The Three Years Tree

Rule of three tries…

Approach the task with good humor and humility. Presume things will go wrong. Resolve to be patient about it. Presume, but don’t believe, because you got this. Third time’s a charm, Right?

Third time without him, that is.

Set specific time to depart for the local big box hardware store where we always buy the tree. Wear Santa hats.

Strap tree to top of car, rather than stuffing it in the car to provide a year’s worth of needles to vacuum from various crevices for the year.

Get home without tree falling off top of car. Leave tree in cold garage for lunch break.

And now….

Tree stand.

Complimenting yourself for being clever enough to leave the stand on the work shelf in the garage since last year, rather than high and unreachable in the rafters where Mike used to put it, pick up stand.

Discover that unspecified rodent has purloined substantial amounts of insulation (must be from the bathroom in the breezeway that connects to the garage – the one that is now so cold) to construct cozy nest in the tree stand base. Eww.

Don gloves. Remove insulation. Wipe with disinfecting wipes.

Place protective plastic on floor in front of bay window (that Mike meticulously re-puttied when he was so sick, taking breaks to sit down, over three days), for inevitable spillage of water when attempting to nourish tree.

Attach base that looks oddly like a giant cervical cap (ewww) to fresh-cut base of trunk. Place in larger base, that has a foot pedal that is supposed to allow you to waggle the tree around until it is straight, upright and stable, and then lock it there.

Angelic daughter holds tree strait. Perfect! Lock.

Let go.

Tree immediately lists sideways.

Try again.

Tree lists again.

Remove tree with giant cervical cap from larger base.  Notice puddles, resulting from brilliant inspiration to put water in the stand before you put the tree in, on the plastic intended to protect wood floor, running inexorably toward said wood. Dash to kitchen for paper towels.

Angelic daughter decamps to watch TV when Mom’s swearin….erm, expressions of frustration, become a bit overwhelming.

Notice that in your efforts to place and lock tree, plastic has skidded on the floor, shifting tree way off center in front of bay window.

Sigh.

Try again.

Breathe. Employ observation, reason and calculation. Realize giant cervical cap thing needs to be snugger on trunk, and needs to sit lower in base.

Use garden loppers to remove low branches interfering with giant thorn-looking thingees that have to be screwed in tight to tree trunk.

Screw in giant thorn looking thingees.

Sit back in satisfaction. Nice and tight.

Time to try again.

Third time’s a charm, right?

Lift tree with giant cervical cap thing into larger base, and feel the satisfying click as it settles in to the correct spot. Feels stable. Step back to look.

Looks straight.

Praying (because God really cares about whether my Christmas tree is straight and stable, right?), shove foot pedal intended to allow waggling-around into lock position, and stomp down.

Holy crap. Maybe God does care that it is straight!

(No, dumbass, God cares that you get this done so you can calm down and stop swearin…expressing frustration, and move on to the decorating part which allows you to involve angelic daughter, retrieved from her retreat to the TV).

Praying more (hey, it worked), every-so-gently drag plastic back to center tree in front of window.

It worked again.

Lights!

Having been brilliant enough to buy two extra sets of lights last year, in anticipation of the future inevitable malfunction of lights that worked perfectly before, begin stringing lights – smugly, because you checked, to be sure the star that will go on the top gets the female end it needs to plug into.

Carefully distribute two strings of 300 lights in tiers around tree. Pick up third and final string.

Realize that final string will have a female end where it needs to plug into the wall.

Swea…Sigh. Breathe.

I put 600 lights on the tree, backwards. Used the female end that also has a male end at the top instead of the one with just the female end.

Unwrap lights. Rewrap lights. Decide 600 is enough. Last year’s tree, which had 900, was bigger.

Plug in.

Looks good!

Angelic daughter, creeping back in from TV room, proceeds with garlands and chains, and we (ok, I) only break four ornaments in the process of getting them out of their nests in the Christmas boxes and up on the tree.

After placing all her own handmade ornaments and garlands from school years, especially anything that has a picture of her on it, and the one with her Dad’s name on it, daughter decamps to take another break and watch more TV.

Which leaves me to hang the significant ornaments.

Listening to Vince Gill, “Breath of Heaven.” Hold me together.

The one with the little mouse at the front door, welcoming us to our new house nearly 20 years ago. House had LOTS of mice, we discovered.

Sniff.

The one of the little snowman with a shovel, that symbolized that year that Mike shoveled every two hours, seemingly for weeks on end. Big snow that year.

Tears.

I didn’t expect the one that really got me, though – a little bear dressed as Santa.

“Bear” was my pet name for Mike.

More tears.

“Can we have our quiet time now?

Breathe. Dry up.

Of course, sweetheart.

Regard the tree.

Oops, forgot the star.

