Wednesday, December 22, 2010

“The Best Tree Ever,” a memoir by Fred Cahoon

I love December. I always have. Not only is it the month when the first snow arrived in greater Boston, where I grew up, but also the time when Christmas lights began to appear in the windows of neighborhood homes. There is just something so heart-warming about a walk past houses after dark with their windows casting the red and flame colored glow of Christmas cheer from their windows.

December is also the month in which I celebrate my birthday. Although this aspect of the month has become increasingly less important, the month of December still contains the most wonderful day of any child’s year, Christmas.

How vividly I remember coming downstairs, probably at the ripe old age of three or four, and seeing the Christmas tree in the living room, its lights already turned on with their colors reflected in the fragile red, green, silver and blue glass ornaments hanging delicately on the tips of its boughs. I stood there for a moment, mesmerized by the beauty and magical aura before my eyes. To this day, that vision remains the gold standard by which I still judge all other Christmas trees.

Throughout my pre-school years, my parents retained the tradition of not putting the tree up until Christmas Eve, a tradition most likely brought with them when they emigrated from Nova Scotia. My dad felt strongly that having the tree up for fewer days lessened the danger of fire, something that was always on his mind.

His childhood home had burned to the ground a few years earlier, presumably because of a spark from his parents’ wood stove. He was working in the Boston area during that winter and always felt that if he’d been there, he might have been able to prevent this tragedy. Though we had no wood stove, I guess my dad had seen sparks fly from overloaded electrical outlets and never really trusted the wiring in the tree lights. We always kept a bucket of water discreetly placed nearby.

As I grew older however, my annual pleading to put the tree up on my birthday, five days before Christmas, grew increasingly hard for my parents to ignore, eventually causing them to relent and agree. Putting up the Christmas tree became just as important, perhaps even more so, than my birthday cake and presents. Everyone I knew used to sympathize with me for having a birthday so close to Christmas, saying, “Oh you won’t get as many presents with Christmas just a few days away”

Wrong! My parents obviously didn’t want me to feel short-changed and I always received more than most kids I knew. My birthday and the Christmas tree from then on became forever linked.

With my sixth birthday only two days away, I looked forward with great anticipation to the night both things would happen. I was sitting at the kitchen table after school, enjoying warm Toll House cookies my mum had taken from the oven just a few minutes earlier. As she watched me enjoying her baking, she said, “I wonder if poppy doodlebugs,” (her pet name for my dad), “would bring a tree home with him tonight.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Whenever I began to whine about putting the tree up earlier, my mum had always been quick to say, “You know your dad works such long hours delivering oil and coal, starting when it’s still dark out, and once he’s finished for the day, he’s not too eager to go Christmas tree hunting.”

Since my mum’s eyes always conveyed whatever she was feeling, I had learned early on to recognize when she was happy, sad and occasionally angry, a mood which meant a slap on my backside was a real possibility. I also knew her mischievous look and this question of the tree coming tonight had been said with distinct mischievousness. As soon as she said it, her blue eyes twinkled and a half smile appeared on her face. I couldn’t wait for it to get dark and pranced around the kitchen yelling over and over: “Our Christmas tree is coming tonight.”

Of course, I did have one little concern however, even at this early age. Simply, whether or not the tree my dad would bring home would have the shape of the perfect Christmas tree. I don’t remember when this became so important to me; it just was. Maybe I had heard my mother or grandmother voice their critical opinions of previous trees my dad had brought home, obviously ones others had passed over and had been among the last few remaining in the lot when he finally went tree hunting.

Whatever the reason, the shape of the tree he would bring home that night was on my mind as I stood with my face pressed against the living room window pane, waiting for the red oil truck to pull into our driveway.

The red, blue and flame-colored Christmas lights, which I had been watching in the windows of several houses across the street since early in December, now took on soft and glowing radiance and shimmer through my condensed breath. It had been almost two weeks now since my mother had taken out our window lights from the box on the top shelf of the hall closet and put them in the two front windows facing the street.

Each set consisted of three candle-like cylinders wrapped in poinsettia covering and mounted on a wooden base, the center candle being higher than the two on either side. Each candle had a flame-colored bulb, the most common color of window lights. My mum had scotch taped them to the window sill, perhaps conscious of someone like myself or our gray cat, Katy, knocking them down. The first night they were lit, I remember her telling me that

Although it was much too early to think about a Christmas tree, she did believe in putting up the window candles, as she called them, early in December.

She said their light was a comfort to the weary travelers making their way home after work and cheery to all. Still, although I very much enjoyed looking at all of them, now all I wanted to see were the headlights of my dad’s truck coming up the street, hopefully with a tree attached to its side.

