Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene: Cats and Christmas Trees

Selma Applebaum, and I are neighbors but not friends. We’re not a pair. When my father saw her he said, “A pretty little woman! She makes me think of a new-born calf.” I’ve been likened to many things, but never to a calf.

Selma and I grew up in the same apartment house in Brooklyn, under a cloud of depression that was not an era but a world. We played in a sour-smelling hallway in winter and on our adjoining fire escapes in summer. It didn’t trouble us, however, because we knew no other world and had no one to whom we could compare ourselves.

We clung to each other because we were the only two girls, the same age, in the house. We tapped signals on the radiator pipes to wake each other in the morning and tied vital messages to a string that we lowered from her window to mine directly below.

Though we had been inseparable until we were ten, we said goodbye when our parents moved us to more prosperous neighborhoods and never saw each other again until we accidentally bought identical houses right next door to each other. Not in our wildest dreams had we seen ourselves in split-level houses, carpeted, draped, furnished with the latest Paul McCobb. But two years ago I painted my house brown, because hers was pink, and we shared the cost of the cedars that we planted on the line between our properties. Only friendship and understanding elude us. We have but to meet each other outdoors to clash, like a scythe against a stone.

Take the question of the kitten, for instance. Selma called my children to her door one day and gave them a present of a six-weeks-old kitten, a beautiful ball of gray fluff with surprised blue eyes and trembling legs.

The children, overcome with their good fortune, came running to tell me the news.

“I’m sorry,” I said sadly. “Take it back!” It was as if I had opened a faucet. They all began to cry. It was not a time for me to get weak. I led the parade back to Selma’s followed by three crying children and one small cat.

“Why didn’t you ask me before you gave it to them?”

“You won’t let them keep it?” she asked in amazement.

“I don’t like cats,” I said firmly.

“But the children adore them. You should see them playing on my porch with the kittens. It’s selfish to deprive them of such a little pleasure.”

“It’s not a question of depriving,” I said. “I had a cat once and it didn’t work out. The cat was miserable and so was I.”

“What do you mean, miserable,” she said with a laugh, and the children listened hopefully.

“I mean that I can’t stand a cat walking between my feet. I can’t bear it on the kitchen table, the couch, or my bed. I won’t let it tear holes in the rug. All day long, I’m throwing the cat. . . . And it’s hard to throw a cat when you can’t bear to touch it. I have to find my gloves every time I want to pick it up. It’s no life for a cat. Your kitten will be better off at your house where you’ll love it.”

“If you feel so sorry for it, then love it,” she said.

“You can’t make up your mind to love something,” I tried to explain. “For me, a cat is a scapegoat. When the children drive me crazy, I throw the cat out in the cold. If I get angry with my husband, I don’t feed the cat. My mother hated cats, my grandmother hated cats, and I hate cats. What do you want from me?”

“I want to know why,” she said stubbornly. “My mother hated cats too. I used to plead with her for a kitten and she would holler, ‘Dope, in your own house you can have fifteen cats and twenty-two dogs with my blessing, but not in my house.’ As soon as I was married I bought two collie pups and three cats. Sidney nearly went crazy, but I had to get it out of my system. I can’t understand you. Cats are clean. You can train them to stay off the table and they keep the field mice away. They’re so nice and fluffy to touch. What are you so excited about?”

“I would only enjoy a cat if it would behave like a human being. I don’t like animals, even trained animals.”

“How unreasonable can you be?” she said sarcastically. “It’s hard enough to get people to act human, let alone cats.”

“Why do I have to be reasonable?” I asked. “Maybe I don’t like cats because they’re beautiful, self-centered, and lazy; all the things I would like to be. Maybe it makes me too envious to have a cat in the house, sleeping and stretching itself while I work.”

“Now I’ve heard everything,” she said. “You have a phobia. It’s too much for me.” She bent down to the children’s height and said, “Now don’t you be like your mother. Any time you want to play with kittens, you come right over here and don’t pay any attention to her. OK?”