Managing not to break anything (third time, anyway), clip top of tree with garden loppers. Pop star on top, held by treetop twig through the arms of the star.

Plug in.

Ta-da!

I really should have put that third string of lights on.  The lowest branches have none.

Abandon perfectionist tendencies.  Decide this is good enough.

Because, however imperfect, to me, there really isn’t anything as lovely, peaceful, and comforting as a Christmas tree.

Angelic daughter is tired. Sit with her upstairs until she falls deep asleep.  Return downstairs for more “tree regarding” time.

Play Christmas choral music, volume very low, by some Englishy choir, recorded in an echoey-Englishy-medeival stone cathedral.

Lo, how a rose ere blooming.

Smile.

Wishing you a beautiful tree, or Menorah, or whatever brings you peace and light this time of year, and hoping to get over this cough in time to sing Englishy carols in a big stone church, I remain,

Your tree-regarding, Santa-hat wearing, soon-to-be-cookie-baking,

Ridiculouswoman

Me vs. the Tree

…cute is…the best, the pinnacle, that can be achieved on the attractiveness scale when it comes to flannel sleepwear.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged..

…that there is no such thing as a sexy flannel nightgown.”

A sudden burst of luck and generosity hit me yesterday, when out of the blue I got a call offering me a fresh cut Christmas tree, delivered to my door.

“Are you looking for a Christmas tree?”

“Umm…wha….well, not yet, but, sure, why not?”

Turns out I could help out by taking the topped-off top of a large tree a member of my congregation just felled, as my Tree for this year.

It only took me 5 tries to get it up, centered and reasonably stable.

Which reminded me of the annual Battle of the Tree.

We’d trek out to get one, usually the second week of December, which Mike always insisted on – he never wanted a tree earlier than that: wouldn’t allow it. Meaning there was no point in arguing about it as that would mean no peace in this house until the subject was dropped.

So the second week of December we’d trek out, buy a tree at Home Depot and stuff in into the Honda, its trunk through the little trap door in the back seat that opened into the trunk, and it’s tip poking between the front seats, our child submerged under pine boughs in the back seat. Why didn’t we ever figure out how to bungee it to the top of the car?

The car would smell of pine needles for weeks after, and regardless of how many vacuumings I attempted, stray needles would still show up in there until the following year when we’d repeat the entire exercise and re-needle the whole interior.

Tree hauled inside, and that’s when the “fun” would begin.

“Wait, wait hon, let me put something down to protect the floor.”

I’d do that while he’d go fetch the tree stand from its perch on a not-easily-accessible shelf in the garage.

This tree stand is supposed to make it easy to get the tree  up and straight, and then sort of lock it in place. You screw on a smaller base to the trunk, and then put the whole thing into the larger part of the base, waggle it around until all agreed it was straight, and lock it in.

It has a foot pedal sort of thing on it, which you extend and then step on to enable the waggling-around, and then when it is determined the tree is straight, you push the pedal back in and voila! Locked and ready for lights.

Seems easy, right?

Well, the first issue was remembering to pull the foot pedal out in the first place. For reasons unknown, we simply could not remember that from one year to the next, even though the foot pedal says, “extend fully.” So that was a good thirty minute fight and several failed straightening attempts before we remembered that. Then we’d argue about whether it was supposed to be “extended fully” before you put the tree in or after. And trying to figure out whether the red ring thingee around the small base part is supposed to be in the “open” or “closed” position, when it didn’t seem to open or close anything.

Plus deciding how many, if any, of the bottom branches to trim off, so the sharp little beaks on the levers that were supposed to screw into the tree to secure it inside the smaller part of the base, could bite in deep enough to hold the tree.

But the biggest issue was trying to reach parity, compromise, or, in a very good year, actual agreement, about whether the tree was straight.

We’d trade off doing the waggling around, the stepping back to check verticality, adjusting, swearing, starting over, trying again.

“It looks fine to me!”

“No, further to the left!”

“Just hold it still, dammit!”

Etc. You get the idea.

Last year, the first year without Mike, our adult child didn’t want to go, so I went by myself to choose the tree and stuff it into my Subaru, since I sold the Honda. I don’t need two cars.

Went through all of the above steps and got the thing up, leaning back a little, but stable.

This year I thought I was thoroughly prepared. I remembered to pull the handle thingee out, but got stymied by the “open” or “close” ring thingee and the narrow trunk of this tree-made-out-of-the-top-of-a-bigger-tree (which is really pretty, and nicely shaped, and the right kind of tree for me, a short-needled balsam, I think, with great branches for lights and ornaments.) Tried it open first, and I thought I got the little beak thingees biting into the tree enough, but when I put it up, it waggled and leaned and tilted and tipped.

Try again.

Pulled the base off, closed the ring thingee. Now the beak thingees wouldn’t go into the trunk of the tree far enough at all. Way too loose.

