The old lady would beam at me, her face pleating up every which way, and extract basic information from me about age and grade level, and then I would be released to explore the apartment. It was a one-room apartment and it smelled funny: a sour kitchen odor from some kind of food we never had at home, face powder, and underneath it all a suggestion of decay, veiled in rose water. Dark furniture prevailed, bone-fragile, watched over by antimacassars and tatted linens. Porcelain dolls in satin frills stared out from behind glass. I knew these were expected to delight. While I pretended to admire the dolls, Mommy absorbed compliments about me and assured the old lady that I could be quite a handful at times, and when their conversation finally drifted into other areas, I edged over to the tray of captive African violets yearning toward the window light and petted their furry leaves.
"I'm so happy you dropped in, Hazel. My niece and her family are coming by Christmas Eve. They keep asking me what I want, but this is all I want. I don't need a thing!"
The old lady had a tree up too. I measured out my tour of the room, lingering at the sights so that I wouldn't run out before the Visit we were paying was over, and I saved the tree for last. The base of it was at eye level, on a sideboard near the window. It was two feet tall. More of an amputree, really. And it was made out of tin foil or something, a sculpture of scarcity. Mommy was remarking about how nice it was, calling it a "table-top tree" as though that were a real thing, but it was the saddest thing I'd ever seen. Poor old lady. She couldn't move fast enough to disrupt an antimacassar. She could wear a dress all day long and not mess it up. She might really have wanted presents, but there wasn't any room for them under her little tree. "I like old people," Mommy told me later, but it didn't make sense. To be old was to have accepted a life of deprivation. It was sad. And the proof of it was, I was considered some kind of highlight just by showing up.