Every year, this challenge of the Christmas Tree comes up. Is it Christmas, really, without one? In my heart of hearts, no, it is not. There have been years when getting a Christmas tree and decorating it went by me. It just got away from me for one reason or another. Work? Money? Time? Living alone? I would look up and Christmas had come and gone – yes, I’d gotten the presents for everyone by the skin of my teeth, but nights when I could just sit and appreciate the lights twinkling, the soft warm glow, the smell of a fresh tree in my house had come and gone without that celebration.
In California, it was pretty easy – you go to a lot, pick out the tree, bring it home, plunk it down and voila, you could put on the music, pour some eggnog or a glass of wine, haul out the ornaments and get started on your own or with family and friends. Mind, anyone who has gone with me to pick out a tree will roll with laughter that it is “easy.” And, I would ruefully acknowledge that I have all kinds of rules regarding picking out a tree.
It all goes back to that story I read when I was little. Something about a tree growing up in the forest and, as it grows, tales are passed about a particular time of year when the best and brightest are picked for some faraway honor. With all its heart, that little tree wants to grow up to be one of those. There are whispers from the elders that those trees never come home again and how can that be a good thing? The tree grows and grows until, one day, he is one of the chosen ones! Oh what joy the tree feels! The tree journeys with the others and he/she/it is lined up in the marketplace to be chosen by someone. He stands as tall and beautiful as he can to be seen amongst the crowd and ‘lo! he is chosen and taken home. The tree gets put in a closet until the day, when the family takes him out to decorate him and, once again, he is happy to be with people who appreciate him, and then (I think) he tells of his end, being tossed out with the trash. Gives me shudders as I write the story. Anyone who goes shopping for a tree with me has to hear that story and has to swear before setting foot on the lot that they will not criticize any tree in the lot, “If you don’t like it, just don’t say anything. I don’t want any of those trees to feel hurt. Swear it!” I will go from tree to tree, praising it aloud, even if I don’t pick it. I will find something positive to say. And, when I bring the tree home, I thank it for being part of my Christmas. And, yes, when it is time to let it go, I thank it again. Mind, that may be the reason why I will leave my tree up until January 15 or so. Huh. It had to pass on to the Great Forest in the Sky before I’d take it out – yes, I know, fire hazard and all that, nonetheless, that tree stayed up and I thanked it again in memory when I put it outside.
Here’s the thing…. In California or, specifically, in Santa Monica, California, the trees come with two planks of wood nailed to the base of the tree, so that it will stand up in your home. You can purchase a bowl for watering the tree and they put that on the base, add the planks that form an X and then nail thru the planks into the bowl into the base and, trust me, it works really well. Here’s thing two: by the time the trees get to California, they are somewhat dry and relatively light – well, my Mom and I could carry it between us and neither one of us weighed 100 lbs or stood over 5’2. Another thing (3) – the white sheet that went ’round the base of the tree – I think I was in my 20’s before I realized it was supposed to represent snow…. I thought it was to catch the needles. I had seen snow once or twice up until then. Californians do see the world differently. Then, I moved to the Pacific Northwest – North Bend, Washington specifically. A small logging town located 30 miles from Seattle, where I worked. I had found a small one-bedroom cabin/house on 1/3 of an acre – with fruit trees, apples and plums, and raspberries the size of a man’s thumb. My landlord was a gardener par excellence and he had designed it so that whenever a plant or flower bloomed and then died, another began blooming right next to it, so there was never a moment something wasn’t happening in full Technicolor. The original owner had been a cabinet-maker so the interior of the house was all wood, with fabulous cedar closets, a furnace you could set the timer for so that the house was warm when you woke or came home! It had a real fireplace, with a stacks of logs just outside the backdoor, off the greenroom… The front room had an enormous skylight and the ceiling peaked so there was plenty of room for a really big tree. You get where I’m going with this, right?
Thing 4: I had arrived in April of 1996, so by December, I’d learned a few things, one of which was that I was abysmally ignorant of how things worked in the Pacific Northwest and that it was dangerous to be so ignorant for a variety of reasons – socially, culturally and physically. I still had the inner clock of a Californian, so when the sun shone, I thought it would continue to shine… no. No, no, no, that is simply not true. Further, while it stays lighter longer in the summer nights, it also gets darker faster in the winter. You cannot just decide, hmmm, time to go shopping for a tree, you have to plan it. None of that spontaneity nonsense.
