Be Careful What You Wish Forby Christine Gray
This was to be my first Christmas since my divorce became final. My family has always been tiny, but this year it felt miniscule. My sister would be in Lebanon, and my daughter in Australia. That left a Christmas dinner with just my son and me. Or perhaps, if his father had some plan for Christmas, it would just be me. That felt inordinately bleak.
My son is a marvelous person, but our relationship needs work. He is seventeen, and I am not. He is male, and alas again, I am not. I wanted it to feel good for him and for me. I didn’t want Christmas dinner to be one more strike against our ability to get along. So I decided I would do my best to make Christmas real for me. Or maybe just a little fun, anyway. Maybe that would rub off on my son.
I got my artificial Christmas tree out of the basement one Sunday in the beginning of December. It came with LED lights already strung. In order to get it up the stairs I had to disassemble it and fold the branches up. The only annoying part was arranging all the branches so the tree looked relatively normal and the lights were evenly distributed after I had wrestled it up the stairwell. I turned on the Christmas carol channel on the subscription radio service I have in the house. I carefully decorated the tree, humming along with the carols on the radio. I decorated my little mantle above my gas fireplace as gaudily and Christmas-ily as possible. I hung a large lighted wreath outside over my living room picture window. Now my house felt like the season, even if it was all just for me.
When I was a kid, my father was a nut about Christmas. He had grown up in the time when people put real candles on their trees, and actually lit them. He also absolutely adored putting tinsel on the tree. I can still picture him standing next to the Christmas tree, a fire burning in our big old stone fireplace, carefully putting the tinsel on the tree from top to bottom. This was his solitary job; no one else was invited to participate. It might take him an hour or longer, but the tree would absolutely look like it was covered in ice, so thick you could hardly see the ornaments. When he was a kid the tinsel was metal, not the silver plastic stuff I remember.
He grew up in a big house that had a landing on the stairs from the first floor to the second. His family always put the tree there. It was also a high ceilinged place, perfect for very large trees. His family of origin was Catholic, and made a big deal of Christmas, on both the secular and religious levels. Everything anyone did anywhere on the planet to celebrate Christmas, my father’s family did. Or so you would think, to see how excited he was about it, even by the time I got to know him, as a grown man.
I remember his older sister, my normally very prim and sober Aunt Margaret, telling me with delight in her voice that my father believed in Santa Claus until he was 13. I don’t remember how his belief was finally dashed, but I do remember thinking that was awfully old to still believe in that particular fairy tale. My father’s first name was Webster. Aunt Margaret to her dying day called my father, “Webbie.” I always loved her for that. I could usually get my father’s goat if I felt like it every once in a while by calling out, “Oh Webbie, dear!” in the same intonation that Aunt Margaret used. My father would hear that when he couldn’t hear you yell “Dad!” at the top of your lungs. Aunt Margaret lived in Louisiana and always came to visit for Christmas. “Webbie, your tree is beautiful this year,” she would say.
My father simply loved everything about finding, selecting, erecting and decorating the Christmas tree every year. He was a landscape architect in business on his own, and during the late 1950’s all the way through the mid 1970’s when I graduated college and he retired, he got his plant material from huge plant nurseries out on the eastern end of Long Island. Today every square inch of what were then acres and acres of every kind of plant material and tree imaginable are now summer homes, weekend homes, regular homes, shopping centers, schools and celebrity hideaways. I don’t remember this, but my mother told me at one time my father sold Christmas trees to make extra money during a normally slow season. By the time I grew up they spent most of January in the Caribbean someplace, while I stayed home with a relative or someone else watching me so I could go to school.
Somewhere in between these two extremes of affluence or lack of it, my father would take me out to find the particular parking lot at a particular shopping center in one of the nearby cities where one of his nurseryman friends would be unloading literally mountains of Christmas trees for sale. Seriously, I remember standing and watching them pull tree after tree after tree from the back of a tractor trailer while I stamped my feet in the cold. Back in those days there were many more varieties available, and many more sizes of tree. They were only around for about ten days before Christmas. The trees were absolutely fresh and smelled fabulous. Finding these people seemed to be a hit or miss proposition. Sometimes we’d hit two or three empty lots before we found the mother lode of Christmas trees.
My father would then locate the owner and stand around and chat him up for a few minutes. I would stand there and look cute and say “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lustgarten,” or whatever the man’s name was. Sometimes it was one of the men I had met before, either at another Christmas, or when my father occasionally took me out to the very tip of Long Island to help him pick his plant material for a big job.
After a given amount of socializing one of the owner’s men would be assigned to my father as we wandered around among the trees. The worker would have to stand up the trees, untie them and bring their branches down as much as possible, and then tip or twirl or otherwise display the tree for me and my father. This was never an easy task for the poor workman. My father only looked at the biggest, lushest, most beautiful trees. Finally we would find a tree both of us liked. It was inevitably at least twelve or thirteen feet tall. I remember my father asking the height of each tree we looked at. One time the answer was twenty feet. It was indeed a magnificent tree, but my father actually had sense enough not to take it. He would get the trees for free as a business “thank you.”
