Kristen Keckler's poems, essays, and stories have appeared in Ecotone, The Iowa Review, Vestal Review, South Dakota Review, Santa Clara Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Boiler, and other journals. She co-authored with Bill Roorbach the 2nd edition of the nonfiction craft guide, Writing Life Stories. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
A Merry Little Group Home Christmas
Christmas at the group home meant a free twenty-pound turkey, courtesy of Wegman’s grocery. It meant our agency’s holiday ho-down, complete with Santa-look-alike contest, buffet dinner, and karaoke. Usually we bought a pre-cut tree at the lot across from the gas station, but that year I had the idea to make it more of an event, do the U-cut thing at one of the local farms. I must’ve decided this on one of those days I emerged from the haze of a hangover or sexcapade, bright- eyed and ready to tackle the world, and suddenly eager to be, like, the best staff ever.
Maybe I was feeling a little guilty that I wouldn’t be there on Christmas—I worked the overnight shift on Thanksgiving, but since I was the staff member whose family lived the farthest away from Ithaca, my coworkers usually volunteered for Christmas without complaint. My coworkers were cool like that, plus the agency paid time-and-a-half on holidays.So I wanted to do something special, unique, festive—something to show I truly cared. I planned shopping trips to the mall and Salvation Army, and took my residents on drives around the rich neighborhood to see the houses lit up, a stop at Friendly’s for ice cream afterwards.
Over the past three years I’d worked in mental health as direct care staff—my title “Rehabilitation Assistant”—I’d been racking up some major a-ha and oh-god moments of self-inventory. Sometimes I felt like my life was a Cosmo quiz on steroids. At work, I was good at cookies and quiche and appointments and charts. Not so good at limit setting.Not great at (major) crisis intervention, but somehow managed.Good at listening, when they wanted to talk.My residents had licensed therapists and social workers and of course, psychiatrists, whom they were required to see in order to stay in the program. The last thing some of them wanted to do was rehash their symptoms with a naïve but well-meaning twenty-five year-old Cornell grad (a journalism major at that). So I’d learned that my “best practices”—how I could help, do my job—were to simply keep people safe and busy, provide distractions. Some fireworks, smoke and mirrors, dueling banjos, or anything that involved food and cigarettes.
And the advertisement for the U-cut tree farm I’d seen in the local weekly had promised free hot apple cider and donuts! Total bonus.
That Saturday morning, the temperature was unseasonably cold—our first blizzard had recently dumped over a foot of snow, followed by an ice storm to seal the world in a fondant-like glaze. Only two residents had ventured out of bed: fifty-something-year-old Judith was watching a blank TV screen, clutching her purse, and Frank—he’d just turned forty that summer—was smoking his first Winston.
I shook a cigarette out of my pack, and Frank, always the gentleman, offered me his Zippo. He wore slouchy jeans, a ripped flannel shirt, and mismatched socks. His girlfriend, Maureen, usually presided over his outfits, but she’d left for her housekeeping job at dawn. He sported a week’s worth of blonde-gray stubble, the sprouts of a goatee.
“Trying for that old Saint Nick look?” I joked, and he looked confused till I pulled at my chin in a growing-a-beard gesture.
“More like Brad Pitt in Tibet,” my co-worker Deb said, to which Frank said, “Brad fucking Pitt! Good one Deb,” laughing so hard I could see the fillings in his molars.
Kathy, our matronly house socialite, had joined us in the smoking room, drugstore reading glasses perched on her nose, hair askew, wearing her fuzzy pink bathrobe. A few days earlier, she’d been game, but now when I asked her if she would join us to get the tree, she said, “Oh, the weather is a bit nasty, don’t you think? If you don’t mind, I’d much prefer to stay here.”
“Okay, well maybe you’ll be around later to help decorate?” I asked hopefully, and she nodded.
I’d pitched an impromptu tree-trimming party: Like, I’d bake a batch of brownies, Kathy could invite her friends over (former residents who often stopped by to chat, smoke, and drink coffee) for some “community building.” We’d fetch the decorations from the basement, find the menorah too, spray fake snow on the windows, string microwave popcorn, chain smoke around the table to It’s a Wonderful Life, and they’d wash the ol’ evening meds down with hot chocolate spiked with peppermint extract (non-alcoholic, of course).
Soon, Frank, Judith and I were in the van, creeping along the salted country roads. Layers of ice had sealed the trees in snow, and they swayed like skeletons along the shoulder. Frank and I sang along to the carols on the radio; at least we were trying to catch the spirit.
