Timber: A Christmas Tree Story
Joyfully Told, Again
Friday, December 23, 2016
I have one memory of my parents fighting. Rather, expressing disagreement in front of the children. It happened during the season of peace, when I was six. They had words about The Christmas Tree.
We were a big family and we lived in a big house. It was nice – there was a fireplace in the kitchen and a butler’s pantry, there were terraces off the dining room and my parent’s bedroom, and there were six bathrooms. My mother was an impeccable housekeeper, and whether she wished for chandeliers and oriental rugs and actual drapes in the living room or not, I don’t know. We didn’t have them, but it was a beautiful home.
“Who’s coming?” my father, Gene, called that third Saturday in December. Tree time. He put a saw and rope in the back of the Country Squire.
“Front seat side near the window!” my only brother, Sam, yelled as he raced to the car.
I stayed home with my mother. I was the youngest, so if all five of my siblings went, I was just riding backwards in a station wagon to a tree farm where nobody cared what tree I thought was pretty.
They returned with a tree that ran the length of the station wagon and spilled over the sides. It was like camouflage on a tank. My sisters had to crawl out the back of the car because they couldn’t push their doors open through the branches. It came through the wide front door, trunk first, its branches collapsed and digging scratches into the frame. My mother had the tree stand set up in the far end of the living room. My father eyeballed the site, and the tree went back out the door, branches snapping.
“We’ll just take a couple inches off the bottom,” my father said.
My sisters gathered up the boughs left behind. My mother would use them to make window swags, tying them up with red velvet ribbons saved from wreaths from years’ past.
The tree came back in and with spirited assistance from his children, my father managed to get the tree upright in its stand. In past years our tree stood in front of a floor to ceiling window, blocking only a painting of rabbits on the adjoining wall. This tree blocked three windows, the TV, and a bookshelf.
“Gene, it’s too big,” my mother sighed.
“No, it’s fine. Big family, big tree.”
There were plenty of other windows in our living room, we could move the TV a little, and the only thing I ever looked at on that bookshelf were National Geographic and a book that had a hologram of the solar system.
My mother lamented that our tree topper, a star with gilded edges and glittery points, lit with colored bulbs befitting our Polish roots, would be lost among all the bushy greenery. She had brought us to a fancy gift shop in November to each choose our own ornaments. Now she circled our fat tree, searching for vertical drop where our treasures - a beautiful angel for my sister Suesan, a scary clown chosen by Jane, and something with a dog for Mary Jean - could hang.
“Gene, it’s too big.”
My father donned gloves and began stringing lights, all tested for dead bulbs by my mother the night before. He used every strand we had: the blue, the yellow, the multi, the snowballs. My mother, resigned, opened boxes and distributed ornaments to us.
“That came from Aunt Helen,” she said, handing the clip-on bird with the nylon rainbow plume to me. “This red trumpet - and where’s the striped drum? – Dad and I got in Nova Scotia, on our honeymoon.” We finished with tinsel, only Sam needing to be reminded “one strand at a time. “
We were done, and my father ducked into the bush to fill the water reservoir. As he backed out, the tree began to tip. Barbara and Suesan rushed forward to try and what, catch it? My brother howled, I giggled, and Jane tried to give my father extraction advice. The plug for the lights pulled out of the wall, and the tree crashed down.
“I told you it was too big!”
My mother spun away from the disaster and left the room. I don’t remember seeing her the rest of the day.
We picked it up. My father tied fishing wire around the tree’s trunk and strung it through an eyehook he screwed into the wood beam that traversed my mother’s lovely living room. We blotted up the water with holly embroidered fingertip towels from the bathroom. We pushed the lights deeper into the tree, spun around the damaged ornaments to show their best side, and rehung the tinsel. We tried to fix the mouthpiece on the trumpet, but ended up just putting the pieces back in one of the boxes.
“Looks fine,” said my father. He was grinning.
My mother left that eyehook in the ceiling beam even though we never used it again. I can’t imagine, as meticulous as she was, that she just forgot about it. I think it was a tiny bit I-told-you-so, but mostly Can-we-never-do-that-again-please? My father’s assent was in him never removing the eye-hook, either.
In my own home with half as many children, I think of that tree every year as I decorate for Christmas. When my daughter and I searched the small lot of pre-cut trees at the sawmill this year, I tended toward the ones with plenty of room for ornaments.
“Mom. No. That’s practically a Charlie Brown,” laughed Julia.
I tell my children the histories of my favorite ornaments: The shiny pickle I didn’t want but my mother told me I had to have, it was a tradition, and sure enough my son Jonathan likes finding every year. The tin-foil framed pre-school picture of Christopher, now 14, I know he hated decorating but did anyway. A paper angel my sister Mary Jean gave me.
I know retrospective can be fuzzy, and soften edges, and having all those bathrooms probably helped, but my childhood was pretty wonderful. Yes, Dad, the tree was too big, but you and Mom were exactly right. Celebrate large, guard your treasures, and find great joy in perspective.
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