How Lovely Are Thy Branches

I was a hardcore live Christmas tree person.  And by “live” Christmas tree, of course I literally mean dead tree, because no Frasier Fir takes root in anyone’s living room.  Even as a broke-ass college student, I scrounged up enough to buy a real live (dead) pine tree for my friends and me to adorn for the holidays.  It’s a shame social media had yet to be invented in my youth, because our handcrafted Bon Jovi Christmas ornaments, ripped from the pages of Metal Edge magazine, made for some real Kodak moments.  Oh, Dawnster, how I love you and loved your beat-to-hell silver Corolla, tree roped to the roof.

This live Christmas tree thing was instilled at birth.  For reasons I don’t fully grasp even now, it was a family imperative that my mom, my dad, my brother and me, as a collective, shopped for and agreed upon the one tree which would become THE family tree.  We’d traipse from this lot to that one across town, in search of the perfect pine, and we all HAD TO AGREE.  Any dissent meant the quest continued, and you’d think that once I became a horrible teenager, mortified even to be seen with my family in public, I’d have OK’ed the first one that even kinda rang my jingle bells.  False.  We’d bitch and roll our eyes the entire time, my brother and me, but refused to budge if a tree revealed the tiniest of bare spots or a wonky trunk.  You had to give my parents credit for their optimism and/or Clark Griswold-like commitment to a good old-fashioned family Christmas.  Wait a minute. . .  Maybe they just wanted to torture us, and making my brother and me suffer provided their particular brand of wry Christmas cheer.  In any event, pine trees cut from a forest were part of our Christmas tradition.

Until they weren’t.

I honestly can’t recall in which year it went down exactly that my parents threw in the towel, though my memory suggests I was in college, or perhaps even as late as graduate school after I’d moved out.  I fuzzily remember though, not shopping for the family tree one year, then coming to the realization that the tree in their living room was an imposter!!!  *gasp*  My mom and dad?  Bought a Christmas tree in a box?? A box!

This new instrument of trickery was identified by the retailer as Tree #42, and so “42” took on a life of its own.  42 had songs sung in homage: “O 42, O 42, how lovely are thy branches.” 42 was put on display the day after Thanksgiving.  42 was known as 42–not as “our Christmas tree” or even “the tree,” just 42.  As in, “Hey, we put the lights on ol’ 42.” and “Wow 42, is broader than we expected, and takes up a huge chunk of living room.”  I never said we weren’t weird.

Since our sons were babies, we’ve purchased our family tree at the same family lot, Sanfilippo’s on 27th Street.  Somehow, except for last year, it worked out that the same salesman/tree lot attendant worked with us, and he remembered us, which made for happy memories for the boys.  One year when they were still tiny, he threw the football around with them in the tree lot, so naturally that became what they did when shopping for our tree each year since.  He always cut us a fair deal, to a point that Tom overpaid him last year, giving him more than he’d asked for.  Side note: my husband was clearly not the money manager in our house, even before the head injury.

2019 hasn’t been what one might term “festive” for my family and me.  In light of our advancing ages and Tom’s accident this year, we wanted to simplify things a bit.  Around Thanksgiving, I began dropping hints that maybe we’d get an artificial tree this year, and kids, what do you think?  I’ll tell you what they thought: they did NOT approve.  Now mind you, they always went along for the ride–complaining significantly less than my brother and I did, my good boys–but that marked the end of any actual helping with the Christmas tree activities.  They’d hang maybe one or two ornaments before losing interest, and I’d be left hanging the remainder.  Shopping at that tree lot to purchase their live/dead Christmas tree had become their tradition.

Until it wasn’t.


I give you the newest member of our family, Sierra Pine 84.

Welcome, 84.  I guess there’s some nice mathematical symmetry between 42 of my Christmas past and 84 of my present, right?  84 is nowhere near as fragrant as the real deal though, I’m afraid.  I couldn’t even look at the sales clerk as I completed the purchase because I was afraid I’d cry.  What exactly did I feel I was being disloyal to?  I felt traitorous to some tree out there, who’d otherwise have given its life to be loved in our home.  Traitorous to myself, my upholding of our tradition.  I felt that I’d let down our children, depriving them of their tradition in a year that forced us to abandon every tradition we’d ever known already.  I felt like I was letting my maybe-depression win by taking the easy way out and not getting a real tree.  When the stock kid loaded the box into the back of our SUV instead of roping it to the roof, OK, I admit that I shed a tear.  I did.

I spent waaaaaaaay more hours than I’d expected to, shaping 84’s branches into life-like perfection (an oxymoron, to be sure), and we didn’t even buy a pre-lit tree, so the prep took more time and effort than I’d anticipated.  Somehow that made me feel better.  Not having to get on my belly to water it twice daily was a little bonus too.  But the best part, the part that allowed me to release any doubt or guilt occurred as I trimmed the tree.

Ours is not a themed tree–we string multi-colored lights, we don’t display only certain styles of ornaments or wrap our tree in festive ribbon. Our tree tells the story of our lives–our family history hung on wire branches.  I’m terrible at decorating, but I’m really good at hanging ornaments.

Unpacking those storage containers, idle since January, opens a part of my sentimental heart every year.  Since our kids were babies, I’ve purchased them an ornament for St. Nick.  I swiped the idea from my sister-in-law Anne, who suggested it to me when mine were babies.  When they grow into their own homes and trees, they’ll have a jump start on their own set of ornaments.

