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