..if you’re willing to go to the Dark Side.
I’ve been called a lot of names for choosing to have a kid on my own (and daring to write a book about it): “selfish,” “thoughtless,” even “diabolical.” I brushed these off as the rantings of right-wing web-surfers with a wee bit too much time on their hands, but after my son turned 1 I started to pause and reconsider their allegations. They may have a point — at least the guy who called me diabolical. In any case, we’d better add “maniacal tree-killer” and “two-time fish-murderer” to the list of my crimes.
Let’s start with the tree-killing. I was prepared for most of the ways in which being a single parent can be lonely and hard, but there were some details they left out of the manual. Like, how do you get rid of the Christmas tree? (“Christmas tree? It’s nearly February!” you say. Exactly.)
The 8-foot balsam was a beautiful sight to behold at the end of December, all a-twinkle. Then my then-18-month-old son and I left for a week, to visit Grandma. On our return, the tree was pretty darned dead. But pretty, still, lit up at night, when you couldn’t see the khaki tinge creeping over the needles or the fact that its limbs were listing downwards, as if under an ever-heavier blanket of snow.
Buying the tree had been easy enough. I was still working from home, so I took time out one afternoon to decorate for the holidays. It was the city version of the snowy trek into the woods: we walked two whole blocks in the bitter cold. The nanny held Scott and helped me select the tallest, fattest specimen I could afford, retreating briefly to the warmth of the corner drugstore as I paid the nice Canadian tree-seller who stood on the sidewalk, stomping her feet and blowing on her cupped hands to ward off frostbite. Then I hoisted the tree to my shoulders and strode the two blocks home like Paulette Bunyan, nanny and baby trailing behind.
The tree wasn’t particularly heavy (not compared to a toddler and a stroller and a backpack, my usual 50-pound load) but tree-hoisting is Not Women’s Work, and at six feet tall I stick out anyway, so I got my share of stares. Then it was up three flights of stairs to my apartment; really not a big deal, a lot easier than a big grocery shop.
But right after New Year’s I started a new office job, so night after night I’d come home, the nanny would split, and Scott and I would stand before the twinkling tree, which after a while started to look like the Wicked Witch of the West, mid-melt — had a fellow witch put a hex on her that turned the bitch into an anthropomorphic balsam. The New York City Christmas Tree Recycling Program awaited. And still the tree stood in my bay window, the multicolored lights that had cheered my neighbors weeks earlier becoming a scarlet-letter sign trumpeting bad housekeeping practices.
I couldn’t carry it down the three flights of stairs for a few reasons. Scott couldn’t be left unsupervised on the stairs or he’d likely pull a Humpty Dumpty. Meanwhile, as relatively big and strong as I am, I can’t negotiate a staircase carrying both a toddler and an 8-foot tree. And finally, even if I could, it would mean copious needles dropped along 3 flights of carpeted stairs, which would then need to be vacuumed, riser by riser, while Scott busied himself once again with fun activities like, “What happens when you stand balanced on one foot at the tippy edge of the top step?”
I have a small deck, from which I could lower the tree down to the pavement using a rope. If I had a rope long enough. A quick closet search revealed two small bungee cords. Scratch that. I could ask a friend to help — but who wants to help move a dead tree? I prefer to hit up my friends for more fun or urgent favors. There was only one other option. It wasn’t pretty, but I could do it myself, with no hurling trees off decks or vacuuming staircases involved.
So, one night in mid-January, I took Scott into the basement and scrounged up a pair of pruning shears from back when I lived in a house with a yard. Together we climbed back up to the third floor, I stripped off my sweater and, summoning my inner Jeffrey Dahmer, started to dismember the tree, limb by limb, chopping larger limbs in several places so they’d fit in a garbage bag.
At first, it seemed a hideous end to a happy holiday. The tree was already dead, to be sure, but at least it had been an intact symbol of good cheer. Now, severed branches shrouded the red-felt tree skirt as a Grinch-like new form, the Christmas Stick, emerged, looking like the logo from the Lizzie Borden Christmas Spectacular. Cue “Jingle Bells,” played in a minor key. What’s next, I thought glumly — shaving Santa? But then I looked down at my child, whom I’d feared as traumatized as I was by the clearcutting, and found he just wanted to help. “Lop!” went the pruning shears as another branch hit the floor, Scott’s tiny hands manning the handles as I provided the brute strength.
