1973, Alexander Technique, Bike, Boycott Christmas, California, Christmas, Christmas Tree, Clearout jobs, Delancey Street, Herbs, Holocaust, Materialism, Parrot, Peace on Earth, Sanctuary, Tempeh, Transgender, Twelve-Step program, Vegan
By Emily Thurston
Dennis asked me not to put a Christmas tree in our living room this year. He says it every year: no tree, no presents. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, combined with the pagan worship of nature, life, and lights in the dark. Dennis credits Jesus with saving his life, but materialism is the opposite of what Jesus taught. And what does cutting down a living tree, trucking it 1,000 miles, and bringing it inside to die have to do with nature?
“Bah, humbug!” says Dennis.
Then, usually, every year, two days before Christmas, we buy the biggest tree that we can fit in our living room. We run around frantically buying a zillion presents. For Dennis as a child, Christmas was a lonely, forgotten holiday. Tinsel, exotic trees, and expensive gifts feel wrong to us, but they are conventions that everyone around us notices. Doing nothing feels worse.
“Please don’t put a Christmas tree in here,” Dennis said again. I was skeptical. But the third time he said it, I agreed.
What to do?
Here in California, when the rains start in the winter, the misty air drips with the leafy herbaceous fragrance of plants re-awakening. Green in the winter is the norm, not the miracle. How I adore the winding masses of bays that grow along my favorite roads for riding! Sometimes I’ll tuck a few leaves into my jersey pocket to bring home to my kitchen, although California bay is too strong for cooking. When I was sick in early December, I went through all of my bay leaves, adding two to the big pot of steaming water I set on the stove every morning to humidify the air and soothe my lungs and sinuses. Now I needed more bay.
I called four nurseries and found a place that had one Grecian bay tree left in a two-gallon pot. It was a sad little lopsided thing about two feet tall, with a very mild flavor, but it was the last one they had. I spent half an hour considering whether to shell out the $42 I would have to spend to bring it home.
While I was thinking about it, I picked up some small pots of herbs I’ve been wanting – Yerba Buena – chamomile – lavender –parsley – plus two “hitchhikers”, Echinacea and a beautiful kind of spearmint that’s reddish near the stem. I carried the six pots with my ten fingers, back and forth around the nursery. Finally, I made my decision. I got help carrying the big pot up to the counter, purchased my plants, and drove away with the herbs and the bay.
When I arrived home, I cleared off my printer desk, which is made of dark wood with a glossy finish, and has two little drawers with big circular wooden handles. I moved it in front of the bay window beside Lulu- the-parrot’s cage and covered it with a linen cloth. I went into the back yard and found a pretty blue-and-white Chinese planter and set it on a big blue plate on the desk.
I had gotten all these items from clearout jobs. When I met Dennis, he was earning $7.50 an hour as a bike mechanic, and I only did a little better as my aunt’s secretary, both of us struggling along the path toward salvation. Now we have three businesses: a bike shop, a moving company, and a hauling business, which is Dennis’s favorite. When someone dies, they leave behind a mountain of stuff. You can’t take it with you. The house is worth more than the contents, so whoever takes charge hires us to empty it. That’s a clearout job. Sometimes I keep a few treasures from the pile, but mostly, we sell or give away as much as we can, and what we can’t move quickly ends up in the dump. We have nowhere else to put it.
I set my new tree inside the pot on the table. My parrot Lulu regarded it with fear and skepticism for a good fifteen minutes, then relaxed and started singing to it. Mom came over and helped decorate it with a few paper cranes and one Gorham silver ornament from 1977, the year I was born.
The ornament came from another recent clearout job, a modest house waist high in stuff that was covered so thickly with dust that you could hardly breathe in there. We found a big shoebox full of these silver ornaments in the basement, near a brown leather portfolio containing the travel documents the owner had used to escape the Holocaust. I was proud of her for surviving and fascinated by her escape route. I sold most of the silver off but kept a few of my favorites pieces. Precious metal has its role.
