Authors: Gail Rock
The House Without A Christmas Tree
The Addie Mills Stories, Book One
With acknowledgments to Alan Shayne and Eleanor Perry, who did so much to bring “Addie” to life.
For Grandma and Dad
I'm an artist now, and I live and work in the city. It's a landscape of cement and noise and crowds, all very different and very far away from the little town where I grew upâClear River, Nebraska, population: 1500.
Clear River was surrounded by cornfields and cattle and open sky. The tallest building in town was only three stories high. Most of the streets were unpaved, and we didn't even have a traffic light. We didn't need one. Every day the Union Pacific Streamliners roared through, but they never stopped in Clear River.
I often think of that little town, and that special Christmas in 1946, when I was ten years old.
Carla Mae and I were sitting in our little kitchen at the old wooden table, with our spoons poised in mid-air. In front of each of us was a hard-boiled egg perched in an egg cup. We both stared intently at the faces we had drawn on our eggs. The longer the stare, the better the hex.
“Who's yours today?” she asked.
“Billy Wild,” I said, making a face. “Who's yours?”
“Mine's Delmer Doakes,” she answered, still staring at her egg.
“Ready?” I whispered.
“Ready!” said Carla Mae, and we both smashed our spoons down in unison on the poor eggheads. I crunched Billy a good one, but at the last second Carla Mae hesitated, and only gave Delmer's pointy head a firm tap.
“You chickened out!” I said. “You're supposed to smack him!”
Carla Mae blushed. “Well, I just like to do it all over in little bitty cracks, like he has wrinkles,” and she daintily tapped all around the sides of her egg until Delmer looked 107 years old.
“Oh, you just don't want to smash Delmer because you like him,” I said disgustedly, and gave my egg another smash, knocking the top right off.
“Yeah, well, you like Billy Wild too,” Carla Mae said in her ickiest voice. “You're always looking at him in class.”
“I am not! I just look at him to stick out my tongue. I think he's a rotten creep!”
“Adelaide!” said my Grandmother from across the kitchen. “Such talk!”
Carla Mae and I giggled, and dug into our eggs. Carla Mae was ten years old too, and my best friend in the fifth grade. Her family had moved in next door to us two years ago, in 1944, and now we were inseparable. We always walked to and from school together, and often ate lunch with each other.
Carla Mae's family had opened up a whole new world to me. I was an only child, but she had five younger brothers and sisters and another on the way. I learned about diapers and bottles, and that mothers shouldn't climb ladders when they are pregnant, and about eating horrible things for lunch like ketchup and mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread, and how to fight off five other people if you wanted to play with the electric train set, and that if you had a big family, someone always walked in on you when you were in the bathroom and that it didn't matter.
I loved the uproar, and I always felt lonely when I went home to our quiet house. Carla Mae already liked boys, and I pretended to share her enthusiasm, though I really thought it was kind of dumb. She taught me to swear, and I helped her with arithmetic.
She liked coming to my house because it was the opposite of hers. It was small, only a four-room bungalow, and almost threadbare, but it was quiet and orderly, and my grandmother always fixed a hot lunch for us. She was especially fond of feeding us eggs, which she thought were good for what ailed you, and which we didn't much like. The face-drawing was intended to make egg-eating more interesting, and like a lot of Grandma's eccentric ideas, it worked very well.
When we were at Carla Mae's house we made our own lunch from whatever we could find in the refrigerator. We would fix Dagwood sandwiches dripping with sardines and peanut butter and cheese and brown sugar and pickled shrimp and every other thing we could findâhorrible, delicious combinations. Her mother was too busy changing diapers and warming bottles to notice.
But this particular December day we were having lunch at my house because we needed to have a serious discussion about Christmas shopping. It was only a week before Christmas, and Friday would be our last day of school before vacation. That was the big day when we exchanged presents in our class, and we each had to buy a present for the person whose name we had drawn.
The names were to be kept secret, but Carla Mae and I always told each other everything, so I knew she had drawn Jerry Walsh, and she knew I had drawn Tanya Smithers. Jerry was an OK boy, so she was going to buy him a green plastic pencil box we had seen at the dimestore, but I was stumped about Tanya.
“We have to get them today,” said Carla Mae, “so we'll have time to wrap them tonight.”
“I can't think of anything horrible enough for Tanya Smithers,” I said. We couldn't stand Tanya. She was very snobbish and was always taking dancing lessons and showing off.
“Addie,” said Grandma. “I want you to buy her something nice now, no funny business.” She came over from the stove and poured bowls of alphabet soup for us.
All conversation stopped while we frantically stirred through our soup to see who could fish out the letters of her name first. It was bad luck if you couldn't find all the letters of your own name in the first bowl.
“I'm first!” shouted Carla Mae, and I looked over at her plate, where she had spelled out C-A-R-L-A in wet alphabet noodles.
“That's only half your name!” I said, and hurried to finish my A-D-D-I-E. I hated my nickname worse than my whole name, Adelaide, but it was a lot easier to spell in a hurry.
