Indoors, a miniature Charlie Brown tree bravely illuminates a corner of the living room where I now spend my days and nights recovering from a pre-Thanksgiving accident that has left me facing months of home bound nursing care, rehab and physical therapy to regain my strength, vigor and vitality. Once raucous with home-school, play-time, kitty-cavorting, dawn-to-dusk activity, the house is very, very quiet. Horrible Childe Alexandra is in daycare and her mommy, Amanda, works the hellish hours seasonal retail demands. Most days, it’s just the cats, dreadful daytime television for white noise, and me; I miss my girls very much.
My precious, young Amanda, thoroughly harried and stressed from having to suddenly shoulder all the household burdens, surprised me with the tiny tree a few weeks ago, making it – and me – glow much more brightly as she cheerfully sang “…haul out the holly, light up the tree before my spirit falls again; fill up the stockings, I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now; for we need a little Christmas, right this very minute, candles in the window, carols at the spinet…” At three years old, Lexie is still not quite sure what all the brouhaha on TV is all about, but since she is still ecstatic by being the recipient of mail addressed to “Occupant,” I doubt she is concerned about the trappings of the season, although she has enjoyed the peaceful, artsy craftsy projects we’ve devised and obviously inherited the genetic Garey tendency to stick bows on kitten heads.
We decided not to go gift-goofy this year, a decision reached long before being bombarded with commercial demands to demonstrate affection by going further into debt. Stacks of gaily decorated treats, homemade and collected throughout the year, await distribution by the Toys For Tots, Angel Tree and Middle Tennessee Free 4 All campaigns and a few little goodies for the Garey girls are enroute from the North Pole via eBay. Batches of homemade Schnicker Doodles await transfer from freezer to stove to share with our neighbors – and the cats. Miles of mishapen paper chains and strung popcorn have been haphazardly draped over curtain rods (and the cats) and Lexie has created some remarkable eclectic art with which to surprise her mommy and playmates (and the cats.) I did the unthinkable and bought myself the new Susan Boyle cd, leaving me in want of nothing but a new coffee pot (NEITHER object for the cats.) The kitties will receive their new schmousies, along with new collars and enough food to last them several months; a similar donation has been made on their behalf to a local cat shelter. Basically, there’s just enough temporary bling to keep the cats entertained, intrigued, amused and amusing, but not so much as to drive us all bonkers. And snuggling together on the couch the other night – kids, kitties, cocoa and cookies - giving ourselves over to Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye and their celluloid promise of a “White Christmas,” somehow made us feel that we had all the gifts anyone could ever dream of or want.
Yet there is one present we Garey girls receive each and every day. They come to us from the cats who know no season, no official holiday. It’s here every time they nestle at our sides, humming gentle tunes of soothing love or uncomplicated contentment. We feel it when they march in place on our laps, nibble on our noses, nuzzle our ears or turn Olympic tumbles in search of tummy-tickles. It streams from those bottomless eyes that gaze into our hearts with simple, undemanding love. No wrapping paper or ribbon, gilt or glitter can make more beautiful their packaging. They ask for little, yet give so much, and all without batteries. They live; they love; they listen to our woes, softly daub away our tears with tiny paws and remain steadfast friends through good times and bad; they laugh at us and with us. They make us a family.
In all honesty, we Gareys don’t know how to be politically-correct in wishing you a wonderful holiday season. A couple of years ago, Amanda came up with “Happy NewRamaChanaKwanzaaMasTice” to cover just about everybody’s religious, cultural, spiritual or social belief. Even earlier, eccentric and wonderful Cosmo Kramer and Jerry’s dad of Seinfeld fame suggested “Festivus for the Rest of Us.” Or maybe we should follow my beloved Neil Diamond’s sentiment in saying that we “Wish you a Very Merry Cherry Cherry Holly Holy Rock’n’Rolly Christmas this year – and Happy Hanukah, Y’all!” If you can devise an appropriate phrase, we strongly encourage you to contribute it in the commentary section following this article.
Since the absolutely perfect words elude us right now, please accept our warmest, heartfelt wishes that you find joy, love, peace, personal, spiritual and social fulfillment now and always. Please know that come whatever date you observe the festival of your heart, the Garey Gang will be with you in spirit. Light a little candle, say a small prayer, slip a dollar into the bucket of a bell-ringing stranger, shake the hand of someone you don’t know, spare a scrap or two of turkey or ham or gefilte fish for a hungry kitten or pup or person. Just do ONE, tiny act of kindness this month and share a little bit of the goodness I believe strengthens each and every one of our hearts. For one split second, think about the universal, non-denominational wish for Peace on Earth; good will for all…
And If nothing else, tuck away the credit cards, stick a bow on the head of a kitten and smile for just one instant. Let that vision be our gift of love to each and every one of you.