19 Dec

A Christmas Story

The Man Who Hated Christmas


BOB liked to say how much he hated Christmas. This amazed me and my sister. We’d look at each other: How could anyone hate Christmas? But he’d say it again and again: “Bess, I hate Christmas.” He had a variation on this: “Bess, I hate Christmas trees.” He’d shake his head thoughtfully and chuckle: “They’re nothing but trouble. You struggle with them and fight over them and then they die and drop needles everywhere and you have to drag them out on the street.”

He usually said this while my sister, my mother and I struggled and fought over the tree in our living room, trying to get it to stand up straight on the round wooden table next to the television set. Sagging and dust-covered cardboard boxes of waiting ornaments, just retrieved from the basement, would crowd the floor around us. Radiators would hiss. A football game would be on the television, which was old and tinted everything blue, and was watched by Bob and no one else.

“Bob, is it straight? Can you look for just a moment?” my mother — the aforementioned Bess, or Bessie — would ask him in a voice edged with increasing irritation. She held the top of the tree, leaning; I was beneath it, grasping the trunk, the lower branches scraping my scalp.

Bob would look up, make a visible show of being aggrieved at the interruption, squint and tell us no — a bit more to the right, or a bit more to the left. We’d all struggle and fight some more until we got it straight. He’d go back to his game.

Two weeks later we’d drag the tree out onto the street, St. John’s Place between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in Park Slope, Brooklyn, leaving a trail of dead needles on the wooden floor of the hallway, and then the bluestone in front of the house.

ROBERT M. KULICKE was my stepfather — sort of. It would be more accurate to call him my mother’s boyfriend, I suppose, since they never married, and he came to stay only on alternate weekends, but that phrase always struck me as absurd: born in 1924, he was nearly two decades older than she was. Could a mom, my mom, really have a boyfriend?

The fact that Bob hated Christmas was, to my sister and me, one of his charms. We’d try to get him to say it, and laugh every time he did. He liked getting laughs out of us. He liked getting a rise out of my mother. He liked being outrageous. His outrageousness made the house come alive. Bob’s “I hate Christmas trees” speech was as much a part of our holidays as stockings and gifts beneath the hated tree.

Now, so many years later, powerful memories of this man who hated Christmas enter my mind every December. And as I walk down Seventh Avenue when the church steeples and cornices of the brownstones are in shadow, backlighted by the early setting sun, so, too, do memories of those Christmases we had in our house on St. John’s Place.

Some of those days were warm and overcast, the sky like a sheet pulled over Brooklyn; others were blown with snow, the drifts smoothing out all the right angles of the stoops and iron gates. Yet they all string together in my head as a single day, warm yet snow-blown, with Bob at the center.

He’d sit at the head of the table for Christmas dinner, surrounded by me; my younger sister, Lindsay; my mother; my father and stepmother; and maybe one or two guests. This was an arrangement tearfully requested by my sister and me when our parents told us a few days after Christmas in 1977 that they were splitting after 14 years: could we all still have that one annual dinner together? It was the only thing we asked. For some reason, it seemed incredibly important to us, at ages 7 and 10, and, perhaps to avoid any more tears, they quickly nodded in agreement.

The guest list might seem strange, and a recipe for disaster, but it was nothing unusual in our neighborhood, even before Park Slope was the Park Slope of today. The traditional Christmas that the neighborhood presented — the half-hidden trees in parlor floor windows, the lights on Seventh Avenue, the occasional hints of wood smoke — contrasted with the unorthodox ways it was celebrated inside so many of those homes. I knew a man with two children who got divorced. He lived on the top floor of their three-story brownstone with his girlfriend. His ex-wife lived on the bottom floor with her girlfriend. Their children lived in the middle. On Christmas, they all ate together.

Bob would fully embrace his outrageous inner core at our dinners. He was, in many ways, just a big kid. On our first Christmas with Bob, in 1978, any tensions that may have existed, at least to my childhood eyes — eyes that wanted everything to be O.K. and everyone to get along — dissolved in the deluge of his stories and opinions and curses, all delivered behind a veil of smoke and laughter. He steamrolled over any discomfort.

“Listen, Wen,” he said, shortening my name. “Let me give you a little advice: When you are married, only have affairs with married women.”

My mother: “Bob!” She stretched his name out into multiple syllables.

Bob: “Bess, it’s good advice. He’ll thank me one day.”

My sister laughed. My father and my stepmother, Kathy, rolled their eyes. I tried to back-pocket this tidbit for future use, but being 11, and not having the faintest idea how to get a girlfriend, or what to do if I got one or how to get a girlfriend if I happened to be married to someone else, I wasn’t sure when I’d get a chance to use it.

BOB was a painter of some renown; he and my father had been friends long before my parents split. He was bulky, with rough skin, laughed loudly and cursed unbelievably — I’d cringe with happy embarrassment every time he did. (I doubt I had heard my father curse more than a few times in my life.) Bob painted small and intimate still lifes of pears and flowers that looked blurry up close but real from 20 feet away. That such remarkably delicate images could come from the brush of a man so loud and often profane, a cigarette always smoldering between his fingers, fascinated me.

He’d stay up all night painting. I’d sit next to him and watch. The brush would scratch across the wooden board, and he’d lecture as he mixed paints. I particularly remember burnt umber. For me, the highlight of these nocturnal painting sessions was often, quite literally, the highlight: the squarish dab of white paint, added at the end, that somehow suggested the reflection of light off a stout gray vase. I’d fade before 10 p.m.; he’d go to bed at 5 a.m.

