Every year, mid-December, a few of my siblings and I always accompanied Dad on a hunt for the perfect Christmas tree. First, he’d drive to the various tree lots in the city and we’d read the hand painted plywood signs that advertised the prices. Then we’d return to the lot with the best deal.
Climbing out of the warm car and into the Midwest windy winter air, I’d follow my family along the snowy path as it wound its way through endless freshly cut saplings. The aroma, the soft tree branches brushing against me and the softly lit tree lot signaled that the Christmas season had begun.
Finding the “perfect” tree, day would pay the bristly faced man and together they hoist it on top of our car and tie it down.
Later, the whole family adorned that sweet smelling pine with brightly colored lights, mismatched ornaments and tinsel. The season of Christmas, like the smell of pine, settled in around us.
No Longer Living
But, that first Christmas after my father’s death, we did not go looking for the “perfect” tree. Instead of a freshly cut tree, my mother brought home an artificial one.
On a cold clear afternoon in mid-December, I watched from the living room window as my brothers hoisted a large package from the trunk of our ugly beige Plymouth Valiant. Under Mom’s critical eye, they carried it into the dining room and dumped its contents onto the floor.
Then she left my brothers to do the chore of putting the tree together. After a bit of time, they pieced together the lifeless green branches made of wood, wire and plastic. Securing its skinny trunk into the tree stand, they scooted it into a corner.
The tree had no sign of life, the plastic branches did not move when you touched it, and there was no familiar piney smell to fill our house. How could this tree signal the beginning of the Christmas season?
Without any help, Mom strung the lights, hung the mismatched ornaments and showered it lightly with tinsel. All the while, I watched with disdain at the artificiality of not only the tree, but of a mother who insisted that we should celebrate the season of Christmas.
The Midwest winter winds blew the snow sideways outside our windows, and packages wrapped in red and green paper appeared under that ugly tree. Platters of Grandma’s festive cookies lined our kitchen counter and the stereo cranked out Christmas carols. On Christmas Eve, I trudged into church with the rest of my family wrapped in my own commiseration.
Afterwards, as was custom, we opened our gifts. That artificial tree, the presents, and cookies did not begin to fill the emptiness of my dad’s absence. Going to bed that night, I soaked my pillow with tears.
As an adolescent, I missed noticing my mother’s tenacious spirit. I missed the fact that she was the one who stayed, while my dad had been the one who left. As ugly as that artificial Christmas tree was, it was her way of maintaining a sense of normalcy for our family. Our world had gone up-side-down with the death of her husband and our dad. But, she understood the importance of persevering and preserving life, even if it meant buying an artificial Christmas tree.
Why bother noticing another’s fortitude? No matter who they may be, if they are alive, they possess some modicum of fortitude. If we miss seeing it, we may miss the one gift they can give; their patient endurance in the midst of staying alive.