I was born and raised a southern boy, so my writing is usually set in the south. However, after nine years in Wisconsin, it was time to write a Wisconsin story.
Noreen wasn’t a particularly religious person, never attended church services, but she loved the holidays. She loved all the holidays, didn’t matter which one. From St. Valentine’s to Maundy Thursday, from Easter to Advent.
She decorated her home and her lawn and her front porch for every holiday, major or minor. She had dresses and aprons, paper plates and napkins for every special day. Not just the religious holidays, but the secular ones too. Martin Luther King Day and Presidents Day, Flag Day and Independence Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The fall months were Noreen’s favorite time of year as the holidays stacked up fast and furious. She’d pull down the cotton cobwebs and plastic skeletons hanging from the silver maples in her front yard, replacing them with macramé turkeys that gobbled in the breeze and the light-up cornucopia on her front porch, barely able to contain her glee that Christmas was just around the corner. She hoped she could get all the Yule season lights up before the first snow.
Gordon, her husband of thirty-three years, had built a loft in the shed where she stored her decorations in plastic tubs, each labeled with the name of the holiday. All her holiday paraphernalia went in the loft – Noreen’s treasure chest, as she liked to call it.
She also color coordinated the tubs: red tubs for Christmas, a blue one for Fourth of July, orange for Thanksgiving. That made it easier to find the right tub at the right time. Each time she pulled down the next holiday tub – or tubs, in some cases – and stored the most recently expired décor, she’d rearrange the bins to easily access the next holiday in a few weeks. First up, last down. Nineteen labeled, color-coordinated plastic containers stacked on a floor of three-quarter-inch particle board suspended over the old John Deere riding mower and the nearly new Troy-Bilt snow thrower.
She couldn’t get on the roof, but she’d pester Gordon on his day off with promises of homemade beef pasties and baked apples as his reward.
Gordon would dutifully drag the ladder out of the shed and climb on the roof. Noreen would hand up the plastic pilgrims or the PVC reindeer with twinkling lights. Then she’d stand on the sidewalk and say, “A little to the left, honey. And move that girl elf a little higher up on the roof. No, not that far. Yes, there. That’s perfect.”
Gordon drove a forklift at the Walmart distribution center, not twenty minutes from their home in a small city midway between Madison and Milwaukee. During the busy seasons, he’d work six or even seven days a week.
Noreen loved the holidays almost as much as she loved a good bargain. Coupons and sales and thrift stores were her opiates, and she could stretch a dollar further than the Badgers could stretch a fourth-quarter lead against a Division II school.
It was a good thing, too, since Gordon didn’t make a lot of money. He’d get that overtime in the fall, and Noreen could tack on the employee discount. Those post-holiday remainder sales were deals too good to pass up.
When he was home, he was usually watching sports or grilling brats for himself and one medium-rare burger for Noreen – she didn’t care for brats – or working in the yard when he wasn’t putting up or taking down decorations. He’d nod to the neighbors when he mowed the front yard, trimmed the shrubbery, or cleared the snow from the driveway and sidewalk. If he had the day off, he’d clear the snow from the next-door neighbor’s sidewalk. Carol was in her eighties and never went anywhere. Her son-in-law might come do it eventually, but Gordon reveled in pushing that Troy-Bilt, a sense of accomplishment left in its wake that only a perfectly cleared sidewalk can bring.
Some people are back-patio people. Noreen was a front-porch person. When the weather was nice, she sat outside with coffee or iced tea and watched the neighbors go to work and the children on the block head off to school. She’d felt more involved when her kids were young and she would see them off on the bus in the mornings with the other moms. Most of the people they’d known, about their age and with kids in the same grades, had moved away over the years – some across town or across state, a few to Florida and Arizona for a warmer retirement. She hadn’t kept in touch with any of them, but they hadn’t reached out to her either. Some of their old friends had divorced, divided up bank accounts and children’s time, sold their houses and gone on to start new lives. A few had even died, cancer and such, by middle age.
New families, much younger, had moved in. They led busy lives, families where both parents worked, or where there was only one parent. Only Carol next door remained from the days when Gordon and Noreen had bought this place as newlyweds before the oldest son arrived on the scene a year later. Two more sons after that in quick succession – bang, bang, bang, as Gordon liked to joke.
