It you were to ask my father, a man of Jewish faith, raised in a strict Orthodox home, why he celebrated Christmas, this is how he would answer: “You can’t get away from it, what are you going to do, hide your head in the sand?” He didn’t voice resentment or personal humiliation celebrating Christmas. My father ignored regulations and conventions for a living. So a religious variance was no different. Half his associates were Jewish, and the other half were Italian. This may account for his interpretation of the Holidays.
In the first weeks of November, I would get a call asking to meet my father in Beverly Hills and pick out the holiday cards. The meeting began like this every year.
“Is that all you have to wear to go shopping?” he would say, examining my unmatched jeans and pull-over sweater.
“What’s wrong with this outfit?” I asked.
“For crying out loud! You look like a gypsy,” he said.
“After we finish here, go to Saks and pick out something for the holidays,” he said. “You can’t go to Arthur’s like that!”
Then I would follow behind him, twitching with scorn until we sat down to look through the sample books. First, we looked over the messages suited to both Jewish and Catholic faiths. Then we chose a card, a font style, a color, and then he began editing the message. It usually took several hours. He wore his thick reading glasses and studied each sample card. He asked the sales clerk many questions. I remember showing signs of waning interest, and then he’d take off his glasses, stare directly in my eyes, and say, “What is it Luellen? Am I asking too much of you again?”
“No,” I answered. He could feel my impatience with the assignment.
“Which color do you like?” he asked.
“I like the gold,” I said.
“We did gold last year, this year should be different,” he said.
Once he settled on all the details, he ordered 200 cards. It never occurred to me that he wanted my participation because I had something to offer. I thought he just wanted company. He could not stand to be alone during the holidays.
Once the cards were delivered, I was told to come over and help address the envelopes because he liked my handwriting. We sat on the same blue-and-green, crushed-velvet sofa he had since he moved into the Doheny Towers. While I crouched over the glass coffee table, he held his guarded black telephone book and watched me write out each envelope. He compared all the cards he had received from the previous year against his own list to avoid missing anyone. Sometimes I did not finish until after midnight, and left him sitting there studying and counting the envelopes. Every year, the completion of the cards was the event that signified the beginning of the holidays.
The next phone call would be to come over and wrap the Christmas presents. I failed in this category, and my sister took over. It was worse than the cards because if her wrapping was unsatisfactory, she had to do it all over.
The next ritual was the outfit, the one I would wear to Arthur’s Thanksgiving party. This had to be classic and colorful. He always said to avoid black because I should save that for when I’m older. He had to preview the outfit before, and if he disapproved, he would accompany me back to the store to select something else. Appearances were not everything he used to say; they were number one in making an impression.
All through my 20s, I had to maintain two wardrobes — one for him, and one for me. I’m still dressing one part Al Smiley’s daughter and one part Loulou.