In all honesty, I had given up. I knew they had won before we even left the house. I had decided to brood about it and was mulling over whether or not I would pull the trigger and make the experience miserable for everyone or just buck up and be an adult. That I was even contemplating being an intentional asshole on the way to pick out a Christmas tree with my coated up and singing seven year old and two year old strapped into their seats behind me and my smiling husband piloting the Jeep says more about my character than probably anything else. I wield terrible power as the mother in our family story. When mommy is happy the world is a pleasant placed filled with joy. When mommy is not she has the power to set fire to the fields. I was still trying to figure out which mommy to be when we pulled into the parking lot.
Hall Town is the loose collection of roads and houses near the old cotton mill where my grandfather’s people lived. Every year his old-man cousins set up a little Christmas tree lot and sell white pines and spruces for cheap. Not yet stooped, draped in red flannel and with ball caps barely hanging on to the tops of their heads those old men remind me of my grandfather. Wiry, compact, handsome with thick bushy white hair. Almost always funny, even if they’re just selling you a Christmas tree. It’s hard to be funny when you’re just selling a tree, but somehow they are.
I did not have high hopes for this tree. Somewhere along the way my luck had soured. My first tree as an adult did not portend the difficulties I would encounter in later years. Newly married, we went to a parking lot and picked one out. We carried it home, put it in a stand, bought some decorations at Big Lots, festooned it in a merry fashion and that was it. The only less than perfect aspect was that it was a fur of the sort I’m apparently allergic to because I broke out in a leper-like rash after we brought it in the house. I wore mittens while I hung the ornaments. But the rash went away and the tree was pretty. We were pleased because it was our first grownup Christmas tree as married people. The first grownup things you do as married people are almost always nice.
The second Christmas tree we had as married people was not so nice and not quite as pretty but it made me happy anyway. I think I was happy despite how stupid it looked exactly because of how stupid it looked. At that point in my life I was still foolish enough to be an optimist. I loved it despite all the reasons not to. We owned several acres of land just outside of town and we had decided to make like the Waltons and cut down one. White, upwardly mobile, middle-class people are always trying to get back to nature, an absurdity, because getting back to nature implies having been in nature to begin with. You always see waspy looking liberals like us in L.L. Bean jackets and Vasque boots riding out to the farmer’s market to buy half of a cow or parking their Jeeps on the side of the road to buy produce from the old farmers. Afterwards, we bring our goods back home where we prepare our boeuf bourguignon with field-green risotto which we enjoy over a glass of South African red wine while extolling the virtues of the simple life.
We packed up our Jeep and headed out, the property a lovely place with a view of the river, we imagined putting a log house there one day. The land had been cleared once and what had grown since was a collection of pines and cedars, any of which on paper would have made a perfectly acceptable Christmas tree. Heavily pregnant with our first child I wasn’t really expected to do anything but give the thumbs up or thumbs down to whichever tree my husband pointed to which was fine with me. His flannel shirt under his fleece jacket, wool hat with earflaps pulled tight on his head, he grabbed the saw and marched off, with me following closely behind.
There’s a curious thing about Christmas trees. You don’t fully realize how far removed the carefully cultivated ones from a proper Christmas tree farm are from their inferior and buck-toothed redneck cousins that are found in the wilderness. From a distance a pine tree looks just like every other pine tree: a loosely triangular cone. It’s only when you come very close that you realize real wilderness pine trees are mostly misshapen and crooked. They have big naked spots on all sides. Many of them have things living among their branches. We immediately realized that none of these trees was going to look like anything we were used to, much less like a page from Southern Living magazine, which I’d envisioned. Didn’t Martha Stewart always cut down her own trees? And after she dragged it home and trimmed the base she would fashion all of the hand blown glass ornaments herself and craft her very own three dimensional star with actual German gold leafing. I didn’t plan all that but I did expect we’d find one that was at least charming. Living in an old house, we fancied that even though it wouldn’t look perfect it would look rustic and old-fashioned, rustic and old fashioned being the hot thing in the year 2000. In a moment of delusion I decided on a cedar tree. I thought it would make the house smell nice. Like a new closet or a hamster cage. After looking at a hundred trees we found the one best resembling a triangle and Brett put his saw to it. After a bit it fell. He dragged it back down the path to the road, a conquering woodsman. I walked behind him, unsteady with my pregnant belly trying not to trip over anything.
