Monday, November 24, 1997

The Christmas We Had Two Trees (Prose) v2

The Christmas my grandmother broke with tradition and returned home dragging a bare madrone tree instead of the typical evergreen tree, I was thoroughly scandalized. Already on shaky ground with the thought of Santa Claus squeezing his girth down the stovepipe—no more than my plump Irish grandmother could do—I was convinced it was an unwritten sin NOT to have a real tree. These Things Mattered. The world might end if we didn’t stick to the pattern.

The previous Christmas I’d had my Santa logic seriously challenged with multiple Santas ringing bells over black cauldrons on street corners. Then one Santa dragged my onto his lap, I could see his beard was fake so I wet my pants and cried.

Early Christmas morning I tripped down the stairs, head over heels, but the sight of the Christmas tree with its multicolored glass bulbs and icicles caught my attention; I forgot to cry. All those presents! Since I was the smallest, I reasoned all the small presents were mine. Bewildered, I stared at a dozen key ring sets nestled in shredded wrapping paper.

The New Year: we closed up the three-storey Victorian house on California Street in San Francisco with its leaded glass cabinets, mahogany paneling, hidey-holes, fireplaces in every room, and moved to our West Marin summer home with its firebox attached to the Wedgewood stove—our only source of heat. No fireplace chimneys, only a stovepipe the size of my leg.

I was newly five and on loan to my grandmother to keep her company: from a bustling household of a baker’s dozen, we were reduced to only two: the aunts and uncles scattered to the winds, my parents were divorcing, both my uncle Myles and my grandfather, dead of cancer.

Etched into memory: the indelible image of my grandfather standing at the front door with suitcase in hand, saying goodbye. Suspicious, I wanted to know exactly where he was you going for Uncle Myles hadn’t returned from the hospital, would never return. I remember an archipelago of freckles set adrift on the bilious sea of jaundiced skin, his punishment for burning a mole with a cigarette.

Later I learned to wrap my mouth around the word “melanoma” and to watch my own skin.

My grandfather rasped, his soft Irish brogue interrupted by the throat cancer, “to the hospital.”

I demanded in typical almost five-year-old temerity, “When will you be back?”

Startled by the answer of “heaven,” I asked where else it was beside trapped in the vast painted dome of the Star of the Sea church.

My grandfather pointed up to the clouds grazing the brilliant blue sky and mentioned something of angels.

Of course I wanted to come too; he’d need someone to blow out his cigar matches there as well, I reasoned.

They laughed uncomfortably and shuffled their feet.

I was born on his birthday, a month before Christmas Eve, we were twins separated at birth by 60 years. Incorrigible equals in temper and temperament, I was Grandpa’s little monster: at a tender age, I’d learned some nasty habits from him—to cuss, smoke cigars and drink beer—to the horror of my family. Between tantrums, I wasn’t above snacking on stale cigarette butts soaked in beer or licking the festive red and white sulphur match sticks.

Uneasily I stood amid a forest of legs watching the stained glass window spill its crimson and green tide onto the black and white tile floor, the known world unraveling at the seams. If I went with my grandfather, would I see my family again?

I was relieved when he didn’t ask me along. I wrapped my arms around my grandmother’s leg. I don’t remember my grandfather returning home from the hospital, but he did—only to die New Year’s Eve.

The family all returned home from their New Years’ parties early. No one could say exactly why: a premonition. Our last year together as an extended family. Little did we know my mother's loan of myself to my grandmother was to last some twenty Christmases until I moved away from home.

Our first Christmas season on our own in the country, I was miffed that my grandmother managed to sneak out of the house undetected by me on the morning of St. Nicholas’ Day. (Dec. 6th; Old Saint Nicholas/ Sinterclaus/ Santa Claus is the patron saint of children and sailors).

My grandmother hiked up the hill with tree saw in hand, bundled in sweaters, longjohns, and baggy homemade black pants; she returned home the hunter dragging a bare madrone tree, a nest of leaves and twigs in her hair—smelling faintly of Wildroot—she swore by the men’s restorative hair tonic. Not that she was in any danger of going bald with a thick white thatch of hair she trimmed herself in front of the bureau mirror, with an audience of Jesus and Mary behind their gilt frames and a crucifix overlooking the unused bureau brush set and a small harbor of perfume bottles—unopened Christmas gifts. She preferred the heady scent of Bushmills. Uisge beatha, she’d say, giggling, water of life, dabbing it behind her ears.

At a loss, I wasn’t prepared to let go of the Christmas Tree symbol too. Ever the determined curmudgeon, I trudged up the ridge in a drizzle with my short five year old legs, and dragged home my own tree: a spindly Douglas fir that was more sprout than tree.

We made another cross for the base and the two trees stood side by side. My green tree was far too weak to hold ornaments or lights, the one angel we had kept doing swan-dives off the top. But the red-skinned madrone tree, aglow with its lights, silver glass balls and songbirds, was strong enough to hold up the Christmas angel. Begrudgingly, I climbed up the ladder and placed her at the crown of Grandma’s tree.

In retrospect, her madrone tree was beautiful, but at the time it just didn’t feel right. Only now does the metaphor shine through the branches of that tree, ten years after her death.

Resurrecting pieces of the story of Rhiannon’s Birds, we were building a new life, starting with the bones of the tree, the grief shining through the skeletal branches, the red-skinned flesh of madrone, peeling from the heat, revealed the green heartwood beneath, with the promise of the life to come in spring.

© 1990?   1997  Maureen Hurley

There may have been an earlier version of this as well... I'll need to check as many of these pieces began as a scribble filed away in a notebook and later rediscovered when I had enough parts to assemble it into something larger. I tended to shy away from prose as I didn't have the skill or craft. Dyslexia certainly didn't help either. I think that's why working for a newspaper taught me invaluable lessons about literacy and prose. I promised myself that when I turned 50 that I could begin to dust these fragments off and rework them into prose. I never envisioned that it would be as a blog format on the internet. But so far, so good. It's working. It's giving me the eye of distance to see what needs fixing.

FWIW, this prose piece evolved from a newspaper article I wrote for The Paper. As I was researching where to buy Christmas trees, this other story began to emerge. So sometimes it's hard to date pieces—even when you know when it was committed to paper.

Getting a Christmas Tree in Sonoma County

I rewrote and revised these West Marin prose pieces endlessly. I don't have exact creation dates, just the year, and I chose to post them all during the second half of the year, as they were all theme related. Once I went back to school, then another revision process began. How to deepen the pieces became tamtamount. So creation dates are relative.

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