Every year, I get out the brooch. I dig a wool blazer from my closet, ignore the niggling moth-bites, sweep the detritus of tangled shirts and mismatched shoes aside with my foot, jam the hanger back between its friends, and pin the brooch on the lapel. About the length of my thumb and twice as wide, it is a roughly triangular frame of gold hung with freshwater pearls from its branches. I don’t know if the designer intended it as a Christmas tree, but she always wore it at Christmas, and now it is my turn.
My paternal grandmother did Christmas better than anyone else. As a child, I simply accepted this as fact. This was what grandmothers were supposed to do. She arrived with an endless stream of suitcases and grocery bags, and an equally endless stream of instructions for my grandfather as to the disposition of each. The grocery bags were like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, bottomless caverns of delight. Fudge, shortbread, dried apricots filled with marzipan and chocolate, fruitcake – not the kind people joke about, but a specific (severely alcoholic) joy that spelled Christmas, stollen – my grandfather baked that, pickled mushrooms in a jar, smoked salmon spread, and, in some years, a Buche de Noel – the Yule log cake. Grandma wasn’t French, she was Polish, but she had seen the recipe in a magazine, and that was it. I remember several, pistachio moss, meringue mushrooms and all. It wasn’t until I attempted that particular pastry feat in college that I realized my grandmother’s dedication to Christmas and to family.
You see, not only was Grandma not French, she was not –technically – my grandmother. She married my grandfather – a widowed veteran of the war in the Pacific – when my dad was five. She claimed to have fallen in love with my father first. That wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. Men weren’t supposed to be the ones widowed during that war. But my grandfather survived, often with few others, the brutal amphibious engagements of the South Pacific. His wife, the grandmother whose name I and my oldest daughter bear as our middle names, was diagnosed with terminal cancer even as their son was born.
I don’t know how the transition went; my father was very young, and if he remembers, he doesn’t talk about it much, but it can’t have been easy. Dad’s maternal grandparents had been largely raising him, and my great-grandmother was a formidable force in her own right. Yet, by the time I came along, no recognizable division between blood and love could be found. The line had been so blurred, that it wasn’t until Grandma’s funeral that I truly integrated the concept of family that she had forged. I remember introducing two men of about the same age to each other. We call them both cousin. They both called her aunt. One was the son of her sister, the other the nephew of dad’s biological mother. Yet, to both, she was Aunt Ginny.
Grandma was the one who remembered things like paper chains, and stringing popcorn and cranberries. She wore red and green at Christmas. She sang Christmas carols gloriously off key, and often off-lyric. She and grandpa tuned the radio Christmas Eve to the Santa Watch, where we would listen for updates on Santa’s location around the world. And I suspect she orchestrated the Christmas tree.
We don’t have a tree this year. The reasons are practical; we won’t be home for the week before and much of the week after Christmas. We cut down and helped decorate the tree at my parents’ house shortly after Thanksgiving. It took days for the rash on my shoulder from lying in the prickly sand, forcing the dull saw through the sticky pine trunk, to fade. But, the smell is missing from our living room. I plugged in the lights around the window; they glowed at me with a lopsided sort of bravery. They should be glad to be down from the attic at all.
One year, when I was quite young, maybe six or seven, we almost had no tree. Every year, we collected in a pre-ordained location: my parents with my baby sister and me in tow, my mom’s parents, and my dad’s parents. Everyone had set assignments: Grandma Doris made the Christmas pudding, and the pink-and-white cake from recipes handed down from her mother, Grandma Ginny brought the aforementioned endless bags, we brought the cookies that mom and I made as vacation started. Groceries, ornaments, and tree were divided in advance. And the tree – when we gathered at a home, that group provided the tree. But, for several years, we had taken to renting a cabin or condominium along the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. Generally, someone brought the tree; I remember pine-boughs strapped like hunting trophies to the roofs of the various cars. I remember the unloading of boxes and bags and the mysterious transformation of the rigid green spikes into a perfect triangle of Christmas.
But, one year, we all arrived at the condominium in the evening snow of Christmas Eve with boxes, bags, and ribbons, but no tree. Dusk had fallen, frosty flakes fell from the stars, and the strings of lights that outlined the tree lots were dark. I remember choking on the tears of a little girl weeping into the couch. I remember my mother trying to console me, to tell me that Christmas without a tree was still Christmas. I knew she was wrong. The tree was Christmas: it was the smell of Christmas, it was the place Santa put the presents, the lights were the beautiful dance of the Christmas carols. The stories of a baby in a barn were cute, but the concept of a Savior was esoteric beyond comprehension to a six year old brain, and the notion that Christmas was somehow in the heart belonged in the fairytale land of television. Christmas was a tree.
I think Grandma understood. A cradle Catholic, she had a deeply ingrained sense of the power of symbolism and ritual. She also had no patience with the notion of hopelessness. Before I knew it, I was poking a needle carefully through pieces of popcorn, feeling the foamy crunch along the needle, the drag of the thread. “Where are we going to hang them?” I asked, not daring to stop threading. Grandma had said we were going to make decorations, so I was making them.
“Your daddy and grandpas will find a tree.” The snow skittered outside, and I had a vague realization that my father and grandfathers had drawn on jackets and boots and were somewhere in the dark storm. Mom had said that they couldn’t just cut down one of the many trees around us, which seemed unfair, like being thirsty and surrounded by forbidden water.
Late, late, after popcorn was threaded, paper chains were made, and Mom was making noises about bed, the door opened, and the tree entered. Looking back with adult eyes, I see the absurdity of the sight – a scrawny, makeshift tree surrounded by three large men – Ghandi flanked by linebackers. It was a Charlie Brown tree. Barely taller than me, with patched on branches – they had made it from the bottom of a too-large tree that a woman in a condo nearby had been throwing out.
Christmas morning, the little tree had been transformed into a Christmas miracle. It wore the lights like jewels, had donned my paper chains and popcorn strings with flair. And Santa had found a place for the presents.
When the time came to go home, Grandma and I paid the tree a memorial visit at the dumpster. I wept over its popcorn draped branches. “Grandma, this was the best tree ever.”
And it was.
Thirty-three years later, metaphorical snows flurry darkly outside. Santa has been hit hard by the recession. Grandma Ginny died when my middle child was an infant. Both of my Grandfathers followed within a few years. This year, Grandma Doris is on hospice care, and may not see Christmas Day. Dad is recovering from a heart attack of two months ago. We’ve come down to Southern California to visit family, but last night we found ourselves visiting Dad’s cousin, not with his family in their home, but in the hospital where he’d had emergency surgery earlier in the day.
I wear the brooch. I still like to flick the pearls and watch them dance on the bottom branches. I have inherited something from Grandma besides her jewelry. Like my Grandmother, I refuse to accept the darkness. Christmas will happen. There will be a tree. Today, we will go to my cousin’s house and make cookies with his children in the conviction that he will be home with them for Christmas. We will join my parents for Christmas, and I will make the steamed pudding and marzipan covered cake that Grandma Doris can no longer remember, that she may not be here to taste.
I don’t know what Christmas will bring. Advent seems particular in its darkness this year. But, Christmas morning, I will sneak downstairs with my children to collect the lumpy stockings, and, when no one is looking, I will sniff the tree in memory of all those that have gone before.