I’d always loved Christmas, obsessively so as a kid: wrapping paper, cards, trimmings, nativity scene, I had an opinion, a half-pint Martha Stewart. An early January baby, winter has always intuitively felt like my time of year, a birthright of sorts—lucky me. I always coaxed my father into a yearly lighting of the fireplace. I also pretended to believe in Santa until age eleven for the benefit of my younger sister, and not-so-secretly relished re-watching all those TV specials, from Charlie Brown to Home Alone and A Christmas Story. I wanted to dream and deck and don and nip and dance and prance away the usual daily stress that shrouded our home, a vibe I did not know how to name, but felt—parents who worked too much, always worried about money; our needy grandmother upstairs; the ghost of Vietnam lurking in Dad’s bureau. I wanted that cozy close-knit good tidings feeling, the kind all the carols promised, and believed it could be achieved through the details.
But by my mid-twenties, I knew that the holiday season could be, for some, a giant middle finger doused in glitter. Topped with a marshmallow. A reminder of how little they had and how fucked-up their lives were.Picture Christmas Eve at a homeless shelter, and add a little curb appeal. That was the group home. It was not depressing because our residents were depressed, though many were. The fact was no matter how hard staff tried to spruce it up, add some frilly curtains, plant a garden, it couldn’t change the fact that people were there because their diseases were, for the most part, incurable. Worse yet that many people outside the system didn’t even consider their acute mental illnesses to be diseases, and simply viewed them as poor or lazy, lacking red-blooded will power.
The radio was blasting Bing Crosby, and as we cruised along Route 13, hugging Cayuga Lake’s shores, Frank said, “Sometime, I want to take my boat out on the lake. Got a nice boat over in the garage,” referring to his metal canoe. We’d taken it out that fall on our house camping trip to Pennsylvania.
I looked at the steel gray soon-to-be-half-frozen lake, glittering like crinkled tinfoil. Frank had a brain injury, compromised short-term memory, and often brought his boat up at the strangest moments, as if the boat were a trigger, an anchor to the past, a reminder to himself of who he was.
“Well, looks like it’s gonna be awhile, Bud,” I said.
“I know,” he sighed. “Ol’ Jack Frost just bit us in the ass.”
Though Christmas was less than two weeks out, the tree farm was practically deserted. An old farmer handed me a smallish rusty saw and pointed us down a skinny gravel drive that hadn’t been plowed. For a moment, I wasn’t sure our old GMC van would make it, and though I was used to driving in snowy conditions, as the van’s tires skidded and slipped, my heart lurched to my throat—the embankment was steep, no way to turn around. I consciously reminded myself not to brake, to gently power forward, willing myself to stay calm, in control. I glanced at Frank beside me; he didn’t seem too worried.
In about half a mile, we came to a small pull-off. Judith opted to stay in the van—diagnosed with schizophrenia, catatonic-type, she seemed to prefer tagging along as a silent observer. As Frank and I tromped through the fresh snow, I lost myself in the fresh piney air, the thrill of the hunt. Frank had grown up in the country, and there, in the woods, cheeks flushed, he looked at ease, transported back to times he often talked longingly about: hunting with his dad, chopping wood with his brothers.
When we came to a cluster of snow-dusted balsam firs, I made six-foot Frank stand next to a tree to judge its size—seven feet? eight?—I’ve never been good with measurements. We examined them from different angles, and quickly agreed on the fullest one, its needles deep emerald with a silvery hue. We brushed off some of the snow. I handed him the saw, and for a moment, felt a weird hesitation, a sad twinge, the words Tree Murderer flashing in my head. I waved the thought away.
After ten minutes, Frank’s hands were already red and raw. The saw obviously sucked, and the trunk seemed especially frozen.
“Um, did you bring your gloves?” I asked.
He paused, shrugged, wiped the sweat from his brow—at least he had his hat.
Duh. He’d left his gloves at home because I’d forgotten to remind him! Frank’s brain injury also prevented him from feeling the extremes of hot and cold, and so now I worried he’d get frostbite and wouldn’t even notice.
“Why don’tcha take a little break, I’ll give it a try,” I said.
I fit the saw into the groove he’d started, anchored my body, heaved back, then forth. Heaved again. It was like slicing through marble with a butter knife, impossible!
So I handed Frank my oversized pink wool mittens—impractical but stylish, always my MO. He shot me a skeptical look but put them on.
My nose was running, my face growing numb. Then I remembered: Judith! I ran back to the van, started it up, cranked the heat. Because I knew that Judith’s mother had been Christian, her father Jewish, and because I’m all about the awkward chitchat, I asked: “Growing up, did your family celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, or both?”
At first, I wondered if she’d heard me. Then she leaned forward, and shouted: “Little of both!”