I went back to the house alone. She had already alienated my children.

_____________

 

It was practically a campaign. The day before Christmas Selma came to the kitchen door at three-thirty. The children were eating cookies and milk. They had just come in from school and their boots and coats were still on the floor where they had dropped them.

She had a package behind her back. “I have something for you,” she said. “Promise you won’t get angry!”

“Why should I get angry?”

“I bought a little Christmas tree at the A & P this morning and Sidney just came home with another one his boss gave him. Take one! The children will have a good time with it. I have plenty of tinsel and decorations.”

The children stopped chewing and listened. The eldest, full of eight-year-old piety and conviction, shook her head. “We can’t have a tree,” she said. “We’re Jewish.”

Six-year-old Judy was not so burdened by conviction. She jumped out of her chair and began to hug my knees. “Please, please,” she begged, “let us have it.” Four-year-old Joe took life in his own hands. He pulled the tree out of Selma’s hand and said, “Thanks, we’ll keep it for you.”

I felt my face grow hot and red.

“Well, that’s settled,” said Selma. “Alice can come back with me and I’ll give her the decorations.”

I shook my head. “We can’t keep it.”

“Your father won’t come till Sunday. You can throw it away by then.”

“My father has nothing to do with it,” I said angrily.

“Of course he has,” she said. “I’ll never forget our first tree. It was only about ten inches high. Maria was only a baby. Pa walked in unexpectedly and I thought I’d die. He took it off the table and threw it in the wastebasket. . . . But even he’s learning. A few years ago he began bringing presents for the children. He’s almost a changed man and so comical. Last year he stared and stared at the tree as if it would explode in his face and finally he said, ‘At least you can’t say it’s ugly.’”

“My father isn’t your father and I’m not you,” I said stiffly. “Take it back.”

“What are you fighting?” she asked. “A little tree with a few strings of tinsel? What would happen if you bought the children a few presents and made them happy? How foolish you are.”

Judy loosened her hold on my legs and Joe put the tree down.

“Christmas doesn’t belong to me,” I said. “Please, just take it back.”

“The trouble with you,” said Selma, “is that you think too much. You’re always looking for trouble and you don’t know how to enjoy yourself.” She waved the tree at me and said, “It’s for fun. You’re an artistic person. You could make it pretty.”

“I’ve decorated a Christmas tree,” I said. “Once is enough.”

“What happened?” she asked. “Did it fall on you?”

I suppose I would have tried to tell her then, but she didn’t give me a chance.

“You’re the one who goes to the Andersons on Christmas Eve,” she said. “If that’s not against your principles, why such a fuss about a tree?”

Words couldn’t help us. We were not talking about the same thing. I wished that the Andersons would invite the Applebaums instead of the Schwartzes one year; or perhaps both of us at the same time so that the other neighbors could learn to tell us apart. But the invitations were not mine to give and Selma might sit at her window for a lifetime of Christmases, looking at the cars parked on the other side of the street, feeling like an eight-year-old left out of a birthday party. I knew, though we never spoke of it, that she wanted me to stay at home because she wasn’t asked.

One year I made the mistake of telling her that it was not as gay as she thought. There were only about a dozen couples. The men talked about their businesses and the women about children. A few people danced to old records in the den. When Jack Anderson reached the proper state of relaxation, he played the piano and everyone sang the great old songs, “Clementine,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” and “Old Black Joe.” It was as cheerful as a PTA supper.

But Selma wanted to know what we ate and what clothes everyone wore. She wanted a recipe for the eggnog and the ham spread. She was annoyed when I evaded her questions and asked me point blank, “If it’s so uninteresting, why is it that you go every year?”

I went—because they asked me. A few days before Christmas Betty Anderson would bring the children a dish of Christmas cookies and ask me to stop and have a drink with her and her husband on Christmas Eve. It was the extent of our relations. The rest of the year we waved or smiled when we passed each other. Though there was only a narrow road between our houses, weeks went by in winter without our greeting each other.

