The first Christmas DC and I enjoyed together was nothing but sweetness… except for the Christmas tree (this yuletide thorn has festered just under the skin from the first Christmas to the last). God had just brought us through a very difficult health issue and we had our new son, Wesley, to enjoy. I was overwhelmed by the Lord’s kindness and was feeling well enough to get our tree. I bought a very respectable fir of some kind, brought it home and dragged it through the doorway. That’s when our tree issues began.
“Which corner do you want to put it in?” I innocently asked.
“I don’t want it in the corner, I want it in front of the window,” she responded. I laughed a superior little snort of a laugh.
“We can’t put it in front of the window. It HAS to go in a corner.” I pointed to the corner that I thought would work well. “That corner is perfect.” I started dragging it to the spot.
“It has to go in the corner,” I grunted as I leaned it against the wall. I turned to her. It was a teachable moment. “If you don’t put it in the corner you won’t have anywhere to tie the strings.”
“Umm. What strings?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes. “The strings that you have to tie around the trunk to keep it upright. Without strings it will fall over.”
She picked up the newly purchased tree stand and pointed at it with just a hint of annoyance. “Let me introduce you to the tree stand… John, this is the tree stand. Tree stand, this is my stupid husband. They call it a STAND for a reason!” She ran her hand underneath the words “tree stand” like Carol Merill on Let’s Make a Deal.
I was so completely exasperated with “this woman that Thou hast given me” (a woman who obviously knew nothing of trees or stands) that I wrenched the stand from her hands, tore it open, slammed it on to the bottom of the tree and set the entire thing upright.
“Make yourself useful and hold the tree for a second.” It was not the kindest way to speak to the mother of my child. I crawled underneath the tree while she held it. I tightened the screws with a smug superiority like I was just about to prove to her and to the entire world that tree stands are a farce.
“Okay, now let go and watch what happens,” I said with as much practiced patience as I could muster. I braced myself to be crushed by the weight of the tree, but nothing happened.
“I said to let go.” She knelt down from across the room so she could see me under the tree and waved at me.
I reached up surreptitiously and pushed on the trunk. It swayed a little, then firmly twanged back into place. I shook it like I was killing a chicken. I was dumfounded. It didn’t fall over. The world as I had known it my entire life shifted on its axis. Everyone knows that you have to secure your Christmas tree to the wall.
Growing up our trees were never plastic, but they were always fake. Dad loved big, bulky, bulbous trees that looked like they were frozen in time, mid-explosion by high speed photography and that kind of tree wasn’t to be had in our forest – or anywhere on the planet – so Earl improvised.
Using an electric drill and a generous pocketful of screws and twine, Dad would combine the best parts of two or three trees into one. He would chainsaw one side of the donor tree, press it against the trunk of the regular tree and then bind them together with the twine and a few carefully placed screws. If there were any bare spots left, holes would be drilled and extra branches would be “grafted” in and then tied to the upper branch with green yarn to keep it from sagging like old skin.
After everything was in place and the trunk had been braced with 2x4s, Dad would pound two 16 penny nails into the wall, bend them over a bit and then lash the tree to them. It always felt a bit dangerous to me, like the tree would somehow break its bonds and hunt me while I was sleeping, chanting, “I am not an animal, I am a human being!”
To say that Earl was not a perfectionist is a bit of an understatement. He was the original Mr. 90 percent and “good enough” was his go-to phrase. He used to tell the story of cutting stringers for the stairs he was building in our new house. Every night he would try and fail and then bring the scraps out into the yard and burn them so no one could see his mistakes. He was not a perfectionist, but he was way too proud to let people see his imperfection. I think that’s the reason we covered every inch of our tree with garland and tinsel so no one could tell what he had done.
But the tinsel and garland was no ordinary Mylar affair. When I was young, tinsel and garland were made from glorious strands of pure molten lead. Feathery strands of glittery lead that had the heft of a fishing weight and the aerodynamics of a jelly fish. I was always encouraged to lay them on a few strands at a time, but could never manage it. The real fun was to wad it up in a ball, throw it as high as you could to bounce it off the ceiling and watch it separate like a bottle rocket and fall in heavy clumps all over the branches. They were supposed to look like icicles, but they looked more like moldy birds’ nests. The gray lead marks were still on the ceiling when we moved.
The lights on our tree were huge and bright and had reflectors behind them that cast a beam of light that would blind you if you stared at them too long. You had to look at our tree out of the corner of your eye, like you would a solar eclipse, so you wouldn’t burn your retina. Dad had to use the gas generator to power it because the rest of the lights in the house would dim every time the tree was plugged in and he was afraid it would start a fire.
And, it was glorious. It was like Las Vegas had come to visit for a few weeks. Sure, the lead caused profound hearing loss and I had to compensate for the blindness in my left eye, but our tree was big and hideous and unlike any tree in the neighborhood. It fit our family perfectly.