jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

Taking Down the Tree

What is the soundtrack for taking down the Christmas tree? Is it my mother, almost into February, during stolen moments when we were all at school or a daycare center, humming to herself? Did she listen to something on the stereo my father built, one of his big band albums, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller? Or once he bought the CD player in 1989, did she listen to his first CD, David Lanz and Michael Jones’ Solstice?

Did she tell herself the story of the grandparents who both had a tree covered in blue balls and hence, our inheritance of boxes upon boxes of (and oh, how this would make us laugh) blue balls? Or of her first Christmas with my father, when they bought a box of plastic glow-in-the-dark ornaments shaped like stars and tiny angels and icicles?

Sister, Butchie, sister, father  1966

Sister, Butchie, sister, father

It feels like a lifetime ago when I picture this. My father was still alive and my brother, Butchie, too. Except for the year of his illness, the one he didn’t make it home from the hospital for the months of December and January, my father always made sure we had trees so wide, so full, that it was a cylinder of broad branches, the top cut off to fit into our low-ceilinged New Jersey modern colonial living room, blocking out the light of day.

Sister, Jennie, Mom, sister  1972

Sister, Jennie, Mom, sister

It was a thing to behold, all tinsel and multi-colored bulb lights that would burn so hot they’d melt those old plastic glow-in-the-dark ornaments; the bottom few feet covered with Sunday school decorations, precious glitter and styrofoam meat containers cut into stars stabbed through with pipe cleaners, or simple white dough with snarled yarn through a hole poked at the top. The highest branches cradled ornaments found in a single small box from my mother’s grandmother, Elsie, all chipped away lead paint and paper tops where hooks smelling of rust and dusty basements would twist.

This thing, the tree we’d tag the weekend after Thanksgiving and decorate on Christmas Eve, finally removing close to Valentine’s Day, it represented so much for us. It was a lush thing, a kind and gentle thing, something that you could photograph and all but erase any pain or sadness that swirled around it that day or year. It was lovely. It was normal. And I remember laying underneath it staring up through the branches at the bright bulbs, the swaying treasures.

A lifetime ago and yet, in Christmas tree years, it was only thirty-some Christmases ago, me laying under that tree, listening to the soundtrack of my retarded older brother’s screaming or clapping, Woody Woodpecker chittering on the TV, my sisters arguing, my younger brother talking to himself, pots and pans banging in the kitchen. Even my father’s feeding machine that would chug through the evening as he slept on his makeshift bed on the living room couch. In Christmas tree years time is compacted into this otherworldly place, moving so very fast, leaping from one year to the next. It is a flipbook of photos of enormous trees that remain constant as we change change changechangechange.

Sister, sister, Jennie  1976

Sister, sister, Jennie

I have only eleven more years of Christmas trees where all my children will still reside at home before they fly off to college or carpentry school or apprenticing with a fresco painter in Italy. Eleven years to make sure that there is magic, to keep the hard things at bay, to hope for good health and good love. Eleven years. If we’re lucky.

It’s enough to flicker right behind my eyes, the tight pull of tears that won’t fall. But still.

What is the soundtrack for a mother’s taking down of the Christmas tree, packing memories away? I dial up Pandora’s George Winston Radio as a nod to that old Solstice CD, and I remove ornaments made by friends new and old, by the neighbors in Philadelphia, or girlfriends I depend on daily, by my children when all they could manage was to dump glitter on popsicle sticks or scribble on glass balls in marker.

I wrap in tissue paper the tiny porcelain booties and Grandson’s First Christmas moon bought by my mother, and the needles rain down coating the blanket below, dry and tired. I wind the cords of tiny white sparkle lights around themselves and bundle them in the box with the stockings and the angel from my childhood tree.


Glow-in-the-dark angel and Jasper’s 1st Christmas


If I’m feeling stubbornly independent, I unscrew the trunk of the tree from the stand by myself, push her against the wall, then tip the trunk up and drag her into the woods behind the house, fighting each inch of mud and lawn in small increments, needles in our wake, a chilly dusk funeral march on this near-solstice day.

And if I am lucky, before I turn away and tromp back out of the woods, I will find hidden in a branch of the tree one of those glow-in-the-dark icicles, the ones my father bought for that first Christmas tree.

Thirty-some years.

Eleven years.


A lifetime.

13 comments on “Taking Down the Tree

  1. Burns the Fire
    January 6, 2015

    This is a Christmas classic, in my Jewish books. Thanks, Jen!

    • jgroeber
      January 13, 2015

      Ah, how sweet are you? I actually thought of you while writing this. Wondering what the equivalent traditions are in other households. A menorah just doesn’t require the time-commitment… right? 😉

  2. Matt
    January 6, 2015

    It seems like it’s hard to find beauty in this world some days. Especially during the long, cold gray of winter.

    Without fail, you make me FEEL when I read your stories.

    People need to feel or else they forget they’re alive. People need beauty or else they don’t feel hopeful or inspired.

    Your writing is a gift. Always deeply moving. Every time.

    And I don’t thank you enough, Jen.

    Thank you. This is beautiful.

    • jgroeber
      January 13, 2015

      Shameful to only be replying right now, but I read this comment right when it landed in my inbox while sitting in the carpool line and it had me smiling from ear to ear. Hard to live up to those words, but they are much appreciated here. Truly.

  3. Amy Reese
    January 6, 2015

    Your posts are magical, Jen. Those glow in the dark icicles are like fairy dust. As I read your post, I was in the middle of taking down our tree. Funny! I had no music, only the churning of a dishwasher. The thought that hits home for me is that I have really don’t have that many Christmases left with my kids. About 11 left for me, too, If they go away to school or study with a painter in Italy:)… I guess we enjoy what we have and not be in any hurry about it.

    • jgroeber
      January 13, 2015

      No music to accompany the tree-taking-down ceremonies of 2015? How is this possible? And yes, absolutely, to trying to remember to appreciate what we have. Those rapscallions can beat appreciation out of us though. That and sweeping up the pine needles which will keep appearing until July.

  4. kellylmckenzie
    January 6, 2015

    There’s hope. You should have more than 11! My two are both away at university yet have come home each of the past three years. They’re not ready to give up Christmas at home.
    I love that you treasure a real tree as well Jen. Christmas without a plethora of pine needles and that magical scent wouldn’t seem real to me. This year we took down the tree together. It was really special and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
    Lovely, evocative post that was a pleasure to read!

    • jgroeber
      January 13, 2015

      Such a sweet comment, Kelly. Thank you. And I do so hope they keep coming home from school, and then again later when they (fingers crossed) have kids of their own.
      And my father always insisted on a real tree. Something about the scent and the needles just says Christmas.

  5. talesfromthemotherland
    January 7, 2015

    It was sheer luck that my youngest was home this year, and the first year that both my eldest were gone. The tree was beautiful, as always, but didn’t sparkle quite as brightly, without my lovies home. I know that I need to start getting used to that… but oh, how it hurt my heart. Lovely piece– always lovely, but oh, how it hurts my heart. xox

  6. jgroeber
    January 13, 2015

    Oh, sigh. Can we skype trees? And grown children? It’s not the same though. They need to smell those pine boughs and we need to smell the hair on their heads. Reading your comments from about 12 years ahead in child-rearing reminds me to smell those heads, no matter how much they drive me crazy. Love seeing you here.

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This entry was posted on January 6, 2015 by in Memory, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .

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