Christmas was ordinary enough, a time of high excitement for the children and a time of gathering together for the adults, but add them together and they begin to take on a patina of madness…”
by mortitz thomsen
Tonight instead of looking at T.V. I have been sitting in a reverently darkened room thinking back to the Christmases of my childhood, remembering the family ritual with a sort of amazed disbelief. I have been remembering how it was and at the same time trying to convince myself that it really happened that way.
Remembered separately each Christmas was ordinary enough, a time of high excitement for the children and a time of gathering together for the adults, but add them together and they begin to take on a patina of madness.
As I remember it now, the same things happened every year; we each gave and received the same presents, and as the years passed we grew more and more adept at our parts as the parts became more and more insane and meaningless.
Can it be possible, for instance, that every year from the age of 10 until the age of 17, I gave my sister a goldfish bowl with 3 goldfish in it? It’s not only possible, but that’s what happened, and I just realized that my sister hated goldfish, for within 10 days she had invariably flushed them down the toilet, explaining to me in a way that simply infuriated me that she was changing the water in the bowl.
What I received from sister each year was a silver plated stirrup to hang neckties on. I wonder where all those stirrups went—at one time I had enough to outfit a regiment of Mexican cavalry.
Father gave me punching bags and boxing lessons at the YMCA. It’s obvious now that he was combating my grandmother’s effeminizing influence and that he was trying to make a real he-man out of me, but at the time it seemed apparent to me that he had made a poor buy on a gross or so of punching bags and was simply trying to get rid of them as gracefully as possible. The attic at home is still bulging with mildewed and deflated punching bags, some of them hanging from the rafters and some of them not even unpacked from their original boxes.
Opposed to father were my aunts; while he was trying to get me taught how to break someone’s nose with my fists, my aunts were working on their specialties. Aunt Anna gave me books on etiquette, how to be a perfect little gentleman. Manners were very important to her and every year I received a book about “the goops,” nasty little kids who ate with their fingers and didn’t wash behind their ears. Aunt Inga’s obsession was with my mind. She concentrated on the classics. Before I could even read I had an extensive library, and her psychology was really sound because the books were all so beautifully illustrated that I could hardly wait to learn how to read and find out why Robinson Crusoe was looking so scared at that footprint or why all those little people had tied down Gulliver.
Christmas was very important to the family. For instance, my Aunt Tree, who had married a Norwegian and lived in Oslo, always spent Christmas with grandmother. What she brought for presents to us were always the same—skis (which, she said, were properly pronounced, “shes”), mittens, she sweaters, she poles, she boots, and enormous she hats that fit us like tents. In fact nothing fit us; Aunt Tree in Norway always remembered us as twice life-size; the sweaters, 20 pounds of the finest wool, hung to below our knees and we looked like fugitives from the Vina Monastery when we were dressed to go out, something we did reluctantly, I might add. No one, not even a child, likes to appear in public looking like a fool.
Traveling in those days was a hard, slow process; it seems apparent to me now that all my Aunt Tree did was travel back and forth between Oslo and Seattle. By the time she got back to Oslo it was time to start buying and packing the ski equipment for the next junket. Until I was 15 I always half expected Aunt Tree to arrive from Norway on a sled pulled by a dozen snow-white malamutes.
Aside from the fact that we always got the same presents, the following events invariably took place.
1. Uncle Jim, who had what we delicately referred to as a “drinking problem,” played Santa Claus. He was at the ribald song-singing stage by the time they got the red suit and whiskers on him, barely able to navigate. At some stage in the present handing out ritual he would lurch into the tree and become entangled in the lower branches. My aunts, for some reason, found this unspeakably vulgar.
2. The mayor of Seattle, who was a friend of Grandfather’s, always dropped by just before dinner for a drink; before he left he would at some point in the visit lock himself in the toilet and be unable to get out. No one else in the world ever had any trouble with that lock except the mayor. The poor devil spent a good 30% of his time in grandfather’s house pounding on the door of the downstairs bathroom, rattling the key and cussing like a muleskinner.
3. Normally the family did not drink much, but on Christmas Eve there were always countless half-filled toddy glasses sitting around, and the children, all of us from age 6 to 16, seemed under a compulsion to sneak in and drain as many of these as we could. “Just look how excited the children are,” the aunts would say to each other, happily, “look how their eye shine; look how red their faces are.” Excited, hell, we were just plain drunk—a whole house full of little 8-year-old alcoholics. That must have been a pretty sight. None of the family ever caught on.
4. This week’s contribution is getting disgustingly long but I want to mention one last memory of 10 Christmases in a row. This one deals with my stepmother, who joined the family when I was about 6. She was sort of a child-bride type, very pretty, very naïve, and very straight-laced. She hated drinking, but somehow always ended up on Christmas Eve with 3 or 4 stiff drinks tucked under her belt. When intoxicated, my stepmother had one unpleasant attribute: a high, piercing, shattering laugh, which was like several tons of ice cubes suddenly being dumped into the room through the ceiling. It was a shocking experience, and after 3 Christmases she was referred to by my aunts, behind her back of course, as The Laughing Hyena. Now, Grandfather was a man of dignity and was treated with great reverence by the family and I always knew when Christmas Eve was over; it was that moment when I glanced up drunkenly from my toys to watch horror spreading over the faces of my aunts. They in turn watched my stepmother, the little child-bride intruder, her silvery shrieks of laughter shaking the very pictures from the walls, sitting on Grandfather’s lap and squeezing the blackheads out of his nose.
After his discharge from the Eighth Air Force after World War II and before joining the Peace Corps in 1964, Moritz Thomsen spent 20 years as a farmer in Los Molinos, California, a small agricultural town near Chico and Red Bluff, in Tehama County. His first book, “Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle” was not published until 1969, but in 1959 and 1960 he wrote a column for his local weekly, the Los Molinos Sun. The paper was short-lived, but Thomsen saved clippings of his “Mill Run” column, as well as the notebook he used to write out his columns each week in longhand. The clippings and notebook, now in the possession of his niece, Rashani Rea, provide a fascinating glimpse into the life and thoughts of Moritz Thomsen, eleven years after his death in Ecuador in 1991. Smokebox has been granted permission by Rashani Rea to reprint selected “Mill Run” columns, seen here for the first time since they were published some 41 years ago. For more on Thomsen you can read Marc Covert’s excellent analysis of his published output in the 3 part Smokebox feature Howls From A Hungry Place.