The Christmas tree came to us the year there was no Christmas – at least, not a Christmas anyone remembered. This fir was supposed to be high-end, and I suppose for the 1960s it was: a conical shape, like a balsam or a spruce, with lush up-curving branches. Artificial, of course, but a step above the typical tinsel-strewn or aluminum tree that resembled a retractable clothesline. It came from Grants.
For 11 months of the year that fake evergreen lived in a cardboard box in the spare room. In early December my father would haul it and the boxes of ornaments downstairs, and for hours my sister Andi and I would puzzle out how to put it together. Each wire branch was color-coded, red, yellow, blue, according to how it fit into the green wooden pole that made up its trunk.
My mother mostly sat by and watched, and my father retreated to his sawmill in the backyard. They had grown up with real but scraggly trees that would be adorned with a few presents: an orange, hand-knit stockings, a metal toy.
After getting pricked by the spiky metal branches and removing and replacing those that seemed out of place, we would pronounce ourselves satisfied and hang the ornaments. They were glittery Shiny Brites, green and red bells, and faded balls, most from Woolworth’s. We had one strand of garland that did not quite reach to the fir’s wide bottom, and some colored lights. The bare pole could be camouflaged by bendable wire greenery; a piece of white felt was then bunched around the base to approximate snow.
My parents would never have bought themselves an artificial tree, least of all one this elaborate. It arrived in the fall of 1967 with my older sister, one of the remnants of her brief disastrous marriage. Mary Jane came home with that tree and a few wrapped presents to put under it, though that had never been our custom. My mother always waited until Christmas morning to bring out the gifts.
I don’t remember anything about that Christmas. I can’t recall one item pulled from our stockings, a set of three embroidered by my Aunt Leona, mine with my name misspelled, perhaps because she had run out of room: Mary Jane, Andrea, Betty Jean. Not one gift tag scrawled “from Santa” in my mother’s cursive. Not one pair of socks, Barbie doll, or Milton Bradley game.
I remember Christmases before and after; I can even conjure memories of the days before that holiday and days after. But Christmas itself has been vacuumed into a black hole from which it can never be retrieved. Each time I try to recall it, I know my generalities are mere inventions, the mind taking snippets from Christmases before and after and trying to knit them into a new memory of what must have happened the year I was 7.
Of course, we had Christmas the year Mary Jane died, though 11 days before she had walked out into the night to meet two men in the Chevy Corvair that would send her to her death.
Everything went on as before. The presents she had left beneath the tree – a blue or black pocketbook for my mother is all I recall – must have been opened. Someone filled two stockings instead of three, wrote Santa’s name dutifully on the gift tags, boxed and taped and wrapped our gifts. For me, especially, they must have made an effort. For what does a child know of grief when Santa has pulled up in his sleigh and dropped off boxes swathed in red and green paper?
Yet, the memory of the day has been wiped clean. A sensitive child, I could not have been immune to the struggles of my mother, my father, and my sister Andi that Christmas morning. And so something in my mind flipped a switch and opened the black hole, extracting that day forever from the clutches of memory. Even a child knows what it can’t handle.
Each year after Mary Jane’s death, we continued to unbox the artificial tree and assemble its metal branches. It stood in the same corner of the living room, a talisman of continuity against the gaudy floral drapes and flesh-colored walls. No one suggested getting rid of it, or returning to my father’s practice of cutting down the spindliest scrub pine he could find. Like everything else in our old farmhouse, from hand-me-down furniture to faded rugs, once that tree arrived, it was assured of living out its days with us.
When my mother died, the tree was still upstairs in its over-sized box, a jumble of spiky green metal branches, though my mother had long ago stopped using it. As we cleaned out the house, I might have picked up one or two of its curving arms. Perhaps I daydreamed for a moment about that first step of laying them out on the floor, painted tip to painted tip. I might have flashed back to all those Christmases it had served us, long after its original owner had vanished into the cold December air.
But one Christmas would remain elusive, a TV screen gone black. I lifted up the box. In the triage of sentimental objects, this one was too big, too sharp, too overwhelming to stay.