I had moved to North Bend and into my little cabin in early November. They assured me that it rarely snowed and if it did, it would be in January, if at all. Not that November. Before Thanksgiving, we were snowed in. I learned all kinds of info, such as the shovel my landlord had dropped off in October was not to be kept outside by the door because it just simply disappeared under all that snow. And, yes, while they will snowplow the street, that shoves all the snow into HUGE balls of what will shortly become HEAVY HUGE ICE BALLS and no, cars do not gracefully glide over heavy huge ice balls. My boss, knowing I had never driven in snow, kindly told me to not come in. I did buy snow tires – four of ’em, which made the people around me laugh. Okay, maybe I have front wheel drive or not, I dunno. I do know it was a basic California car, not a four-wheel drive so highly favored here, and thus, to my mind, if two snow tires are good, four was better. Know your limitations. Also, it is important to keep opening your front door and a back one if you have one. Why? Because snow piles up. High. Very, very high, especially in North Bend which experiences wind like nowhere I’d ever been. It howled around my little cabin, sending trash cans hurtling down the street, and piling the snow up in drifts. Drifts become ice. Pretty soon, the front door doesn’t open anymore and it won’t until the snow melts. I had to break out through the back door, climb up and over a mound of snow, and over the fence just to reach my car…. But, I was learning enough to ask questions before Christmas. “Well, yes, you could buy a Christmas tree from a lot, but don’t you want to go pick one out?” What did they mean, I asked in all innocence. And, I’d get the look. The Pacific Northwesterner’s look that somehow combined consternation, pity, comprehension and glee. (The glee was revenge-based. Californians had driven up the housing prices astronomically and the locals were not thrilled – the buyers, not the sellers.)
Thing 5: Pacific Northwesterners are very polite and courteous – they honestly are. Going to the market the first time was stunning. I asked someone where something could be found, and they not only told me, they took me to the aisle and helped me find it…. Oh yeah, it is different from California. They truly do look out for their neighbors and how anyone could have a successful affair in this town is beyond my comprehension. I could travel for the weekend by boat to somewhere distant and, on walking into the office on Monday, sure enough some coworker would say, “Hey, I saw you this weekend in the San Juan Islands. Who was that cute guy you were with?
I learned you could go to a Christmas Tree farm (and I think maybe into forests, too – never made it that far) and you could cut your own tree. Hmmm…. instant clash in my mental landscape where all my dos and don’ts exist – was it morally ethically to cut down one of those glorious trees – after all, in the lots those trees were already done for and I was just making sure they didn’t go to waste… On the other hand, I might be the last generation to actually be able to cut down a tree, and there was a sense of participating in history. Hmmm…. A couple of notes, they hastily told me, “Now, be careful, because the trees are actually a lot bigger than they look outside once you get ’em home. You will need some help probably in getting it in the tree stand.” What’s a tree stand? A dreadful silence ensued. “It is what the tree stands in,” They said finally, studying my face as though realizing they were confronting an idiot. And, they surely were. It is truly like being from a different planet.
Okay, the day arrived gloriously sunny and bright with snow on the ground. I got to the tree farm around about 1:30 p.m. or so. Tucked off on a side road, I pulled into the space allotted for cars and stood outside the car studying the layout. To my delight, there was a hayride available. You climbed aboard and a tractor pulled you around through the snow. Okay, not a sleigh, but you are talking with the same girl, so in love with “Little Women,” that I had climbed our avocado tree and took a basket of eight apples with me. I ate all of ’em in about 30 minutes imitating Jo and her writing sojourns in the attic. In my defense, we didn’t have an attic. Ever eaten eight apples in 30 minutes? You won’t eat another full apple for years. And, inside, there was a shop with a real live Santa sitting in a rocker by the fireplace, there was apple cider available – hot apple cider. God! What a glorious adventure – everything I had read about, heard in songs, a White Christmas! It’s about 2:30 or so when I finish experiencing all they have to offer and it is time to find my perfect tree. The guys on duty explain what I do, which is just walk out and about, find the tree, and then look about for an available saw and have at it. They did offer to cut it down for me, they had an electric saw, as compared to the hand saws available. I thanked them, but refused. After all, if I was going to cut down an actual living tree, it was my responsibility to do it. I began my walkabout and let me say, there were a lot of trees. I found my perfect tree, looked around for a saw – and stared at it doubtfully. It was pretty rusty and old-looking, but hey, this is how it was done, right? Now, for a reality check. Christmas trees lie fairly close to the ground, which means you lay on cold snow and with no leverage at all, you take that trusty, rusty old saw and begin to saw. It’s getting dark, too. And, I am making absolutely no headway in cutting that tree down. In fact, I’m probably wounding it more than cutting it. It doesn’t take long before I go trotting for help. The guys are relieved to see me because they want to close soon, more snow is coming and yes, it is in fact going to be dark within about 40 minutes. One of them steps forward with the power tool. He calmly tells me, “No, you cannot use this. Against our insurance.” Phew! Makes perfect sense to me. Within seconds, my perfect tree is sundered and the guy asks if I want help tying it onto the roof of my car. Y’bet. Send it through the gismo that wraps the tree branches all together in an embrace and two or three guys tie it to my roof. There are fees for all this help, but worth every penny. I did remember the all important tree stand and it cost more than the tree itself, “but it will last for years.” They go over the instructions with me. Piece of cake. I can do this!