She invited the same people year after year. They all lived in our development and knew each other from church meetings and the school PTA. My husband and I were not members of the crowd and were treated with the respect reserved for outsiders. Someone always came to tell us of a lovely Green-berg family they knew in Brooklyn, or a clever boy by the name of Shapiro their son had met in college. We were asked if we knew Goldsteins in Los Angeles or Kleins in Richmond. Last Christmas, a neighbor by the name of Hill—or maybe it was Hull, or Hall, even—came up to me, took my elbow, and led me carefully to a chair opposite his.

“Let me tell you something, Mrs. Applebaum,” he said, with a smile.

“I’m Martha Schwartz,” I reminded him, but he only waved his hand to show that it made no difference so late in the evening. The punch bowl was nearly empty.

“The most important thing to remember, Mrs. Applebaum, is that we must not judge each other. Do you agree with me there?”

“I agree,” I said, without knowing whether or not I really did.

“Good,” he said. “Then we needn’t forgive each other. You can’t forgive, without judging. Do you agree?”

Before I could make up my mind, his wife came to save him from himself.

“You’re a nice girl,” he said in parting. “I hope Santa Claus is real nice to you!”

Selma called the next morning to ask if we had fun at the party.

“It was interesting,” I said.

“What do you mean, interesting? Either you had a good time or you didn’t. Listen, you don’t have to tell me about it if you don’t want to.”

_____________

 

Two years had passed, but she hadn’t forgiven me for keeping secrets from her. “Well, I guess you’re going to the Andersons tonight,” she said as she opened the door to leave. “Have fun!”

The children whispered at the table, but they didn’t wheedle. They were used to me. They hung up their coats and went down to the basement to play.

I was left alone to think—too much, or too little. It didn’t matter. What was the matter with me? Another phobia? Why does Selma need her little tree so badly? Why should she make me so angry?

In the house where Selma and I grew ? up, Christmas was a wreath on the hallway door and a dollar bill for the superintendent. It was carols at school and little baskets of candy the teachers gave us in exchange for the scarves, brooches, and boxes of chocolates we brought to them. The only one who had a Christmas tree was Mrs. Gerrity, the corsetière. Mrs. Gerrity and the Negro superintendent, who slept in the basement, were the only outsiders and the only representatives of that majority which we pretended didn’t exist.

I remember enjoying Mrs. Gerrity’s Christmas lights against the dirty brick walls. I was shocked once when I overheard a neighbor say, “Oh, how she flaunts that tree, flaunts it in our faces.” I always felt sorry for Mrs. Gerrity. No one came in to share a cup of coffee with her. Voices changed when she came by with her valise of laces and stays. She had no children, only a fluffy, tan little Pomeranian that wore a blue bow around its neck in summer and a plaid wool coat in winter. On Purim I would bring her some hamantashen, and on Passover a small package of matzah that she liked. I would leave them at the door and run, frightened by the barking dog.

One night my father and I came out of the subway and found Mr. Gerrity walking in front of us, singing at the top of his voice. Not only was he singing, but he stopped at every fire hydrant, jumped over it gaily, calling out, “Johnny on a pony, in a one, two, three.” I thought it was very funny until I saw my father’s face in a grimace of pity and revulsion.

Shiker iz er, trinken miz er,” he said sadly, “veil er iz a goy.”

There were others watching Joe Gerrity on his way home. No one said, “There goes a happy man!”

How strange to think of the Gerritys whom I haven’t seen in twenty-five years! I lose my car keys every day and have trouble remembering my own telephone number.

There was a knock at the door. Selma was back. “You wouldn’t have an onion?” she asked. “I forgot to buy onions this morning.”

“I can always find a spare onion,” I said, as I reached into the vegetable bin. I took out the onions, closed the metal door, and suddenly remembered so clearly why I sent the tree back with such determination.

“Don’t think I’m just stubborn, Selma,” I said. “It reminds me of things I don’t want to remember.”