Now, that was another plus — as a single working mom, I’ve found it hard to get to the gym lately. The Christmas tree massacre was a great biceps, shoulder and forearm workout — plus cardio! And fun for the whole family! “More!” said Scott, excited by his first major act of violence. “Lop!” we went again, a tandem tree-denuding team. My hands did get pretty torn up, though, when it was time to stuff the prickly branches into plastic bags. Scott tried that once, said, “Ouchie!” and retreated to the safety of his toy farmhouse. City boy.
“Why did you get an 8-foot tree?” you might be forgiven for asking, at this point. A nice tabletop tree would have avoided all this trouble, to be sure. But like any red-blooded American woman, I want it all — I refuse to be forced to have a Charlie Brown Christmas tree just because I don’t have a big, strong partner to help me with a full-size one. So it takes a little extra work, a little ingenuity, a little violence….so what?
There are some things that are flat-out impossible as a single mom, it’s true. Like, I had grand notions about painting a mural on the ceiling of my son’s room. I even sketched out a design. Then I realized — who exactly was going to be keeping Scott out of the electrical sockets while I perched atop a ladder with a bucket of paint, channeling Michelangelo?
But other things are doable, dammit. Like having a great big family-sized Christmas tree. Or, say, a pet. At 1-1/2, Scott was desperate for a dog, I could tell. Every time we saw one, it was a lovefest of petting and hugs and kisses. I’d always had dogs, actually, but my beloved Australian shepherd mix, Ripley, had died the year before at age 17. And the idea of a dog and a toddler as a single mom in a third-floor New York City apartment was daunting, I’ll admit — what do you do when the dog has to go out after the baby’s asleep? And three to four walks a day, on top of everything else? Not right now, I decided.
A fish! I thought. Scott likes fish. So, after I’d finally carried the Christmas Stick out to be mulched, I dusted off my old goldfish bowl and got two of them, an orange-and-white one and a white-and-orange one. I did what I’d always done to prepare the water, having successfully raised goldfish in bowls throughout my childhood and into adulthood, too. Whitey went belly up in two days. Goldy lasted a week. Great, I thought, I’m a serial killer. I guess NYC water has extra chlorine in it or something. Or maybe it’s my punishment for becoming a single mom and thinking I can also have things like Christmas trees and pets and gym-toned body. Maybe you just plain can’t.
Or can you? The Christmas tree was gorgeous while it lasted — Scott was entranced and so was I. The daily hefting of the 25-pound toddler, his 12-pound stroller and whatever else needs hauling up the stairs (like 40 pounds of groceries) did help fill in where I’d failed to get to the gym, and the tree massacre — much more upsetting to me than it was to my son — served as a nice extra training session. “Wow, you should wear tank tops more often,” said a friend who hadn’t seen my biceps in a while. And Scott and I got a new fish — the hardier betta, or Siamese Fighting Fish. This breed is able to live in tiny mud puddles left by dried-up rice paddies, so our betta seems pretty blissed out about life in 2-gallon goldfish bowl. I think he’s gonna live. (Update: he died, but our next one has survived 3 years!)
A dismembered Christmas tree. A string of dead goldfish. A cold-blooded “fighting” pet. Muscles maintained by doing actual real physical work. Ah, yes, I have indeed gone over to the dark side in my attempt to balance out the deficits of my diabolical single-mom life.
“Hi, fish!” Scott says enthusiastically, waving to the betta as he navigates his way through the fake aquatic plants in our fishbowl, his long tail an iridescent blue that coordinates perfectly with my subtly milk-stained blue-velvet couch, the one a friend thought I was crazy to get when I knew I was having a kid. I didn’t want to have to have a practical sofa, dammit. (Do you see a trend here?) Hey, it’s a slipcover. It’ll go to the cleaners’ — as soon as I get a chance.
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