Try again.

Open the thingee.

Position the levers with the beaks around the trunk of the tree in slightly different places. Beak thingees tighten up nicely, take a good bite. The little base is secure now.

Pick it up and put it in the big base, and proceed to waggle until I think it sits down in there the way it should. There’s a sort of click. That must mean something, right?

It seems like it is staying up on its own. Step back, looks reasonably vertical.

But I forgot to check which side of the tree I’d want facing forward.

Undo, redo, two or three more times.

When I finally decided it was good enough, I pushed the foot pedal thingee back into the base, and it seems to have worked. The tree is standing, awaiting lights and decoration.

Mike always did the lights, because he could reach the top of the tree, and I’d follow him around and around, reeling them out as he placed them on the branches and getting kind of dizzy. Step back, check, adjust.

After lights and garlands, ornaments. We have ornaments that mean things to me – I’d pick up a new one on any vacation, as a memento, so we have several from Maine, one from Disneyworld and one from Arizona. Each year I also tried to pick one that seemed to represent that year most memorably of all.

My favorite is the little snowman with a shovel, from the year 2001, I think. Mike was absolutely fanatical about shoveling. He’d set his alarm every two hours during a blizzard, and go out and shovel the driveway, just to prevent the snow from accumulating so much that it would turn to ice before he could shovel again. He even did this during a real snurricane, a snowmageddedon that carried 60 mile an hour winds that ripped part of the roof off.  What was the point, I tried to plead with him, when the wind would just blow it all back in a minute or two?

But in his mind it seems the measure of a man was his ability to contend with a snow covered driveway.

He appropriated my little black russian-looking hat for this task. I wear that hat everywhere now when I go outside, if I feel the slightest chill.

But that year, 2001 I think, was exceptional in its demand for shoveling. It seemed he spent the whole winter out there. So that year’s ornament was a no brainer.

Once the tree is all decorated, we had a tradition of “tree regarding.”

We’d turn on Christmas music and turn off all the lights except the outdoor decorations and the tree, and just sit back and look at it. It really is magical, and soothing.

Which brings me back around to the flannel nightgown.

I love the warmth and comfort and coziness of an oversized flannel nightie in the winter, and my Mom used to buy me a new one each Christmas. She thought it was excessive. It offended her native New England frugality, as she knew they’d last much longer than a year, but she did it anyway because she knew it made me happy.

I’m down to one flannel nightie now, and no one to get me a new one this year.

I can handle that, but the thing that made me sad, after I won this year’s solo battle of the tree, was when I stepped into the downstairs powder room, which has two big oval mirrors over two pretty porcelain sinks with gold trim and a floral pattern (why didn’t we go down to one when we had that room done? We didn’t need two sinks in there, ever) and saw my reflection in one of those mirrors.

“I look cute,” I thought, in my Santa’s helper hat (only Santa wear’s the REAL Santa hat), and my bulky red cardigan thrown over my last remaining Lanz flannel nightie.

“You look cute, Mom,” Mike would have said. Because I’m pretty sure he actually thought I did look cute, and he knew it made me happy that he’d say so. And cute is really the absolute best, the pinnacle, that can be achieved on the attractiveness scale when it comes to flannel sleepwear.

But he isn’t here anymore to tell me that. And I know it is vain and childish and kind of selfish to need someone here to tell me I look cute in my hat and my sweater and my nightie, but I do. And I could sure use a hug and a loving pat on the backside, too.

I try not to give in to loneliness or sadness too often anymore. But when we got the tree up yesterday, still undecorated, and had our “candle time,” when we listen to music, turn all the lights off and enjoy candlelight (votives, lanterns and a few tapers in the antique brass candlesticks that belonged to my grandmother- well away from the tree, don’t worry), after a nice long quiet time, our child sighed and said, “I miss Dad,” I lost it.

“I miss him too, sweetheart. S-s-s-s-o much. And I kn-n-n-now this house feels incomplete without him and I know I can’t be him for you, but he told you, remember? He told you to remember that Dad’s love never ends, and he wants you to try to be happy and have a happy life.”

“Don’t cry, Mom.”

After our child retired to bed, I returned to soft Christmas music, and to feeling incomplete, because Mike’s not here to say, “You look cute, Mom,” to me in my flannel nightie.

That “You look cute, Mom,” was forged, earned, built, over years of marriage and togetherness, through good times and bad, from the deep appreciation and long-glowing embers of a love that has endured decades of Battles of the Tree, and it isn’t something that comes easily. I’m not sure I have enough time left in this life to find another relationship that could generate the depths that produced that “You look cute, Mom.”

The holidays are hard. I’ll pick my chin up again, I know. But I can’t promise I won’t cry when I hang that little snowman on the tree. Even if  I go ahead and buy myself, by myself,  a new flannel nightie this year.