In that first December of our married life, fifty-four years ago, we bundled up warm and set out on a quest for the perfect Christmas tree. A tree that would become a part of our life story that we were writing together, in one voice. It must be that our “one voice” has diverged over the years because our current memories are quite different. Sometimes I wonder if we lived different lives together – which I guess we did.
I remember the laughter of trudging through the snow in that first season together (or was that a few years later when we had small children?), finding a perfect tree and then seeing a more perfect tree twenty five feet further away – only to discover it had a very crocked trunk. I remember the excitement of finding the most beautiful tree that was just tall enough for the 10-foot ceilings of our apartment, but not too big.
Jim remembers being out in the cold, cutting a good bit off the bottom and trimming away branches. His story includes a way-too-thick trunk needing a lot of whittling to fit in the standard and us heaving and tugging to get the too-big tree through the front door. And his telling includes how long it took as he lifted and shifted and I twisted and tightened to get it perfectly straight in the stand after years of wind and sun sculpting it to nature’s specifications – only to discover as we viewed from another angle that it wasn’t so straight.
I remember the joy and excitement of having that perfect Christmas tree – the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. And I remember how that tree, on Monday morning as I was decorating it, started to fall towards me. And the panic of wondering if I was going to have to stand there and hold that monster of a tree until Jim returned from work after 5:00. I was able to push it back into the corner and I believe we put screws in the wall to tie it in place. But it was a beautiful tree.
There was a challenge and excitement inherent in getting a live Christmas tree because every one was different, due to each one’s unique imperfections. My fondest memories of those childhood and young adult live-tree-Christmases were outings to visit parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends during this season to see their trees. And after echos of “Merry Christmas” and hugs, stomping snow off boots, and shedding coats, scarves, hats and mittens, there were many exclamations of admiration and joy over their tree. And of course it was expected that everyone come to see our tree and for all to agree that it was the most beautiful tree ever.
Our Christmas tree traditions have evolved as our bodies and lifestyles changed. After several years, Jim tired of the cutting and hauling, the sculpting and straightening that went into getting the live tree in place and standing straight, while listening to the Messiah words about “the crooked made straight.” He also grew to dread dragging the dying tree out of the house leaving puddles of stagnant water and prickly pine needles on the carpet.
I remember when I assembled our first artificial tree, branch by branch as I strung each one with lights. After spending hours putting it up, Jim ascended from the basement and proclaimed how much easier it was putting up the tree that year. I would have given a snarky response if I hadn’t been gazing at our most beautiful tree ever. It was straight and perfectly formed. The branches extended at perfect angles so ornaments hung and nestled in exactly the right place. Visitors had to touch it to believe that it wasn’t a live tree.
We have changed and morphed the artificial trees we have had over the years, especially since chronic pain and aging have limited my energy. Even though I like the benefits of an artificial tree, I am feeling nostalgic for the unique imperfection and beauty of a live tree. I can be fairly certain what my tree will look like each year even though I pick and choose different ornaments for decoration. There is a sense of boredom that comes with the perfection of my artificial trees. But I also bristle at the thought of buying multiple trees to choose among and filling the landfill with artificial trees as I crave new and different.
I am sitting looking at this year’s tree. It is the same one we had last year, and that one was the same as the year before but without the bottom section, and that one was the same as the five years before but with the pre-strung lights cut off. With all of these modifications it is still a beautiful tree – except for the half string of dark bulbs about two-thirds of the way up.
Aah, the quest and the work continues to have the most beautiful tree ever.