This is an excerpt from my book about my dad. This story revisits that first Christmas without him.
December 2006, Pennsylvania, USA.
As we prepared for our first Christmas since my father’s passing, melancholy settled heavy on my heart, like the frozen ice that weighed down on the branch outside my window. How was my family coping?
Without a clear plan of how to deal with my grief, I busied myself wrapping presents, baking cookies, and decorating our house. A little red trunk served to showcase the fancy ornaments I had collected from my travels. I fiddled with handmade Russian folk ornaments, ornately-beaded doves from Poland lacquered Middle Eastern moons, and polished papier-mâché bulbs from India. Inside the corner of my box, leaning against the lid lay a slender, straw angel from Kenya. I set up a collection of brightly-painted cats from the Ukraine and a colorful, carved horse decoration from Japan. Despite my best attempts to create an attractive display, the exotic items looked out of place in my modest Pennsylvania home. What a contrast to those simple tree decorations we used growing up!
We practiced one main Christmas tradition during our upbringing—setting up and decorating the tree. My three siblings and I bugged dad to pick up the Christmas tree.
“C’mon Dad,” we hollered, “It’s almost Christmas and we still haven’t put up the tree yet.”
He calmly nodded, which meant perhaps he’d get the tree—perhaps not.
Mom fixed a stern eye on Dad. “The kids have been waiting, Don. Make sure you don’t forget.”
Sometimes we heard them discuss where to buy one. But with a father called “The Tree Man,” (after his tree removal service) we knew that Dad would not bring home anything other than a real live tree. A thick, floor-to-the-ceiling tree with wide branches and a strong pine scent that pervaded the house all the way up to my bedroom on the second floor. The trunk and branches still damp from the cold or snow, Dad fiddled with it in its stand until at last it stood upright. Then he dragged the step stool to the attic door, and clomped up inside, handing us the hefty cardboard box where we kept our ornaments. We carried it to the living room and waited patiently for him to untangle the string of old-fashioned red, green and white lights people used back in the 60s and 70s to light up their trees.
Mom supervised our attack on the ornaments. We owned cheap, metallic balls in basic colors with some silver and gold thrown in. Mom or dad had probably picked them up on sale at the five-and-dime store. There were also brass cookie-cutter ornaments in various shapes, free gifts from the local bank, with the bank name and year inscribed on the back. I remember once claiming the little drummer boy shape as my own. No matter how cheap or hokey our tree ornaments were, we always considered them exciting and special. We thoroughly enjoyed hanging them up after Dad turned on the lights. Of course, we squabbled.
“Mom, tell Mike to move over. He’s stealing my branches!”
“This tree is not just yours! Quit pushing me!” Mike made an ugly face at me.
Invariably, a few bulbs got smashed and Dad feigned anger, “If you kids can’t get along, I’m gonna take this tree right back down, and you won’t have one this year.”
“I didn’t do it. It’s not my fault,” we protested, glaring at each other.
Our cat, Fluffy, got underfoot, knocking off shiny bulbs and booting them under the tree. Some got lost under furniture. Mom and Dad tolerated Fluffy to a point, but when she clawed her way up the trunk and got tangled in the lights, Dad had enough. “Amy, get that cat outta here! Someone’s gonna get electrocuted, and it better not be me.”
Then we were ready to hang tinsel. My older sister and brother, Carolyn and Mike, quickly lost interest in this mundane task, and made my brother, Donnie, and me finish up. They stood back and supervised.
At the very end, Dad always placed the angel on the top of the tree. We still have that plain, plastic angel fifty-seven years later. At age twenty-one, Mom spent a whole week’s wage from her job at the Marx Toy factory to buy that angel so it meant a lot to her. Like our other ornaments, the angel was simple, but once it was plugged in, the entire angel lit up.
We woke up early Christmas morning, running to Mom and Dad’s room to hurry them out from under the covers, so that we could open up our gifts. Our parents taught us to value what we received because we never had money for fancy gifts. We mostly got clothing, and games. One of the best gifts I ever got was an Easy Bake Oven, which I used that same day to bake brownies and pizza. I used to get lots of books, which I treasured. I still have some of them sitting on my book shelf today.
We never did much on Christmas Day. Mom and Dad staggered back to bed awhile. We kids tore open boxes and played games. We slapped levers and pounded on buttons, which clanged, banged and dinged. Later, if the pond froze that year, we bundled up in heavy clothing and headed down to skate. In the evening, Mom always made a big meal and Dad carved either the ham or turkey, with an electric knife.
Over the years, the family Christmas tree changed style and shape, but for much of that time, Dad brought it in and trimmed it up to fit into our small living room. A few seasons back, it shocked me to learn that Mom and Dad had finally replaced their fresh-scented pines with a small, reusable white fiber-optic Christmas tree. I couldn’t believe that the The Tree Man had abandoned his best-loved tradition.
Nobody spoke about my father’s absence on Christmas Day this year but it definitely affected everyone. In the morning, I recalled the various trees that stood in our home over the years—the fat ones, the lopsided ones, the sappy and the prickly ones. I loved whatever tree he brought back. In addition to being The Tree Man, Dad always worked two or three part-time jobs so he had a demanding schedule. But at Christmastime, he made an effort to find that special tree and decorate it with us as a family.
I still didn’t know what to do with my grief. Later that day, I kicked a path in the snow from the back door all the way to the front porch. As I made my way, I took in all the trees Dad had so carefully grafted, pruned, twisted and tended to for the past quarter of a century. I imagined myself zooming in on small details for close-up shots and panning for wide-angle and distance shots with my camera, like a professional photographer would. All Dad’s trees struck me as incredible pieces of art. I sat on the stoop and really felt the ambiance he’d created for us. I gradually came to the realization this shrubbery could represent our Christmas trees.
They all have special value like our Christmas tree. The tiered bushes, the spiraled arborvitae, the knobby branches that hold the round, oriental-looking shrubs that stagger off each limb, and an archway he lovingly coaxed into one piece by grafting two trees together are all living legacies of my father. Their decoration is simple but effective. People just passing by stop and ask to take photographs of the uniquely-manicured trees and shrubs, like the carload of German tourists that was passing through our town. Others compliment and ask who does our trees.
Once a car stopped and a little boy and his father got out. “Gosh, you sure have cool trees!”
His father nodded, “You can say that again! I’ve been driving past these bushes since I was a little kid, myself, and I always loved looking at ‘em. There’s nothing that compares to it.”
Another time, a guy pulled up and shouted out the window, “Just one look and you know this is The Tree Man’s place.” He gave two thumbs up and drove off.
Maybe to them, our yard is cool to see. To my family, our yard is the living celebration of the hard work, patience and dedication of a very special man. Dad’s trees keep his memory alive to family, friends and strangers alike. It comforts me when people pass by and remind us of just how special our yard is.
These encounters always lead me back to the bushes that my father loved so much. They continue to grow just as he fashioned them, as if his hand is with them still. Their life nurtures and uplifts exactly as my father did during his lifetime. As I reflect, I begin to see how my father lives on through his green creations, his legacy for years to come.
When I see our yard now, I think how fortunate I am to have these trees year round. This new understanding leaves me with a deeper appreciation for my father as an artist, an arborist, and one who both passionately and patiently lived out his vision.
Lord, I celebrate your love for my father. You created his particular personality and passions to carve out a distinctive niche of beauty in a world that needs reminders of what Your good, green earth can provide. Thank you, God.