MY FIRST CHRISTMAS
I think I must have been almost eight, because when I was sent to the neighbors’ with a box of chocolate for Christmas, I was already at a point where I could ignore the fact that once, in the garage between our houses, Freddy and I had played intensive Doctor. I was far enough away from the embarrassment to be able to feel myself very important, an ambassador from my closed religious Jewish family into the world of Christians.
It was at least a year before I had spent the month of Christmas in the Children’s ward of the old General Hospital. I know that because the Mendick’s tree was the first I had ever seen. And I was already too sophisticated to allow myself to be impressed.
It was in the corner of their living room, and from the window by the tree I could see my own dark house. I looked back at that pale green home, surrounded by bushes and piles of snow, and was in awe of that fact that we had made it this far in the real world, that we had moved out of my great Aunt Rivche’s dingy apartment into our own luxurious place, that we could take in refugees from Europe, that I had been able to talk my parents into allowing a cat, that we had learned about shoveling snow from the driveway, and that we were miles away from Hitler. I looked back and drank my eggnog and sat with ankles folded, allowing myself glimpses of my shiny Mary Janes while Mrs. Mendick entertained me, alternating her stories and questions with offerings from the box of chocolate I had brought.
I was just too polite to refuse. “Wait just a bit,” she said, “Maybe Freddy will be back soon.” And I tasted a praline for the first time. Mr. Mendick came in with a strange smile (Now that I think of it, it was the same dumb smile Freddy had – too many teeth showing all at once – and looking as if he held a deep and funny secret) and offered another piece as he sat down. Nougat. Freddy and I didn’t even say hello any more. I think he told his friends that I had tempted him to sin.
“So,” said Mr. Mendick, “what do you study at that private school of yours?” “Half a day of Bible and Hebrew,” I answered, beginning to wonder about the gold-wrapped piece peeking out of its brown pleated cup. “You don’t have a tree in school, do you?” he said, indicating the tinseled wonder in the corner. “No.” “So you’ve never seen it lit up, have you?” “No, I haven’t,” I said politely, beginning to wonder how I could escape, and was picturing myself running across the snow to the security of my own side porch. And he gave a sidelong sly Mendick look, pulled the switch on the table and warmed up the entire room.
Now I understood Christmas, the way all the wonders of civilization came together to serve the gods, to light up the world. I walked home slowly, digging my heels to make tracks in the still-snowy shoveled path between our houses.
The year after, from my bed in the glass-walled room of Rochester General, when I saw the enormous tree in the big room where all the other children were, that feeling came back to me. Here, where they had succeeded in stopping the blood that poured from my nose and throat onto my mother’s white tablecloth, in wrapping me in professional confidence, the tree reminded me of it all – that moment all differences, strangeness and awkwardness were erased, the totally irrelevant light investing our banal world with warmth and beauty, and that wonderful taste of the last piece in a box of chocolate.