I sat there watching Frank in the distance, my breath puffing in front of me like my illusions—the perfect Cinderella of a tree; our merry, sylvan outing; me being some maudlinbleeding-heart elf. It would be my last Christmas at the group home, and in Ithaca, though I didn’t know it yet, didn’t have any concrete plans, only vague ideations about overseas travel, applying to grad school, and finally moving on from the college town and job which had become so comfortable it was almost a crutch.
Forty minutes after we started, after a couple van breaks to warm up, Frank called, “Timmm-burrr!” into the quiet woods.
The tree was heavier than I’d imagined, the weight of three dead bodies I thought, though I’d never lifted a corpse. Frank had chiropractic issues, and I prayed he wouldn’t hurt himself. We could only drag it a couple feet before pausing to rest.
Then there was the business of getting it on top of the van. (I hadn’t anticipated this part either.) We stood near the van, considering the roof, the tree, and how we would bridge that distance. We tried to roll it onto the hood, me pushing it from underneath, Frank hoisting it from above. No dice.
As if a sign from above, it began to snow. Frank leaned against the bumper, lit a smoke, and surveyed the pink-tinged clouds.
Just when I was ready to give up, a pickup truck pulled beside us. Within minutes, a man and his two sons got the tree onto the van, securing it with the only thing we had—one frayed bungee cord. I’d have to get some more rope when I returned the saw.
Inside the little store, we gobbled mini-cinnamon donuts, drank apple cider, and visited with the kitty-cat—these places always have cats. I paid for the tree: twenty bucks, a bargain, hard-won.
As we drove back, I could see the top of the tree hanging over the windshield. The wind had picked up, and snow flurries were coming at us sideways. It felt as if the wind could lift the tree off the van, and the van off the road. The whole way home, I worried that the tree would slide off the van, causing a terrible accident.
By the time we got back to Baltic Avenue, my neck was stiff, hands chapped, knees jellied, limbs all pins and needles. I was on the verge of a panic attack, washed with the relief of being home, all of us alive—except for the tree. While I observed people’s psychological states for a living, I wasn’t so good at gauging my own. My anxiety felt like a runaway train that had just come to a halt, still rocking ever so slightly.
The tree looked even bigger in the driveway. Luckily, my coworker Deb and another resident helped us get it off the van, Deb saying, “Whoa! Ya leave anything for the squirrels?”
Propped up by the back door, we realized that the tree was way too tall to fit inside the house.
So faced with the sight of this ginormous hulk of an evergreen slouched against the railing of the deck, I did what any self-respecting semi-professional entry-level caseworker would do: I cried. Not full-blown Lucille-Ball-I-Love-Lucy bawling, just a pathetic little kicked-dog whimper, a couple hot tears I quickly blinked away, but that Deb must have noticed. She patted my back, saying, “I’ll just run home and fetch my chainsaw.” (Proudly butch, of course she had a chainsaw just sitting around her garage up the block.)
“Go on home, Cupcake, and run yourself a nice hot bath. I got this,” Deb said.
So I did, and afterwards, promptly fell asleep in my bed, no sugarplums.
By my next shift, the tree was up and all blinged-out—tinsel, lights, and various homemade ornaments among the standard glass balls. Like a 200-pound air freshener, its scent dominated the room, in fact, seemed to snuff out the home’s stale odor of cigarette smoke. The top touched the ceiling, so the tattered seraph, all gauzy wings and rosy cheeks, was perched a few branches lower. There were little red envelopes, hole-punched and tied with yarn, hanging from the branches. One of our rituals: envelopes with gift cards to Kmart for each resident, their Christmas presents from the agency. My boss, Wendy, was especially good at socking away a few extra bucks so we could also buy a “house” gift—a new coffee maker or toaster—which she’d wrap and put underneath on Christmas Eve with some funny tag: From The Guy in the Red PJs.
In the smoking room, the residents were already discussing what they might buy with their gift cards. At my bidding, Frank plugged in the various extension cords. The lights washed the walls in a blinking rainbow.
A few feet away, at the smoking room table, Kathy called out: “Oh! It’s lovely.”
“Does look nice, don’t it,” Frank said.
I gave him a friendly arm poke, saying, “Thanks to you—you did all the work.”
“I did?” he asked, stumped. His brain had already let go of the previous weekend’s ordeal.
I made a sawing motion.
As he remembered, he smiled. “Guess I did!” he said.
One of the residents had discovered a small nest in the tree—no eggs or sign that it had been recently occupied, thank the Lord; perhaps the birds had opted for an upgrade or simply flown south for the winter. I knew my colleagues had left it there as an ornament of sorts, so I searched until I found it—five feet up, resting on a frame of intersecting branches, a little grayish basket, big enough to hold a navel orange, a human heart.