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The Shipwreck Rose: Circus Elephants

Wed, 12/20/2023 - 16:49

We’ve returned to the white pine this Christmas, more out of economic necessity than aesthetic preference. Hush! Don’t tell the children: The bought-from-a-tree-stand tree budget was spent on obnoxiously expensive Adidas Sambas and New Balance 530 sneakers, and I was forced to go out onto a friend’s lot in Northwest Woods this morning before work with a small saw in hand, as in days of yore.

The kids always cast a gimlet eye over the frail, fragile white pines that are the tradition in the Rattray family, and as soon as they were old enough to talk began emphatically requesting a proper balsam or Douglas fir — bought, as normal people do, from the Diamond brothers’ tree stand on Toilsome Lane — and that is why our “music room,” a.k.a. parlor, had boasted a proper, Victorian-looking specimen for the last five Decembers or so. But it’s back to the white pine for 2023, as we prepare to bid a relieved “adieu” to this annus horribilis, as the late queen said.

Unlike the teenage generation, I do have a sentimental attachment to white pines, even if, being honest, like the kids, I also prefer how ornaments hang on stouter trees imported from Vermont. (Imported in the back of a quaint, Santa-hat-red 1935 Ford Model 50 pickup, obviously. See: “The Shipwreck Rose” no. 65, Oct. 21, 2021.) I’m fairly sure that someone in the family tree (ha, ha!) has cut down a white pine — “chop,” the usual verb, would be an exaggeration, given the wispy trunk of a fast-growing eastern white pine and given the absence of an ax — in Northwest Woods since Christmas trees became the fashion approximately 170 years ago. A white pine is airy and pretty, and lends a nonconformist tone to your holiday operations, but always provokes Charlie-Brown-tree remarks from visitors, and its branches do sag pathetically under modern-era string lights. It’s a bit of an Eeyore tree by Boxing Day, too tired to lift its arms to wave “hello” to the New Year.

I suppose the white pine’s sad-sack appearance is quite apropos. This year really has stunk to high heaven.

It’s important to “be of good cheer,” as the old folks used to say, not just during the winter holiday weeks but all year long; I believe that. It’s our duty not to drag down those around us by sulking through life with a morose expression, or dumping our angst and melancholy all over innocent bystanders, like an overturned bucket of popcorn in a darkened cinema, so as 2023 slouches to a close, I actively seek happy moments and highlights in my rearview mirror.

The two best days of 2023 were: one, the night in March when I crushed it at karaoke at Almond restaurant in Bridgehampton, bringing down the house with my possibly off-key but definitely enthusiastic rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon”; and, two, a birthday potluck I threw myself in November, at which homemade-beach-plum-cordial cocktails were served and we repaired to the parlor to play the parlor game in which the players have to write the imaginary first line of an actual novel in an attempt to trick the other players into believing their first line is the real one. (Some call this game “ex libris,” I’m told.) Those memories stand out as two moments of genuine joy for which I am grateful. Otherwise? WTF, 2023. And I thought 2020 was the pits!

Here’s a non-rhetorical question: What would you spend your last four dollars on?

That was the question I faced a few days ago, after the weekly bills were paid and the last stocking stuffer purchased. It’s kind of a funny story, actually. What happened was this. The domestic budget, such as it is, has been stretched to the breaking point this year, after June and July’s adventures with abdominal surgeries and extended sojourns at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, and so on Thursday afternoon I found myself with only $26 dollars in my purse, and my credit cards maxed out. So what did I do? I made the very adult decision to buy the ingredients for the boozy make-and-mature fruit cake I serve each year as the grand finale of our Christmas Eve dinner. The recipe, which I adapted about 12 years ago from BBC Good Food, calls for five and a half cups of dried fruit and, in my version, the fruit has to be dark red: dried cherries, cranberries, currants, and “dried plums,” as the marketeers at Sunsweet have begun calling them — zero green or red candied bits of peel in my cake. Neither the North Main I.G.A. nor Stop and Shop had dried cherries, so I bought a buncha raisins and a box of prunes, and some almond flour, and then found myself standing in the Reutershan Parking Lot with four dollars in my hand.

What does a reasonable adult do with their last four dollars? A reasonable adult would not spend their last four dollars at all, I believe, but would save them, right? Or they might spend them on some necessity, like toilet paper or Cheerios. But guess what I spent my last four dollars on. Guess! You’ll never guess.

This very grown-up financial genius marched straight to the Ladies Village Improvement Society Bargain Box, at the far end of the Reutershan Lot, to scout for secondhand Christmas tree lights, because our Christmas tree lights stopped working, somehow, mysteriously, while in storage over the last 12 months, and when she found no Christmas lights there, spent her actual, genuine, last four dollars in the world on a super-cool vintage glass tumbler from the 1950s with circus elephants on it, for $3, plus a vintage roll of red-and-white Valentine’s Day ribbon for a quarter. To be precise, that’s what I spent $3.25 of my last $4 on. I was left with 75 cents, which I dropped with a jingle into the bottom of my echo chamber of a purse.

If it seems like madness — it is madness, I realize — to empty your wallet on a vintage drinking glass, well, my perspective is that only once in a lifetime do you chance to come across such a drinking glass, and I love elephants, and I drink a lot of iced tea. Find your joy.

I did have a moment of hilarity over this in the small-car parking lot next to the L.V.I.S. property after I had paid at the register for my treasures and was walking to my car with 75 cents. I laughed out loud at myself. I’d spent my last dollars on a vintage iced-tea glass and a roll of Valentine’s ribbon, and that’s me, in a nutshell. At least I didn’t spend my last four dollars on Lotto, right?

This is exactly the sort of gossip a column writer shouldn’t spill on herself, admitting to financial fecklessness in our small-town weekly newspaper. I’m reminded of the rash of 1990s reveal-all admission-memoirs from young women writers, all about their Prozac addictions or their inappropriate sexual liaisons. Is this like that, only more childish?

Lately the words and images of Scarlett O’Hara have been popping into my mind, unbidden, at random hours of the day. Scarlett from “Gone With the Wind,” an emerald-green-taffeta bonnet tied with an emerald-green ribbon under her chin, and her wicked, catlike gaze.

Does this happen to you? You are visited at random hours by random words or phrases? Like, brushing your teeth, you think the name “Tycho Brahe,” and then have to Google to be reminded of who the Danish astronomer was? Or, pumping gas at the Wainscott Speedway, bundled in your big down winter coat against the north wind, the phrase “tim’rous beastie” repeats in your head, for no dang good reason, and you have to Google to be reminded of the poem about a mouse by Robbie Burns? (“Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie, / O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!” No?)

I haven’t yet ripped down any velvet curtains to sew any hoop skirts, but I’ve been daily reminded this week of the immortal, wily, eternally childish Scarlett, and her positive attitude in the face of ruin, war, pestilence, and catastrophe: Tomorrow is another day!



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