“I didn’t say you were stubborn,” Selma said.

_____________

 

I wanted her to understand me. I tried to explain a day, seventeen, eighteen years ago. It was just after the war began in Europe. I went up to an insurance office on Wall Street, looking for a job. I waited in line with the other girls, all of us holding the same advertisement from the New York Times. I was there at seven-thirty, was interviewed at nine, and was working at the filing cabinets at ten-thirty. The salary was eighteen dollars a week, twice as much as I had been earning as a doctor’s assistant.

I felt so lucky that morning. I was only eighteen, but I imagined that I had waited on countless lines, only to be rejected at the end. I filed the cards and apportioned my money; so much for home, so much for clothes, for lunches, for entertainment. The girls around me were friendly and talkative. We ate lunch together and hurried back to decorate a Christmas tree that had been set up in the lobby. I helped unwrap the glass ornaments and tossed the tinsel. I passed the silver angels and cotton-bearded Santa Clauses. I felt myself expanding, opening up with joy and freedom and the smell of pine in the dusty city. It was the big world and I was in it!

At three o’clock the personnel manager sent for me. “You were hired by mistake,” she said. “We don’t take Jews.”

“Why?” I asked boldly.

“You take too many holidays,” she said.

“I won’t take any holidays,” I promised.

She shook her head and handed me the pay envelope. A slip of paper counted out the hours and the social security. The two dollar bills were crisp and clean and the change rattled.

I stood there, stupidly, waiting. The woman turned her back to me and looked out the window to let me know it was time for me to go.

“It’s no wonder there’s a war,” I said, as the tears started to fall. “No wonder people are always killing each other.” She didn’t turn around.

I was sobbing in the elevator, but the operator didn’t ask me why. The tree was glistening and shimmering in the lobby. Wreaths hung from all the windows and the Salvation Army Santa Clauses were ringing their bells. I walked from Wall Street to the Eighth Avenue subway with tears streaming down my face.

_____________

 

Selma listened with her mouth open and her head cocked.

“That was years ago,” she said. “There are laws now. It doesn’t happen any more.”

“A Christmas tree always reminds me of it.”

“You’re mean,” she said. “Because you had a bad experience, you’ll take three innocent children and mix them up with memories that would be better forgotten.”

My jaw was set. I gave her the onions.

“Thanks,” she said with a shrug. “I’ll pay you back tomorrow.”

It was almost dark when she left. Christmas lights were lit in all the houses across the street. Was it fair to look at their lights while they saw darkness in my window? The symbols were misleading, but was I the one to change them? How could I? Anxiety had a hold on me. I braked the floorboard of the car when my husband was driving. I watched the propellers in a plane, sure that they would stop turning if I stopped looking. I was afraid to forget the past for fear that it would come back to remind me . . . an ugly chain; small unkindness and huge atrocity, petty discourtesy and murder, all linked together.

The children were so quiet. I tried to open the door to their playroom but it was locked. “Don’t come yet,” someone shouted. “We’re not ready!”

I waited for Judy to open the door with a flourish. “Come see what we made for you,” she said proudly.

A branch of pine was pushed into a pot of begonias. Buttons, beads, and small toys hung from every twig. My best earrings formed a star at the top.

“It’s all right for us to have it,” Alice said with authority. “It’s not real. It’s only homemade.”

“We’ll put everything back,” Judy promised.

“I won’t break anything,” her little brother added.

“Look who’s watching,” Judy said, pointing to the window.

Selma’s two cats snuggled against the warm windowpane. Their eyes burned like coals in the dark.

“Can I let them in for a minute,” Judy begged.

“They can’t hurt anything down here,” Alice said.

“Another time,” I promised.

“When, when,” they asked all at once.

“Someday,” I said, hopefully.

What should I tell three innocent children?

Anything is possible. I may someday bring Christmas presents to their children and stare at their tree, comforting myself to see that it isn’t ugly. Who knows what the world will be then?

_____________

 

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