Two holidays

A year earlier, Peg came home from a run to the store. Annie, Annie’s boyfriend Marcus and Matilde had already hauled a tree home from the Cathedral plaza, planted it, and were positioning it, shifting chairs about the living room.  Peg pulled out the whole cloves and the bag of oranges and offered them to Annie.

“Really, Mom? Where did you find those?”

“We must make the oranges. Remember? We make them every year.”

“I don’t remember this – we did it in Brussels but not since.”

“It’s fun to make, do you want one?”

“Yeah, that’s okay.”

Peg withdrew the orange and sat down, organizing the cloves in a saucer on the end table

“When Annie was small,” Peg addressed the room, “and we lived in Macedonia, the first couple of years we couldn’t really buy much. But there were oranges in the market. And we could get spices in the one grocery story that carried stuff from Western Europe. So we made these at Christmas when there was almost nothing else.”

Annie also addressed the room.  “We had a tree, or not, because Dad’s Jewish, Mom’s whatever, and we couldn’t get a real tree.” She shifted the tree further into the corner.

“The radiator does heat up, even if it’s small, so do you want the other corner for the tree?”

“No,” said Annie, “then it’s on top of the bookcases and squinched next to the couch, there’s no room, it needs to be here.”Marcus had already pulled the planter back into the room, so the tree stood in empty space, advancing to the area between the two front rooms.

Matilde sat down and Peg handed her an orange. Matilde was a willing accomplice.  “I’ve never done this, how many do you put in?”

“I cover the surface – as many as I can fit.  They’re great for a dresser drawer,” said Peg. Peg had yet to throw any of the orange cloves away, and yet they had none.  They certainly didn’t get moved from house to house.

“Yeah, Mom always makes these,” said Annie.

Matilde and Peg finished the oranges.  After the holidays, one stayed put, inert on the piano, one of those household objects that has no rhyme no reason.  The other vanished.

The next Christmas, Peg and James flew for their first Christmas at Annie’s.  They were the guests. Before leaving Peg made two clove oranges and put them in her suitcase.

They arrived in Cambridge, settled into their rented rooms, and walked to Annie’s flat.  Peg carried a bag of presents.  In Annie’s tiny apartment, Annie and Marcus had already set up a tall and plump tree, and decorated it.  Everyone greeted everyone, drinks were offered, coats removed.  Peg moved to the living room with her bag and put wrapped presents under the tree.  Then she came back to the kitchen, pulled out one clove orange and extended it to Annie.

Annie was on her phone, ordering pizza delivery and glanced up.  “Mom? Really?”

Peg withdrew the clove orange and put it on the shelf full of beer glasses, high up in the tiny kitchen.  She pushed back on the glasses so it would stay up there.

Peg said, “And I want to give another one to Marcus’s mom when we go for dinner.”

“Oh, you don’t want to do that, they don’t really do that,” said Annie.

“Maybe she’ll like it since they don’t make them.” Peg was unwavering.

Days later they drove to the southern suburbs, and Peg offered a second clove orange to Marcus’s mother. Annie looked at her. Peg ignored the invisible pebbles being chucked at her from Annie’s staring eyes. But the hostess, Sharon, didn’t understand what was being offered, as the house gift was handed over when they had come through the door.  Peg held out the orange and without waiting, shifted her weight, turned to the buffet, and set it inert on the shelf.

A clove orange nine months old

The clove orange sits forgotten beside a keyboard, a bookshelf, in a dish, a woven reed basket for holding small pencils, odd coins.  Unnoticed, it came to be last Christmas, a tradition that is for no forebears, no offsprings.  A tradition without ties to anything.  Will you speak?  Will you declare your purpose?

I have no purpose, just compact existence.  I reek of course, reek of clove, but even my fumes go unnoticed.  I could be an anesthetic I could be part of cake, I could be added to a Mexican mole, drunk in, consumed and forgotten.  But that did not happen.  Instead I sit as a reminder of Christmas, but whose?

I was an orange with cloves pressed into my flesh, but the orange is a dead memory, veiled, only a vehicle for something else.  It must still be there, but it’s orange DNA is now replaced with dust, a waterless existence.  The cloves have impacted  as the orange lost its flesh, so now the cloves are perfect for the orange’s sacrifice.

Let’s say it’s new today – then the clove orange is a perfect embodiment of cloves.  No sacrifice.  In straight lines, nestled together without spaces, a teeming mass, all clinging together.  I could give it a purpose, but I know it has no purpose – just a leftover existence now that the orange has transited.

At the two ends are small signs – the naval and the stem joiner.  Not cloves, but as brown and dusty as the cloves themselves.  Like the seams of a baseball, at first glance inherent but after examining they are a mysterious clue.

Peg raised one child, though she could have raised two or three.  Raising that child in country after country and ambivalent to Christmas, she was happy to shed any martinet approach to traditions.  But the first winter away from home, where the markets offered only leeks and cabbages and unexportable lamb, Peg found whole cloves in tiny spice bottles.  Pretending to inherit a Victorian Christmas with fire-burning candles aloft on a tree, red velvet ribbons, wooden toys to last a childhood, she brought home the cloves and the oranges, and spent Christmas day as the presents unwrapped and the relatives called, jabbing cloves into one orange, another orange.

I am a gift so you must give me!  Give me.  Send me in a box.  Leave me on a doorstep, let me hope for a better existence.

If I send you, you will be forgotten on another shelf, another piano, No one will left you to her nose, smell you in, and dream of tiny islands beyond India, wooden ships, mutiny, scabbard, ship holds full of barrels of spices.  A long sail home.

Long ago, an orange was an impossible luxury – a taste of tart and sweet that could not be grown, only imported.  An orange at Christmas meant a hope that fruits would grow again, though all we could see was rain and grey, a futile sun that pretended to warm as it tramped through the sky, unexuberant.  The orange glows alone, gives up its smells as I puncture the flesh with the cloves.  Bursts of micro juices explode as the cloves populate it.  The clove orange is a dead memory of orange, and only cloves to anesthetize us if we chance to pick it up.