Dear Tea Friends,
When I visited the doctor for my annual checkup today he asked me how old I am. I can never quite remember – I was very young on my first birthday and all the subsequent ones required math, which was never my strong suit.
But I was born later this week, more than a few years ago. I know eight friends, and three relatives, curiously, mostly male, who also have December birthdays. They range in age from 40 to 82 and over the years we’ve compared notes on what it’s like to celebrate your special day when most folks are focused on holiday preparations.
If you think it was depressing to get a pair of pajamas for Christmas, my friend Joe once remarked, try getting them wrapped in Santa-print paper on your birthday. Or being handed one large package only to be told that it was “for Christmas, too.” “What a gyp!” he griped, “my brothers got real birthdays.”
I usually received something to read, or something to do – a board game or a craft project – and something festive to wear – such as a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer plastic lapel pin whose bulb nose lit up when you pulled the string. I was astonished to see one for sale recently in The Vermont Country Store Catalog along with the 1950s caroler candles and Swedish angel chimes that decorated our dining table.
I had my choice of birthday cake at home and my mother usually baked cupcakes for me to share with classmates in the school cafeteria. I was invited to other kids’ birthday parties, but I wasn’t permitted to host a birthday party – a Halloween party, a St. Patrick’s Day fling, an Easter Egg Hunt – but never a birthday party. “It’s not nice to invite people over just so you can be the center of attention and get a gift. Invite them to share in the fun,” she said. My mother’s party plans were so creative – one year the door prizes were gold fish in plastic bags pegged to the clothesline – that everyone clamored to be invited, so I was somewhat mollified. If I couldn’t be the center of attention at least I was the “hostess with the mostest.”
We always bought our Christmas tree right after my birthday. My mother, younger sister and I looked forward all year to the day that we could pile into our Chevy station wagon and drive to the Biggs Air Force Base BX, a military combination grocery-general store, to carefully inspect all the fir trees shipped in from some place up North. Leaning against each other, in the parking lot, like bumbling recruits, their sweet-spicy scent was as exotic as French perfume in the dry, desert air.
The year I was a sixth-grader at St. Joseph’s School in El Paso, Texas, my mother gently informed me, at a post-birthday breakfast, that Christmas was going to be a “little different this year.” She explained that we’d be moving to Italy the day after the holiday, so my no-nonsense father didn’t want to be bothered with putting up a tree. There was no point in exchanging presents, either. They’d only have to be wrapped, unwrapped and packed up again when the moving van arrived. I was too big to believe in Santa, but I was shocked and furious. First, no birthday party, now no Christmas!
I don’t know how long my mother had known that we’d be moving, again, or how she felt about my father’s high-handed command to cancel Christmas, but she’d already devised alternatives. Instead of presents that came in a box, we children would receive “experiences,” including horseback-riding lessons at a local ranch and movie tickets. And the family would indeed have a Christmas tree, just not the usual evergreen.
When my sister and I returned home from school that afternoon we changed into jeans and cowboy boots. My mother surreptitiously led us to the cement wall that separated our scruffy back yard from the emergency runway. No “dependents” were permitted beyond the wall; the wide dirt road was reserved for the exclusive use of pilots in distress or the emergency vehicles that sped to rescue them. Darting across the forbidden road and racing into the open desert the hot sand, soft as confectioners’ sugar, hugged our ankles at every step.
My mother explained that we were on a quest, like the knights of old, to find a tree where one didn’t exist. “But there’s nothing out here, except dirty old tumbleweeds,” I whined. “That’s right” she said, “pick the best one.” We spread out and inspected each weed, laughing as we chased down loose tumblers, until we unanimously agreed that we’d found the one with the nicest tree-like shape. Keeping our hands well away from the prickly spikes, we took turns kicking our prize home. I don’t remember how we got it over the waist-high wall, but I do remember that we spray-painted the brown weed gold, and dusted it with dime-store glitter before jamming it into a flower pot.
On display in the living room it seemed a lot bigger and wilder than it had outdoors. Decorated with homemade garland, and snowflakes folded and snipped from construction paper, it looked suspiciously like a tumbleweed tricked out as a Christmas tree, but my mother laughed and said it was a “gypsy tree,” as colorful and quirky as our gypsy life.
That scruffy tumbleweed turned out to be the last tree I remember decorating with my mother. We moved to Southern Italy, but she was so ill by the next Christmas that she was hospitalized. Although confined to bed, my mother taught the nursing staff how to craft construction paper snowflakes and rallied the ambulatory patients to thread them on string. Just like real snowflakes each one was as unique as its maker, and they danced from the ceiling, the length of the entire ward, to the delight of patients and visitors.
Not long after that, when we were both very young, my mother died. I’m older now than she was or ever will be. But if I live to be a hundred I’ll always remember the year that my mother made Christmas for me with a tumbleweed tree.
I hope that you too will be blessed with tender Christmas memories and that you’ll make some new ones. Remember to invite someone who needs a little TLC this season to tea. There are no strangers, just friends whose names you don’t yet know.
P.S. If you’d like to take a sneak peek at my new illustrated book, Celtic Teas With Friends, visit my homepage www.teawithfriends.com