At the road I helped him hoist the tree up onto the Jeep’s roof. It’s a freak of nature that my husband the engineer is preternaturally incapable of tying a good knot. It’s one of the few areas of our relationship where I can claim superiority and so it fell to me to work my way around the Jeep tying ample knots to ensure that the tree wouldn’t fly off the roof onto the highway. Task completed we got in, hands and feet frozen and cranked the heat up for the ride back home. I’m not sure who realized it first, or if we realized it at the same time, but when we were finally inside it occurred to us that the tree we had so carefully chosen, sawed, dragged, and hoisted onto the roof was just a little bit bigger than we had initially realized. We had ridden in this Jeep a lot of times, often with a canoe strapped to the top of it, and we were familiar with how long it was. Our canoe was sixteen feet and extended far off the front and the back of the vehicle. Somehow the tree extended further. I don’t know what it is about nature; maybe that it comes standard with glorious cathedral ceilings, but it is a reality that things always look much smaller when they’re outside. As we drove home and noticed people in passing cars staring and pointing at us it became pretty clear that we had misjudged.
Simply put, the tree was too big. Brett had to saw three feet off the bottom for it to even fit in the stand. Because our house was old with really high ceilings, it fit. Kind of. In a normal house it never would have worked but our house was built in the 1920’s and had 15 foot ceilings so we were golden. He moved the dining room table and wrestled it through the living room to position it front of the bay window. He raised it to standing while I stood and watched. And watched. I was watched and waited, waited for it to not look stupid anymore. Without a doubt it was the goofiest looking tree I had ever seen inside of a house. I thought really hard and couldn’t remember ever seeing a cedar tree in someone’s living room, outside of Waltons reruns. And the reason the Waltons had a cedar tree is because it was the depression and they didn’t have any choice. That’s the only reason anyone would think to bring a tree like that into their home. Anyone with a couple of dollars to spare would certainly be able to come up with something more presentable than a scrub cedar from a field. What my husband and I had so lovingly devoted an entire freezing Saturday to and stuffed into our dining room was a big old depression tree. I lovingly thought of the Jodes.
It was uneven. You could see the light from the window behind it clearly shining through. It looked like a pile of brush that people call the city to come collect at the curb. After a mighty struggle Brett maneuvered it into place and stood there triumphant. It was bad and he knew it was bad. I began to laugh and collapsed to the floor in an unwieldy heap, my pregnant belly complicating my fall. I remained there for many minutes incapacitated and unable to breathe, the absurdity of the tree never receding. Every time I would get myself together all it would take was another look and I was undone. We couldn’t look at each other because when we did it would start all over again. Our tree was absurd. We had people over for Christmas cocktails just to see their reaction to it. So tall that the top was bent at the ceiling it couldn’t hold a star. So wide that you had to walk along the dining room wall just to make it through to the kitchen. I prefer colored bulbs and we had them in every size and shape with a heavy preference towards the giant old-fashioned ones that burn too hot. We hung tinsel in a failed effort to cover the bald spots better. Our friends, inwardly horrified were for the most part polite. It looked like it might have a squirrel still living in it which clearly made people nervous. Often, early in the morning, I thought I could hear birds chirping. We always played it cool with our guests, assuming an air that suggested we thought it was the type of tree that everyone had in their homes. We were convinced because of its faux-popularity among our friends that the next year everyone we knew would have the exact same kind.
We were happy to move out of the house where we’d had our cedar Christmas tree because after the holidays I’d found it impossible to vacuum up all of the little cedar spikes. They had insinuated themselves into every corner and it had become impossible to walk around barefoot for fear of being unexpectedly stabbed. We’d learned our lesson the year before and decided to skip out on the back to nature gig and just find a normal Christmas tree at a normal Christmas tree place. That year was our first experience at Hall Town, a twelve-foot white pine for twenty bucks. What a bargain.
Over the years I have established a list that I refer to as “divorce topics.” Ideas so incendiary within the context of an otherwise stable relationship that they almost instantly inflame the hearts and minds of the respective members of that relationship. My husband and I rarely argue but we have a handful of items on our divorce topics list. The alarm clock. The coat closet. Whose responsibility it is to know when the dog food runs out. But by far the worst is the size of the family Christmas tree. Possibly because Brett who was scarred from wrestling the big cedar tree out of the woods and whittling it down so it would fit in the dining room and possibly because I have some sort of Christmas tree dysmorphia, ever since the year of the cedar tree my husband and I have not been able to agree. I come from a people whose family crest, if they had one, would have the “Bigger is Better” in Latin in 48 point font. The way we figure it, if you’re going to go to the trouble to cook, you might as well cook enough extra that if 12 people stop by they too can have a nutritious meal. Christmas trees are no different. If you’re going to go to the trouble of dragging in a massive piece of nature and placing it front and center in your house where you need to water it every day for the next three weeks it better damn well be worth the time. What’s the point if you can’t see the lights through the windows and down the street? Why bother if people aren’t going to gasp in awe when they walk in the room? I had seen my parents argue about the tree all my life and I was well aware that Christmas tree size was one of their “divorce topics” too. I had steadfastly taken my mother’s side all those years. “Bigger is better, Dad.” I’d say and he’d sadly hang his head, the vision of a man who had again lost the battle, my mother smiling triumphantly.
