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.

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