Monday, December 05, 2005

Tree Memories - Pt. I

Almost immediately after Thanksgiving, you could feel it starting: Dad would whistle Christmas carols. A few days later, he’d start clearing a space in the living room. Then he’d dig all the boxes of ornaments out a few days after that. Then the moment came when we could no longer ignore it; the moment we all dreaded – it was time to go tree shopping.

When Mike and I were very young, Mom would start bundling us up early: sweaters, gloves, socks, mittens, socks, coats, hoods, hats, scarves, boots and socks covered every inch of flesh – except for a tiny hole around our faces. As we moved outside, steam would fountain out of the hole. We looked like dolphins with feet, lumbering around the tree lots.

At the first of several tree lots, Dad would inspect each tree, eyeing it critically, making sure it lived up to standards agreed upon – by his committee of one – years ago. He’d stand the tree up and look at it standing out against the sky, and then he would comment on how small it looked – failing to realize that to the sky, everything looks kind of small. To me, it looked huge – towering over us, occasionally obscured by a jet of exhaling steam, but it was big. It was green, and it was a tree. And I could no longer feel my fingers.

But the trees wouldn’t stand up to their inspection. A small bald spot here, brown needles there, and by lot three, I’d lost sensation in my feet. And the search continued, until we found the Tree. Up until now, I couldn’t have cared much less about the damn tree. However, watching them bundle it was the most fascinating thing ever. Cutting the bottom off and then shoving the tree through the chute so it came out wrapped was (and still is) the coolest thing ever. I know – I’m a geek.

The tree would come home and stand up in the corner of the living room. We’d remove the lights from their assorted boxes and begin untangling the Gordian knots. And the fun began.

My father was a wonderful man who loved us dearly. He was extremely intelligent and loved greatly by his students and fellow teachers. He knew more about history than I can ever hope to know. But the man couldn’t use a hammer to save his life. Any project involving carpentry, electrical work or plumbing involved much cursing, stomping and several attempts. So when the lights didn’t work, Dad would be chipper no more. Cussing, and stomping and complaining lead to a trip to Target, where we’d buy new lights, and inevitably, a strand wouldn’t work, continuing the process.

But afterwards, the tree would be up, gently glowing in the corner of the room. Dad would sit in there with it; heck, we all did – it was relaxing to sit in the dim twinkling lights. By Christmas, the tree had worked its magic and I was suffering from pneumonia while Mom and Mike were nursing colds. The allergen factory had to go.

This process continued yearly, but as we grew older, it grew less smooth. Add a little teenage sullenness to Dad’s frustration with all things electric and you can imagine how the scene played out. But even grudgingly, we’d help put the tree up.

Because Dad loved Christmas; he loved the idea of the family being together and celebrating the holidays together. He loved Christmas carols, trees, lights and just the time of the year. And while we may laugh it off now and complained about it growing up, we knew where he was coming from. He did these things because he loved us and wanted us to look back on Christmastime as something special and magical. But by then, my heart had been poisoned off the holidays.

Spend several years working retail around Christmas, and if anything will beat holiday love out of you, it’s some crazed semi-drunk shopper blaming you that he waited until the 23rd to buy his kids the must-have toy of the year. If that doesn’t do it, working the return desk will. So sometime during high school and college, I developed something of a –meh- attitude about the holidays. I liked giving and receiving presents, and I liked spending time with my family, but that was as far as I could take it.

I think it frustrated Dad to no end that we all felt the same about it. Eventually, we switched to an artificial tree, and every year, two weeks before Christmas, Dad would put it up. We’d return from college or come to visit after we’d moved out and the tree would be up. A few weeks later, it would come down.

After Dad died, we never set the tree up again. We still celebrated the holidays, but there were no trappings – it was purely a utilitarian celebration: gifts exchanged, dinner eaten, and then we’d go to the boats – you know, a traditional Christmas celebration.

I never saw a reason to put a tree up in my assorted apartments or house after I moved out, so I never did. And so things continued. Until this year.

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