Later that week we had a tree-trimming party. I don’t actually remember ever having a “party” to do it before. When I was a kid I’m pretty sure that getting the tree up and decorated was a big chore that various family members were drafted into. Or maybe Claire always considered that to be a “party” and I just didn’t remember it as such.
What made it a party this time, apparently, was she not only gathered everyone at a designated time to do the decorating, but she put out snacks and put on music. A well-worn cassette tape of Christmas classics played from the boom box on the fireplace mantle.
The first thing that happened of course was the Remo and Jake had to put the lights, garland, and tree topper on, which meant the two of them doing it while Claire, Janine, and Ziggy stood around commenting-slash-helping. The idea was that after that each of us would meander back and forth between the boxes of ornaments and the tree until all of them were on the tree. Simple, right?
But after placing one ornament herself, Claire took a seat on the couch. She had been feeling ill after her treatment and had been taking a lot of naps and I wondered if standing up or walking back and forth across the living room was too much for her. She switched to fussing with the ornaments themselves, the boxes of which were piled up on the coffee table, putting hooks on them and handing them to each of us as we approached.
Which of course quickly became Claire telling each of us where to put the ornaments she was handing us. I didn’t actually mind. I didn’t feel I needed to make a strong aesthetic argument for whether the unicorn ornament should be near the rainbow ornament or if they should be on opposite sides of the three for balance or what.
Janine was less sanguine about being micromanaged, though. At first she was placing the ornaments nearish to where Claire wanted, but eventually she just began ignoring the directions. Claire let it slide for a little while. But only a little while.
“Oh, Jan, put that one up higher.”
Janine ignored her and put the ornament she’d chosen in the spot she preferred, then picked out another one for herself.
“Are you doing that just to aggravate me?” she demanded. “Honestly, Jan, you’re acting like you don’t even hear the words I say, but I know you do.”
Janine had a shiny red glass ornament shaped kind of like a spindle hanging from the tip of one finger by a slim metal hook. She put her other hand on her hip. “Well, are you telling me what to do just to aggravate me? I’m a grown woman. I don’t need you telling me where to put a god-damned Christmas tree ornament.”
Actually, maybe she didn’t use the word “god-damned.” Some expletive or possibly a euphemism went there, and I don’t remember which, but you get the point.
Claire ruffled her feathers, shifting on the couch and puffing herself up. “Don’t you take that tone with me.”
“Which tone would that be, Mother? The one that says it’s my house and I’ll put the ornaments where I want?”
“You wouldn’t even have these ornaments if it weren’t for me,” Claire hissed. Oooh, Mom, bad move. Besides it being bad form to make it all about yourself even if you are a narcissist, Landon had been told that the tree had been delivered by elves in the night and none of us had broken that illusion, yet.
Remo ran with it: “Because Santa’s elves, uh, never would have delivered so many without the letter you wrote them?”
Claire seemed to get herself together, then, putting on her “doting grandma” smile, and leaning down toward Landon, who was sitting next to the coffee table on the rug, playing with the extra tinsel. “If you think the tree is great, wait until you see what Santa himself brings.”
His eyes were as bright as the tree-topper. “What will he bring?”
“Well, what did you ask him for? Didn’t you write him a letter?”
Landon looked back and forth between Janine and Jake with a slightly panicked expression. Am I the only one who notices what’s going through the kid’s head? I thought. Maybe I was. “I need to write my letter to Santa, too,” I reassured him. “I’ll help you write yours, okay?”
“Okay! I’ll get paper and crayons!” And off he ran toward his room.
The tension was still hanging in the air between my mother and my sister, though. Claire clucked her tongue. “It’s just that I think the smaller ornaments should go closer to the top and the larger ornaments should go nearer the bottom,” she said in her most reasonable-sounding voice.
Jan held up the rather fragile glass one on her finger. “And I think the more breakable ones should go toward the top and the less breakable ones should go near the bottom.”
Claire couldn’t stand her logic being trumped, though. “Oh, your boy is well enough behaved that shouldn’t be a concern.”
Jan held firm. “He’s still a little boy and I don’t want there to be tears and strife when he breaks one of your ornaments.”
“Oh, well I never,” Claire said, and put a hand to her forehead like she felt a headache coming on. “Fine. We’ll do it your way.”
Everyone was stunned for a moment. Was that my mother actually giving in and letting someone else win an argument? I wondered if having a terminal illness was really changing her.
Later, after I’d helped Landon write his letter to Santa and Jake had left and Janine and Landon had gone to bed, Remo and Claire sat together in the living room looking at the lit up tree, and I went down to the den that had once been the garage and used the phone down there to answer a page from Sarah. Ziggy came with me. I sat on the worn-out loveseat and he lay across it with his head on my leg, reading a book while I talked.
“How’s family life?” Sarah asked.
“About as expected,” I said. “Some of it’s good. Most of it’s stressful and occasionally batshit. Speaking of which, how’s your mom?”
“Touché. Look, I know this lawsuit stuff is a pain, but I know it’s all going to get worked out, okay? A lot of it is just, you know, a formality. And stuff.”
Her words were saying not to worry but her tone of voice didn’t inspire much confidence in me.
“Formalities can be expensive,” I said. “Lawyers are like sharks. If they smell blood in the water, they get in a frenzy.”
To my surprise, she sounded like she was crying.
“Sar’, are you okay?”
“I don’t know. I’m doing that thing women do, you know, where I’m more afraid you’re going to hate me than I am of what is actually going to happen.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s not just women who do that, but I’m also pretty sure I don’t have a reason to hate you.”
“People don’t need reasons to love or hate. They just do.”
“Okay, true, but a lawsuit brought on by your mom or whoever wouldn’t be it. I’m kind of under the impression we’re friends despite all the bullshit in the business and not because of it. Am I wrong?”
“No. No, you’re not wrong. You’re awesome. Oh, man, I knew you’d say something sensible. You are, like, the sanest person I know.”
“He’s the sanest person here, too,” Ziggy said aloud. “Which is really saying something.”
Sarah chuckled and then blew her nose loudly. “Ziggy once said he was glad we were friends because he needed people who were on his level, who knew what he was going through.”
“Yeah, well, that’s Ziggy. I need friends who just like me as a person and who I like as people.”
“I’ve always liked you. And Ziggy. And I like you as a couple, too.”
“Is that different?”
“It is. There are people where you like each of them separately but when they get together they become this two-headed monster I can’t deal with.”
“Huh.” I couldn’t think of anyone right then who fit that category, but I could imagine it being true. “So do I have to do anything regarding this lawsuit yet?”
“You mean like a court appearance or whatever? Not yet I don’t think. Carynne will probably know before I will. I’m under the impression nothing’s going to happen before Christmas. We’re going to Aruba for Christmas and it’s ridiculous.”
“Your mother’s idea?”
“Of course. And I just want to stay in the city and do all the usual things here, you know? Skating in Rockefeller Center and all that. Although it’s less fun without you guys here. You staying in Tennessee through the holiday?”
“Looks that way. Court’s coming here, too. I think she gets here tomorrow.”
“Give her my love. See you guys next year.”
Ha, right. I knew she was making a joke on the fact 1992 was only two weeks away, but for a second it really felt like we were going to be in Tennessee forever. I really didn’t know how long we’d be there.
One thing at a time, I told myself.
After I hung up I decided to stick my head upstairs and see if Remo was ready to head back to the motel. I tiptoed out of habit. I came up past the kitchen and saw he was passed out on the couch. Claire was on her feet. She had started the mixtape over again and was singing softly along with the carols as she moved across the carpet, her voice as light and sweet as dawn over snow.
She was rearranging the ornaments.