So there we were, back in the old house. The last time I lived there, I had been in sixth grade, and now I was halfway through my junior year in high school.
When I say “we” I do not refer to my former intact family of mother, father, daughter and son, I refer to only my father, my brother and me. We were the remnants of the fire and divorce sale that my parent’s marriage had become. My mother moved back to California after the divorce and my father, brother and I returned to the Virginia house.
The thing that made my parents buy this house when we moved to coastal Virginia originally was that it had a huge yard, almost three acres, unusual in that part of the city which was mostly comprised of tract brick ranches on 1/4 acre lots. Plus, it was on the last little finger of a lake, so that egrets and herons and ducks and turtles were the tenants of the backyard and there were actual fish in the lake. It seemed like someone had plunked down a national park in the middle of a sixties plat.
As for the house itself, it was a large, sprawling, badly designed L-shaped ranch house to which the previous owners had kept adding on wings and rooms and porches, kind of like a 60’s suburban Winchester House.
While the house was familiar, the furnishings weren’t. My mother had taken all the household goods and furniture with her in her move back west, leaving my father and brother and me with a large blank canvas to fill. We closed off the wing with the family room, sun porch, spare bedroom and bath, and just pretended it didn’t exist.
We definitely didn’t have much money to speak of, after lawyer’s fees and whatnot, so we all knew we were on a tight budget; as a result our house ended up becoming a bit eccentrically decorated. Luckily, it had excellent carpeting and flooring and drapes throughout, so mostly what we needed was furniture.
My father took me in hand to the local furniture superstore, renowned for its over-the-top continuous 24/7 TV advertising of SALE SALE SALE, IT’S ALL GOTTA GO, THERE’S NEVER BEEN ANOTHER SALE IN THE HISTORY OF SALES LIKE IT and pretty much let me pick out most of our new stuff. This isn’t as bad a choice as it sounds, because I was actually as, if not more, budget conscious than my father.
Our previous furnishings were unique and spoke of world travels — brass tables, Korean chests, sisal rugs, Danish Modern teak, inlaid screens, oil paintings, all very fashion forward for the age and in stark contrast to most of my friends’ homes which were done in faux colonial, braided rug style. We were now about to join the hordes. We had only one fashion edict — no plaid Herculon, that invasive kudzu fabric which had somehow taken over most seating units in the late sixties and early seventies and turned the mass of middle class American homes into auto repair shop waiting lounges.
Two words — dark pine. We ended up with a dark pine trestle table with captain’s chairs for dining, dark pine end tables, a sleeper sofa with an insane partridge print on it, a recliner, another upholstered chair, a TV, a stereo, and 3 bedroom sets. My brother’s bedroom set was the nicest of the lot, it had a sort of oak and iron western style, while mine was (surprise!) dark pine colonial, and my father’s was Divorced Dad Particle Board. In a triumph of single outing shopping, we now all had a place to sleep, eat, watch TV, and listen to music.
We did spring for one piece of art for the living room wall over the sofa since bourgeois zoning laws dictate that this space be occupied. That picture, chosen by my father, was of a beached dinghy in subdued tones very reminiscent of the style of Andrew Wyeth. In order to counter the one vestige of good taste that picture brought to the room, it was parried by my brother and I with a number of final finishing touches, like a large Brigitte Bardot on a motorcycle poster over the TV, and a collection of stuffed Muppets adorning the fireplace mantle. Last but not least, we can’t leave out the enormous ceramic rooster table lamp my father had won in a raffle that graced an end table.
When people stepped through the front door into our living room, we usually got one of two re-actions. Most adults, especially the women, were limited to a small gasp and an “Oh, my” which was almost an involuntary response. These same women were then suffused with a new mission in life, which was to find a suitable spouse for my father who would bring calm and sanity to his world and get rid of Brigitte and the Muppets.
Kids, on the other hand, invariably said “Oh, wow, this is great!” when they entered. Our house became “that house”, the one that kids liked to congregate at. No one had to worry about knocking into the figurine cabinet or messing up the magazine display on the coffee table at our place and my Dad was great at always having lasagna or beef stew at hand.
That brings us up to the Christmas mentioned in my title — the first official Christmas after the divorce. My brother and I were both practical and pragmatic and we knew that in terms of gifts, this was going to be a very Spartan Christmas, and we were fine with that. Since we didn’t have all the decades of collected Christmas tchotchkes and ornaments and trim, it was somehow understood that we would forgo a tree this year and we were fine with that too.
