Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Tree

When I was a kid, the neighbors across the road had a Christmas tree farm. Every year, my dad would go up to their farm in November and help them harvest the trees. He would return, tired, on a Sunday, with our own glorious tree--part of his payment
for the work--which he started taking one year after he had been out of work for a while in the recession of the 70's.

The Tree was Dad's Thing.

He would meticulously wrap it in lights, including bubbler lights that he had gotten from his granddad. He would teach us how you have to lay under the tree and look up through the branches in a darkened house at night, breathing in the piney scent, and watching the lights twinkle.

Mom would holler comments from the kitchen and change the records that would accompany tree decorating sessions: Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, the New Christy Minstrels, the Smothers Brothers. My dad had worked at Columbia records so we were deep in vinyl.

One spring day, seven days after my thirteenth birthday, my father dropped dead at work.

It was an impossibly difficult year and as we surmounted the hurdle of
each holiday without Dad for the first time, and we all dreaded Christmas the most. We could not even bring up the subject of the tree.

Yet there on our front stoop one December morning was a tree, bagged and waiting. Somehow my brothers, aged 11 and 10, and I got that tree into the
stand and decorated. For YEARS afterwards, a tree continued to arrive on the doorstep every year. Dad's memorial tree.

And so I always have a tree--it must be live or there is no point to it (although I find the blue or silver or white trees impossibly retro since those were the kinds my grandparents had) When I was a starving artist in a tiny New York apartment, the tree was moth eaten and small and dragged down from Harlem.

I cannot conceive of December without a tree in my house. This made life quite complicated when I married a nice Jewish boy from New York. He found
my December ritual of hunting down and killing a tree quite amusing when we were dating. But it was quite another thing to drag him to tree farms once we had
pledged our troth and were keeping a mostly Jewish home.

It's my tree, he doesn't ever have to touch it, and yes, we hang dreidles on it. He didn't have to lift a finger the year I was a week and a half away from giving birth
to our first child and had my girlfriend come to the tree farm---I could not get close enough to the ground with my huge belly so she had to do the honors, but
I got that sucker into the stand, belly or no.

It's a little wierd I know to do a havdalah baby naming for your third child with an everygreen behind the rabbi. I make fabulous latkes,and the best matzo balls in the family, but I gotta have a tree.

Nowadays my trips to the woods have become mad after work dashes to the Home Depot. I switched to lightweight balsam trees because I found you could carry a baby
in one hand and the tree in the other.

My children now help and can tell the story of each ornament."This nutcracker came from my boyfriend the year I stage managed the Nutcracker at the Morris Civic Auditorium in South Bend." and "This was the cake topper for my fourth birthday". "This we got the year we got the cat."

I let the kids camp out in sleeping bags under the tree.

The evergreen tree is not a Christian symbol, btw. It is a very old, deep and pagan symbol of the regeneration of life. Before the Romans came crashing through the northern lands co-opting every tradition they could find (because they knew that hearts and minds must be won as well as lands) the Northern Tribes brought evergreens into the house with the hope that the sun would return from wherever it was going, earlier and earlier each day. In the frightening, freezing dark days of solstice, the smell of pine was the symbol that life would continue, spring would come again, and the light would return. Ashkenazis come from the land of cold winters, so maybe pine sniffing in the dead of winter is part of the cellular memory of any tribe that made it through a cold winter. I have come to love and crave the smell of latkes frying and the quiet glow of the menorah.

But I gotta have my tree.

For me the tree and the stories we tell of it are the symbols of hope that my father will live on in my memories of his children and the grandchildren he did not live to see.

The tree is my fathers yarzheit.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hanukkah Gift Ideas

Yesterday, I did an interview with Channel Two about regifting. The reporter was shocked that I regift, shop my own belongings, and dumpster dive and thrift shop for gifts for ALL occasions. But passing on gifts is a green and generous tradition. We also believe in No Presents at our house. If you have never read the book Three Cheers for Catherine the Great by Cari Best, lay a hold of it, and find out what a No Present is---a gift of self.

For those of us who are checkbook/credit card challenged for this eight days of light, I offer you some ideas for "conceptual" gifts(some from my house, some from the other speedskating moms last night at the rink) Gift certificates for highly valuable priviledges: there is the Get out of Jail card---for a grounding, for chores when you don't want to do them or don't have time. There is the You Pick the TV Channel today card. There is the I do your Chore for you card--which is transferable. There is the You can Borrow Anything from my Closet card. Even my son wants one of those so he can wear his dads weapons to the ren faire.

One of the moms wraps up a 10 or 20 spot and has the kids walk over to the computer and choose a charity to give it to. Since I don't even have one of those "spots" this year, one night will be mitvah night and each child will choose a charity that we as a family will volunteer for.

We have been talking a lot about needs versus wants at our house, and I will be buying some Needs with Want Flair and wrapping them in lovely paper. For example, we have foregone breakfast cereals for healthier and cheaper hot cereals. But each child will get a box of their FAVORITE sugar laden breakfast cereal for the holidays.
We have blown through a lot of sox since sandal season, so I have been trolling the dollar stores (and thrift stores) for really fun ones--toe sox, pirate sox, and dreidel sox!!!! There have been some fights over the Neutrogena, so everyone gets their Very Own bottle. Hope my kids don't read my blog for a week.

And can I just say thank you for whoever decided that fried potatoes would be the traditional dish---gluten free, vegetarian and CHEAP.

I just love the Eight Nights of Hopeful Lights.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Thanks! I needed that

As many of you know, I am in a state of despair about our broken education system. I do the Debbie Downer pretty much timed with every school board meeting and the fact that they are slipping a meeting in to raise our taxes AGAIN--sneaking it into the holiday season when my family is mulling the Christmas Hanukkah dilemma and no one has time to pay attention to board meetings has me seeing RED.

But then,in a little brown wrapper, it arrives in my mail. Close Encounters of the Third Grade Kind by Philip Done and this funny, poignant memoir of teacher and school gives me just a thimbleful of hope. I have children now that no longer love school, despite good grades and a well regarded system. I would read chapters aloud to them at bedtime and we all spent a little minute wishing they could have days like Mr. Done seems to have.

See, I said to my kids, teachers love and care for their students. And Done is not a starry eyes Teach for America recruit. He is a seasoned old fart who knows what he is up against and comes back every year, because this is what he was born to do.

I come from a family of teachers. I was an artist in the school, tough schools, for a decade. I did everything for a certification as a teacher except the final exam, because even then I was depressed about the soul deadening factories that schools had mostly become. I just couldn't spend my life there. Of course the irony is that I became a bureacrat and I send my kids there---but life has a lot of black humor in it!

I have heard from those that have read both that Done's first book is better constructed, but I found this to be a perfect holiday ho ho, for those of us who need a little good news, a belly laugh and a tear or two. It is not great literature, but it is an easy quick read that reminds one of the small jewels that lie in the everyday and ordinary. And it gave me that thimble full of hope that schools can be magical and transformational.