The color and pizzazz of Christmas 2017 was clouded by a smog of challenges that dampened spirits and muted the brightness we all hoped would end our year.
My father was in hospice and needed assistance from me that seemed impossible to provide with all the persistent pulls in opposing directions. My husband’s dad, Spencer, succumbed unexpectedly to injuries received in a fall, that at first seemed moderately insignificant but set off a series of roller coaster days where he was better then worse, then better. On the day he passed, my husband visited the hospital with his sister to discuss moving him to rehab because he had stabilized. No one expected that day to end without him.
Spencer was just a few months shy of his 100th birthday, so it seemed pretty ungrateful and selfish to complain of the loss of this terrific man because we’d had him for so much longer than most people have their parents. People just aren’t supposed to get as heartbroken when someone that’s old by everyone’s standards leaves this earth compared to, say, a child or young parent. Plus we were so fortunate that even as he receded from life, he stayed with us long enough for goodbye visits and calls from far flung children, grand children, great and even great great grandchildren.
Between well coordinated visits to hospitals or rehab and hospice, work and kids, taking Bongo Boy our rabbit back and forth to the vets for a mysterious ailment, we kept very busy and ate meals out and on the fly from vending machines and drive thrus and free coffee stations. But Christmas was a reality, as well, and for the first time it was I who pushed for a tree when the two youngest daughters flew up to simultaneously say their goodbyes and celebrate Christmas a week early. I’d written an article for Haverhill Life about the best places to buy a tree in Haverhill, and had been to see them all and saw the distinctions that made every option a best choice. I had plans for foraging for a tree and a family sleigh ride. But for us, one week before Christmas, driven by an out of control schedule that prohibited us from all being together at one time, our choices were more limited.
It was so close to Christmas, that I weirdly obsessed about not wanting a living tree to die for the scant two weeks we would have it up. I didn’t tell that to anyone, but was vastly relieved when the gorgeous cut-your-own tree farms closed after an early snow, leaving us to look at other options.
And here’s the thing about being sad and stressed, you don’t want other people to feel the same way, so you look for ways to make others feel better. It’s about the only control you have left. We had the option to help out someone else with our tree choice and so just two of the girls and I went out in desperation on a frigid night to find a tree at the Elks shortly before it closed for the evening. For the Elks, selling trees is a fundraiser that supports their philanthropic pursuits. We picked a tree after checking out maybe three. It was pretty, and I made a haphazard guess as to where the tree should be trimmed since I didn’t think about where we were putting it. The tree was unceremoniously moved to the back deck in a pot of warm water as we waited for a day we could pull it all together. Daughter Nissi tended to the tree and almost immediately the tree began to give back to us.
Nissi pulled a little nest from its branches, a present for us. Plus I noted that its tip top had a series of buds that formed a star. You couldn’t really see it but I knew it was there. We minimized our decor, and brought down only one box (out of dozens) of ornaments and lights along with the easiest-to-reach tree stand from the attic. It was then that I remembered where we’d meant to put the tree. On a little side table. We didn’t have a saw so if it didn’t fit, it was going to be a too short tree on the floor. It did fit. Perfectly. Almost magically. The one ornament box we brought down included a red plaid tablecloth that didn’t belong in that box. Everyone knew it should have been in the box marked ‘Christmas home decor’, but last year’s neglectful packing actually proved fortuitous as it filled in for a tree skirt.
Nissi and Leisa, our often neglected Mississippi guests, strung the lights as Jon and I flitted between parents and quick jaunts to shop for perhaps less thoughtful gifts than usual. We gave up on the concept of Christmas cards, and I jammed gifts in reusable shopping bags, because there was no time to wrap as we struggled to remember what was intended for whom and where we’d put the early purchases.
The next late afternoon, Jon and I returned from our respective parental and errand routines to a fully decorated tree. Nissi, Leisa, and Grace, figured out that we’d have an impossible time coordinating our schedules to decorate so they took on the responsibility themselves. From one mystery box of ornaments, they crafted a beautiful holiday. I stared at that tree and I stared at that tree and I couldn’t conceive of a prettier combination of new and old ornaments of varying textures, colors and sentiments. I was still staring as Leisa asked whether we wanted marshmallows or Fluff in the cocoa she’d made from scratch. There is no way to convey how much their thoughtfulness meant.
As a kid I used to crawl near the base of the tree, and lay there with my cat, Snowy, and just look up through the branches til one of us fell asleep or my mother dragged us out. It gave me a sense of wonder, peace and awe. In adulthood, trees grew to mean more effort and mess than awe, and I looked for ways to avoid them and the months of vacuuming up needles. This year it was the couch and the fluffy throw, a thoughtful gift from Nissi, and the tree that allowed me to regain that same sense.
At the risk of sounding unsound, I have to admit there was even a magical visit. I was alone, staring at the tree again, frozen in thought about Spencer. Very determinedly one of the mini sleigh bell ornaments began to jingle, a long drawn out jingle and then stopped. Nothing else on the tree moved leaving me to believe Spencer got his wings and was telling us how happy he was to see his wife, Betty, again.
Our tree was perfect, I only added some stray candy canes, and a glass lighthouse, a token of remembrance from the boyfriend of a dear friend who passed away recently from ovarian cancer. We had paper and felt ornaments in Seussical colors that coincidentally was also the theme for a City-wide celebration, we had vintage glass ornaments, and one glass orb that I’d painted myself in 1995. 1995 was a banner year when Leisa, and my twin nieces Sloan and Logan were born; it reminded me of the people I love and a year when I had time to craft. The base of the tree stand was not swathed in the tree skirt so we placed hand painted stones around the rim. These were special stones promoting hope and peace in a time of turmoil.
So it was a fitting tribute that I spent the whole night on the couch with the fluffy blanket staring at the tree last night. The tree will be taken down as the new year shuffles in. My husband worked overnight; two of the three kids had returned to Mississippi; the other was asleep in her room. And it was just me and the tree. I felt I owed the tree some company on its last night with us. It was a good tree that provided a sense of holiday and family, and had been instrumental in reminding me of all the blessings we still have.