By Brian M. Howle
Writer’s Note: Today – December 14, 2016 – marks twelve years since the reason for this column took place. Whomever it was who coined the phrase, “Time heals all wounds,” is completely full of shit. Some wounds just get bigger. But the overall message of this particular story remains just as strong, and in fact, is even more pertinent today. I implore everyone reading this to follow the advice at the end.
The one thing that remains constant and universal about a person throughout their life is the memories of Christmas and the entire holiday season. Unless you weren’t born and raised in a country that celebrates Christmas, of course. Thing is, with each passing year, we are being drawn closer and closer to living in a country that doesn’t.
And if that does ever come to pass – and don’t be so surprised if and when it does – you will still have the means to buck the system and keep right on enjoying everything about Christmas. Despite what has been deemed socially or politically incorrect, all of those wonderful, palpable, cherished memories will live on within the most private recesses of your mind.
So before the Thought Police start cracking down on Christmas even harder, I would like to share a few of my Christmas memories with you.
For some, I guess all those twinkling, flashing colored lights automatically become the cornerstone for earliest recollections of the holidays. For others, it could be the brightly festooned packages, with miles and miles of shiny ribbons and bows.
But for me, it always comes back to the silent sentinel of Christmas that stood watch over our home, our family, and (most importantly) our gifts and presents from Santa Claus within the warm, safe confines of our living room – the Christmas tree.
As I’ve stated many times before, my father owned the Piggly Wiggly in my little hometown of Andrews, S.C.. And though there were these ancillary hints and clues that Christmas was soon to be on the horizon – what, with Thanksgiving parades and the official start to the shopping season immediately thereafter. But for me, the seminal moment for signaling the advent of Christmas was when the big truck backed up to the front of the store. Not in the back, where every other item in the store was unloaded in a loud, frenzied, chaotically choreographed line of workers and steel-wheeled ramps that expedited cases of beans and the like.
No, the only truck that unloaded at the front of the store only came from the distant mountains of North Carolina, and it’s cargo was bushy, sticky and unmistakably aromatic.
The Christmas tree truck.
Once those sap-ladened, needle-dropping bad boys were leaning against the width of the store’s windowed facade, then – and only then – officially, Christmas was on!
Now, I have no idea what my family did before I came into the world, as far as picking out the tree was concerned. I’m sure they struggled in their sweet but incompetent way, bless their leetle hearts.
But once I was around, here’s how it went down: Daddy would come home during his lunch break and pick me up in his blue Ford pickup truck (the official Piggly Wiggly delivery truck could only be a Ford, just so you know) and delight in watching me try to look over the big steel dashboard, straining on tip toes to get that first rush of spotting the trees lined up out front. And he had his hands full, trying to bring the truck to a stop and keeping one hand tightly gripped on me to keep me from bolting out of a still-moving vehicle.
And then the banzai attack was on. I flung myself onto the waiting arms of thousands of sticky, pointy branches of wonderfully scent-laden needles, trying to avoid the big clumps of oozing sap that invariably lay hidden underneath. I rustled every limb, holding every one at arm’s length in order to access the merits or faults of each tree.
Oh, the inspection was grueling and unforgiving. My developing leetle artistic brain demanded perfection in symmetry, with a full-bodied balance in the front, back and sides. Gaping holes or snapped branches? On my tree? Perish the thought.
And more times than not, I had this knack of settling on the one tree out of hundreds with the deformed trunk, where the infant tree’s beginnings in life were altered and maimed by some unknown event that twisted and thickened the base into a quasi-Quasimodo appearance. It then became daddy’s job to hacksaw the blemish off so that it would fit down snugly into the solid steel tree stand with the little water reservoir bowl.
After obtaining my considered approval, the tree was hoisted up into the faithful delivery truck, and daddy let me in the back so I could ensure that rascal didn’t try one last attempt at escaping my determined leetle clutches. Cold December wind in my face, I wrestled to keep the beast from escaping during the entire 4 block sojourn to our house.
Once home, the tree was placed in the aforementioned stand out on the patio, where it was watered and allowed to “breathe” overnight, and the magical transformation was complete. What was once a drooping, disheveled heap of evergreen needles had metamorphosed into a full, thick, massive tree. Standing strong and tall, it was then brought inside and placed in the obligatory corner of the living room.