“You can't use your nickname!” said Carla Mae.
“I can if you can use half your name!”
“Mae is my middle name,” she said, looking very smug.
“You're both right,” Grandma interrupted. “Now finish up or you're going to be late getting back to school.”
“I think I'll get Tanya some gloves,” I said to Carla Mae.
“Ick. Who wants gloves?”
“That's why I'm getting them, dodo. Really dumb ones. Like dark brown woolâold lady gloves with no designs on them.”
“Yack â¦” said Carla Mae, grabbing her throat as if she were going to be ill. We both giggled. Tanya would hate dark brown gloves.
“Addie,” said Grandma, disapprovingly. “I don't know what gets into you!”
“Well,” I said. “You can't get anything neat for a fifty cent limit. Besides, Tanya is my worst friend in the fifth grade.”
Grandma shook her head and sank down in her chair.
“Oh, yo,” she sighed. She often said that, and we never did know what it meant. It seemed to be an all-purpose phrase that even she couldn't quite explain.
Grandma was in her seventies, short and shapeless and always slightly disheveled, but full of vigor. She had lived with my father and me since my mother died shortly after I was born. Grandma always wore a strange conglomeration of clothes that were either homemade or handed down from my aunts. She was always running up things on her treadle sewing machine, and some of her clothes were pieced together from remnantsâeye-popping combinations of color and design. She was particularly expert at whittling down the worn edges of a garment and making it into something smaller. When one of her flowered cotton housedresses began to wear out, she would hack out the collar and sleeves, and it would suddenly be a slip. When that started to go, it became a bib apron and then a smaller apron, and then a dust cap for her hair and then a quilted pot holder (which she called a “hot pad”) and in its final incarnation, the tiny remaining scrap would go into a patchwork quilt or a braided rag rug. Any piece of fabric that found its way into our house wouldn't get out again for a good fifty years if Grandma got her hands on it.
To complete her costume of housedress, apron and dust cap, she always wore hand-me-down nylons with runs in them, usually with Indian moccasins. She was only five-feet-two and weighed only a shade over 100 pounds, but she stomped when she walked, and the moccasins enhanced her pile-driver style. The whole house shook when she pounded around in a hurry. She felt that she was too old to bother about how she looked around the house, and that it was wasteful for her to wear good clothes. I was sometimes embarrassed to have other people see the way she dressed, but Carla Mae was used to her by now.
Carla Mae was sliding other letters around on her plate, trying to see if she could spell out the rest of her name.
“What are you getting for Christmas?” she asked me.
“I want a microscope set and some cowboy boots,” I said loudly, looking quickly to see if Grandma had heard, “but I always get a dumb blouse or something.”
“Cowboy boots!” screamed Carla Mae triumphantly. “You just want cowboy boots because Billy Wild has them. I knew it! You like him!”
Grandma looked up at us, trying to hide a smile, and I blushed furiously.
“I do not!” I shouted back. “I like the kind of boots Roy Rogers and Dale Evans wear. That's where I saw them!”
Before that discussion could go any further, I gulped down the rest of my soup and lunged out of my chair.
“Come on, we'll be late!” I said to Carla Mae, and we headed for the living room to struggle back into our heavy coats and boots.
“How come you haven't got your Christmas tree up yet?” Carla Mae asked.
“Oh,” I said, trying not to show embarrassment. “We don't want one.”
“How come?” she asked, sounding surprised.
“They're just a waste of money,” I said, parroting the argument my father had given me. “Besides, we're going to Uncle Will's to open presents, and he has a tree.” I could tell the reasoning wasn't going over any better with Carla Mae than it had with me. We didn't have a tree the Christmas before either, but we had been in Des Moines visiting my aunt, so I didn't have to answer any questions then.
“My dad wouldn't dream of not having a tree,” she said. “Mom says he acts just like a little boy at Christmas time.”
“Well,” I said huffily, “My dad's grown up and he acts grown up.”
“Where are you going to put your presents?” she asked.
“Oh, we pile them all up on the writing desk,” I said lamely.
“I bet you're the only person in town without a tree,” said Carla Mae.
“Jesus didn't have a Christmas tree,” I replied.
“He didn't?” she said, surprised.
“Of course not, dodo!”
“Would your Dad buy you a tree if you wanted one?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, trying to sound confident.
I was sure Grandma was listening from the kitchen, because she suddenly became very quiet. I didn't want to go on with my explanations to Carla Mae, so I pretended to have problems fastening the buckles on my galoshes.
I knew that asking my father to buy a Christmas tree had become a forbidden subject in our house. Of course that wouldn't stop me from asking him again, because I was always bringing up forbidden subjects, but I just hadn't figured out how to approach it this year. He had never let us have a Christmas tree as far back as I could remember. I would ask every Christmas, and he would say no, and Grandma would look at him as though she were displeased, but she never interfered beyond that. He would say it was a waste of money because we were going to Uncle Will's house, but I knew we were hardly that poor, and that there was something more to it than the cost. I would keep trying, and he would keep getting angry.