Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Memory-Roots of Christmas Trees

My memory is on full throttle this time of year, and I blame it on the light.  Just this morning, when I was talking with Katherine about the value of grasslands for carbon sequestration--which, counter-intuitively,  is equivalent to the value of forests--I remembered saying to Veronica when we drove from Montreal to the Eastern Townships and saw hills and hills of trees, "These are Quebec's lungs."  What a thing to come twanging out of my memory at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning!  Or Saturday I remembered David Powell standing in the middle of my tiny kitchen during a Christmas Noyse--a musical party I used to give every Christmas when my friends' children were young.  Adults and children brought violins, basoons, flutes, and the occasional rusty voice--and I remember David Powell saying that there had to be a way to give me more work room.

It's that late afternoon light that goes golden and looks like something out of a Vermeer or a Rembrandt.  How can a blue sky go golden?  If gold is added to blue, shouldn't it go green?  Or is light layered in a way that watercolour, say, isn't?  Then after the gold disappears, mystery starts to grow from beneath the trees and shrubs, close to the houses.  Neighbourhoods you know by heart suddenly look different in this light.  The sky remains azure while the tree branches and trunks turn an inky, saturated black that gives their tangles a new weight.  The azure subtly deepens until the air is a colour we never see in summer.  Then more change is wrought by what we do to answer this darkness:  we put up Christmas lights in our yards in arrangements that range from beautiful to funny, with everything in between.  We play with light.  All this changing of the light is an invitation to reflect and remember, to hunker down with the people we love and haul up the artifacts of memory through the sand of our everyday lives, like the early explorers of the pyramids.

I always find decorating the tree to be a kind of archeology, as each ornament comes swimming up with its history.  I have only one glass ball left of those my first husband and I bought in Cambridge Massachusetts the first year we were married.  And there's the tin Santa Claus Veronica brought back from her first term at McGill.  There is the flock of sheep my sister Karen sent to us, one at a time, from Atlanta, Georgia.  There are the decorations I bought when I knew I was pregnant and wanted to add a child's voice to the otherwise rather sophisticated tree.

But this year, it's the trees themselves that have come back to me, as if each of them is a layer in the sandstone of memory.

My mother had an older step-sister, my Aunt Hazel, who was childless and so who put her energy into breeding Scotties and making Christmas as beautiful as possible.  I make her sound like a cliche, but she was really a ferociously creative person, if sometimes frustrated by the outlets the 1950s gave her.  One year Aunt Hazel used only blue lights on her tree.  You have to realize that this was the late fifties or early sixties, and the only kinds of Christmas tree lights available were strings with large bulbs and many colours.  Suddenly the Christmas tree had an elegance that its otherwise higgledy-piggledy lights had never given it.  The next year, my mother did the same thing.  By that time, I was old enough to get myself up in the morning, and I had to leave to walk about three miles to school before anyone else was up--not uphill both ways.  Grand Rapids is relatively flat.  So I had my breakfast in front of the blue Christmas tree and used the house's silence to probe my Christmas presents to see if I could figure out what I was getting.  Books were a dead give-away:  everything was hardcover, and you could feel the slight dip made by the smaller pages.  That was the year I got Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki and Lin Yutang's The Chinese Way of Life.  The Christmas tree had grown up and so had I.  These were doubtless Aunt Hazel's recommendations.  I managed to read Kon Tiki because Mr. McElheny, my grade nine English teacher (and the person responsible for my love of poetry) said that sometimes skipping the first chapter and leaping into the second was a good strategy for cracking into a book that felt foreign.  I never did figure out how to read The Chinese Way of Life.

Our families were a bit befuddled when Dan and I moved to Winnipeg, where he played trumpet in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and I took classes on Russian literature.  They tried to imagine what this empty space north of North Dakota was like.  Was it wilderness?  So our first Christmas, my sister Karen gave Dan a little hatchet which we decided to use next Christmas.  There was an area east of Winnipeg where you could go to choose and cut down your own Christmas tree.  We found a lovely little evergreen, Dan wound up and gave it a good whack with his hatchet, and the head came flying right off.  Frozen wood is very, very hard.  (I suspect we should have soaked it before using it, but really Dan was a musician and I was a reader of long Russian novels:  what did we know about being woodsmen?)  We found another perfect little tree that someone had abandoned because it had fallen rather hard on its side as it came down and so was a bit flat there.  It nestled up closer to the wall than Christmas trees usually do.

