I just love my Christmas tree. Its diminutive 5’4” height matches my own and its proportional girth fits nicely between the sofa and my “chair and a half” which means I can admire the ornaments up close each evening when I stretch out with Jane, the Dowager Cat, on my ample armchair and matching ottoman. It makes me wonder why I have gone so many years without a Christmas tree. In part, perhaps, because of the sadness this season sometimes also brings.
Eleven years ago, for my first Christmas in my new house, Mom bequeathed me her ornaments. It was a very special gift although, true to Mom’s fashion, she made it seem like a small gesture. Mom had not had a Christmas tree in many years. Old age makes Christmas trees one of those undertakings that become too much to bother with, I suppose. But the season had always been very special to her as were the ornaments she collected and received as gifts over a lifetime. A couple of the ornaments I now have are so old and faded that they harken back to my earliest childhood years, the pigtail years when I was a little girl with long pig tails trailing down my back. Somehow they have survived the in between years intact.
Between leaving my home in Massachusetts, and finding a new home here in Pennsylvania, I lived back at the home where I grew up, which had been known long and affectionately as May’s Madhouse Motel both for all the frenetic activity always underway there and for the constant stream of visitors and lodgers who passed through. Oddly, it didn’t seem to be the least bit strange to be 40-something and home living with Mom until a job and home in my new state aligned themselves like recalcitrant planets.
We had fun. Mom was a facile and easy going cook who could, in her heyday, whip up a three course church supper for 250 in an afternoon or assemble an elegant dinner for eight at the drop of a hat. While I stayed at Pugh Road, we took turns cooking dinner at night with one of us acting as chef, and the other as sous chef, conversation percolating along as simple fare bubbled atop the electric stove. It was before Alzheimer’s took hold and sapped the life, memory, and laughter out of her. It was the EBA. The “Era Before Alzheimer’s.”
That year, in 2003, we put up a well-chosen Christmas tree. With Mom, the shape, size, and species of tree always had to be perfect – picking the “right” one (read: “perfect” one) could take 40 minutes in freezing temps with a Christmas tree lot attendant tilting up, holding straight, and twirling any number of candidate trees for full inspection, before the perfect, fulsome evergreen tree emerged the winner.
We put the tree up in the only place a proper Christmas tree belonged, the room we called the “playroom,” known today as the “family room.” It was a garage my mother and father had converted by hand into a perfect facsimile of a revolutionary period great room, with a walk-in fireplace adorned with cast iron cooking arm, a cast iron soup pot, a dutch oven and a built in bread baking oven.
Exposed, hand-hewn beams lined the ceiling, and sofas benched the massive fireplace that was rarely in winter without an impressive blaze. The fireplace had absolutely pitch perfect draw, and rarely smoked, no matter how massive the fire sitting deep against its back wall, beneath the ample flue.
The favorite place for both two legged and four legged critters was a massive floor pillow Mom had sewn that was half as wide as the fireplace’s yawning opening. It was the place to be toasty warm – indeed beet red with fireplace heat – on a cold winter’s night – no night better than on December 24th when the tree was being trimmed and Mom was heating up the cast iron soup pot of Christmas Eve soup over the fire.
Thick, marrow-rich beef shank bones simmered among seasoned stewed tomatoes, with green beans, lima beans, corn, peas, and okra added in the night before to steep overnight above the smoking fireplace embers, to be heated up over the fire, and eaten hot, rich, and redolent on Christmas Eve with crusty French bread slathered in butter before Christmas Eve’s candlelit caroling service.
That year I was living at home again, it seemed right to re-live Christmases gone by. Being together, the two of us — even only two of us — created the critical mass that all but demanded it. Especially since Roberta Sheldon was also Mom’s housemate at that time – she who had formerly been the next door neighbor in what was the May-Sheldon compound and had spent countless holidays at our dining room table with the whole Sheldon clan. Now, older and without her adored husband, David, she lived in my old room, sharing Mom’s house. I had settled into the guest room for my extended stay.
So, despite the crippling pain of Mom’s scoliosis-twisted spine, we hauled out the big box of Christmas tree ornaments. Each ornament spurred recollections of where it had come from, who the giver was, what the era was — the handmade raccoon ornament for instance, no doubt from the year Mom raised an orphaned raccoon from infancy to adulthood and liberated it eventually into a nearby wildlife sanctuary. The blue astronaut recalled my brother Chris, to whom it was given, the colorful wooden tiger, my brother Blair, while the lovely wax ornaments, were given to me and recalled Mom’s trip to Austria or Germany that year. The Snoopy ornament, with the letter C, was no doubt a gift for my sister, Caroline, who had a bedraggled, beloved, and graying stuffed Snoopy that she had had since childhood.
