You bring a plain pine tree into your house and it is every fight your parents ever had about its height or straightness, the correct number of lights, or where the bare patch best be rotated. It’s the so-called “marriage saver” tree stand. It’s every pair of sweatpants she wore every year we decorated trees. And every shade of hair. And every time we played Bing Crosby albums while we did it. It is sickly thick egg nog with clumps of powdered nutmeg. It’s your father in a Santa suit with sleigh bells in the drive.
At very least, that’s how it smells.
It’s also “do you think it’s crooked?” and “stand back there and pass the string around to me,” and “make sure you hang that one to catch the light; it has to catch the light,” and “you already hung too many [red/green/gold] ones there.” My mother was a Christmastime perfectionist.
She wrapped packages with virtuosity and surgical panache—every seam folded so that every reindeer torso met each reindeer rump, and every pattern overlapped exactly. She made little tags from scraps and overlapped those too. She wrote “To: Beanie, Merry Christmas, Love you, Mum” in her deliberate print. She made elaborate ribbon curls. (My dad and I did not do this; we slapped swaths of paper onto gifts and tried to keep the bunches from unbunching with embarrassing amounts of tape.)
Over the years, distance and divorce rendered our holiday routine different. I was no longer with her for the decorating or the holiday itself. She was in Florida and had to work, and I sought cheer at other campfires. Her decorations got more tropical: pink and lime instead of the official red and green. But we always had our raincheck Christmas. That would never change.
A modest pile of presents—some big, some piddling—was important. As were stockings stuffed with chocolates, hand cream, and small, unexpected treasures. There always had to be one special thing. “Which one is my surprise?” she’d wonder, eyeballing, sizing up, and delicately shaking. My mother was a Christmas connoisseur.
There was always one big deal under the tree—or tucked into the branches in a sequined box (to catch the light)—the equivalent of the hidden bee-bee gun. It didn’t have to be expensive; it just had to mean something. Some years, it would mean everything.
This year, it is her tree in my living room. There are no illusions. Her tree is here, thus not with her. Thus she is not.
It is a monument to her, however, weighted with five decades worth of Santas, rocking horses, little birds. It’s just as she would have it, minus the excess of tinsel. I look at it and ache. I see stocking stuffers for her everywhere, and big ideas for her surprise. Gifts worthy of her grandeur, of her Christmas spirit.
And her ceremonies. The perfect cup of Tension Tamer. The plate of cookies left for Santa (even after the divorce). The most festive song. The magic movies in the proper order. The tree skirt she sewed for us to puff-paint all those years ago. The little craft store flakes of snow.
All this—and I—live in a dark and quiet room called Christmas; no one else can find me here.
And the dark and quiet vacuum of my world with her is squeezing. It is big and full, but it is also empty. Gaping lonely. I tell myself I’m going to stay chipper, and post instead about the neighbor who dropped off bags of deer meat for the Booboo with a note. Or how B got freaked out by the errant hairs when he tried to fry it. Or how cute our little bungalow looks when all done up. But one long look at any given ornament on that plump, perfect tree, and I am mown.