Monday, February 2, 2009
Several weeks ago, my husband George informed me that due to his very busy work schedule, it would be my sole responsibility to attend the Christmas pageant at at my son's school. As I'm not the greatest observer of my son's schedule, I had no concept to what pageant he was referring. Excitedly, I asked George if our son Ethan was participating in some kind of beauty pageant where he might win a glittery scepter or crown. I was supremely disappointed to learn that Ethan would not be accepting a crown or require me to draft a brilliant acceptance speech, as it wasn't that kind of pageant.
Raised as an agnostic Jew, I had no real experience with Christmas pageants. As a matter of fact, I had no experience with Christmas at all. As a child, my father owned a chain of discount toy stores populated by an army of harried, disenfranchised retail drones whose employee responsibilities seemed to include smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and complaining about the paltry wages my father paid them. The Christmas 'season' for my family commenced in late August as this was when my father had to place orders for the stores. While the other gentile children in our middle class New Jersey neighborhood were visiting the beach, attending barbecues, and frolicking through the clouds of mysterious and presumably toxic mosquito insecticide belched out by the township's lumbering trucks, my sisters and I were forced to listen to lectures about how this Christmas season was my father's 'make or break.'
"I don't think you three understand," my father would begin, "One tiny miscalculation, one tiny mistake, and we could lose everything. We would lose this fantastic house and we would have to go live in Camden with the colored people."
Colored people? You mean like 'The Jeffersons?' we would ask. Like most young kids of the 70's relegated to the insular, segregated neighborhoods of south Jersey, we had very little personal experience with actual black people. Our entire knowledge of them came from situation comedies like The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son. My sisters and I got really excited at the prospect of living next door to The Jeffersons in their swanky Upper East Side apartment building. Of course, Mr Bentley would have to move as we would be taking his apartment, but Tom and Helen Willis always seemed like such fun!
"No not like The Jeffersons," my father would say "More like.....um...Anita, our cleaning lady."
My sisters and I were incredulous. Anita...poor? Anita Washington had been our cleaning lady for about two years. Tall and imposing, Anita more or less pushed the dust around, watched her soap opera 'stories' on our color television set, and shared cigarettes and luke warm cups of Sanka with our mother. While my mother complained ceaselessly about Anita's work habits, she was so emotionally invested in the woman that neither of my parents had the audacity to fire her. I would often return home ravenous from school to find Anita and my mother seated at the kitchen table, tears streaming down Anita's face and my mother sympathetically stroking her hand.
"Mom can I have a snack?" I asked.
"Mom, can I please have a snack?"
"MOM, CAN I PLEASE HAVE A SNACK?"
"Goddamn it Tod," my mother would snap "Can't you see that Anita is having a bad day? Can you please try and think about someone else besides yourself for one minute?! Jesus H. Christ! More Sanka, Anita dear?"
On the morning of Ethan's 'performance' I was told that the school Christmas pageant was not going to be a traditional telling of Mary giving birth to Jesus in the little town of Bethlehem. My son would not be starring as Joseph, the baby Jesus, a sheep, cow, camel, or wise man. To my horror I found that the Ethan would be a mere chorus boy in a 'Hooray for Hollywood' Christmas spectacular on his school's playground. NOT EVEN ON A REAL STAGE! It suddenly all came back to me - my son had been listlessly humming WHITE CHRISTMAS for weeks, thrilled I had assumed he had absorbed my gayish affection for Irving Berlin songs.
Haunted by the ghosts of Anita Washington, Tom and Helen Willis, my father's comatose employees and the frightful ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future I arrived at Ethan's school attired in black sunglasses, black jacket, black slacks, and black shoes . I resembled an expensively dressed, clinically depressed pall bearer. I took a seat on an inconspicuous, rickety picnic bench near the rear of the blacktop. The other parents, straining under the weight of their expensive video cameras and tripods fought for positions near the front of the improvised chalk outline that served as a 'stage.' After a lengthy introduction by an attention starved, former-actress parent (Is there any other kind?) the 'Cavalcade' began.
All at once, my son dressed in a smart black suit jacket, beguiling red and green top hat and long green Mardi Gras beads took his position at the front of the improvised stage. He stood perfectly erect and faced the audience with his hat slightly cocked and a sly smile on his face. I found this slightly shocking as my son's most recent at home 'performance' involved, yet again, burping and farting the entire STAR WARS theme song. He spotted me, and not wanting to 'break character' gave the slightest nod of his head to acknowledge my presence. His classmates followed and mounted the stage with the enthusiasm one reserves for a Tetnus shot.
As Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas' played over the loudspeakers, my son began to sing. His voice, high-pitched and slightly off-key hovered sweetly in the air. He began to sing, dance and more importantly PROJECT his little heart out! Astonished, I rose from my bench as if in slow motion and drifted towards the stage. I pushed past the phalanx of well dressed, put-together Hollywood moms and their whirring video cameras. I no longer noticed the hideous playground setting, the atrocious acoustics, or the lackluster choreography - like Mama Rose, I saw the face of God.
'Sing out, Louise, er... Ethan I mean, sing out!' I yelled.
Encouraged (and probably alarmed) by his scarily attentive, waving and shouting father, Ethan continued his 'White Christmas' performance with gusto. With a showy flourish, 'White Christmas' came to an end and like an old Broadway veteran, my son formally bowed and then tipped his hat to the crowd. All at once, the audience erupted in deafening cheers and then showered my son in glittering Christmas confetti.
As the other children bolted for the dessert table, my very professional son lingered on stage and graciously accepted the congratulations from the crowd. I waited until his 'public' had departed and then gingerly approached.
"Did I do good?" he asked.
"You did fantastic."
"Dad, can I have sugar now?"
And just like that, my son the star took the hand of his crying, black-clad, father over to a table loaded with an insane abundance of Christmas cupcakes, cookies, and candy. As we filled our plates, my son loudly and inexplicably announced to the assembled crowd that his father (me) doesn't believe in God and is probably going to Hell - but should be allowed to eat the Christmas treats anyway. Mortified, I made a mental note to never, ever let that boy talk to the press.