Christmas With Pinkie
Credit: Courtesy Padgett Powell

Christmas is the season I use to clock failure in Life. It stops time, as it were, on the year – where you are in it, where you are in your travail unto the grave. This is why happy and festive accoutrements are necessary and correct: Failure needs to be lit up with strings of lights; it needs fond smells, baubles, trifles, gifts, the odd religious sentiment (the birth, etc.). Otherwise it would get us down. It gets us down as it is. The year is over. The accomplishing, if there was any, is done. One is tired, even from what little has been done. Man. It's no surprise that folk get to drinking hard and that the period between Boxing Day and New Year's is the suicide trough. This is when the majority of suicides occur, I am sure, though I have no real notion that statistics will bear it out. They don't need to. I know.

At every Christmas I fail to remember the daughters' shoe sizes, and they are not growing but grown. After ostensible hard thought about who needs what, I have failed to give good gifts; I have failed to receive good gifts. If I slip up and receive a good gift, I will not have given a good gift. This is probably a natural law that affects us all and needs a name. The Gift Reciprocal Law. Some of the things alleged to be good to eat, let's face it, are not. I won't do pearl onions. Some people think the more sage you put in stuffing the better, as if it were pot in brownies. Well, it isn't.

I associate the truest spirit of Christmas with certain years when I had to spend it at my parents' house as an adult who had, presumably, escaped. If there is truer measure of failure than finding oneself at, say, 35 having to act 13 again, I don't know what it is, and I don't want to know what it is. I had in-laws for a good period of middle adulthood, and some of these grim celebrations at parents' homes were spent at the in-laws', and if there is something harder than being again the teenager you had to be, it's watching your wife be the teenager she had to be, fighting the same impulse to kill her loving relatives, who made her the way she is by making her the way she was and now want to make her that way again. Within 10 seconds of walking into my own parents' house, I would be in a script that they controlled. In denying, however I might, that I would again be the teenager who ran away, I was instantly the teenager who ran away – except that, for the next week or so, I would be there not having, apparently, ever run away. Christmastime! Eggnog is right! Gagging on sugary clabber with sharp cheap bourbon stink in it would be perfect!

I recently rescued from the woods near my house – where I put it some 20 years ago, where I would see it every five years or so and remember it was there, where all that time few people saw it and the few dogs that did were scared by it – a concrete lawn jockey of the putatively racially offensive sort. He is black-featured (there is a white-featured one; I am not sure if the white one is to be construed as racially counter-offensive or is racially offensive also), and his time in the woods had removed nearly all his paint. He is named Pinkie. I named him that when I gave him – as a Christmas gift, about 10 years, I would hazard, before I put him in the woods – to my mother. This makes Pinkie about 30 years old. I was fond of him when I first got him, and I am fonder of him now.

This was one of those hard-thought gifts that did not, alas, really bear up. My mother affected to like Pinkie, whom I had bought raw and taken hours to meticulously paint. He had black pants, brown shoes, an immaculate white shirt, a pink vest, a green bow tie, a lazy eye, and his cap was an ingenious commingling of the pink of his vest and the black of his pants. The pink stripes radiate from a button at the top of the cap. Pinkie was so cute he looked alive. I cannot now reconstruct the thinking that made Pinkie the right Christmas gift for my mother.

Nonetheless, it did seem correct. In a photograph I have just come across, a 30-year-old Christmas-day family photograph, my mother is beside Pinkie, as if the two of them are posing, and she is beaming an exaggerated, painful-looking smile, which she did for the camera, always. On her face are impossibly large tortoiseshell glasses, squarish and clownish, and her make-up is fresh and bold, to match Pinkie's paint, and in the hand that is not next to Pinkie is her drink in her olive-green napkin. It is a portrait suitable for Degas or Manet or Monet, if you can keep those dudes straight. This was a fun moment. Pinkie was, we knew, improper, but we did not think too improper. His undeniable cuteness overrode the precious arguments against him. We were not racist; we were just racial. Besides, my mother was a hardcore Goldwater Republican, and she had stopped me at age six in 1958 from saying "sir" to the black yardman. That's about as far as we went. We had a black maid to whom we were good.

Then the Gift Reciprocal Law started to assert itself, I suppose is one way of putting it. Let's say my mother gave me a miniature TV, a screen about two inches wide, radical for its time because it was then still a whole cathode-ray tube proposition, so a TV the size of a video camera was a technological feat. They picked it up, I believe, at a yard sale. Pinkie looked like the superior, effort-put-in gift, at the time. But over time, as the Reciprocal Law worked, I came to find myself watching essential football games backpacking in the wilderness, and I came, returning home for subsequent Christmases, to find Pinkie under a sheet.

The maid we had had for 40 years, in service to us in five houses in two states, had a stroke, the effects of which only I in my family witnessed, at a place called Turtle Creek something. After seeing Bethena paralyzed in a bed of pee, I wept on the curb outside, not unmanly but stern and sniffly, and never went back. This stroke eventually occasioned some new maids in the house, and my mother did not want to offend any of them, and Pinkie was living under a sheet. After seeing him so for a Christmas or two, I rescued him and lugged him into the woods and positioned him very nicely in some azaleas I had planted that would die rather straight off because of flooding. Before they died, and even after, Pinkie stood there in the woods looking as natural as any garden gnome. He and I had a bond that included in its mysterious contours my hopes for racial rapprochement, my affection for Bethena, and the kind of affection for my mother that would lead me as a grown man to make her a gift of something as inappropriately appropriate as Pinkie.

Over time I lost my zeal for racial rapprochement, judging as I lived in mixed-racial neighborhoods that my black brethren were way less interested in it than I, and I continued to observe the one-way divorce I had filed with my mother when she had refused to fill out a financial-disclosure form so I could transfer to Columbia University and be an intellectual (this refusal had to do with Goldwater). Bethena died, though no word came, and Pinkie went into the desuetude that made him hard to even locate in the woods. And now, for whatever reason or set of forces and non-reasons, I have retrieved him.

I still have the Red Devil gloss latex enamel pink paint I used 30 years ago, and I have used it again. Same Rust-Oleum brown for the shoes, but I have left his skin untouched: He and I are both now aged, and we will look it. My mother is dead some 10 to 12 years.

I am my own maid in my own divorced house. My daughters, whose shoe sizes I have to ask my ex-wife for, stay in the townhouse with their mother. They'll come over here for an hour or a night during the Christmas trough of days. One of them likes to cut the Christmas tree off the land – we harvest perfect young loblolly saplings that are targets for controlled burning anyway – near where Pinkie stood for so long.

Pinkie this year will be under the tree with lights on it. I have reproduction bubble-tube lights; they are not the same as the ones that were haunting when on my grandmother's tree 50 years ago not far from here, but still, they bubble – or some of them bubble, anyway. I have three stockings which that grandmother made, felt and sequined with my name and the names of my two brothers, whom I see about every three years, or five, though they live 80 miles away. Life is good. I set up also a slot-car set near the tree – one daughter might want to race for 10 minutes; otherwise it's just for decoration.

Pinkie will be near enough that track that his lazy eye will fall right on it. I will have my one black friend over for some Christmas cheer and the conversation will go like this:

"That's a cute little nigger you got there."

"That's Pinkie, Gerald. Gerald, is Pinkie offensive?"

Gerald will high-five and laugh about the entire argument and set of received positions.

"Yeah, he offensive." And laugh again.

It will be a good moment.