The day after Thanksgiving all four of us went to the lot and walked up and down each aisle, holding our hands out to collect the scent of the needles, breathing deep that piney resin. Three of us fell in love with a spare, silvery noble fir while the other argued hard for the same kind we had last year, a friendly-looking douglas, and negotiations were heated. Majority trumped tradition so on the way home, I found some Bing Crosby on the radio to cheer us up and since we were not yet sick of xmas carols, we all sang along.
Xmas is usually my responsibility. The tree-decorating, the party-throwing, ginger-bread-house-making, present-buying, filling each drawer of the advent calendar with chocolate, John leaves it all up to me. It’s not that he’s against xmas just that he doesn’t get it, but his indifference doesn’t stop me. Long before marriage and children I insisted we chop down a tiny tree for our apartment, which I decorated with bits of tin foil and my gaudiest jewelry. Every year when I fill his stocking with silly things he might need he rolls his eyes at the chewing gum and ear plugs and socks but I think it’s starting to grow on him.
This year, Kenyon is 13 and Gwyneth is 7 and by now we have accumulated enough ornaments to burden an 8 foot tree. Each ornament I lift from the box has a story, a story I tell as I hang it on the tree. Some of the stories are heavy but others are delicate as glass. Our first ornament: one gaudy earring. Then two wooden angels we bought in Bali on our honeymoon. The Faberge-esque ornaments mom and I made from blown eggs while grandma, still alive but rarely getting out of bed, slept in the next room. The tin devil we got on a trip to Mexico when Kenyon was old enough to pull her own suitcase through the airport and the egg that would make Gwyneth was the next in line to be released.
The handmade grandfather clock should be called grandmother, I tell Kenyon, because it was passed down from my great-grandmother Joanna Kenyon Mix to my grandmother Joan to my mother to me, Anna. Its foil is thin and flaky and I wonder how much longer it will last. Maybe you can cover it with foil again, I tell her, and you can give it to your child to hang on your tree. To Gwyneth, I hand the little bead baby nestled inside a walnut shell and tell her I made it when I was about her age. She examines it solemnly and asks if we believe in Jesus and I explain, as I do every year, that we’re not Christian but it’s such a nice story, how when babies are born the world is so heavy with happiness and wonder and love it seems to stop spinning.
For me, xmas has nothing to do with Christmas. It’s all about the tree, about inviting a huge dark cold hairy hunk of wilderness into your home and decorating it with lights and shiny things. It’s about an accretion of meaning in having a warm, bright house full of loved ones year after year after year. Some people “get” it, some don’t. Maybe it’s biological or maybe it’s something that must be fostered from an early age but it’s probably a trait I inherited from my mother who has a garage stuffed with decorations and an arm-long checklist of traditional to-dos.
If I died, xmas might be a lot easier. I admit, the advantage of xmas-doing is certainly up for debate. It’s an onerous and expensive habit with intangible payoffs. Nevertheless, I seem to be working hard to pass it on to my girls.
When my friend Susan first came to our solstice party, she stood by the tree and beamed. Us xmas people recognize each other when we see the tree; the tree is the giveaway and when she saw mine, it was just one more proof of our kindred spirits.
Susan and I both taught English at Berkeley High School. In fact, she was one of the people who hired me. She later confessed she was not at all impressed by the Harvard degree or the seersucker blazer I was wearing but when she saw my shit-kicker boots and saw “trapeze” listed under “other talents” at the bottom of my résumé, she knew I could do the job. Susan invited me to have lunch with her in her classroom where we’d talk about writing and brainstorm ideas for how to teach. Her daughter Milan was a year old when we met and I didn’t have Kenyon for another two years so Susan was always three steps ahead of me as a mother and willing to share what she’d learned.
Susan was one of those rare birds who speak as they write– I don’t mean simultaneously, I mean stylistically. She’d sit patiently listening while I spit fragments that ended in question marks and talked doughnuts around myself until I spluttered out of steam then she’d hold up her hand to keep me from interrupting and release, in one measured breath, an insightful, reasoned, and thoroughly researched response with examples and parenthetical footnotes. It was beautiful, really, and she decorated a tree the same way she spoke: there was nothing imbalanced or messy or half-assed about her process. She even showed me her painstaking method of tucking the lights in so that the cord is hidden by the tree and only the bulbs show. Of course, every year, one perfect ornament was the perfect gift. Every xmas we’d celebrate together. John and Walt didn’t entirely get it, but Kenyon and Milan would revel in the magic.
Susan, who was nine years older than me, started feeling tired after I got pregnant with Gwyneth so we pledged to exercise together for good health. Once or twice a week I’d go over to her house and we’d walk for hours, talking about books and kids and writing. We thought it was menopause but after she got her diagnosis, she didn’t want to talk any more. For the first time since I’d met her, she didn’t have much to say. The last time I saw her she was swimming in her clothes. She could hardly stand up but the look in her eye told me not to cry.
“Wow, you have lost weight,” I said. “What are they feeding you?”
She smirked and flipped her cobwebby hair. “I weigh what I did when I was eighteen years old. I’m thin as a dollar bill and fine as a china plate.” She propped one hand on her bony hip. “Are you jealous?”
We covered our mouths and snickered. So sick and so, so funny.
This year was the seventh time I’ve decorated the tree since Susan died of ovarian cancer. Every year at xmas, the sadness finds me again. When Kenyon asks me about the baby in the walnut shell and I answer as I always do, I’m thinking about Susan and how she died just before xmas and how it felt like the world stopped spinning. When I tuck the lights in the branches I remember how I brought newborn Gwyneth over to Susan’s house just after she died and put the lights on the tree she picked out but did not have the energy or time to decorate. And the glass pickle she gave me reminds me of the game they played, how every year when Milan found the pickle on the tree she’d get a special treat and I wonder if Milan still plays that game or if the tradition died with her mother. When I discovered that the tiny basket full of tinsel had only one egg left inside, I watched myself tearing madly through the box to find the lost eggs, saw myself wishing Susan could hold up her hand and make it all clear.
But then I find the silver bird and remember the night she gave it to me, how it had taken her all day to make a plum pudding and how I thought she was nuts but then when I tasted it, so rich and soft and sour and sweet, I understood.
This is what xmas is about. You can’t ignore an xmas tree. It’s the elephant in the living room, the bright in darkness, the spangled memories twinkling in the corner, slowly accumulating delicate shirred layers of meaning.
The tree is dead but it’s so, so alive.