An older van, a bit rusty with more than one dinged fender pulled up at the neighbor's house. Several Hispanic workers piled out, grabbed some boxes, and unloaded a ladder off of the top of the van. In a scene that's repeating itself countless times across the well-heeled and gentrifying neighborhoods in Texas, hired labor puts up holiday lights and other outdoor decorations. It's a service that used to be exclusive to commercial property, but homeowners are now spending hundreds, and often thousands of dollars to have day laborers decorate their homes. They are easy to spot. Large trees wrapped with what seems like miles of bright string lights. Perfectly spaced lights lined up along roof ridges and eaves. Windows and doors outlined perfectly with LED bulbs and garland. Even sidewalks and driveways are staked out with mounted lights resembling mini airport runways.
It's as if Clark Griswald from the holiday film favorite "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" went uptown for hire.
On the one hand, who doesn't like to see lovely Christmas decorations in the 'hood? On the other, it's another reminder of how deeply we've gotten into a wealth disparity that seems to widen all the time. And look, I have friends that have the resources to pay for fancy landscaping, decorators, clothing consultants, personal shoppers, etc. etc. And sure, even I pay to have the yard mowed, and once in a while, we have a housekeeper deep clean the place. It's just a matter of degrees, right?
I dunno. So many homes with dazzling, catalogue-perfect decor. Many cost thousands of dollars to install and light up (discounts available if you book before Thanksgiving.) These days, it makes the haphazard Clark Griswald homegrown specials even more special, to me anyway. The older I get, the more I appreciate some guy on a ladder, barely balanced over the driveway, his worried wife or kids feeding him tangled lights and extension cords. Maybe a hammer is involved, maybe a staple gun. Or maybe he's the clever kind and has some screw hooks pre-installed from last year and just needs to tie-wrap those wires down. Or maybe he's bought into some new LED technology, and is stapling some small, color-changing lights that can be programmed from his phone and be left up all year without a trace! The HOA will never notice!
This last week, I made a run down to South Texas to visit my mom in Corpus Christi. She's medically frail, and due to a chest cold I had been battling, I was hesitant to go. While there, my incessant cough suddenly got worse and I worried that I might have been recently exposed to Covid. I was there barely 24 hours and I felt compelled to jump in my truck and head home, fearful of giving the household the Crud.
I try to take the back or coastal roads when I make that Houston to Corpus run - 59 South is as bland an interstate experience as any other. Miles of divided pavement broken up by the occasional glare of Buccee's gas pumps.
The late-night drive home along FM roads took me back to childhood holiday road trips. Passing farms and fields with small frame houses, many bare save for one or two light strings and maybe a plastic manger scene. I even spotted a couple that were country versions of the Griswald house. Some towns are a trip back in time - old glittery bells with faded ribbons hanging from street lights or maybe lighted 60s tinsel strung over Main Street. Cut through the side streets, and you can find everything from a life-sized plastic, lighted Bethlehem (now, with real farm animals!) to an inflatable Santa from Walmart at MeeMaw and PeePaw's place. Even at the residences that obviously belong to the leading (and wealthier) citizens of the town, you rarely see a "professional" light installation. And in most places, there's always a particular house or block that is Christmas central. All the neighbors build arches over the street, or line the block with luminaries, or match themes in light colors or characters. A steady stream of cars and gawkers parade through.
It took me back.
Things weren't always rosy at my house as a kid. Budgets were tight, and so was dad most of the time. Christmas vacation was the time to head to grandma's house where life was sweet and predictable and warm and loving. Dad usually wouldn't bother to drop by until Christmas Eve which was spent with his side of the family in rural south Texas. There were usually enough cousins and aunts and uncles to keep a check on his behavior, though more than once, Christmas spirits got the worst of him. After the presents and tamales were all opened there, mom would load me and sis into the car and head out into the night. Mom knew the way, to carry that sleigh, and it being Texas, we could only wish for snow.