I pull up to my wonderful cabin/house. Thing 6: The door to the house does not face the street. It is off to the side on a meandering path that eventually leads to the front porch – side porch. I go inside, get scissors to cut the tree free from the ties that bind it to my car. Well and good. I studied the possibilities before cutting the string – what was the most efficient, where would the tree land, clearest landing place, etc., before cutting. It did not fall off the car. I grab a fistful of the rope still wrapping that tree and pull, fully prepared to leap out of the way. It doesn’t move. At all. In fact, it’s heavy. Very heavy and weighted. Ah, this is what they meant when they said fresh, as in full of water and shiny good health. Oh my good God, I cannot get the tree off the car…. I look towards my neighbors’ houses all decorated with lights and windows showing their fully decorated trees that have been up for days and days. I have my pride. And, frankly, I didn’t know anybody well enough to ask for assistance if it wasn’t an emergency.
Ever notice how frustration can lend strength? It is nothing compared to getting pissed off and losing your temper. I got the tree off the car because of frustration. I got it to the front door by losing my temper. I can say in all honesty that it is excellent practice for committing murder – dragging a fresh tree must be comparable to the dead body of a 6’5 man, yes? When I reached my front/side door, I let out a yell of triumph – in fact, in a salute to Chanukah and Passover, I yelled, “This time next year, a man!”
The front door was actually a kind of vestibule that led through a glassed-in area to french doors that opened into the house. Two feet to go to position it under the skylight. Back to the car for the tree stand – an awkward metal circle that would act as the base with a green bowl that was somehow attached to the metal circle by a flange or something and an ever-loving gigantic screw with a fulcrum handle. Uh-huh. I will just say for the sake of brevity, yeah, right, that I was channeling before that tree made it into the stand. I lined up chairs to take the weight of the tree and hoisted it up on them, like a magician preparing to saw his assistant in half, and then calling on God, all the angels in heaven and hell, and on any soul passing by in the ether, “Help me, HELP ME, OH PLEASE, PLEASE!!!” And, it worked, suddenly, the tree was in the damn bowl and screwed into place and stood on its mighty base. Thunk! I landed on the floor and looked up at this gigantic tree barely fitting within the skylight and appreciated the difference between an outside tree and an indoor one. And now for turning it loose by cutting the rope binding all its branches – WHOMP! That glorious tree unfolded its mighty branches and filled that small living room area. The smell was intoxicating. I got a step stool out and climbed it to string lights. I am very fond of lights and I like the little ones. Before I was done, I made at least one trip to get more lights. I think I ended up stringing 800 lights on that tree, but man, it lit the room! Okay, the house and yes, you could probably see it from space. My tree. Dancing around it, hanging ornaments gathered throughout the years, gifts from friends and family – revisiting Christmases of a lifetime with each one. That is Christmas in the Pacific Northwest.
It is now 2012. It is 16 years later and I have respect for the weight of trees and that ******* tree stand. This year, I found the ornaments in the big box outside in the storage closet (I’ve an apartment this time around). Found the base, but not the bowl or the screw or the fulcrum handle. I spent a lot of time looking for those, as well as my 1000 bulb lights. Never found ’em ( see the post entitled, “Over-stressed or is the Universe Playing Games?” And, then, I spotted this on my friend, Inga’s blog:
Well! I could do that. Books wouldn’t be a problem. I’ve got over 3,500 of them. Ask anyone who has moved me – all 45 times. Never mind, nobody volunteers more than once except my brother, God bless him. And, he would not use the word “volunteered.” Thing 7: It is a fact that I do indeed have 3,500 books or more. They are by subject and alphabetized by author and they are dusty. I have lived here for eight years, after all. And, they will have to be pulled out of sequence in order to build the base and going upwards. I did get started today. Got the first base layer out and then somehow ended up writing this story in memory of that long-ago Christmas. Back to work, wish me luck! Oh, I did get a wreath for the all important smell of Christmas and I did string it with the new lights I bought – there are two boxes of lights waiting for me. Gotta go. Merry Christmas, everyone!
2013 Update: DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Proof positive of what I was doing on December 23, 2012. Grin.