Friday, November 20, 2009

Miracle on Cherry Street

A dear friend of mine posted an exasperated note on facebook a few days ago. She simply wrote: "Stop with the Christmas decorations...and music...and commercials before Thanksgiving!!" Many people commented with remarks like "There should be a law!" and "I agree. It's SO annoying!" I must confess, I'm one of those offensive people who LOVE the fact that Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year.

I certainly appreciate my friend's reluctance to "skip over" Thanksgiving, but I've got to tell you, the first time I hear Christmas music playing in a public place, I smile, close my eyes, and enjoy every note. My only excuse is this: December is such a busy month, you blink and suddenly it's New Year's Eve, you're taking down your boughs of holly and packing them away for another year. I like that I can now have all of November to sort of get a Christmas "running start."

Truth is, I love EVERYTHING about the Christmas season; the baking, decorating, Christmas specials and movies on TV every night, concerts at schools and churches, office parties, gingerbread lattes at Starbucks, and yes, even shopping! Why would anyone be opposed to this fantastic season being elongated? I don't get it.

But of all the above-listed Christmas activities, my hands-down favorite has always revolved around decorating and enjoying the tree. From Rockefeller Center to Charlie Brown, I've never seen a Christmas tree that didn't completely embody the excitement and magic of the season. Here's a story about a few of them:

Our Donnelly family tree certainly wouldn't have won any decorating awards. It was an early version of the artificial kind, long before the fake tree industry perfected the "making it appear real" thing. Our 7.5 foot "pine" was a shade of green not found in any forest, and it's branches resembled large, bristly pipe cleaners. You have to really stare at many of today's artificial trees to determine whether or not they're real. If you so much as caught a quick glimpse at the Donnelly tree in your peripheral vision, you could quite confidently point and shout, "FAKE!!" Still, it was ours and we kids loved it.

We decorated the tree in the same order every year. First, while all us kids stood on the perimeter of the living room, Dad would assemble the "branches" on the "tree," then string on the lights. We children were not permitted to participate in this process because it was deemed too dangerous and, therefore, Dad's job. He had a "light stringing system" that was closely observed by us kids on the sidelines. First went the string of twinkling bell lights on the bottom branches, followed by the glowing snow ball lights a little higher, and finally the regular, big, multi-colored bulbs applied to the remaining upper half of the tree. By the time Dad (FINALLY) completed the light stringing, we kids were like anxious thoroughbreds lined up in the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby, jumping, pacing, and sighing, desperate for our turn at the glorious tree. Mom made us wait while she placed several boxes, containing all our tissue-wrapped ornaments, side by side, on our couch. She would remove the lids, then say, "Ok," and we'd exhale, squeal, and dive into the boxes.

Once every ornament was hung, mom would pass out the tinsel. We'd all line up, palms flat and sideways, and Mom would drape a handful of the shiny silver over our outstretched hands. I think the whole process, start to finish, took about 17 seconds. But after our task was complete, we'd stand back, throw on some Bing Crosby or Steve and Edie Christmas records, and admire our work -- perfection again!

This is the part where I need to remind you about my father, aka: Nervous Nellie. In addition to being certain that all of his children would be robbed at gunpoint on our cul-de-sac, he was also convinced that our home would eventually be somehow engulfed in flames due to some careless accident, and the mere thought of it drove him to insanity. A candle was never lit in the Donnelly household -- too risky. And at just about every other evening meal, my father would crinkle up his face, sniff the air, and ask my mother, "Do you smell that?" He never heard her reply, however, because he was already sprinting down the stairs to check for the nonexistent flames in the basement.

So, the Christmas tree, even though it's pipe cleaner branches were thoroughly doused in the finest flame retardant on the planet, was the object of a lot of nervous hand-wringing throughout Dad's holiday season. We were allowed to illuminate the tree lights for approximately 37 seconds every day. After that, we had to quickly pull the plug, because "those things heat up fast, then they explode and before you know it, the whole HOUSE is on fire!" On Christmas day, we were permitted to leave the tree lights on all morning during the opening of presents, although we'd catch Dad intermittently "pinching" the bulbs, testing their "fire-starting" hotness. Looking back, I'm quite sure the whole day must have been torture for the poor guy.

When I got married and moved to NYC, I still insisted on getting a small tree, even though space was definitely limited in our tiny studio apartment. We had no ornaments except for the few we received as wedding gifts, so we went to Sears and purchased a few more to fill-in the holes. My ex-husband wasn't all that into decorating, so I'd do the tree up while he was at his show in the evening. When he walked through the door that night, I'd gesture at the tree and exclaim, "Ta-Da!!" He always responded with the appropriate "Oooohs" and "Ahhhs."

