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Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Christmas Tree, 2009

This is the story of my Christmas tree, a tall artificial tree with white lights.
I don’t put the tree up every year. Last year, for instance, I kept it in the basement beside the snow shovels and some old buckets, but this year something happened to make me want to give it a central place in my living room.
The tree was given me by my sister some years just before she moved to Florida with her husband. I won’t go into the ‘politics’ of that move other than to say that no one in the family wanted her to move south. She’s the sister—I have three—closest to me in age, so growing up we were almost always thought of as twins. The reason for this is that in the fifth grade I had a case of double pneumonia and this forced the nuns to hold me back a year.
Before my sister and her husband left Pennsylvania, they visited me on Mercer Street and presented me with the tree. Somehow the idea of a Christmas tree in Florida, with all its wintry connotations, didn’t sit well with them. Who needs artificial evergreens when you have real palm trees growing in your backyard? So, yes, I was happy to take this tall slender alpine specimen with its generous array of white lights and call it my own.
That first year I positioned it in front of my living room window, admiring the way it glowed out onto the street. Others commented that it was a subtle yet striking decoration
My sister has been in Florida for almost 8 years now, and during that time I’ve developed a rather ambiguous relationship with the tree. You see, there’s a part of me that is very 1960s bohemian or what they used to call anti-bourgeois. In my twenties I tried my best to eschew holidays, thinking they were anti intellectual or somehow beneath me. I’d criticize Thanksgiving as a trumped up Hallmark card fest in which turkeys were slaughtered. Traditional Columbus Day, my actual birthday, I’d categorize as Columbus’ unjust conquest (and slaughter) of the Indians. In my agnostic twenties, Christmas was more a winter solstice, a time for family and friends, but nothing more.
Most of these Scrooge-like feelings are history now that I’ve gotten older, though once in a while they “attack” me like an old virus. Perhaps this is the reason that lately I haven’t been taking care of the Christmas tree. Last year, for instance, I let it sit in a corner in my basement near a pipe with a small leak. For the longest time I’d see that water was damaging the tree’s base, but rather than move the tree I’d sweep around it as the base slowly withered away. When I noticed that half its lights had gone out, I resisted walking to the Dollar Store for new ones. The sad truth is, I allowed the Christmas tree to rot until a few weeks ago when the sister who gave it to me called to say that she had stage II cancer of the lymph nodes.
My sister is a “no BS” straightforward type, and announced the news as if she were reading something from the newspaper. She didn’t cry or preface the news with drama. She told me straight out that she would have to undergo chemotherapy and possibly radiation and that she had already gone shopping for a number of wigs in preparation for when she lost her hair. She told me she had great faith in her doctor, whom she quoted as saying, “We are going to lick this thing and put it behind you.” She seemed cheery and upbeat. Of course being her “twin” I heard the suppressed emotion underneath her words. I heard the occasional “crack,” the weak link that once activated would explode in a rush of tears.
After our conversation a stunned feeling came over me. There was, of course, a rush of childhood memories in which she, the vivacious beautiful sister with the blonde hair and magnetic personality, in short the family beauty, was suddenly vulnerable to the scary part of life.
I didn’t know what to do, but then I thought of the Christmas tree I’d neglected for so long, leaning in a “crash” position against the old oil tank.
I brought it up from the basement, cleaned off the dirty base, straightened out the crooked branches and placed ii in its rightful place on a table in front of the living room window. Then I brought up the dusty box of ornaments and placed them beside the tree. While doing these things remnants of that old anti-holiday feeling came over me, as if voicing one last pathetic protest—“Don’t celebrate! Don’t celebrate!”-- but in the end those cries didn’t stand a chance.
My sister, and her Christmas tree, won hands down.

Thom Nickels

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