As I admire our ornament collection, I’m reminded of the first vacation Tom and I took early on in our young love lives.  We bought the ugliest, tackiest ornament we could find in the ugliest, tackiest tourist gift shop, and that trend has continued (PS–Niagara Falls provided the worst worst ornament, followed closely by Albuquerque).  These tacky ornaments help us relive our travels.  I’m reminded of Deandre, a paraprofessional who I haven’t seen since we worked together in the mid-late ’90s, but who gave me a dove ornament I treasure.  I’m reminded of my grandma, who after retirement joined a senior center, crafting ornaments on her way through her 70s.  I’m reminded of the kids’ “first” ornaments, and the literary and TV characters they so loved during their little kid days.  I am in love with their kindergarten crafts, gingerbread men speckled with glitter and gumdrops and snowflakes or Santa hats with their cherubic little faces cut and pasted on.  My friend Ann, artist and art teacher extraordinaire, gifts us a handmade ornament every year, one more exquisite than the next.  I’m reminded that even when one of my students lives in devastating poverty, I meant enough to him that he taped up a broken Christmas ornament so he had something to give me.


My 2019 additions are the pink and yellow Chuck Taylor shoe ornaments to match the much-loved pink and yellow Chuck Taylor shoes of my own.

Trimming 84, I’m reminded of how much love and how many wonderful people are in my life.  On any given day, in the back of my mind I know this, but the reminder doesn’t hurt.  Our artificial tree created the opportunity to reflect in a genuine way.  In a year I’m more than ready to kiss goodbye, I really needed this.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

‘Tis Better To Give Than Receive

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Our family is not religious, we are of the secular Christmas card-sending/Nutcracker Ballet-attending/gift-exchanging/reveling in the joy of the season lot. Santa will not be shimmying down our chimney tonight, and I miss that magic we shared with our children over the previous thirteen years.

I have been positively gleeful this December. That is not hyperbole. I am late in my preparations, but a smile–sometimes broad and hearty, others sheepish as if to say, “Holy schnikes, I have a crap-ton to do. I’ll get there, I always do!”–has been a fixture this fa la la la la la la la la.

I received a gift yesterday. This gift came in the form of a check and explanatory letter. When you see shades of doubt slivering through the fabric of your faith in human decency, remember my friend and the story I’m sharing here. My friend is an intensely private person, so a few edits were made in order to respect that.  I will never betray the trust she’s put in me over the years.

Dear Wendy,

When I was growing up, my family always watched the Jerry Lewis Telethon on Labor Day weekend (confession-not really because of muscular dystrophy, but because there were only three or four channels to watch).  We tuned in to check out various performers and entertainment and made sure we watched the end of the show to see how tired Jerry looked after staying up all night.  We thought it was really cool and crazy that he didn’t go to bed all night long.  We watched him sing at the end of the show on Labor Day evening as every year they showed record breaking dollars donated.  Jerry always got emotional and cried while singing his closing song and he looked all disheveled with bags under his eyes, shirt untucked, hair a mess–we loved to make fun of him in our immature kid-style way.

One year, we decided to help raise some money for MD.  We took our red wagon and went knocking on doors in the neighborhood asking people if they had empty pop bottles that they could give us to return to the store for the deposit refund to raise money for MD.  When our wagon was full, we pulled it home and transferred the bottles to the back of the station wagon and went out to more neighbors.  When the station wagon was full, mom or dad drove us to the grocery store where we cashed in the bottles then we would go back home and repeat.  At the end of the day, we donated our daily profits to MDA.  We did this for years and I think of it fondly every Labor Day weekend.

I now also think of you and your family on Labor Day.

I have not donated to MDA since I stopped collecting pop bottles.  Jerry Lewis inspired such a fun family activity and obviously brought great awareness to MD.  With Jerry Lewis’ passing this year, I thought it was a good time to make a donation.

Please help my check find its way to make the donation.

I admire how you handle all in your life and can only imagine how difficult some days must be.  Your son is very lucky to have you for his mom.

I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying!  Of course I’m crying.  I read parts of her letter at least three times before I was able to finish because my eyeliner was running by the second paragraph.  What’s the right word for how my friend’s kindness affected me?  Touched?  Moved??  Ugly cried??? 

My niece Lauren, who after my son’s diagnosis became an MDA Summer Camp counselor, has now committed to the MDA’s Team Momentum for 2018. She will be running a marathon to raise funds, awareness, and hope for individuals and families with muscle disease. Half my friend’s donation will go to support Lauren’s marathon endeavor.  Click here to read about an amazing example of today’s youth.  Team Greater Than Gravity strolls in its fourth annual Muscle Walk this spring, so the other half will be the donation that kickstarts our 2018 Muscle Walk team effort. Donations made to the MDA before December 31 will be doubled, up to $100,000.  That’s a lotta marshmallows toasted around the campfire, friends.

My Christmas wish for you all? That you have the good fortune to be surrounded by goodness, light, and love.  I’ve never known a time where I didn’t find myself among good friends.  Because of my son’s diagnosis, I’ve borne witness to good friends doing great things.  Still not grateful exactly for MD, no, but for the goodness and light it has illuminated in others?  That is my gift.

It’s Christmas Eve and it’s snowing.  And that is the lesser of today’s miracles.  Thank you.