The Balls of Christmas
In 1990, my parents moved to a larger house. It had a big backyard full of grass, enormous bedrooms, and a giant garage. At that time, I was attending college out of state but went home for Christmas. The new house had a two-story living room, which occupied 25% of the entire house. It was an impressive space for entertainment and the dominant feature of the house. The living room was designed so that people could see the wood beam holding up the roof. It went down the middle and was four by twelve inches, unfinished (rough), and stained black.
In 1991, my mother came up with a great idea. She purchased ten hand-blown, clear glass balls eight inches in diameter. She wanted me to hammer small nails into the beam and hang them.
I told her this was a BAD idea, but she insisted. We had an aluminum extension ladder (you pull on a rope, and the ladder extends up), but my dad’s car damaged the lower three feet. (My father stored it high in the garage. One day, the rope broke, and when he drove into it. This crash bent the lower three feet to the side, making a hockey stick-like shape.) We bent it back, but it was not sturdy.
I relented and brought the ladder to the living room. The bottom end went on the carpet, and the top rested on the beam. The problem was that the top rested against four inches (not the full height) of the wooden beam because of the angles. The ladder swayed (reducing length) when weight was applied, and the carpet did not provide a solid base for the rubber pads. If the ladder moved just a bit, the user (me!) would come crashing down two stories (about 20 feet).
After I set it up, I again protested, “This is not safe.” My mother insisted, and I went up with a hammer. It was a scary climb, and as I hammered, the ladder shifted. I had to climb down to get a ball but managed to hang all ten. Now, I must come clean. The balls looked fantastic, but the impressive sight was not worth the tremendous risk. Side note: Did the black rubber ladder feet leave marks on the carpet? Yes. Was this my fault? According to my mother, yes. Did I mention this probable outcome to my mother beforehand? I think you know the answer.
Over the Christmas break, my father paid a gardener to trim a pepper tree. He did not have a ladder, so he borrowed ours. Because of the uneven ground, it got bent even more. I do not know why the gardener trusted that shaky ladder or how he managed not to fall. As a result, the ladder now wobbled on every step.
Side story: The gardener did not have a chainsaw. Instead, he used my father’s old circular saw with a dull blade. It was not the proper tool and the blade bound on every cut. Did the sight of a man two stories up on a wobbling ladder using the wrong tool with a long extension cord worry me? “He will fall and sue you for every dime you have!” I protested over and over to two pairs of unconcerned ears.
Before returning to college, the balls had to come down, and I refused. This action infuriated my mother, and she called me a wimp for not having risen to the challenge. Her insult was supposed to be a guilt trip trump card. Instead, I laughed and told her I would never take one step on that ladder as long as I lived. This was one of the few times I stood up to her in my early childhood.
So, she screamed she would climb the ladder to prove it could be done. Being the brat I was, I thought it would be fun to watch her climb up ten feet, see how dangerous it was, and immediately climb down.
I set the ladder up and got out of the way. “Why aren’t you holding it?” “I don’t want to get hurt when you come crashing down,” was my answer. More threats and insults. To my surprise, she bravely climbed the ladder. It nearly slipped off the beam and wildly shook. Fear replaced my amusement as I realized I was about to be without a mother. I yelled for her to stop. She foolishly continued, but I refused to hold the ladder. Why? I logically concluded that I would have to drive her to the hospital.
After removing one ball, she climbed down and proudly proclaimed it was safe. Then she demanded I remove the remaining balls. I was relieved she was alive but refused. So, I moved the ladder to the next ball and stood with my arms crossed. More angry words. She relented and retrieved all the balls. I collapsed the ladder while she yelled more angry words.
It was time for my trump card, and I pointed to the beam with a big grin. Because the ladder wobbled around, the tips left deep marks on the stained black surface. She was beyond furious and blamed me for not holding the ladder.
The Balls of Christmas came out every year I was in college. After college, I moved to a rented home with three friends for a year (the balls were not hung that year) and then had to move back home for two years because I was unemployed (oh, yes, the balls came out those years). I recall four times when the ladder came within a fraction of an inch of falling.
I am sure my loyal readers have also had ongoing family arguments, but there was a special ingredient in mine. My mother was a high school art teacher until she gave birth to me. Then, she became a stay-at-home mom until 1985, when she returned to teaching as a fourth-grade teacher in a bad part of town.
The problem was that she was a great teacher who could communicate and command children. Her technique began with a guilt trip, which transitioned to stern commends. Kids are susceptible to guilt trips, and she became a master at applying them. Plus, what kid would not refuse the order of a teacher? Side note: From a very young age, guilt trips did not work on me unless I saw evidence proving the reason behind the guilt trip.
By 1990, I was no longer a child; these techniques ranged from annoying to verbal battles. The Balls of Christmas was just one. So, being the brat I was, I began using it as a tagline to foil her technique. “Oh, giving me the Balls of Christmas treatment.”
I have a clear memory of a 1995 Balls of Christmas moment. My mother wanted me to bring soda from the garage to the refrigerator during a dinner party. (I was now employed and living in an apartment, but I still attended.) The guests were heartbroken and dying of thirst. I owed them drinks because of their many years of loyalty. Dying? Heartbroken? Did she not understand that I barely knew these people?
After her first guilt trip, I remained silent, and she pivoted to how I was “not living up to my full potential.” Her last guilt shot was a belittling “This is what a man would do.”
My silence infuriated her, and I could see that she hit guilt trip bedrock. I knew threats were about to be blasted, so I said (in earshot of all the guests), “Mom, you do not have to bring out the Balls of Christmas for every request. Why don’t you say, ‘Bill, please get some soda for our guests.’ It is a simple task I am happy to do.”
My mother stared at me wide-eyed while my comment brought a dead stop to every guest conversation. I genuinely believe this kind of basic request tactic had ever occurred to her. Then they turned to her to see what she would do. After a LONG pause, something clicked. “Bill, please get some soda for our guests.” “Sure, mom.”
I retrieved the soda, and every guest wanted to know about the Balls of Christmas. So, I explained the yearly guilt tradition and showed them the beam with all the marks on it from years of ladder abuse.
Everybody commented, “If you put up a ladder, it would slide on the carpet, and you would die.” “I know. Let me show you the ladder.” “The whole bottom is broken! You should throw that piece of junk away!”
After the confrontation (I think some guests talked to her), my mother got a little better, but the change happened when she retired. The lack of child interaction mellowed her out, and guilt trips were not the first line of defense during a basic request.
Now, my mother only applies guilt trip/threat barrage for special occasions (when she really wants something). The last one was over a printer. In her world, a computer-savvy person like myself should be able to make an old, worn out, malfunctioning, cheap, plastic inkjet printer function after years of abuse. “Buy a new one!” This argument spun out of control, which alienated us for six months.
By about 2000, my parents had to retire that broken ladder, and they purchased a good one. Now, they live in a new house with plenty of high places for giant glass globes. Plus, slick tile floors with throw rugs everybody trips on. Hopefully, she is not inspired to bring those darn things out of storage.

You’re the best -Bill
March 27, 2024
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