When my dad’s truck finally turned into our driveway, I saw our tree – just as I had hoped – lashed to the truck’s side. I tore through the kitchen and into the mud room and then burst out onto the back porch, a few steps from where the oil truck was parked. The kitchen light filtering through the window allowed me to make a preliminary inspection for fullness and shape.

As the cold night air engulfed me and my dad playfully admonished me to get back inside, I noticed that there wasn’t just one tree, but two, each appearing to be shaped perfectly. Happily I ran back into the warm kitchen shouting to my mum, grand-mother and older sister: “Dad’s brought home two trees.”

In a few minutes, my dad had the trees leaning up against the wall in the mud room. Their balsam fir aroma filled the outer room quickly, drifting into the kitchen whenever the door was opened. I remember wondering if the second tree would be placed in my room. My dad just smiled as he walked to the cellar door, the entrance to his section of the house and where he always went to change out of his overalls and work boots.

Unbelievably, my mother, grandmother and older sister seemed to be more interested in the last minute preparations for supper. I attempted to comfort myself by remembering that if there was a problem with the tree’s shape or if the spacing between the boughs left unsightly gaps, my dad was not adverse to drilling a hole in the trunk and moving a limb from another part of the tree to fill in the affected area. Sometimes he actually brought home a handful of boughs which had been cut off other trees in the lot, presumably to make them more appealing, and used them to fill in missing spaces.

The first time this had happened, I remember feeling almost ill as I watched him place the old hand drill next to the trunk, turning it to create a hole an inch or so deep. Ignoring my cries of. “Dad, what are you doing?” he repeated this process several times.

“Just wait,” he said as he went out onto the back porch and brought in several loose boughs he had brought home. He whittled their ends with his pocketknife and placed them into the newly drilled holes. I couldn’t believe my eyes; what had made me come close to throwing up now looked like the most perfect tree anyone could ever want.

Since I hadn’t seen any additional loose boughs being brought in with these trees this year, I figured they must already be perfect and wouldn’t need any of my dad’s modifications.

All through supper, I tried to convince my parents to put up at least the living room tree as soon as they were finished. The bedroom tree could wait.

“No, it’s too soon,” Dad said but with a mock frown on his face which only encouraged me to continue.

“Aw, c’mon,” I whined, although the smile on my mother’s face assured me we would put up the tree. My grandmother and sister remained quiet, but with knowing smiles on their faces.

Finally my dad looked at me and said, “If we do, you’ll have to help me with the lights.”

Nothing my dad could have said would have thrilled me more. Preparing the lights for placement on the tree was a task that my dad and mum and older sister had always done after I was asleep in bed. Now I was being asked him to help and I couldn’t wait.

Except for the window lights, all the boxes of Christmas decorations were stored in the attic, with the only access through my sister’s closet. Under her watchful eye, perhaps somewhat annoyed that we were disrupting her studies or that her little brother had now been elevated to the role of light assistant, our dad slid her clothes to one side. He then lifted me up so that I could push the piece of plywood covering the access hole off to one side. With one foot gingerly balancing on the closet’s clothes pole and the other on my dad’s large open palm, I climbed up into this world of loose insulation, dust and articles from bygone days.

“Be careful,” Dad cautioned, “and don’t stand on the floor of the attic, only on the boards lying across the floor beams”.

During the day, a small window just under the peak of the roof, allowed the late afternoon sunlight to illuminate that part of the space just around the access hole. The floating dust particles, visible within the streaming shards of light, danced in a random perfusion. After dark, however, the dim, dust-covered bulb hanging from the roof joists barely gave enough light to see.

I loved being up there though, whatever time of day it was, with all the Christmas boxes, old trunks and other hidden treasures of many yesterdays. There was the mandolin my mum had played in supper clubs in Boston before she and his dad had been married, as a member of The Musical Bells. Parts of my God-father, Tom’s uniform, when he had served as a lieutenant in the Army during the Second World War.

“C’mon, hurry up, up there,” my Dad said. “Pass down the boxes marked Christmas.”

I passed down a half dozen boxes, the two biggest containing the Christmas lights. After Dad helped me down and slid my sister’s clothes back into position, we’d carried the boxes downstairs to the living room and put them by my dad’s chair. Before the first box could be opened, however, he had to light up his cigar. Soon its smoke filled the corner where his chair sat.

