grumpy about the holidays – day 6 (Christmas tree)

When Anthony and I were in our 20’s and both still in grad school, we shared a tiny apartment on Swann Street in Washington, D.C., just a few blocks from Dupont Circle. Anthony worked full-time and I did some part-time teaching, but we were very broke. And also very cheap. Still, I wanted a Christmas tree. But Anthony was a stubborn curmudgeon. We won’t even be here on Christmas, he argued, rolling his eyes. Why waste money on a tree? What’s the point?

What’s the point? What’s the point???

I remember being very, very sad. But Anthony really didn’t want to get a tree, and rationally I saw his point, and also it wouldn’t feel holly jolly to have a tree filling up our living room while Anthony grumbled about it. So I let it go. It was a win for Mr. Curmudgeon, Mr. Grumpy-in-Training.

One dark cold night, just a few days before Christmas, Anthony walked in from work dragging a small fir tree behind him. It was no more than 3 or 4 feet tall, with dry needles and busted branches. He explained that he couldn’t bear my disappointment. On his way home, he happened to walk past a guy selling a few little trees, leftover dregs at the end of the season. Anthony forked over forty dollars and carried the tree home. It was highway robbery, and probably more money than we spent on a week of food.

I was delighted. We walked a few blocks over to Ace Hardware on 17th Street and bought a tree stand and a string of lights, a couple boxes of the cheapest plasti-glass ball ornaments we could find (2 dozen in all), a really cheap little set of tempura paints, and some glitter. We ran back home and decorated the ornaments so they wouldn’t be so plain, and then we hung them carefully on the tree.

It was a really pathetic, beautiful little tree, a Charlie Brown tree for sure, the first Christmas tree Anthony and I shared as a family of two. We still get a lot of joy out of that tree.

* * * *

My mom has always taken great care in decorating her Christmas trees. She has a special ornament for each year in which one of her grandchildren was born, ornaments that were gifts in particular years or from particular people, ornaments that Dad gave her that made her laugh. Decorating the tree is a historical and emotional journey for her.

By the time I was in high school, my brothers weren’t around for tree trimming. Dad would string up the lights, and then Mom and I would do the ornaments. In those few hours, she would share her journey with me in quiet conversations.

When I was younger, there were some ornaments I thought belonged in the trash — nasty, stained things that lost their glimmer long before I could even remember. I didn’t understand why Mom, who likes everything to be fresh and nice, would put up busted ornaments.

I particularly remember the ones Mom called “pregnant angels,” a set of three little angels with bulging tummies and knotted hair, their plastic bodies discolored with age, half their arms missing. Mom was so fond of those broken-down angels. During one of our ornament journeys, she explained that Dad gave them to her the year she was pregnant with me; hence, pregnant angels. I could tell from the way she spoke that it must have been a happy, special time in their long life together. The angels belonged on her Christmas tree, always.

So too, every year Anthony and I put up what’s left of the ornaments from our first tree. Many of them have shattered over the years; they’re desperately fragile with age. We hang the remaining handful up high, where the kids can’t reach them. Most of the paint has fallen off. They’re ugly and broken things, but they still cast a spell on me, drawing a bright line of light and memory through the curving dimness of lost days, straight to that little Christmas tree Anthony brought me on Swann Street, almost 25 years ago. They remind me of the long arc of love that binds Anthony and me together. Every year we hang these talismans and tell Nick and Jesse the story of our first tree. We build a little bridge to the past that helped form us and them, just like my mom taught me to do.