Ah, the box. If you've made it to adulthood without a box or a bin marked "Xmas" and ignored for eleven months out of every twelve, congratulations. I envy your light traveling through life, I really do. Don't know how you've done it. Perhaps it really is just a matter of will power, cultural variation, religious or philosophical conviction, I don't know, nobility of character or unstable housing. Loads of reasons, now I think about it, but for a lot of us I should think there is now and may always be the box. For many of us it is disingenuous to refer to the thing in the singular. If we're being honest there's seldom just the one in the garage or the attic or in the building's storage locker. (Somewhat full disclosure: I have two big -- big as in hard for the movers to lift big -- boxes just of Christmas music. Gives you some idea.)
We all know what's in the box though the point of it, of the box itself, beyond actual preservation is that it allows us to forget. Why I don't like those clear plastic tubs, frankly. Who wants reminding? Let it be a surprise every year. Just a quick inventory first week of December will bring it all back: lights, ornaments, wreaths, bells, Santa cows. (I had more than a moment in the nineties when it was a very cow Christmas. There were for some reason a lot of Christmas cows on the market; lights, ornaments, irreverent manger scenes, nutcrackers, cow, cow, cow, cow. Do not judge me. It was a theme. It was whimsical, dammit.) Two years running, when we were living in the condo with the cathedral ceiling in the living room, I had two trees: there was the pretty tree and the funny tree. The pretty one was all a glitter with blown glass and tasteful little twinkle lights and the funny tree... well, you already know. Moo.
Yes, it was all a bit much and now I very much wish we'd taken more photographs because we will not see it's like again, at least at our house. I say "our house" because he put my name on the mortgage, but he pays it and now we're legally married at last it really is in part mine, but Christmas was all me. The beloved husband was raised in the Witnesses -- and poor -- and the Witnesses, they are not at all for Christmas. Bless his heart, how has he put up with me?! Two trees? Seriously? Well, I've calmed down. I'm sure I have pictures somewhere, of the multiple tree Christmases, but this was well before the world went digital so there's probably just the one photo of each tree, either end of the sofa as I remember them.
Side note: why did we all always take a picture of the Christmas tree every year? Back in the day it's not like it actually changed all that much from year to year: same ornaments, same big-bulb lights, same angel or star topper. Hell, we collected the "icicles," filmy silver foil strip by filmy silver foil strip and hung them back on the cardboard to be reused. So why the annual photo or Polaroid? Yes, sometimes someone was made to stand in front, but there was always the one shot of just the unchanging and interchangeable tree with only the time-stamp to distinguish it from all the others. Weird, that. Continuity of a kind.
Now anyone who's ever done display work in a retail setting sooner or later has faced the box as well. If you remember the box from childhood as a magical but simultaneously a somewhat disappointing business, you must trust me when I tell you it was a cornucopia of bright, fresh, and fragrant delights compared to retail Christmas decorations. The question, "Can we get another Christmas out of this?" was sadly answered, "Yes" entirely too often. Blessedly these are no longer decisions I have to make. Other, wiser, and more financially responsible heads determine these things in the bookstore where I now work, but I had my moment.
It was the eighties, in all it's vulgar glory and I was managing a branch store. For any who may not know, there was a time when independent bookstores were still profitable enough enterprises that one company might maintain multiple locations, sometimes even in the same city. The little store I managed was entirely too close to its larger and more glorious parent, easy walking distance actually. The lease on the little store was signed for fear of losing the lease on the larger or something like that and when that didn't happen the company ended up with a redundancy that could not be got rid of for some considerable time. The threat or promise of imminent closure hung over the little bookstore well before I became its manager and eventually, inevitably it came true and the little store was closed. In the meanwhile, year after year the closure was threatened, planned for, even begun and then abandoned again until... next year. No way to run a business, I hear you thinking. Well, you may be right, events certainly supported that argument eventually, but you weren't there, I was and we made the best of it while it lasted.
When I came in, you could see the hurried nature of the layout and planning. Children's books faced "Sex and Relationships" on the same narrow aisle. There's a ruthless logic there, but not an attractive juxtaposition of titles and not serving, shall we say, the same customers. That was addressed and we made the best we could of the space we had. I like to think that even under my admittedly immature leadership, the place was not a bad bookshop. Made many friends there. Sold a lot of good books.
