Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Suburbs

For a few years every December, my family would go driving around the neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights.  This was around when I was about five till seven years old, and my little sister between three and five. We never put up lights on the outside of our own house.  My father is Jewish, and for some reason there was an unspoken rule that--while we could have the biggest  tree on the block and enough lights inside the house to raise the temperature by a few degrees--we would never put lights outside.  This never seemed in any way contradictory to me.

"Why don't we put lights on the house," my sister once asked me.

"Because of Dad," I said.

Ironically, my father seemed to love these aimless overheated drives more than anyone else in the family.  And he had a real appreciation for people who seemed to put monumental time into stringing lights.

"Look at the detailing on that snowman!" he would say of an outline of white lights.  "I bet that took hours."

And he had a term for haphazard or half-assed attempts.  "Mish mosh," my father would say when we passed a house with a string of blue lights thrown over a hedge.  Or God forbid a house should have blinking lights.  "What are you going to do that for?" he'd ask, the aesthetic so repulsive to him that the question obviously did not need to be addressed.

"Oh Mike, just leave it alone," my mother would respond.

Sometimes we set out with specific destinations in mind.  Cul-de-sacs lit up with efflorescent motorized Santas, and wattage so intense you could probably have benefited from a pair of science-grade eye protection.  These were blocks in places like White Plains and Eastchester ("You have to hand it to these Italians," my mother would say) that people knew about.  Places where families had blood feuds every year over who got the best coverage or prime picture placement in The Journal News.

Slow moving Ford Windstars, Dodge Caravans, and Nissan Stanzas circled around.  Kids like me and my sister were glued to the windows, clouding up the glass and then wiping it off with our hands.  The sharp sensation of glass against the cold nights and the sound of rubbing our skin against it.

But mostly we just drove around, switching back around neighborhoods in search of the perfect house.  It was always best to run into a totally unexpected house on a dark block.  We would turn around a corner and everyone would say, "OooOOOOoooooh."  I remember one house we would visit every year.  It was our favorite, and became the standard bearer for light-decorations.  It was as though we had to go every year to remind ourselves of what was truly exceptional in the business of lights.  This particular house always prioritized white lights.  They used color, but used it tastefully (though that always seemed a bit random).  They never used reindeer on the roof or anything animatronic.  And of course, there were no blinking lights.

"Maybe we should knock on the door sometime," my mother said one year.

"What, are you crazy?" my father said.  "Like--hi we've been stalking your house for several years now, and just thought we would say hello."

"I don't know," she responded.  "I just think it would be nice to tell them that we appreciate their house."

It made me nervous to think of knocking on strangers' doors.  And more nervous to hear my parents fighting.

When we had driven around for about an hour, my mother would start to yawn.  We would drive back down the Hutchinson River Parkway to Mount Vernon, and up our darkened block of houses inhabited mainly by elderly couples.

"No lights on our block," my father would observe, and we wouldn't say anything.  I can't remember ever really wanting lights on our house.

We would get home and my mother would open the garage door and always say "Hey look at our tree!"  And we would look through our bay windows and see our warm living room, lit up, glowing in the dark.


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