I don’t know what COVID times look like at your house, but my husband and I have been bouncing off the walls. The trouble is, Andy and I are both germaphobes who take the quarantine guidelines very seriously — perhaps a little too seriously. Think Grey Gardens without the pesky raccoon problem. We don’t gather with other people, go anywhere, or do very much of anything. The solitude is a delight, but I’ll have you know it is possible to Netflix-and-chill yourself into oblivion. When this happens, and it happens nearly every day, we go analog and entertain ourselves with an epic dog walk.
Yes, I am aware the phrase “epic dog walk” is far-fetched, and I’m almost ashamed for having used it, except that our neighborhood is adorable. These people are obsessed with decorating for the holidays, and it has made an otherwise mundane chore wildly entertaining. We’re talking full-on displays with large blow-up hearts and cupids for Valentine’s Day, leprechauns and so many shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day, bunnies for Easter, flags for the Fourth of July, turkeys for Thanksgiving, giant menorahs for Hanukkah. If you’re like me and hate holidays (honestly, who has the time for all that sentimentality?), don’t fret — the lawn pride picks up where the holiday tchotchkes leave off. These folks don’t spare any expense creating Chicago’s answer to Arcadia. Think you know lush green grass? Ha! Think again, sister!
These enthusiastic and full-throttled lawn bonanzas have become our most treasured form of distraction during the pandemic. I know what this sounds like, but don’t let any of this fool you into thinking we’re a couple of Pollyannas determined to crack out our parasols for an afternoon stroll. What this really translates to is prancing our Cavalier King Charles spaniel all over the neighborhood to castigate our neighbors. We like to think of it as our very own pretend HGTV show called Gays Judge the Neighborhood. While we do have helpful suggestions, we are mostly teeming with sassy and occasionally hateful color commentary:
“Girl, you can’t be decorating with these tiny pumpkins. Despite what you may have heard, size matters!”
“Sweetie, how about you listen to Coco Chanel and remove at least one concrete angel?”
“Sir. A hundred American flags — in this economy?”
The cattiness makes us giggle and, I’m fairly certain, fights off early-onset dementia. How could a house with fluorescent yellow trim, or a wildly overgrown inadvertent tribute to Boo Radley, or the world’s tallest nutcracker, or a woman using eyebrow tweezers to pull up weeds not keep you in good spirits?
As time has roared on, the holiday presentations have grown in intensity. Waking up on the Fourth of July to find that someone had placed a flag in every single yard for several blocks, while perhaps a bit gauche, was lovely. Then fall rolled around and it became clear everyone had decided to go bananas. Halloween looked like something that would make Stephen King shudder. Witches hanging from trees, actual granite tombstones, a mummy in an electric chair complete with sound effects and professional lighting, and a hearse with casket, smoke, and a twitching corpse. Please note this was all in one yard at the end of our block!
Our neighbors are next level, but nothing could have prepared us for their Christmas enthusiasm. It’s difficult to overstate. There were entire streets draped in multicolored lights, piles of gigantic ornaments, a 10-foot blow-up St. Bernard with a present in its mouth, Nativity scenes, life-size snow globes, white lights, blinking lights, spinning lights, so many lights.
As the holiday approached, the adornments grew more sensational. One day we found ourselves silent and confused while staring at a yard newly decorated with an inflatable nutcracker, Santa, polar bear, and reindeer. A cute collection, except the wind or the snow or the bad maintenance had left each figure listing in a different direction. Lying scattered across the yard, they looked like a group of drunk, off-duty characters at a Christmas-themed amusement park. “Obviously, we need a selfie in front of this for Instagram,” I said, snorting so loud I scared the dog, and, like jerks, we took our picture.
I was trying to upload the photo when I heard a gasp. I looked up from my phone to see Andy by a house with a huge Christmas dragon. Yes, a Christmas dragon. My mouth fell open like a cartoon character’s, and I nearly dropped my phone. This had to be the most ridiculous Christmas display in all of Chicago. “Do you think these people have children, or are they deeply obsessed with Game of Thrones?” I asked. We cackled while I danced around on the sidewalk like one of those giant air dancers at a car wash, and somehow I eked out the word “Dracarys.” That did it. We laughed so hard we were crying.
We were making a real scene, but you have to realize that the red-and-green dragon was nine feet tall, wearing a Santa hat, holding massive candy canes in its mouth and hands, and had silly eyes, flapping wings, and sparkly torso. It was difficult to pull ourselves away from this monstrosity, so our dog took control of the situation and dragged us down the street before anyone burst out of the house to yell at us.
Day after day, we sashayed down the sidewalk inspecting our neighborhood, delighting in the best and worst of our local Christmas pageant. Then one afternoon we ended up in front of a Santa and his reindeers that took up most of a bungalow’s front lawn. But before I could conjure up an insult, I was jolted by the multicolored lights in the shrubbery — vintage versions of the very same strands of oversize bulbs I remember from my childhood. I stood there transfixed and found myself zapped far, far away to a Christmas past.
“The year my mom died, we left our Christmas tree up for months,” I said to Andy. I had forgotten this fact. It had been waiting for me there in the glimmer of these old lights, and it erupted out of me like a long-dormant volcano. Staring into the glowing bushes, I was for a moment 9 years old again, looking at our expired Christmas tree in 1980s Arkansas. I don’t know why we didn’t take the tree down after Christmas. I don’t know why or how that tree made it past the new year.
I was a baby then, far too young to fully understand the finality of a parent’s death. What I remember most about the days after my mother’s passing is how excited I was to do a show-and-tell of our tree to friends and family who had come for the funeral. No one understood it. To them, I was just a heartbroken little half-orphan boy with a February Christmas tree. I know this because I can still see their horrified faces. Most of them couldn’t take it, turning away before I could explain how the fake spray-on snow was my favorite part. The snow came with stencils in the shape of candles, holly, and snowmen, and I sprayed it on the tree and windows and everywhere else when my mom wasn’t looking. Decorating the tree was one of the last activities we did together, and if I couldn’t have my mother, at least I could hold tight to this tree-shaped monument for a while longer.
“She died on Valentine’s Day, and I remember the tree was still up on St. Patrick’s Day,” I told Andy.
Maybe my dad didn’t even realize it was still there. Holiday decorations were my mom’s thing.
My dad eventually packed everything away once he started dating. In one big swoop, the tree, my mother, her things — all of it — were removed from our house. “It happened while I was at school,” I said. “One day the tree was just gone.”
“So that is why you hate holidays?” my husband asked, and it snapped me back to the present. I shot him a healthy dose of side-eye, but I knew he was right. It hurts to look back at that time in my life, but this neighborhood, with its big bright lights and ridiculous Christmas dragon, is working its charm on me. As I walk down the glittering sidewalks, it is difficult to not view each holiday as in need of celebration.
“The thing I’m most excited about is seeing who’s the last to put their decorations away,” I said. Even knowing full well how grief and any number of obligations can distract people, I did look forward to our pithy commentary of homes that delay.
Still, I kept my fingers crossed there would be no Christmas trees up after St. Patrick’s Day.