Of course, I won the battle with my husband too. He is a gracious man who humors me more than he should. Our first post-cedar tree was of course massive. It again, curled at the top with no room for a star. It was only after it fell over nearly crushing the baby who had just been crawling underneath it and destroying several of our ornaments that I grudgingly admitted that he might have a point. The baby dusted off and placed in her bed for a nap I was left to wrestle the tree off the floor myself that time. It was harder than I had imagined. Big trees are kind of a pain in the ass. They are very heavy. When I had it standing upright again it just wouldn’t stay. I struggled to keep it up, tree trunk in one hand, hammer in the other, while I drove two massive horse shoe nails into the window molding and ran a length of rope around and around the trunk. It wasn’t straight and you could see the rope tied to the window but it wasn’t going to fall and crush the baby. Sometimes in life that is considered a win.
The next year I got another big tree and having learned my lesson from the year before I promptly tied it to the horse shoe nails I had left in the window from the year before. No way was it going to fall. We had again gone to Hall Town and gotten the twenty dollar white pine and I was very happy with it. A very pretty tree, it had been up for about a week when I noticed it just looked a little different. I couldn’t place it I just knew that when I walked into the dining room every morning there was something off about it compared to the day before. I noticed our daughter, now three years old, wiping piles of pine needles from the tops of the wrapped presents underneath before she would pick them up. I had been vacuuming more often than I remembered and it wasn’t drinking as much water as it had in the beginning.
It wasn’t until our daughter was sick that I realized how desperate the situation was. Wiped out with a fever the week before Christmas she had chosen to recuperate by lying on her sleeping bag listening to the stereo and gazing at the tree. I watched as every few minute she would lift her little leg up in the air and let it drop to the ground. With every drop of her foot it sounded like someone had turned over a rain stick. It was a continuous downpour of needles, a process which was slowly denuding the tree as sure as if napalm had been poured on it. Just a few more days until Christmas, I thought. I hung onto that hope until December 23rd when from the other room I heard a slide followed by a thump and then a crash. And then another, and another. When I went into the dining room to investigate I discovered that the branches of my once beautiful tree were so dry and sagging so heavily that ornaments were sliding off and shattering onto the floor. I was horrified. It was ten o’clock at night two days before Christmas and our tree was a corpse in the living room. There was no way we could keep it in the house anymore as there was a very real chance that at any moment it could burst into flames. If it had just been me and Brett we would have pitched it out the window and laughed about it but having Christmas without a tree is not an option in a house with a three year old girl. The possibility of her waking up on the morning of Christmas Eve with no tree wasn’t something I could consider. I had to find one.
There are many benefits to living in the town where all of your family lives, especially if your family is my family. Devastated, I called my mother who also agreed that not having a tree was not an option. I set out into the dark of night to find a replacement while Brett started the process of dismantling the pile of kindling standing in our dining room. As I had feared there were no tree lots open so late on December 23rd. I had been aimlessly driving, trying to figure out where to go and what to do when my phone rang. It was my mother. “Becky was just at Kmart and she says they have a Martha Stewart 8 foot pre-lit tree for $29.99, only one left, and Laura just called and said that Kroger has 10 foot pre-lits for $39.99. Let me know what you decide to do.” I cried.
It was under much duress that we had moved back home, our home being objectively one of those most obnoxiously conservative and narrow-minded places you could ever hope to find. But this is why we had done it. Because where else could we live that in the middle of a Christmas tree emergency at 10:30 at night I had not one, but two aunts conveniently out shopping, with my mother acting as dispatcher? People would often ask me how I could stand living in Lynchburg and in the beginning that was pretty much the only answer I could give. When you have family like that you’d live anywhere to be the beneficiary of their oddities and overwhelming presence. Sometimes it’s just that simple. I went to Kroger first and my aunt Laura was standing there in the produce section next to a floor model of the tree. She cackled when I told her how my tree had fallen to pieces and then she helped me lug the tree box to my truck.