Mom and I recreated Christmases past that 2003 and were enjoying their renaissance until my once in a lifetime dog, a Rottweiler named Hannah, died days before Christmas. Something twisted in her gut, and there was no choice but to have the vet put her down. Others later told me that I was the only person blind to her increasing frailty and old age, so much did I want her to live forever. My grief was immeasurable and raw. I had anticipated moving into my new home with Hannah on January 1, the day after the closing, and now she was gone. Wisely, Mom had seen this day coming and that Christmas, my cherished gift from her was a portrait of Hannah by a local photographer who captured her molten, loving eyes perfectly in a print that hangs today in pride of place here at my “new” home.
There are Christmases like that. Like the Christmas “After Dad Left.” You could have cut Mom’s grief and depression that year with a knife. My childhood and indeed Christmases are bifurcated by the “After Dad Left” demarcation. There is the “Before Dad Left” era, and the ADL era. In fact, we moved Christmas from the formal living room to the family room sometime early in the ADL era, perhaps in part hoping that a change of venue would mean a change of memories. That’s the tough part about Christmas. It can become hitched up on hard memories too, not just the happy ones.
Like the Christmas Hanny died. Or the first Christmas after Tim Sheldon died in an avalanche at age 21. His body was found a day or so before my birthday by a German Shepherd K-9 rescue dog that reminded me of the German Shepherds that Timmy grew up with.
This placed Tim’s death a scant seven weeks before Christmas which had always been cause for one of the biggest, best joint holidays in the May’s Madhouse Motel/Sheldon compound. That is what our neighboring households had become – a compound. It was sort of a natural merger, despite the privet hedge between the houses, of two households with boys and girls of like age and tightly formed friendships. Bible studies formed the bond between Mom and Roberta Sheldon, “Daddy” Sheldon became a surrogate dad to younger May’s in the ADL era. Christmases, Thanksgivings, and Easters were all celebrated together at May’s Madhouse in a dining room that seemed to elastically provide a table suitable for 12 or 22, depending on the event and invitees. And I’m sure that the Mays and Sheldons still in Pennsylvania gathered that year as well for Christmas dinner despite Tim’s death. That’s a Christmas I’m glad I missed. The one after Timmy died. The funeral was grim enough.
This is how Christmases get overlaid, embroidered if you will, with sadness. Tiny, nearly invisible sequins of grief screw up that jolly old St. Nick-looking Christmas tree and spirit. Suddenly that joyful season of happy childhoods, if you had one of those before a parent left, or before, as a friend of mine recalled at Christmas dinner this year, before your dad got drunk and violent, or before, before, before the age of innocence and happiness was shattered by some other event that creates a demarcation line.
That’s where the Christmas tree ornaments come in, I’ve decided. Hence, the Christmas tree imperative – the reason it’s important to have a Christmas tree until one is simply too old to bother with one anymore. Even then, perhaps it’s really time to have a pal or child or cherished friend help you put one up and take it down even when it seems like just too much bother. Because you need to gaze on each of those lovingly collected ornaments over the 12 days of Christmas. It’s a necessary advent to welcoming a new year of hope.
Each ornament is a small, individual, joyful antidote – a happiness inoculation – a pretty, funny, evocative, memory yarn of Christmas glee. Ornaments are the aggregated, accumulated bits of beauty, smiles and belly laughs, warm connectedness that insulates the season against the tough, cold moments that dare to punctuate Christmas and indeed, puncture our seasonal joy with heavy sadness, sometime even cloaks of grief.
So even when it seems silly to go solo with a tree, as it did to me this year, go find a diminutive evergreen and erect it just as if you had 5 children gathering round it Christmas morning. After all, Jane, the Dowager Cat, does seem to totally get it even though she’s just a cat. She reserves her batting of the tempting ornaments for only the indestructible ones that skitter and slide harmlessly across the floor without breaking.
Shammie, too, despite the fact that she’s just a dog, understands the season. She respectfully inspects the array of wrapped gifts beneath the tree twice a day for a week without actually tearing into any until The Day … Christmas Day … when her present (which she somehow picked out unerringly from all the rest from the very first) is centered on the floor, and she is told, “Good girl, Shammie. Go ahead, open your present, girl!” And with that, she paws open her present and hers alone. Who’d have thunk it?!
In the days leading up to Christmas, and especially on the day itself when no children gather in my household to squeal with delight and rip into presents with little regard to enchanting paper and well-turned bows, and the little-bit-of-a-let-down-days after Christmas leading to New Year’s, the ornaments say it all. Each brings a quiet, steady, and incorrigibly stubborn happy reminisce, a fragment of joyful memory, the shard of a smile, while tiny white lights glitter on irregular branches and the air is fragrant with evergreen smell. What could be better than this? O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, for all these happy memories, and even the sad ones cloaked softly in your bountiful green boughs, I thank thee. I thank thee, oh little Christmas tree. I thank thee!
It ended up being a beautiful and happy Christmas. And to think I almost didn’t put up a Christmas tree!