The Memory Tree

And so the ritual began. There was no tree farm this year, no trudging out into the snow, saw in hand, to cut down the one that had the right shape and height. That had stopped years before, even before his father died, the one who knew how to use the saw much better than he could, but who didn’t really have an eye for what made the perfect tree. Or perhaps the patience to find it. And so, most of the last ones his father had brought home looked like the droopy specimen in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Maybe, he always thought, Dad just felt sorry for them.

So, no, no cutting. Just a quick stop at the makeshift mercado off the old highway, with the new highway below, and the snow-laced Jemez Mountains in the distance. Yes, a quick stop, because the first tree he saw would do the trick: tall, mostly full, with patches of white from the unexpected dusting that had come the night before. He could already see how he could maneuver it in the house to hide the bald spots and scrawnier limbs. And the price was right: less than what he had paid for smaller trees in the past. He hated to think about the money, but it had been that kind of year.

At home, he struggled a bit to get the tree into its stand, but then, it was upright, and ready for decorating. Ah, the decorations—each its own little bit of memory. But first, some water for the tree and—ah, crap. Something gave way, or his perception of the tree’s balance in the stand was hideously off. It crashed to the ground, sending water everywhere—boiling water, because his first love from decades ago had told him that the heat opened up the sealed bottom, sealed after the cut that brought the tree down, and the heat would open it up again, so it could take in the water it needed to survive in the home. If a cut tree can be said to survive. Was the boiling water theory true? He had never bothered to check. But he remembered it, and repeated it, long after the relationship ended.

The tumbling tree brought back another memory, of waking up one morning years past and seeing the fully decorated tree on the ground, fragments of glass ornaments dotting the red brick flooring like remnants of an earlier snow. Was it the cat? No, too easy to blame her, and over the years, she had been surprisingly uninterested in the green pyramids he had dragged inside. It was the balance, he knew—he had not been careful about the balance.

He would not repeat that this year. The first ornament would not go up until he was sure the tree was secure. As much as he could be sure anything could be secure. Which led to this: the memory of another past love taking out a box of ornaments—yes, his ornaments, the ones he had collected—and dropping it. More shattered glass. It was an accident of course, and a good reminder of the impermanence of things. And relationships. He thought there would be many more Christmases with her. He wondered what hers would be like this year, some 2,000 miles away.

Enough of all that—time to decorate! The Christmas songs went on, a beer popped open, the lights wrapped the branches, then the careful placement began.  Matching each ornament’s size and weight to the peculiarities of this tree. Nothing too low, in case this was the year the cat’s curiosity was piqued. Nothing too heavy on the outer limbs. Trying to put the shiny ones near the tiny white lights, and making sure the favorite ornaments got a place of honor.

This was when the flood of memories erupted. He remembered where and when he bought so many of them: on trips, at craft fairs, at small shops selling local goods. Then there were the ones that were presents—some from friends and family, most from women from the past. Many of them featuring cats doing “cutesy” things. Christmas kitsch. And he loved them all

Then, of course, there were the ones he had inherited, the ones that used to hang on his family’s tree when Christmas meant a break from school and hopefully some sledding and, yes, usually some disappointment because his friends always seemed to have more impressive hauls. Because forget the lessons in catechism class—he knew Christmas was all about the presents. And his grandmother’s ravioli. No matter what else was on the menu, from antipasto to the Torrone candies, it was the ravioli that mattered. That made it Christmas.

Over the years, he learned, finally, that it wasn’t really about the presents. Of course, as he left his religion behind, it wasn’t about Christ, either. No, he liked to think of it in terms of the pagan aspects—bringing a piece of nature into the house to get us through the darkest days of the year, remind us that that the sun will shine brightly again. Or some such. And it was about celebrating tradition. Some things from the Christmases past remained. He made ravioli every year. “Made”—well, not like his grandmother had, rolling out the dough using the biggest rolling pin he had ever seen, maybe the biggest in existence, and filling each tiny pasta pillow with a meaty concoction he learned only later contained venison (or so he was told). He bought his ravioli. And, naturally, it always stirred the memories, though it was never quite good enough. But the sauce was homemade, that he could do, simmering for hours on the stove. He hoped each year he would have someone he could share that tradition with, the Christmas ravioli. Since the inadvertent ornament breaker had left his life, it was always a crapshoot.

treeBut in a relationship or not, surrounded by friends or family or not, the tree always went up. The ornaments came out, found their perfect spot, and he was happy. At the end of each night, in those weeks when the tree stood so tall—he loved his living room with the 10-foot ceiling!—he turned off all the lights in the house. The tiny white bulbs glowed, and as he took off his glasses, they acquired a pleasing, fuzzy edge. Still, he could see well enough to pick out the ornaments he loved best: a hand-painted, modern rendering of Mimbres art, done by a Native American artist he met at an art show; another local creation, with the couple from American Gothic rendered as smiling Dio de los Muertos figures; his own Christmas band, with ornaments of drums, and horns and a mini Gibson guitar; the prancing horse constructed out of pipe cleaners, a crafty creation made by a talented friend. And capping it off was the tin star he had made, the tree topper he had sought for so long.  It looked like it had been executed by a fourth grader with dexterity issues, but he didn’t care—he had made it, and it made him smile.

This year, admiring the tree each night had been a somewhat melancholy endeavor. He was alone. It had been a tough year. He was—shit!—getting older and often didn’t like it. But the tree reminded him that the year was almost over, and it would be standing as the New Year began. The New Year offered hope. And whatever happened, he would have another tree next Christmas. A new tree, with old memories strewn about it.

~ by mburgan on December 20, 2018.

4 Responses to “The Memory Tree”

  1. Mike, I love this. I feel your words. I hope 2019 is great for you. And, please send me your address. I have an ornament for you. Merry Christmas!

  2. Beautifully written, as always! Happy holidays from my new home in Oregon. Maybe I can get some of your things produced up here!

    • Jerry–thanks for that. A production anywhere right about now would be great–it’s been a little thin the last few years. Hope all is well in Oregon, and Merry Christmas!

  3. Colleen, thanks as always for reading and for the kind words. And an ornament–so generous! I’ll send the address privately. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

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