Yes, selecting the tree was my forte. But decorating it was hers.
And though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was one of the few things that induced bonding between us. Perhaps it was her way of grooming me for my task in adulthood, when I would have my own Christmas tree to adorn. But she took great pains to show me how to arrange decorations and lights in a symmetrical, balanced manner, standing back and studying her work before swooping back in for a critical adjustment or repositioning of a light.
It’s funny, the irony of it all, now that I reflect on it. My mother and I fought like cats and dogs for the majority of my childhood and adolescence, and wasn’t pretty. There were times when each of us wanted the annihilation of the other, no doubt about it. And to be honest, I think that most of the time it was probably due to my then-undiagnosed hyperactivity (back then, instead of a fancy name for behavioral disorders like ADHD/ADD, they would just call you “spayshul”), with me badgering my mother non-stop about whatever my question of the moment was.
Problem was, I had a zillion questions every minute of every day.
But when it came to decorating the Christmas tree, mama somehow transformed into a patient, doting parent, and answered each question with untypical patience.
And together, we would step back when all the boxes of lights and ornaments and candy canes were empty; after the last few handfuls of aluminum “icecicles” were tossed over the finished project like shimmering strands of silver snow and ice, just so – and bask in the self-satisfying admiration of our mutual handiwork.
And as with families all over the nation and the world, just like yours, we not only celebrated our faith, but our family as well. The deepest, strongest, most emotional and total sensory recall-producing memories are furrowed even stronger within our gray matter when we link family to Christmas.
The years passed by, and each successive holiday saw the commotion over the tree diminish, especially as each of the three children found their wings and flew the ol’ nest on South Farr Avenue.
And, being the youngest, I saw the tree diminish in size – but not always for lack of enthusiasm. Once the advent of the artificial tree took root, so to speak, in the Howle household, my job as official finder became obsolete.
This turned out to be very prophetic and practical for me, as I have chosen a career where software upgrades, planned obsoletion of hardware and a throw-away mentality towards the experienced adult worker have combined to draw our extinction ever nearer than it seems. Which, to me, is ominously imminent.
But before my title was dust, my parents began to struggle with the physical task of climbing up the 78 degree incline of the attic steps, digging out the boxes from the massive asbestos sanctuaries that resided up there, hauling it back down the grade without breaking anything. Then they would set it up in a corner of the room, after moving furniture to make a place for a tree that would now only host perhaps a dozen presents – primarily for my parents, since we were all now gone, except for me.
As they complained one year, while I trudged the harrowing steps to retrieve the lifeless tree from its hibernation, it occurred to me that because of the arrangement of the limbs to the center “trunk,” you could remove one half of the 360-degree circumference of the tree. Because it was already rather short, would fit on top of a row of low dresser cabinets flush against the wall, affording them even more usable space without having to move half the room around and repeat when Christmas was over.
Hey, I had my moments.
The years rolled on, and Christmas at home in Andrews became less annual for all of us to be together, what with our own families and the like.
So when my parents faced retirement and sold the family home, the tree made the move to their new abode. But it only saw a few more Christmases.
And when my father passed away on August 3 of 2004, we weathered our grief and awaited Christmas without him for the first time in my and my siblings’ lives – and for mama, the first time in 64 years.
We always thought that, if mother passed away first, that daddy would not last a week, because his love for her was stronger than life itself.
How much more irony could be infused by the fact that, after his death, she simply gave up and suffered a heart attack on Thanksgiving day.
On her deathbed in a Sumter nursing home, I visited her on December 13, 2004. On my previous stop, I couldn’t take the barren, sterile hospital walls in her room any longer. I bought her a tiny little Christmas tree, and festooned it with leetle tiny ornaments. It even had lights, just so.
She regained lucidity for a moment, gazed upon the little tree and smiled, squeezing my hand, and then faded back off into semi-consciousness.
Our bond with the tree was our first act of contrition all those years ago, and became the final act when she passed away the next night.
So to all of you on this wonderful holiday season – whether you be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu and all the others – I wish you all the best of good tidings, love, and peace on earth. And whatever you do, please – put away those petty fights and differences with those you really love.
Because you never know when you’ll share the last Christmas tree.
This article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, December 20, 2007.