This is a reflection about our first Christmas without my father. God showed me something beautiful to focus on, which made it bearable.
Dad’s Christmas Legacy
Dad's birthday comes just a week before Christmas, and it had become a family tradition to celebrate his birthday together with my brother-in-law whose birthday falls on the very next day. I’ve seen photographs of these two grown men acting silly together, with everyone smiling around them. This year my father died of cancer six months ago. Dave celebrated without him for the first time in twenty-six years. The melancholy started for me that day, coming in like a swirl of sand and settling in like the famous khamasin, the fifty-day sandstorm that suddenly ravages the Middle East. It starts slowly and builds in intensity. I’m pretty sure the others felt the same way.
Though past Christmases in my family have been modest and quite low-key, with few traditions, I simply couldn’t imagine the day without my smiling father. The tears would swell up in my throat, and I felt as if every word that came out of my mouth would choke me. I kept thinking of all the foods Dad loved. How could he not be there to enjoy them!
Growing up, we all remember one thing—bugging dad to pick up the Christmas tree. “C’mon dad,” we’d holler, “It’s almost Christmas and we still haven’t put it up yet. He’d nod in that calm way of his. That did not mean he actually intended to fulfill our wish that day. Sometimes he and Mom would discuss where he’d get it. But with a father called “The Tree Man,” there was never a question of what kind of tree he’d get. Real, of course! Thick, floor-to-the-ceiling trees with wide open branches and the loveliest pine smell ever! Dad would drag the stool to the attic door in the girls’ bedroom and clomp up inside it, handing down a hefty box we kept our ornaments in. We’d carry it down to the living room and set it down, waiting patiently for him to untangle the lovely string of old-fashioned red, green and white lights people used back then to string around their trees.
While he did that, we would prepare the ornaments — silver, gold, red, blue and green aluminum balls — to hang on the branches. All our ornaments were cheap and simple. We made lots of them over the years. Some came from the local bank, which gave away cookie-cutter brass ones with the name of their bank inscribed on the back, along with the year. Every year, one of us would claim it as our own. I once got the little drummer boy.
We had a fair amount of squabbling among us, and I recall our cat, Fluffy, knocking off shiny bulbs and chasing them under furniture. She also climbed the tree once in awhile with an agility that amazed even my dad, “Someone get that cat down from there!”
We were ready to hang tinsel. It was a tough job to get it evenly hung on the tree. My older brother and sister, Mike and Carolyn, quickly lost interest in this task and made my younger brother, Donnie, and I finish up.
At the very end, Dad always placed the angel on the tippy-top. We still have that simple, plastic angel fifty-seven years later. At age twenty-one, Mom spent every bit of her wage on buying that angel so it meant a lot to her. In keeping with our assortment of ornaments, the angel wasn’t worth much even then but once on the tree, it glowed brilliantly, and we loved it.
Putting up the tree was our biggest tradition. Early Christmas morning, we’d wake up, running to Mom and Dad’s room to hurry them out of the covers, so we could open up our presents. I think our parents taught us to value what we received because we never had much money for fancy gifts. We got sturdy clothing and games.
We’d never do much on Christmas Day. Mom and Dad would stagger back to bed for awhile and we’d tear open all the boxes and play our games, most which clanged, banged, and dinged, as we slapped levers and pounced on buttons and bells. Later, we’d all bundle up in heavy clothing to head down to the pond and skate if it was frozen over. Many times we’d head to Brockway, about three hours away, to visit my Grandma Florence, Dad mother. We had great fun there, meeting up with our cousins! If there was snow, dad would take us out to coast on the hill beside grandma’s house. If we stayed home, Mom always made a big meal and dad carved the meat, either ham or turkey, with an electric knife.
Over the years, the tree has changed style and shape, but for much of that time, dad brought it in and trimmed it up to fit into our small living room. When he began experimenting with arborvitae, that took the place of the traditional-style Christmas tree. It came as a shock to learn that Mom and Dad finally replaced their fresh-scented pines with a small, reusable white fiber-optic one. The Tree Man had quit fooling with the real thing!
We made it through our first Christmas without my father, each in our own way. Nobody talked about him being gone but his absence affected all of us. This is how I made it through...
On Christmas morning, the long line of Christmas trees Dad brought into our house each year paraded through my mind — the fat ones, the lopsided ones, the sappy ones and even those pricking us with their extra-sharp needles. I suddenly saw how Dad’s passion for nature, and real trees, gave us something extraordinary to look back on. During those long-ago childhood Christmases we delighted in hearing him stomp the snow off his work boots as he descended down each stair into the basement. We’d eagerly rush down in our stocking feet, unable to wait to see what kind of tree he’d chosen. Remembering this, naturally, made me sad.
I went outdoors to get some fresh air and clear my mind. Once outdoors, my eyes took in all the trees Dad had so carefully grafted, pruned, twisted and tended to for so long. I sat on the stoop and really looked at them. All of the sudden, it came to me.
These were our Christmas trees!
These tiered bushes, the archway he lovingly coaxed into one piece by grafting two trees together, the knobby branches that hold round buttons of shrubbery are beautiful living legacies of my father. Their decoration is simple but effective– the results of his daily pruning make it a wonder for all to behold. So many people stop and ask to take photographs, compliment or ask who does our trees. These trees, so alive with beauty, keep his memory alive to family, friends and strangers alike. When I look at our yard now, I think how fortunate I am to have these trees year ‘round!
I remember how it used to feel when we finally threw out our Christmas tree. I had a sense of loss—much like the loss our family experienced when my dad passed away. But these trees and shrubs grace our yard throughout the seasons. The lights he used to decorate them with no longer exist. On our tall slender pine, they’ve grown down into the bark. But when I see the snow covering them nowadays, I feel they’re decorated with the most natural element of all.
People passing by smile and wave; we’re forever linked to each other through my father’s artistic gift that he lovingly left behind. Thank you, God, for showing me how the magic of his trees will keep Christmas in my heart all year long.