Before Dan and I had Veronica--and an excuse not to abandon our own house for Michigan each Christmas--we sometimes packed up our Christmas decorations in our little Fiat along with our suitcases.  His parents didn't have a tree at all--something about allergies--so we sometimes bought a small extra tree to put up at my parents' house.  One year we stumbled on the perfect solution.  A man selling Christmas trees also had some live trees whose root balls were contained in bushel baskets.  We thought it would be perfect for my parents who lived out of town on a lot with lots of poplars, elms, and maples, but no evergreens.  After we'd used it for a Christmas tree, Dad could plant it.  There was a caveat, however; the seller said that if the tree were brought indoors he couldn't guarantee that it would make the transition back outdoors.  But we decorated it; Dad planted it; and it turned browner and browner through the spring.  Dad finally dug it up and found that there was no root ball; it had been chopped off like every other Christmas tree.

The first year after Dan and I separated, Veronica and I set out with the toboggan to buy a tree at a kiosk in our neighbourhood.  It was the coldest day yet, and dark, though star lit.  It seems, in retrospect, always the coldest day when we went looking for a tree.  But the long-needled Douglas fir, fragrant and thick, fit nicely on our long toboggan.  Veronica, who was seven at the time, sat backwards on the toboggan hanging onto the trunk, and we hushed through the snow in the starlight.  I have always felt that this was how you should bring home a tree.

I can still see a teen-aged Veronica and her best friends, Sara McQuarrie and Jenny Noland sitting in front of the Christmas tree to have their annual gift exchange.  Unlike Sara and Jenny, Veronica had no brothers.  I baked, as I always have.  We had about any kind of tea in the house you could want.  So Christmas happened for them in front of our tree.  One year the three of them decided that if Veronica and I ever had a less than perfect tree, that would be the year of the apocalypse.  Once we get the tree decorated, Veronica still sends a photograph to Jenny, and they joke about the apocalypse being averted.  But the trees were never perfect--or all trees are perfect, perhaps.  It's a matter of knowing where to hang the large silver balls to hide a hole.  It is not a matter of cutting off a branch from the bottom and drilling a hole higher up on the trunk and sticking it in--something my father frequently did. 

Bill and I work well together, whether it's building furniture, installing a workable closet for him, or putting up a Christmas tree.  We're calm and methodical.  He does the lifting and carrying, and I lie flat on my stomach to turn the screws that hold the tree in its stand. Then there was the year the just-decorated tree fell forward in slow motion.  I wasn't there; I was probably in the kitchen getting tea and Christmas cookies, but Bill and Veronica tell me that they simply stood, slack-jawed.  There was no time to rescue it, and yet the fall took forever.  That was the year we lost so many of the glass balls.  That year we decided that there was probably a complicated formula showing that the height of a feasible Christmas tree was in inverse proportion to the age of the person turning the screws to hold it up.  (There's probably another formula that calculates when seniors give up on live trees and go artificial.  We're not there yet.  We may never be.)  We've gone for smaller trees, and the ease of getting them up more than makes up for the lack of grandeur.  

For me, Christmas is at least in part a pantheistic holiday, as you might guess from the sheep and birds and owls and the Santa Claus holding Noah's Arc, a giraffe, and an elephant.  Bringing the tree into the house and lighting it with stars acknowledges how central nature is to our lives, how we are nurtured by its beauty even when it's energy is hidden from sight, underground in roots and dens.  As we lean toward the solstice with its almost atavistic threat that the days could just get shorter and shorter until...the lights that we put in the trees are promises to ourselves.  We create what's not there.  

This morning as I came downstairs in the still-dark morning at 7, I could see a glow coming from the living room.  Bill had lighted the tree before he left for work because he knows that sitting in the dark in front of a tree with a cup of coffee and a cat is how I like to begin my December days.  Just as the waning of the light brings a sense of mystery, so the dark mornings  are an invitation to explore parts of our minds we might otherwise ignore.  It's been a year since I undertook this ritual.  What has that year brought?  How have I failed the gifts it laid at my feet.  Where have I found the mysteries that, even in the dark of the year, glow with life and promise?  How will I nurture them? Where will I put down new roots this year?

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