Dear Tea Friends,
Last December I told the story of the year my mother turned a tumbleweed into a Christmas tree. If you missed it, visit http://www.teawithfriends.com/NL_Dec2007.html.
It was a gray December morning. My father, younger sister and I were seated at the kitchen table munching cold cereal under the glare of the florescent light fixture. We were all dressed in uniform. Dad wore regulation U.S. Air Force Blues. We girls wore pleated plaid skirts, white blouses and green sweaters, the garb of the foot soldiers of Christ at the parochial high school.
We ate in silence, the new norm, absorbed in books or the newspaper. That day I broke rank and asked my father when were going to get a Christmas tree. “We don’t need one,” he snapped from behind The Newark Advocate’s editorial page. Advocate of what I’d often wondered in the six months we’d been marooned there. There didn’t seem to be much to advocate in this small Midwestern town with more cows, bowling alleys and bars than people.
I’d never lived so close to cows before, and to an outsider’s eye their social life seemed a lot like that of some of the kids at school. Like cows, they traveled in herds, jockeying for position as they followed a lead animal. Their jaws worked furiously masticating gum despite one nun’s observation that “the only difference between a gum-chewing human and a cud-chewing cow is the look of intelligence and purpose in the cow’s eye.”
I didn’t belong there and the herd knew it. Most of them seemed to have known each other since kindergarten. Since I hadn’t been there, or anywhere, that long, I couldn’t appreciate why it was important to know what the basketball team captain had said to his date at the sock hop that made her cry. I felt left out, but with the holidays looming, I had bigger worries. I needed a Christmas tree to remind me that I once had a mother who made holidays magical.
This would be the first Christmas since her death. Like most military families, we never lived near relatives, and our neighbors were busy with their own families. We didn’t have a home anymore. We rented somebody else’s house, and I wasn’t sure if we were still a family, but I was very sure that we were going to have a tree, just like everyone else.
The trick was how to get one. Christmas was not Dad’s favorite holiday. My mother usually bought our tree because my father worked long and erratic hours. He got the un-fun jobs of making the tree stand at attention in a rickety metal holder and unsnarling knotted light strings. Early on his aesthetic sensibilities were offended by the childish hodgepodge of ornaments clumsily crafted with construction paper and tin foil. When we girls were older we liked to toss tinsel in messy clumps rather than place it strand by strand on the branches. But I imagine the real reason Dad didn’t want a tree was that it would be less trouble to cancel Christmas than struggle to create one. He didn’t know how, and he hated to be reminded.
The second problem was I didn’t have enough baby-sitting money to buy a full-sized tree. It had to be at least five feet tall, a mingy table topper tree would look as if we tried to have a real Christmas but couldn’t pull it off. But even if I could scrape together the money how would I get the tree home? I wasn’t old enough to drive and it was a 20-minute walk to the strip mall where they sold trees in the parking lot next to the grocery store. My father would be furious if I asked anyone to drive me to the lot, because we did not involve outsiders, especially civilians, in family business.
Sitting on my bed, propped against the pillows, I realized I’d have to enlist my father’s help, but I’d also have to make my request seem like a benefit to him. The last time I’d pulled this stunt had worked out really well. When our beloved cat had gone to the happy mouse-hunting ground in the sky, I campaigned for a replacement. “We don’t need one,” my father said. “Why not?” I asked. “Because I said so, and if you don’t like it you can go live at Howard Johnson’s.” On $2.00 a week allowance that was out of the question, so I solved the cat crisis by giving Dad a black and white kitten for his birthday. But that was last week. This week I needed a tree.
At breakfast the next morning I spoke to the newspaper. “It’s my birthday on Friday, and I’d like a Christmas tree. You can drive me to the Kroger’s lot after dinner.” Although Dad had made it clear he didn’t want a tree, he could hardly refuse me one because my request let him off the hook. He wouldn’t have to figure out what gift to give a 15-year-old girl. He wouldn’t have to buy a card or a cake. The newspaper rattled, but said nothing. I read that as a sign that I’d get my heart’s desire.
On Friday night, my father paid for the tree I chose and when we got home, he set it up in the stand, but my sister and I dealt with the lights and hung the ornaments. It was an awkward activity, conducted mostly in silence, but when we finished, our tree looked enough like the trees in the neighbors’ picture windows to create the illusion that we were celebrating, too.
Every birthday after that, for as long as I lived at home, my father would take only me to select our Christmas tree. Normally tight-fisted, he would pay for any tree I liked, and when we got home, jam it in the stand and string the lights. In later years Dad would camp in his lounge chair and attempt to direct the placement of the tinsel. I’d have none of it. “If you’re not going to help, you don’t get to order the rest of us around.” He’d shoot me a long look over his glasses, half smile, turn back to the newspaper and pet the purring black and white cat curled on his lap.