Driving through the night, we had only one thing on our minds: Santa. When was he due? Was he overhead? Every flashing red light atop a radio tower became a possible Rudolph sighting. Every single distant red light needed to be carefully analyzed. The AM radio played classic and sometimes silly Christmas carols. From Sinatra to Spike Jones to Nat King Cole. News reports indicated that Santa's sleigh was on the radar, whatever that was. But it was official confirmation - Santa was getting it done.
Looking out the window into all that darkness, passing those isolated farms and ranches along the way. In the years that it was cold outside, the windows would be a bit frosty, owing to a crappy heater coupled with kids' faces breathing heavily on the glass. Wiping away the dampness with a pajama sleeve, we would look at the little houses as we raced by. Some were adorned with a string or two of colored lights wrapped around a porch, others might have a plywood snowman in the yard. Were there kids in there, in those little houses, waiting? Hoping? A faded plastic Santa on a roof, leaning on a chimney, waving at the highway. A Christmas Star, mounted on a barn's weathervane. A nutcracker welded together out of steel barrels and oilfield pipe.
"Are we there yet, mom?" Two kids in the back seat, hoping to get to grandma's house before Santa did. (The "magic" couldn't happen unless we were asleep in our beds.)
We could barely contain ourselves. There was Santa to hope for, and all those presents, of course. Mainly, the hope was just to be in the sanctuary of Grandma's house
There would be all kinds of food and desserts. My grandmother made divinity which was a personal favorite. And when she found out that something was your favorite, you could expect it next time you came over. Grandad had a simple but perfectly neat string of old-style outdoor lights around the edge of the roof. The inside of Grandma's was always a surprise. She'd often have one of those great aluminum trees that turned slowly and had a rotating color-wheel-light shining on it. Sometimes she'd have an artificial tree with tinsel-type icicles. Always her trees were decorated with handcrafted ornaments that she had made over the years hanging from the branches. There were no stockings, but there was a tradition of decorative Christmas bowls filled with ribbon candy, nuts, and fruit. Cookies were everywhere.
Everything was warm. The thick, soft carpets were fun to walk barefoot on, even in the winter. Grandma would make us "pallets" out of blankets and comforters to sleep on in a crowded holiday house. We loved it. Central air and heat kept the climate perfect. Plush recliners and overstuffed sofas were a treat for kids used to outdated, worn furniture. And there were always hugs. It was nice that our excitement seemed matched by theirs.
My grandparents are long gone. My mother inherited the house after she cared for them during their decline. My mom is now in her decline and our childhood refuge is now her hospice. The place is in a bit of disrepair, and while my sis has put up a colorfully lighted tree, it's not the same. Mom has dementia, that curse that slowly erases almost all of one's memory. The holiday and its trappings register very little with her. I despair for her. And I despair a bit for me, not because my memory is slipping, (though it is,) but because those childhood holiday memories are becoming more distant. I keep wiping that window with my pajama sleeve, but the frost keeps coming back, thicker than before. I'm a sentimental old fool and I grow more melancholy, even mournful when I look back. That film of the past still plays in my head, it just makes me miss those days and that love even more.
John Prine has a sweet Christmas song, "Silent Night All Day Long."
There's a room out there somewhere with a woman in a chair
With memories of childhood still lingering there
How pretty the paper, the lights and the snow
How precious those memories of long long ago.
When the angel on the treetop requested a song
We sang, "Silent Night" all day long.
Driving home the other night, the horizon was built up with wind turbines, cell towers, and industrial structures, all of them with FAA-mandated blinking red lights. It must drive kids crazy to try to identify Rudolph these days.
Along the highway, there are still a few little homes scattered on those Gulf Coast Plains. Carefully decorated in a myriad of ways by their owners, they are beacons to guide their kids home.
I drove on and stared out into a darkness that stretched ahead of me for miles. I was filled with hope.