One thing I was not in a position to do much about was the box, or rather, again, boxes. Another thing about managing a satellite location, everything you have is inherited: fixtures, signage, cash registers, Christmas decorations. By the time I came to open those boxes they had already seen many a season. A quick inventory:
Red, faux-velvet bows tied with unraveling gold cording, green plastic holly wreaths once decorated with an abundance of tiny toy houses, bears, drums, plastic "tin" soldiers, and the like, sprays of loose, still plastic fir branches, and a couple of balls of tangled lights that may or may not have worked once. To say this was sad is to understate the case. The bows were meant to head each bookcase, the effect meant to be uniform and cumulatively cheery. Few were not flat, tattered, and bent into odd shapes, sticky with age and stuck together. The wreaths and the trimmin's were far from as full as they once had presumably been. Threadbare is the word that comes to mind; colors faded, paint chipped, and among the little toys there were arms and heads missing at a most alarming rate. The whole effect, both on the sales-floor and in the display windows, was depressing. Once it was all up it all looked like nothing so much as clearance at a Goodwill. But, who cared? the place was closing in the new year.
And then, it didn't. (Think I was actually there for four years, was it? Awhile anyway.) So when the next Holiday Season rolled around we again did the best we could. I invested in bulk potpourri and a hot glue gun. Better, but not great. I think it wasn't until my third year there that I really broke out. May be wrong about the timing, but break out at some point I did. Couldn't do anything about those wretched red bows, but the windows? Those windows were going to be gorgeous! And so, I thought they were.
The solution was matte black paint. You may not remember the moment and I may have been a bit in advance of the trend but there came a time when the world was made better, and weirdly brighter by matte black paint. Lamp and or lampshade looking dated? Matte black paint. Inherited grandma's Hummels and they don't quite suit your new, hipper aesthetic? Matte black paint. Need to turn just about any sow's ear into a fashionably matte black silk purse? You knew what you needed to do. Give me spray paint and an alley in which to work and I could make anything ART!
And so it came to pass: the matte black Christmas. I wasn't a purist. I recognized the need for shine and sheen and sparkle. Thus the silver and copper highlights, silver and copper bows on the matte black paper wrapped display "presents." Every wreath, every bough, it all got the full matte black make-over. I wish I had a picture.
My boss? My boss was not... impressed. Apoplectic, that's the word that comes to mind. Fit to be tied if we're feeling folksy. The situation was not saved, but certainly settled down when in the very midst of this confrontation, a perfect stranger came into the store just to say that she thought our Christmas windows lovelier than Macy's. "Very chic," I believe she may have said. Vindication! Aesthetic triumph! Not fired!
One thing that had not occurred to me at the time I swear, was that that matte black was of course a metaphor. I can see that now. San Francisco in the late eighties, beautiful and exciting as it was, it was also a city full of mourning, the sick, the dying, the angry, and the inconsolable. (Also present: the extraordinarily strong and largely thankless queer women who cared for their brothers, who had done, still do, too little in return.) San Francisco was furious and sad and exhilarating and terrifying and — I still miss it to this day. Still the most beautiful place I've ever lived. Still the best time I ever had. Still. Still. Now I am older than I then assumed I would ever see, actually twice as old as some of my contemporaries ever lived to be. So many gone before they'd seen a gray hair, reconciled with their fathers, written their books, painted their pictures, lived their lives, held who their husbands or their children might have been. And nearly a whole generation before ours was going or gone, just... gone. I remember our thick black boots, our black tee-shirts, the black banners stretched across a bridge, the flat, black desolation that threatened to swallow us all, and the cold, black heart of the man who lived in the White House.
I was at the time a volunteer in a support organization that provided practical and emotional support for people living with HIV/AIDS. As it turned out, I was no better a volunteer than I was activist. I was young, selfish, lazy, more than a little complacent, and very much out of my depth. I was trained, but I was not prepared. As an activist, I was occasional at best, a body; I could walk, march, shout. I was happy to get on the bus, even climb on top of the roof of the drug company, I might get arrested but didn’t. I was happy to set out the chairs in the Women's building, and just as happy to leave before the meeting was over. I was happy to sit in the middle of the street, and just as likely to get back on the train and go home. I was not good on committees, never volunteered, loathed the disorder of the open floor discussions, left the real work to others. I was then as I am now always too eager to get home to my supper.