And then he’d sleep all day, which fascinated me and my sister even more: how wonderful would it be to be a grown-up and have no obligation to the clock or the color of the light outside the window — but to just sleep all day and work all night?

Our mom-dad-stepdad-stepmom Christmas dinner tradition moved through the late 1970s, the ’80s and then the early ’90s as Park Slope went through changes none of us could have imagined when my parents bought the house for $45,000 in 1969 by handing the owner, Mr. Pierre, a $100 deposit while standing on the stoop.

When I was a teenager, I came to the table dressed entirely in black, with dyed black hair to complete the look (it was the early ’80s). Bob looked me up and down. “You look like the best man at a Vietcong wedding,” he said. He then went on, unbidden, to applaud and defend our country’s involvement in Vietnam, which drove both of my actual parents crazy.

I went through a smoking phase soon after this. Bob and I would sometimes smoke together. This habit came up at the next Christmas dinner.

“Eeewwww,” my sister said, scrunching her face. “Don’t you know that kissing a smoker is like kissing an ashtray?”

Bob overheard this. “Really?” He paused for effect. “I’ll have to remember that the next time I’m lonely.”

OTHERS eventually joined these gatherings: my sister’s boyfriend, then husband, Joe, who carved the turkey with remarkable skill; my girlfriend and then wife, Helene, often joined by her mother — who, having grown up in a traditional Roman Catholic family in Jersey City, seemed to get a kick out of all the parents and stepparents’ sitting together at the same table, even if she seemed a bit confused at first. Wait — who had been married to whom? And of course Helene’s mother got an especially big kick out of Bob. They shared stories of the Great Depression.

In his early days of being my mother’s boyfriend, Bob told us he didn’t want to be our dad, just our friend, which made perfect sense — after all, our dad lived nearby in his comparatively curse-free existence and was over all the time; I didn’t need or want another. Bob stuck to this. He was studiously, consciously unpaternal. He’d go to our school plays grudgingly, then complain about the earnest if off-key performances.

And so when my mother and Bob broke up in the early 1990s, I wasn’t quite sure what the appropriate response should be. What is proper etiquette for maintaining contact with a onetime kind of stepparent? I saw him a few times near his apartment on the Upper West Side. He came to Helene’s and my wedding party at Two Boots, in Park Slope. He and my father stayed in touch — they were, after all, friends first. Bob was eventually replaced at the head of the table by Tom, whom my mother married, and the Christmas dinner tradition moved into a new century.

Tom is, in many ways, a much better and happier match for my mother. I meant it as a compliment when I said Bob was like a little kid, but he could also be petulant and rude. He could be selfish. His relationships with his own grown children seemed strained. And he could have temper tantrums. I remember one meal, not on Christmas, when a plate of spaghetti flew across the kitchen because my mother had questioned Bob’s astounding overuse of salt and pepper. Still, and I mean absolutely no disrespect to Tom when I say this, those Dec. 25th dinners were never quite the same after Bob was gone.

The last time I saw him was in early 2007, at the opening of what would turn out to be his final show of paintings at the Davis & Langdale gallery on East 60th Street in Manhattan. He was thin, feeble, amazingly old and decidedly nonoutrageous. He sat smiling and maybe a little disoriented in the middle of the room. Where were the curses? He also seemed genuinely, even deeply, happy to see me. I’m not sure why that surprised me so, but it did. He died that Dec. 14. The decorations were already up on Seventh Avenue.

My mother sold the house on St. John’s Place around the same time; Mr. Pierre, wherever he is, would have a stroke if he knew how much she got for it ($1.75 million). The new owners surely have no idea how many arguments about Christmas trees occurred in that front room, or how many dinners with a surprising cast of characters occurred in the back.

WITH the house sold, Bob gone and my sister living in Los Angeles, I’ve decided to let my parents off the hook for that promise they made to us 33 years ago. There is no need for us to all sit down together anymore on that day. I have my own family now. There will be no tears. I’m fine.

But I won’t give up my internal Christmastime tradition of thinking about the man who hated Christmas.

Or so he said.

You see, there were two times when Bob dropped that I’m-just-your-friend, unpaternal act. One was whenever Lindsay, my mother and I were sick. His whole demeanor changed. He’d get us stuff from the kitchen. He’d tuck us in on the couch in the living room so we could watch television. He’d let us watch what we wanted, even if there was a game on. Once, he even lifted the couch with me tucked in and shifted the angle so I could see the screen — blue as it was — a little better.

And the other time was Christmas morning.

Yes, in that window between the nerve-racking, endless, tree-decorating run-up to the big day and the boisterous “We were right to be in Vietnam” dinner, when it was just the four of us and the tree, Bob was magically transformed. To begin with: he was awake, no matter how early it was. He’d come downstairs without complaint, the steps crunching beneath this feet. He’d even hurry my mother — “C’mon, Bess!” He’d sit on the couch, wrapped in a bathrobe, in the muted glow of the tree’s white lights and the faint color seeping between the slits in the wooden shutters. He’d beam brightly. And he’d point to the places in the branches where, the night before, he’d placed envelopes for us.

In each, we knew, was a $100 bill. It was a nice windfall for a 10-year-old, or 15-year-old, or 20-year-old, but it was no surprise. Still, Bob laughed and cursed as if it were, and we did, too.

Because he was, in many ways, just a big kid, and this was Christmas.

Wendell Jamieson, an editor at The New York Times, is the author of “Father Knows Less” (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007.)


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