Sunday, November 23, 1997

The Christmas We Had Two Tress rev 3

THE CHRISTMAS WE HAD TWO TREES




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 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. Besides, I knew where Santa lived. That nonsense about north poles was just grown-up talk to kids. Didn’t I just see him on the hill straddling the Presidio tunnel? Early Christmas morning I tripped down the stairs, bumping each step ass over teakettle, but the sight of the Christmas tree with its multicolored glass bulbs and icicles dazzled me; 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, jingling them—their false notes grated.

The New Year: we closed up the three-storey Victorian house on California Street 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 Wedgwood 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 by the winds of change, 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 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 his jaundiced skin, his punishment for burning a mole with a cigarette. Later I learned to wrap my mouth around the music of “melanoma” and to watch my skin for messages from the dead.

Standing at the front door with suitcase in hand, my grandfather rasped—his soft Irish brogue interrupted by the throat cancer—that he was going “to the hospital.” I demanded, “When will you be back?” Startled by the answer of “heaven,” I asked where else it was located beside in the vast painted dome of the Star of the Sea church where I was baptized. He pointed up to the clouds grazing the brilliant blue sky and mentioned something about angels. Of course I wanted to come; he’d need someone to blow out his cigar matches there too, I reasoned. They laughed uncomfortably and shuffled their feet. Born on his birthday, a month before Christmas Eve, we were twins separated at birth by 60 years. Incorrigible equals in 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 or licking salty match heads.

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? Why would anyone choose heaven over this blue sky? 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 they say he did—only to die New Year’s Eve. They say the family members 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 the loan of myself to my grandmother was to last twenty Christmases until I moved away from home.


* * * * * * *

Our first Christmas season on our own, I was miffed that my grandmother managed to sneak out of the house undetected on the morning of St. Nicholas’ Day without me. She hiked up the hill with 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, to an audience of Jesus and Mary behind their gilt frames and a crucifix overlooking the unused bureau brush set where a small harbor of bottles—decades of unopened Christmas gifts patiently waited liberation. She preferred the heady scent of Black Label 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 curmudgeon, I trudged up the ridge in a drizzle 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 owned 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, placed her at the crown of Grandma’s tree, and a tinfoil star on mine. Her madrone tree was beautiful, but at the time it just didn’t feel right. Old habits die hard—even for young children. 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.



© 1997  rev 2000 Maureen Hurley  for Dan Langton class

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