One of the three wise men, as the story goes, brought gold to the baby Jesus in his shelter, his safe place, there with the animals and their barnyard smells. The other two brought the aromatic resins of fragrant trees.
Two days later, Grandpa asked for a Christmas tree, something small to put on his card table. This was curious. Back in 1971, Grandpa had started fasting on Christmas to protest the opulence of the holiday.
I figured that a single ornament rescued from the dump wouldn’t stink too much of American affluence, so I brought him a sterling dove medallion. Grandpa read the words around the perimeter. “Peace on Earth – 1973.”
“That was a good year,” I said.
“What was I doing in 1973?” Grandpa asked me. He’s 95 years old. He depends on me for his memories.
“You’d been on your big canoe journey for a couple of years. You were staying at Jonah’s Roost. That might have been the winter when you and Scotty read The Hound of the Baskervilles out loud by the fire …”
Grandpa chuckled. “Yes, I remember. That was a good year.”
Grandpa lived in the northern forest for 40 years. Every winter he settled down in a cabin and spent hours a day gathering, sawing, splitting, drying, and burning wood to stay warm. A spiritual connection with spruce. One year, he decorated the fir tree growing outside his window with strings of popcorn and rosehips that the birds would eat.
We hesitated to buy a cut evergreen for Grandpa’s apartment, but he’d asked for a tree and six days before Christmas, he still didn’t have one. So I went out one afternoon and bought a tree from the lot on University that’s run by Delancey Street, the residential rehab program for drug-addicted felons. Twelve-step programs teach that connecting with your higher power, whoever or whatever that means to you, is the second of the twelve steps to recovery. Although Delancey is not a twelve-step program it recognizes the importance of that step.
Dennis came with me. When he told the guys at the lot that he’s the founder of Lulu’s Hauling, they all perked up. Dennis is a Delancey Street graduate, known to residents and graduates of that program as a success story, someone who helps other graduates get their footing in the real world. When Jesus brought bounteous fish to the luckless fisherman, Simon fell down at Jesus’ knee, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid, for you will be a fisher of men.’ (Luke 5: 8-10)
Dennis and the guys joked around while I picked out a fir sapling.
My brother Dylan’s new boyfriend, Sam arrived at ten one evening, and we stayed up talking until past midnight. Sam is a sweet young man, and very smart. He’s in graduate school for social work, with a focus on mental health. We talked about the interaction between society and mental health. I believe the difference between geniuses and the mental ill is socially defined. They’re two ways of seeing and understanding things that other people don’t. Whether people listen to you or try to see things your way is partly a matter of privilege. My father was acknowledged by society as a renowned genius. I sometimes see things that other people don’t. I think we have a lot in common.
In the morning, I made tempeh bacon, and a tofu scramble with mustard seeds and turmeric and cumin and garlic and finely chopped onions, and nutritional yeast and Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids, cooked in sesame oil, plus herbs, since they are bountiful in the winter. Oregano grows so rampantly that I have to prune it back before it takes my garden, and there is always a bushel to cook with. My rosemary is already 3’ tall and 2’ wide after one year in the ground. Bees love the blue and purple flowers. Dylan has been vegan for ten years, and vegetarian since he was 8. I spent 3 or 4 years as a vegan, long enough to learn some cooking and nutritional strategies. The flavors filled the kitchen: delicious.
Later on, Dylan and Sam came to see me at the bike store for a pair of bicycles. Dylan was concerned about Sam’s saddle – concerned that the saddle might be too narrow for…
Sam chimed in. “For someone whose assigned sex at birth was female.”
Samuel was female at birth?
“So we want to make sure he gets a comfortable saddle,” Dylan added, emphasis on “he” to dispel any confusion I might be experiencing.