The tree would be retied and put on top of our woodie station wagon. A “woodie” was a station wagon that had the pretend wood on the outside of the doors. The tree would hang down so much in the front and the back that the car practically disappeared underneath it. We would drive slowly home, my father barely able to see the road ahead of the car, careful not to disturb or shift our prize.
I am pretty sure the highest ceiling of any house we lived in was ten or eleven feet. In order to fit the tree in the house, my father would cut a foot or so off the trunk at the bottom. Then he would take an equal or larger amount off the top. The effect was to appear to be a tree that was growing between the floors of a house and our part of the tree was the middle floor. The wide branches of the tree would brush against the ceiling. I think on some level in his heart of hearts, my father was unwilling to settle for a tree any less magnificent than the ones that must have adorned the staircase in his childhood home.
My mother used the decapitated part of the tree for pine branches and pieces of evergreen to decorate the mantle of our big black and gray fieldstone fireplace. She added ribbons and baubles and candles and pinecones. It was always very beautiful and smelled wonderful. We would listen to Christmas carols on the radio. In those days Christmas carols didn’t start in September. You only heard them in the middle of December on the radio, or you sang them in church. My father would have been happy to play them in July. Not many other people are.
The whole process of decorating the tree was another ritual, which finished with my father and his tinsel. I remember the thrill I felt the year he let me help a bit with the tinsel. It was never something I really liked, but I certainly understood the honor of being allowed to participate.
I don’t know what my father would think of my artificial tree. I think he might appreciate how simple it is to put up, and how good it looks for an imitation tree. I know he would be disappointed I didn’t have a live tree, but then again he would be the first to understand the environmental impact of taking all those trees. He would definitely take a dim view of what they charge for the trees these days. I know he would hate the monotony of the perfect shapes, the small sizes, and the fact that a lot of the trees are spray painted green just to look healthy.
He certainly would be disappointed that tinsel has gone out of style. He would find it hard to believe that even Wal-Mart only has a box or two of tinsel on display, if you can even find it. So in a way I am glad he left this world before the world of artificial and tinsel-less trees became vogue. For him, even if he went and cut his own tree, it would never be the same.
I got a lot of joy out of my Christmas preparations. I think the carols helped. I could feel my father present with me, telling me to hang an ornament here, another one there, making sure to keep the symmetry of the tree as even as possible. I’m the only one who ever got his “eye,” he used to tell me. I see things spatially the same way he did. It’s very annoying sometimes. You see every crooked picture frame, every Christmas tree with too many things in one place, and not enough in another. Yet the point was not to make it perfect, either. You had to shoot for “natural.” As if a Christmas tree could ever be “natural.”
I swore to myself that I would set a perfect table, with china and silver and crystal, but I would also add the garish decorated glasses and beaded poinsettia centerpiece with the napkins to match. I invited three friends to come, and planned my usual roast beef feast. I told my son to bring a friend if he wanted to. I also told myself that if it ended up being just me, just me with all this decoration and effort and a big roast beef dinner, well it was going to be okay, too. And I meant it. I had come to some peace in myself around being alone.
I started Christmas morning by walking the dogs on the adoption floor of the local Humane Society. The place might be closed because it’s Christmas, but the dogs still need their morning routine. They all seemed to be in an especially good mood. It was bitter cold, but bright and sunny with a little coating of snow on the ground and the trees. The dogs I walked pranced out, tails held high, and walked just long enough to tend to their business and turned around to go back in. “It’s too cold for a long walk!” they all seemed to say. I felt cheerful, too.
I went home and cleaned myself up, then finished cleaning up my house. I prepared everything for the perfect dinner, and waited for it to be time for my friends and my son to show up. I opened the wine to let it breathe, I counted out the shrimp for the shrimp cocktails, I washed the last of the serving dishes and the big platter. I laid them out on the granite counter, and turned on the oven to cook the meat. Soon it smelled really good in the house. My friends showed up and we sat around talking. Another friend showed up with the makings of pear “martinis.” It mostly seemed to be pear vodka in pear nectar. So I had about two ounces of the stuff and had no more.
Somewhere along the line I changed the timers I was using for the meat from the one on the stove to the one on the microwave. I think I accidentally turned off the gas stove in the process. My son arrived a few minutes late for the time I told him dinner would actually start. I thought it was good I had put the meat in a little later than I had planned. But when I went to check the meat, it hadn’t cooked at all. Dinner was not going to happen. I was mortified. Two of my three friends had to leave within two hours. It would have been plenty of time to eat and have dessert, but not to wait for the dinner to cook from scratch.
I got really angry for about ten minutes. I heard a story about a Thanksgiving turkey that turned out raw when one of my friends had ten people over for dinner. “It looked nice on the outside,” she said. I had already fed them their shrimp cocktails a little earlier. My son decided he was going to go to a movie with a friend and come back later, when dinner was cooked. We ate pie and ice cream and then my friends left.
I did cook the whole dinner. I did put it out in the serving dishes. I did sit in front of the fire by myself and think about what I had done. I remembered I had told myself it was going to be okay, even if I was all alone. And so I was.
My son came back, and we ate about nine o’clock at night. I really enjoyed his company. Maybe he even enjoyed mine. Turns out it was a perfect Christmas after all.