Many years later, I would realize the smell of cigar permeated not only the area around my dad’s chair, but throughout the whole house. Twenty years after my dad’s passing at age eighty six, my children and I could still smell the aroma of his cigar in the few pieces of clothes that still hung in his closet. We enjoyed burying our faces in one of his old sweaters which I had saved, inhaling its saturated smoky aroma.

“The first job,” Dad said, “is to get the strings untangled.”

Our mutual impatience made this an aggravating job, but one we both secretly enjoyed, especially my dad’s playful bluster. Oh my gosh,” he admonished me, “don’t pull so hard! How the deuce do these things get so tangled?”

When we had somehow managed to disentangle each string, my dad plugged each one into the outlet beside his chair. Sometimes the string lit up, shedding the bulb’s colorful glow on the carpet where it lay. Quite often however, the string remained dark, forcing us to begin the trial and error process of replacing each bulb with a new bulb until the string finally came to life.

At that time, strings of tree lights were wired in series so that if one of the bulbs was burned out, the entire string would not light. The bulbs were also longer and narrower than today’s lights and when on, burned much hotter – another reason for the pail of water to always be close by.

I also recall the colors of the tree lights as more vibrant, and they included purple and green bulbs as well as the red, blue and flame colors. The star for the top of the tree was a five pointed star, with a blue bulb at each of its points.

Having been so focused on getting the strings of lights sorted out, I hadn’t noticed my mum quietly place an old oil tablecloth on the floor by the piano. On it she placed a tripod tree stand with three large clamps and the red and green tree skirt to cover the metal legs and hardware.

Dad held out his hands form me to to help him out of his recliner. “Okay,” he said. “You wait here.”

I could barely contain myself as I settled into his chair and the rest of the family sat on the living room sofa waiting for the tree. To my amazement, my dad brought both trees into the living room, leaning them up against the wall in the corner. To my utter disbelief, I could now clearly see that both trees had a very skinny trunk and one flat side with almost no branches. Tears welled up in my eyes as I looked from my dad to my mum, grandmother and sister.

“Now just wait and watch,” said Dad, probably to everyone but directed at me.

To my amazement, he put the bad sides of the both trees together, creating an unbelievable symmetry of boughs that actually looked almost perfect. As I wiped my eyes on my sleeve, he placed the two slender trunks into the holder and checked to see if we all were in agreement. I guess by our faces he could see our approval. He removed a few pieces of wire coiled in his pocket and wired the trunks together.

“Honestly,” said Mum, “if we hadn’t seen you do it, we would never have ever known. Once we get it decorated, it will be the best tree we’ve ever had!”

I could see the reassurance in my dad’s face as he started near the top of the tree to loop the lights down and around the branches, securing them at the bough ends using the wooden button through which each of the two wires approaching the bulb slid as the base of the loop.

“Don’t let the bulbs touch the boughs,” my mother told him, as if Mr. Smokey Bear needed any reminders. I’m sure my dad was also quite aware of the danger posed by the multiple outlet adaptors we used to accommodate the three or four tree light plugs. As I think back now, that electrical octopus was the reason that my family never thought of leaving the tree lights on when they weren’t in the house.

Finally, my dad picked me up so that I could put the star on one remaining tree point, the other having been snipped off. It fit snugly into the slender cone of the star base. He then motioned for my mum to turn off the two living room lights. With everyone watching, he plugged the lights into the wall socket and, like magic, the tree glowed with the multi-colored lights and purplish-blue star. It was perfect.

Once the lights were in place and my dad sat back down in his recliner, the rest of us carefully removed the ornaments from their protective tissue paper wrapping. I remember being amazed by their fragile beauty. Red, blue, gold and silver and green glass ornaments, as large as naval oranges, were hung by metal hooks. Once hung, they reflected the lights with an almost radiant sheen. Garlands and icicles were the final dressing on the tree, a task usually left to my mum, who everyone acknowledged was the artistic person in the family. But this would wait till tomorrow.

Though it was well past my bedtime now, I lingered on the stairs heading up to my bedroom, soaking in the magical aura of our most beautiful Christmas tree. I promised myself though, that this would be the last year that my dad ever went to pick out our tree without me. And it was.

Fred Cahoon is a retired Microbiologist and lives with his wife on the Severn River. Blessed with a keen memory for the details of his youth and primarily written as a memoir for his son, daughter and grandchildren, Fred has compiled a collection of over a dozen short stories related to his boyhood years in New England. Fred is currently working on his first novel. Fred also feels passionate about the beauty of nature and the sea which has inspired him to write many poems using a variety of rhyming styles. Fall is his favorite season.

For information about Brian Henry's writing workshops and creative writing courses, see here.

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