I don’t recall what prompted it, but a few days before Christmas my brother and I brought a big fallen pine bough from the yard into the living room and propped it up into the corner and announced that it was our “tree”. As a joke, we decorated it with two streamers of toilet paper, the empty cardboard tube from the toilet paper roll, a beer can fished out of the garbage, and one single blinking light. This was our bold, in-your-face approach to the absence of a real tree, a who-needs-Christmas-anyway anarchist coping response to the lack of Christmas cheer in our house.
My father was agnostic about the tree — he wasn’t its biggest fan, but I doubt that he thought he could deny us our little joke. And we did get a lot of laughs over that tree, for a short while anyway.
“Time to light the tree,” I would say at dusk, and the blinking would commence. On about the fourth day, which co-incidentally was Christmas Eve, my father, my brother and I were sitting in the living room in the late afternoon. It was just a short time before it would be dark and time to light the tree.
And then, in a Christmas epiphany, we three realized simultaneously that our tree was sad. Our “joke” tree made us sad, even when we thought we were laughing.
Our new pared down family unit wasn’t made up of cynical anti-yuletide activists, too jaded and cool for sentimentality; in fact embracing tradition and sentimentality was the cure for our holiday depression. We were the survivors of a domestic disaster, but we had made it through. Just like the picture of the dinghy my father had selected for the room we sat in, the lifeboat that set off after the ship sank might have faced some rough seas, but it had made it to a beach. And it was a happy beach. It was up to us, the survivors, to recreate and rebuild civilization.
Of course, nothing like those thoughts above were voiced by any of us, but I think they were the crux of the emotions we were sharing that Christmas Eve night.
My father stood up and said, “I know it’s late, but maybe we can still find a tree.” We ran for our coats and jumped into the car and headed out into the dwindling light. We drove to where all the Christmas tree stands had been, and not surprisingly, they were all gone.
Our very last possibility was a stand that had been in a shopping center anchored by a Rose’s Department Store (similar to a Woolworth’s). An empty, unmanned stand was still there, but there were no trees, only discarded evergreen debris in the parking lot. We got out anyway, because there was a lot of greenery and we were thinking that at least we could put greens on the mantle and the dining room table.
And then we had our very own Christmas miracle. Buried among all the debris were what looked like two half trees. They both had full foliage, but only on a single side. My brother picked up one and I picked up the other and we held them together and made, voila! a single, if not perfect, at least completely serviceable impression of a Christmas tree.
After throwing our half trees into the trunk, we directed my father into the Rose’s parking lot about fifteen minutes before it was due to close at 5:00pm for Christmas Eve. We all sprinted into the almost empty store and bought, no exaggeration, the LAST 2 strings of lights, the LAST star for the top, the LAST 2 boxes of ornaments, all red glass balls. And, to put the cherry on top, everything in our basket was 75% off. We were the last customers and the store lights shut off as we exited.
We went home and tied the two trees together with twine, and set them into a bucket which we covered with a blanket. We turned on the stereo and tuned to public radio and the Christmas Music marathon and then we began the decoration ritual.
Our former trees had always been Scotch Pines meticulously selected for their symmetry and fullness, encircled with who knows how many strands of multi-colored lights, covered with dozens and dozens of unique ornaments collected over the years, complemented by multiple silver beaded garlands and then finished off with pounds of tinsel and swirls of angel hair. The decorating process took a minimum of three hours and sparked numerous spirited debates turned into outright arguments over light placement and tinsel allotments and other minutia.
This year, in under fifteen minutes we had our mutant twin tree decked out in its two strands of white and gold lights, it’s red glass balls, and its silver star on top. We turned off the lights in the living room and turned on the tree lights and were awed by the simplicity and beauty of our Christmas tree. I think it was the first time in our experience that we could discern an actual tree under its adornment.
With the carols and choirs in the background and our beautiful tree glowing in front of us, for the first time in our new lives we hugged one another and said “Merry Christmas” and had a deep and true understanding of the meaning of those words. The words have nothing to do with gifts, nothing to do with money, at their core they are about birth, hope, love, and the joy of optimism that a new and better future lies ahead.
My father did remarry very happily. I think we knew she was the right one from the very beginning because she didn’t gasp when she entered the living room, she laughed. Brigitte did come down at some point, and the pheasant sofa got recovered, but the Muppets hung around on the mantel for years.
Eventually the whole house got knocked down and my father and stepmother, who was an artist, built a brand new house together that was a perfect embodiment of their life together, traditional and unconventional at the same time.
Naturally, I’ve had number of Christmas trees since the year I speak of, but that year, that Christmas, that tree, is the one that I will always remember above the others. The picture of the dinghy that graced the wall over the pheasant sofa now sits in my dining nook where I see it everyday and think thoughts of people and times now gone but lovingly remembered.
©2018 Valerie Kittell All Rights Reserved