Monday, December 22, 2008

Trimming the Tree

What with the ice storm blackout last weekend and my general inclination to procrastinate, we didn't get the tree up until yesterday. We were being thoroughly buried under snow (Friday night and Saturday delivered about 18 inches, and then Sunday brought nearly a foot more), so Andy was out shoveling the driveway most of the afternoon while I unwrapped ornaments and hung them, with Ben overseeing from his throne on the dining room table.

Trimming the tree is always a little emotional for me -- at least for the last few years, since we've owned a house and had a tree and Christmas there, rather than doing all that at my mom's, and especially since Mom transferred custody of the family ornament collection to me. There's a lot of history in those ornaments, a lot of joy, and a lot of loss.

There are the ones that have always been my favorites: the blue horse and yellow elephant, vaguely North African in design; the plastic whirlygig that used to turn if you placed it over a bulb but no longer does because bulbs don't burn as hot as they used to; the disco ball. These are not the prettiest ornaments, and they wouldn't be my favorites now, but they were my favorites as a child, and so they still take pride of place.

There are the oblong painted mirrors from my grandmother's childhood. Victims of a basement flood the first year my mom and I lived in our new house after my dad died, these have had their painting mussed and mostly ruined, but they are far too precious to abandon for mere lack of design integrity. My grandmother was always surprised to see them when she came for Christmas; we never treasured the things she thought we would, or should. That we made a fuss over these things which must have been cheapo trinkets in their day mystified her. A pill to the very end, she died this summer at 96, my last surviving grandparent, the only great-grandparent Ben got to meet.

There are the doves. My parents the atheists, the peaceniks, had lifelike doves for the top of the tree. There were three of them, and they were refugees from a store they owned that went belly-up rather disastrously. Their store Christmas decoration was flocks of these doves hung at different altitudes from the ceiling. I don't know what happened to the three -- my guess is one dog or another -- but I bought some myself last year.

There are the velvet ovals with gold cord that I know came from the first Christmas of my parents' marriage. I imagine them young -- younger than I am now -- starting their lives together in New York City in 1968 in a four-floor walk-up. It's been longer now since my dad died than the length of their marriage, much longer.

There's the plain glass ball that my mother painted, painstakingly, with watercolor scenes of the house we lived in when I was a small child: the deck from outside, covered with snow; the fireplace with the Christmas tree beside it. It's another flood victim; the scenes are clearer in my memory than on the ornament.

There's the dalmatian and the bear, ornaments I bought Mom years ago, meant to represent our two dogs at the time, now long dead.

There are the nested crystal bells, three and five, that were my dad's favorite ornaments. He liked to supervise the trimming of the tree. Mom and I would unwrap, exclaim over new-remembered trinkets, and Dad would look up occasionally from his book, from the depths of his massive leather chair, and point to empty spots on the tree. He liked the Christmas albums with lots of brass. I liked the Muppets. I've come around to his preference, and I was listening to the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble -- we had it on vinyl back in the day -- on the iPod yesterday.

I don't think about him often. He's been dead since I was twelve. But this first Christmas of Ben's, trimming the tree, I thought about him a lot. I thought about how much he -- raised Jewish -- loved Christmas: the music, the tree, going to all the recitals, picking pretty things for Mom from the Metropolitan Museum store. I thought about how delighted he'd have been with his grandson, and how unfair it is that Ben is missing one of the people who would have been most in love with him.

And, for good measure, how unfair for Mom, and for me.

1 comment:

Annie said...

I dont know how I found myself reading this tonite, but I am so glad I did. I am quite choked up. Its so neat to read things about your Dad, my Uncle, that I never knew. And about your lives when he was alive. Its very special. It was great to see you guys last night. What a terrible loss I agree that Ben and Stanley didnt inhabit the earth at the same time. But I know Stanley will live on in Ben. Its not the same, but its good. And as they say, if your Dad can see you guys he is so very proud.
Merry Christmas Holl.