As I walked in the door I heard Brett call down the hallway, “I’m almost finished. It doesn’t look too bad.” I rounded the corner to see him standing there, smiling. The tree was no longer a tree. The process of removing all of the ornaments and lights had caused every single remaining needle to fall to the floor leaving only a stick behind. It looked like it had been set on fire, there was nothing left. When the ornaments and garland were finally off we opened the window and pitched it outside. I loved the idea of people driving past our house on Christmas Eve and seeing the hulking carcass already tossed out. “What awful thing must have happened in there?” I liked to imagine them saying to themselves. “Those poor people. I wonder if they had a fight or something. So sad.” We laughed at the horror of it while we put up our ugly skinny pre-lit grocery store tree. Next year’s will be better. I lulled myself with the thought.
The next year we were in a new house and again, our tree died, though it at least had the decency to wait until after Christmas day to give up the ghost. Because rigor mortis had set in Brett had to saw the limbs off of it to get it through the door. Like it’s predecessors it was very large and very beautiful until it croaked. In the years after that the trees didn’t die as quickly, though they were pretty dry at the end. But they did each fall over, only once narrowly missing one of our children. One of those times Brett had gone back to the office to do some work while I was still putting on ornaments. I had to have our daughter fish my cell phone out of my pocket and call him to come home while I stood, Atlas-like underneath it, shouldering the great weight of my giant, beautiful tree until help arrived. Needless to say, Brett got sick of it all. I wasn’t pleased that they kept dying or falling over either but I refused to get a fake tree. I just can’t make my mind go there. It’s a testament to his decency that he never pushed me to get a fake tree, but he did begin to beg me to get a more reasonably sized one. In his mind he figured if it was destined to die or fall over at the very least we could have one that was easier to work with. One that didn’t require the sawing off of limbs to remove it from the house and one that we didn’t have to drill extra holes into the wall to hold in place. For my part, I just blamed him. I figured it was ridiculous that a man with a master’s degree in engineering couldn’t figure out how to put a tree in a stand good enough to keep it upright and I spent hours researching methods of pro-longing the life span of pines and furs.
What changed the tide of my fortunes was something I had never expected: my daughter. I’m not sure how or when it happened. Maybe they had been having late night conversations questioning my sanity or motivations and I hadn’t noticed it. But for whatever reason, the year that my daughter was seven and my son was two the ultimate line was drawn in the sand. Out of the blue one night she said it. “I agree with Daddy. You get trees that are too big. They either fall down or they die and they never look like a triangle like a Christmas tree is supposed to look like. This year I want a smaller tree. Not one of those big giant ones that you always like.” Brett stood there silent, a smile on his face. I felt like I had been stabbed in the heart. I thought back to all those years that I had defended my mother’s choice in a Christmas tree. How happy we were to find one that took up the entire room as we ignored my father’s exultations that we please find one that doesn’t require the removal of doors to get into the house. What had I done to not earn her fidelity like my mother had earned mine? More importantly, what had he done to her to make her accept some measly tree substitute to the grand display that I always went out of my way to provide? I was heartbroken. And for the first time, outnumbered. I knew a lost cause when I saw one.
We pulled into the lot at the bottom of the hill and got out to inspect the Hall Town trees. Usually the director of the operation, for the first time I hung back. While Brett and Ellie scampered around inspecting each one I just milled around sulking, holding my son in my arms. “Next year you’ll be able to talk and you’ll be on my side.” I said to him. He just looked at me. “Tree.” He said and pointed to the trees lined up around the clearing. “Yeah. Tree.” I said back to him. We’d have to really work on his vocabulary over the next year if he was going to be my ally. The whole process seemed stupid to me. Every tree they picked up looked lamer than the last. Just plain old trees. Nothing grand or awe-inspiring about any of them. Might as well get a fake tree if you’re not going to have something really fantastic in the house. Why go to the trouble just to have some ordinary old tree? I didn’t get it. For my daughter’s part she just wanted a tree that looked like a triangle and could hold a star at the top. We’d never had a tree that could hold a star. The top was always smashed into the ceiling. I had decided to simply say “okay” to whichever tree was presented to me for approval. Because, in reality, I didn’t approve of any of them. At some point in the car I had made the decision to be an asshole. I was setting flame to the fields and I wasn’t sure if I could take it back. It was under this dark cloud that we all “decided” on one and paid our twenty dollars.