As a volunteer I was not good at listening "actively," coping with my first racist client, dealing with dementia, attending weekly volunteer support meetings. God, how I hated those wretched "check ins": endless bus-transfers after work to somebody's inaccessible apartment on the other side of the moon, cat-haired cookies and floral teas and a pitiless insistence that all feelings were equally valid and worthy of expression no matter the hour and no, seriously, how ARE you? As if we simply had to BE some way or other about everything, and willing, ever eager to say so — and no, indignant, tired and bored were not acceptable options.
My very first client did not have much to say to some silly white child in his twenties and I don't blame him. My third visit I called the ambulance that took him on his last ride to the hospital. My next, as I’ve mentioned spent our first, last, and only conversation confiding all manner of white racist paranoia about “those people” ruining his neighborhood etc. to which I was expected to listen patiently. I did not. When I refused to see him again, I was warned that this wasn't really up to me, not in the right spirit, not the way things were done, and so on. We’d need to process all of that. It seems I was being judgmental. Well, yes, and most emphatically NO, for once, I would not see the man again. My next client died before I met him. My next was hard to see because he was living in a subsidized housing situation and I could almost never get anyone to buzz me into the building. He had no phone and so it was hard to say if he would be there when I came and it was hard to know if he would remember me if he was.
I do remember a Christmas from those matte black days. Not one of ours, or rather nothing to do with me or mine. One of my last encounters as a volunteer before I left the organization. (I didn't quit by the way because of a client I quit because I simply could not ever again face another of those wretched, pointless "volunteer check-ins." By that time I'd stopped seeing clients and had decided just to answer phones and file at organization headquarters. Guess what though? Policy. Even just to answer the phones. Still expected to go to meetings and "process" my feelings so instead — I proceeded out the door.) The evening I'm thinking of was spent with another, older volunteer. He was a man much devoted to the cause and his community. As Johnson said of an older acquaintance, “I honored him and he endured me.” We were not friends so much as friendly. He it had been who’d gently suggested I might be better suited to clerical work. I had made a few friends in the training, but none in my assigned group thereafter. (Wonder why?!) When I decided to stop taking clients, and then to quit altogether, this very nice man invited me to his house for dinner. I went.
His home was lovely with a lovely view of the Castro; that great Mecca of gay SanFrancisco, ground zero. The interior of his apartment was austere and very beautiful. I remember a great variety of white; curtains, furniture, Japanese paper shades. Even his Christmas tree was white. The meal was likewise simple and lovely. The plates and bowls were all white and in interesting shapes. Very chic. The conversation was pleasant and a bit awkward. I was no doubt full of complaint and opinions. He was a master of that much vaunted “active listening.” He clearly wished me well. There was nothing to suggest we would know each other thereafter. It was a gesture on his part, a kindness. I was nervous in that nice apartment. My voice echoed. It was all entirely too quiet. I was probably too loud.
In the center of his home was a large and beautiful dining table. We did not eat there, for which he apologized. We ate in the kitchen. He lived very much alone. When I admired the table he admitted he hadn’t much use for it anymore, and then he said the one thing I've never forgotten. "More ghosts now than guests," he said. He said it very quietly.
Now the beloved husband and I spend our holidays just together. Our table too, though nothing so grand as that fellow's, is now crowded by more ghosts than guests. The matte black is gone, the trend long over, the moment passe, largely unremembered and un-mourned. That bookstore in all its iterations likewise. Doubtlessly my matte black Christmas decorations now live forever in some horrifying landfill. That time, those protests, my own rather feeble engagement with my community, those clients and those meetings — those shoes — and that righteous indignation, all gone. Gone too many if not most of those men I did not much help.
And now it’s Christmas again, or nearly. Time to face the box. Time to be reminded, good and bad.
I’ll be honest, I haven't opened the boxes. Not the first year that’s been true. Don’t know that I will. Don’t know that I need to. Enough perhaps that I remember, and try to remember it all; the pretty and the funny, youth and the city and my friends, the brave and the dead. Somehow, weirdly I am glad of it all. Something perhaps to do with this time of year, with the season, but none of it really makes me sad so much as grateful. What can I say? We do what we can, “keep Christmas” in our own way. Perhaps now, this is mine.