The boys were grown and married now, moved away to Chicago and Denver and Tokyo for their careers. They called on the important holidays.
Noreen hung out on the front porch alone much of the time to watch her neighbors, neighbors she didn’t really know, didn’t even know their names, but she smiled and waved, and they smiled and waved back and scurried on with their busy lives. She’d heard all their names when they’d stopped to introduce themselves, but she couldn’t remember them.
Decorating for the holidays was Noreen’s way of bringing a little joy to the neighborhood, of feeling connected with all those houses that held people she no longer knew.
In the old days, when she and Gordie hung out on the front porch on summer evenings, neighbors walking their dogs would stop and chat. Kids from the block ran and played from one yard to the next, like a giant park rather than individual yards. Backyard cookouts turned into block parties. No fences back then.
They sat on the front porch together so often, neighbors strolling by would call out, “Hello, Gordeen.”
No one walked their dogs anymore. They had fenced yards or took them to the new dog park or they just had cats. Kids didn’t run and play from yard to yard, house to house, play catch in the cul-de-sac or have snowball fights behind snow forts. They probably stayed inside and watched TV and played video games, Noreen thought.
No one ever walked by and called out, “Hello, Gordeen” anymore.
Years ago, Noreen and Gordon were the only people on their block who didn’t attend church on Sunday mornings, and they didn’t go out to supper clubs or VFW fish fries or the Rotary Club’s pancake breakfasts. Now, when Noreen sits on the front porch with a cup of coffee on Sunday mornings, she doesn’t spot anyone corralling children in frilly dresses and clip-on ties to bundle them off to Sunday School.
When the weather turns cold and the polar vortex swoops down from Canada, Noreen abandons her front porch for the four-seasons room at the back of the house that Gordie added a couple of decades back. There, she overlooks the backyard and the neighbors’ backyards, an expanse covered in a quilt of white where no one ventures outside, the only footprints in the snow left by rabbits.
A year ago, after plugging in the inflatable pumpkin and hanging witches with pointy hats from the front porch beam, after Gordie had arranged the ghouls and goblins on the roof, they settled in for supper of broiled walleye and roasted potatoes with onions.
Over the shared cream puff for dessert with cinnamon-spiced coffee to wash it down, Gordie said, and not for the first time, “The house sure looks nice, Nor, but maybe it’s time to pare down a bit. I’m not sure how many more years I can climb up on that roof for ya, and I’m not so sure you can keep up with it all anymore.”
Noreen had completely overlooked Columbus Day. Hadn’t even noticed until she went to the shed to pull down the Hallowe’en tubs.
“Besides,” Gordie continued, “we’re running out of room in that loft, doncha know?”
She decided to cut back, save money, simplify, but maintain that curb appeal of the best decorated house on the block. The first of November, she picked up a dozen ‘Scream’ masks for fifty cents each. On Black Friday, she filled a cart with leftover Thanksgiving décor. At seven a.m. on December 26, she nabbed the last remaining life-size, glow-in-the-dark Nativity scene at 80 percent off, the complete set with Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, shepherds, three wise men, assorted barnyard animals, and the angel who brought forth glad tidings. All of it went into Noreen’s treasure chest. The Nativity scene barely fit only by laying the characters down on top of the tubs.
Ten months later, when the air turned crisp, when orange and yellow leaves flittered to the ground, she pulled it all down from the loft and arranged the full scene of the birth of our Lord in her front yard. She wanted to get it done while Gordie was at work. He’d be proud of her for handling it all herself, and he wouldn’t need to get on the roof this year, just string some lights around the porch and front windows.
As she sat on the front porch with a cup of coffee, waiting for Gordie, the sun dropping a little earlier this time of year, cars lined up for blocks to drive by slowly and gawk at the display. Word of her scene had spread quickly.
People rolled down their windows and leaned out, yelling obscenities at her. She didn’t mean to piss off the Lutherans or the Episcopalians or the Catholics. She didn’t understand the uproar. She was just trying to be frugal and efficient, and to keep her husband off the roof.
Each character in the Nativity, including baby Jesus and a couple of sheep, meticulously arranged and positively glowing, wore its own ‘Scream’ mask.
She planned to replace the masks the first of November with pilgrim hats and Native American headdresses.
She even had the turkey tailfeathers to dress the babe in the manger as the main course.