Because my husband still can’t tie knots I had to tie the tree that I hated to the top of the car. I know Brett realized he had made a mistake before I had even finished. I have a fantastic capacity to take the whole ship down with me and I was in full torpedo mode. I had no interest in dialing it back either. I was pissed because the tree they had picked was just a normal little boring tree like normal boring people have and, worse, I was hurt because I felt like my child didn’t share in the mysterious and critical force that guides my life. The idea being: If you’re going to do it, do it. Do it big and do it grand and do it in a way that makes everybody stop and take stock of how they do it. Bigger, better, louder, happier, better. That’s the way we do things. At least, that’s how I thought we do things. How had she not learned that? I worried about what other lessons I had failed to impart. What else hadn’t stuck? Of course, I do count on Brett to provide my official checks and balances. We would have long ago lost the house and the car and all of our money if I were allowed to be the driving force in all family decisions. He is the voice of reason to my loud and insistent voice of irrational exuberance. I don’t know why because she does look a lot more like him than she does me, but I just assumed that at some point she would be a member of Team Irrational Exuberance and not Team Voice of Reason. I hadn’t seen it coming at all.
I glowered at the tree and like a child I refused to participate in any aspect of its decoration. So as not to ruin it for my children I did smile at the proper moments and gave enthusiastic acknowledgements to every ornament placement that Ellie made. “Do you like it Mommy? Isn’t it better than a giant tree? It’s just like a triangle.” She seemed so pleased with herself. “It’s beautiful sweetie. You did a wonderful job. Really.” I reassured her every time she asked and with each answer I gave I shot Brett a look that suggested he had no idea what this tree would cost him in the days and months to come. He knew it was bad. He knew I was angry. And he knew that I wholly planned on taking it out on him. I think even he was surprised at how fully I would refuse to cooperate or be a team player where this tree was concerned. Had he known, I feel certain he would have let me win.
Ordinarily I am in charge of every aspect of the tree, save putting it up and taking it down. I put on the lights and garland and stage direct the placing of the ornaments, which is why I feel my say should carry more weight. In our house I am Christmas. Brett always has input and is more than available to help where help is needed. He is the prime mover and the source of all of the income that allows us to have a Christmas at all. But I am the one that makes it happen. I make the gingerbread houses from scratch, research and buy and wrap the presents, bake the bread and the dozens of cookies, cook the food and buy the liquor. I have the invisible list in my head of everything that must be done for everybody to have the type of Christmas to which they have grown accustomed. In thinking about why I reacted so strongly to my disappointment in the tree I know this has something to do with it. I don’t want things for Christmas. Presents are not a priority on my list. I just want the holiday to be a special one for my kids the way it was always so special for me. Loud and beautiful and festive and filled with cousins and food and magic. With all of the craziness and the planning and the shopping my absolute favorite part of Christmas, the part that I enjoy the most, is plugging in my big ridiculous tree every night. Overflowing with garish lights and an odd assortment of ornaments it is a constant in my own holiday memory. It is just like the trees of my own childhood. We still have some of the Big Lots decorations that we bought the year that we were first married. There are ornaments that I remember making when I was in kindergarten at the elementary school up the street. And the lights that we bought the year the tree died two days before Christmas. Every Christmas I play the martyr for my family and go out of my way to give them the holiday I think they deserve and for that I don’t think it’s too much to ask that I get my insanely enormous Christmas tree.
I come from a long line of strong-willed women who are luckily married to endlessly decent and indulgent men. My mother knew I was pissed about my mediocre Christmas tree and so did my aunt Laura. In the days after I had lost the battle they each called me separately to commiserate. My mom told me about the time she almost killed my father who cut two feet off the bottom of what was according to her “her favorite tree of all time” thus ruining it. Laura too talked about the failings of these men who begrudge us our one big beautiful obsession. We, the women who make the holidays magical. Both of them had the same words of wisdom for me. “Just wait till next year. Wait till next year and make him pay. He’ll be sorry and next year he won’t be able to say no because you’ve made him so miserable this year. Then you’ll get the biggest tree you can find that will still fit through the door.”
I appreciated their kind words. I felt crazy being so angry about a tree. It’s not healthy to despise an inanimate object so much that it’s impossible not to mutter the words “I hate you stupid tree” under your breath as you walk by. In general, that doesn’t make a person feel very good about herself. But I did take solace from them, at least in that I am not alone in my psychosis. And also in the fact that over the past eleven months the boy has learned to speak very well. I know he loves me very much and I don’t doubt that when it comes down to it, when mommy needs him the most, he’ll come through. I envision next year pulling into the lot at Hall Town and Brett and Ellie hurrying off to pick out their version of the “perfect Christmas tree.” I’ll get George out of his car seat and when I ask my sweet boy, the one who looks more like me than his dad, which tree he wants for Christmas I know that he’ll say “I want the big one, Mommy. The really really big one.”