The first Christmas after he left me, I was determined to continue to make the holiday season special. I was living alone in my little drafty, upstairs apartment on Cherry Street in Syracuse, NY, working two jobs to make ends meet. But I really, really wanted a tree. I decided to try and make it work, even if I had to get a tiny, table-top version.

I arrived at the Christmas tree lot late one night after work. It was already dark outside, but the illuminated string of light bulbs around the lot told me it was still open, even though I was the only customer there. There was a trailer nearby, and a man about 55 or so, wearing a red flannel shirt, overalls, and a tweed cap came bounding out of it, waving to me. "Can I help you?" he asked with a kind smile, rubbing his hands together for warmth. "Just looking for a small tree," I chirped back, then headed for the "3 ft." sign.

I was running my hand over the bristles of a small pine when the man suddenly appeared again, carrying a much larger fraser fir. It was just beautiful. Perfect. Straight as an arrow, with full, symmetrical branches. I knew immediately that I couldn't afford it, so I smiled and said, "Pretty!" Then I turned back to the 3-footer, which now looked extra puny, thanks to Flannel Man. "You don't like it?" he asked. "Oh, yes, I like it very much. It's just a little...extravagant for me right now." I tried to sound nonchalant. He looked at me for a long beat, then sighed and said, "Ten bucks." Gasp. "Really?" I asked. "Sure," he shrugged, his smile growing larger, "Go inside the trailer and pay my wife. I'll tie this to the roof of your car." I decided to go before he changed his mind. I practically skipped to the trailer. I couldn't believe that gorgeous tree was going to be mine.

The woman who greeted me inside was also in her fifties, with soft grey, curly hair that perfectly framed her sweet, wide face. She told me to have a seat and poured me a cup of hot chocolate (really!) while I wrote out a check. For ten dollars. For the perfect Christmas tree. Ten. Dollars. She placed my check in her cash box and and we both wrapped our hands around our warm mugs and chatted until her husband came bounding back into the trailer, saying, "She's all set!" I handed the sweet woman my cup and stepped toward the door. I grabbed the handle and turned to thank them again, telling them I'd never be able to explain how much their generosity had meant to me, or how very much I appreciated it. They just tut-tutted, patted my shoulder and said, "Take care, Merry Christmas!"

By the time I got home to Cherry Street it was very late, but I couldn't wait to get started. I hauled my treasure up the narrow back steps and set it in the stand I had waiting in the living room. The lights went on quickly. I paused before I opened the small box of ornaments. These were ornaments that my ex and I had picked-out together, ornaments I assumed we'd be unwrapping with old, wrinkled hands someday, years and years in the future. Now it was just me. I took a deep breath and threw open the lid. I started to unwrap them, trying to focus on each one's branch placement rather than it's sentimental meaning. When I was finished I added red ribbon from my craft bin for garland. Then I stepped back.

Suddenly, there, in the middle of this sad, empty apartment, was Christmas. I pulled the rolled-up futon mattress from the closet, set it out right there on the living room floor, and fell asleep looking at my beautiful tree. I slept (soundly) on that futon every night for the whole month of December. My bed was too big and lonely anyway. I'd leave all the lights on (don't you DARE tell my father!), and when I woke up in the morning, there it would stand, shiny and bright, saying "Merry Christmas!" Yes, divorce was crippling -- but it was no match for Christmas.

Alan and I will be decorating our tree tomorrow afternoon, and I must tell you, I can't wait! We'll be hanging all of our cherished ornaments, from the many places we've traveled over the years. But I'll still pull out one or two others that were purchased from Sears over twenty years ago. I'll place then on the tree to remind myself of that December long ago on Cherry Street, when a gorgeous, ten dollar tree helped me remember that life could still be special and magical.

So do me a favor. When you're in the supermarket tomorrow and you start hearing Jose Feliciano wailing out "Feliz Navidad," don't groan. Grab a couple cans of mixed nuts, shake then like maracas, and join Jose in song. Because it's Christmastime again, how great is THAT?!!!

Thanks for reading!!


Anonymous said...

Beautiful, Joan. Absolutely, freakin' beautiful.

[Now, loudly and with feeling everyone!]

"We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!"

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that Chris and I still have that same old artificial tree in the attic above the garage. We have never used it. I have thought about getting rid of it once or twice, but there are just too many happy memories associated with it.

Unknown said...

Such a beautiful piece, Joan. Really moved my heart!
I'm surprised you didn't mention how Dad tied the tree to the corners of the windows so it wouldn't fall (and catch fire). Ha. I remember when we used to get a real tree, but that was in the EARLY years.
And I LOVE sleeping in the LR with the Christmas lights on all night too. So other worldly in the most beautiful way!

Anonymous said...

You're talking to the lady who starts singing Christmas Carols on Labor Day, to the chagrin of my children who are old enough to be embarrassed now. Deck the halls, Baby! And enjoy. :)

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