“The main thing is, you want the pressure of the saddle to be on your sit bones, not on the soft fleshy parts,” I said, reeling out my script on bike seats. “Sit bones are personal. It’s not a binary, like men are narrow and women are wide.”
“Although there is a correlation,” Sam added.
“Right. And sit bones are narrower in the front than they are in the back, so the farther forward you lean, the narrower the saddle.”
“I’ve studied Alexander Technique, so I know where my sit bones are,” Sam offered. It’s refreshing to work with someone who’s developed a sense of physical self-awareness.
The three of us rode the 12 miles home along the Bay Trail. I, the pro racer, led at a smooth recovery pace, while Dylan, the sometimes-enthusiast, and Sam, who hadn’t ridden a bicycle in years, traded places behind me or occasionally surged in front. Our lungs filled with the mud-fennel-seaweed smell of the bay.
I made a big pot of minestrone soup with lots of vegetables plus garlic, garden herbs, and bay leaves. I showed Sam and Dylan a piece of my writing about the struggles I went through as a young girl, trying to fit in. Sam talked about how he struggled to fit in when he was a child. As a girl. Wanting to fit in as a boy came later.
“Do you want a guitar?” I asked Dylan. Months ago, I had mentioned to Dennis that I wanted to learn to play guitar, so he brought home three that he found on clearout jobs. Dylan used to play as a child, bent over, stumbling over the notes. Sam once studied at Juilliard. Now Dylan very much wanted a guitar. He wanted to relate to his new beau.
Dylan picked one of the guitars, tuned it, and practiced in the middle of the kitchen for a few hours. We walked around him. He set up again that evening, and again the next day, and the day after that. Every time I found Dylan at home, he was plucking at the guitar. He was shy and hesitant at first, but with our subliminal encouragement he opened up musically. He bought new strings and tuned the nicer, Japanese classical guitar, so that I could play too.
For dinner, I made yams and barbecue tempeh and a romaine and arugula salad with chili-infused olive oil and peach balsamic vinaigrette. Mom joined us. We were a party of five, plus Lulu. We talked about our political concerns since the election of Donald J. Trump and about actions we each could take.
“Provide sanctuary,” I said.
Christmas Eve was also the first night of Hannukah this year. I borrowed a menorah, and Sam made latkes. I stayed up until midnight wrapping treasures from the latest clearout job, to put under our bay tree. I woke up at 5 on Christmas morning to cook three quiches before breakfast. One had bacon, for those men who won’t eat green things. One was vegetarian, made with plenty of garlic and herbs. And though I didn’t have a recipe and had never tried it before, I made one vegan quiche, and that was the one that turned out best. We served the quiches with bread and cheese, and my mother’s Polish vegetable salad. We drank coffee and tea, Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider, and Gewurztraminer grape juice.
We were eleven humans and a parrot. We were computer programmers, professors, welfare recipients, and the uneducated white working class. We were females and males, transgendered people, gays, and straights. We were addicts in recovery, ex-cons, and the mentally ill. We were Jews, Christians, and nature worshippers, gift-givers and Christmas-resisters, socialists and capitalists, vegans and bacon-eaters.
We ate with gusto. Afterwards, some of us went to the beach while others played cards or watched TV. We were relaxed and comfortable, like a clichéd television happy family from the 1950s. Everyone is welcome in my house, so long as there is good will. A safe place.
Eventually, our guests went home. Dennis said it was the best Christmas he’s ever had. Gradually the bay tree is turning greener and rounding out, so that the shape looks almost elegant. The light shines strongly on the leaves in the morning, turning the energy of our front room fragrant.
Emily Thurston is a bicycle racer and runs two thriving businesses with her partner, Dennis Jenkins: one is a bicycle store in Berkeley, California,and the other is a moving, storage, and estate liquidation company serving the Bay Area and all of California. Both businesses are named “Lulu’s” after the parrot who owns them. Jonah’s Roost, Emily’s previous story in Memoir Pool, was about her Grandfather and his cabin in the woods.