Sunday, December 24, 2017

"The Christmas Tree...See What You Have Done...Oh My!'


Well, for what it's worth, here is my annual Christmas story....a gift to family and friends. I hope it is worthy. 
"A Christmas Tree……..My What You Have Done!" 
Dan was dying. His body told him this was his last Christmas. It had been telling him that for months; the occasional pains, the lack of energy to perform tasks once accomplished so easily. That very afternoon he had received a painful reminder of his mortality, the sharp stab of pain along the left side of his chest as he strung the Christmas lights along the porch eaves. And after accomplishing such a modest task he found himself out of breath, forced to retreat to his easy chair, to rest a bit.
So many things to get done. Just two days before Christmas and so much left to do. Had his body not told him this Christmas would be his last, he would not have felt an urge to make this last one special. After the kids had grown up, married and left home, he and Liz had allowed the celebration of Christmas to dwindle down, each Christmas more modest than the last. On Christmas Eve they had attended church, and on Christmas morning, the mutual exchanging of simple gifts, then ham and sweet potatoes for two……..a glass of wine to celebrate a winter sunset.
It had not always been so. When the children were at home he was a joyful bear; hauling crates of Christmas decorations down from the attic, leading an expedition of adults and children to the Christmas tree lot, then hauling in an eight foot Frasier Fir, it’s needles crisp and green, its scent heavenly, infusing the air with remembrances of all those Christmases of childhood. And when the tree was trimmed, with shiny red and green ornaments, and kindergarten offerings, and treasured cards from old, and when the strings of lights had all been strategically positioned for maximum effect, the lights in the home were dimmed, the tree lights plugged in to excited gasps, as eyes from six to sixty admired their handiwork.
And after mugs of hot chocolate, sprinkled with marshmallows, were raised in toast to the holiday, that caravan of varied folk trod outside, and risked life and limb to hang the galaxy of crystal lights, announcing to the world that this family celebrated Christmas…and would have it no other way! And in those weeks before Christmas the scent of sugar and cinnamon filled the house with gaiety and the warm affection that comes when the carols ring throughout the home.
But in these last few years, as Dan and Liz celebrated alone, those marvelous ribbons of crystal lights were the first to go, far too much trouble, and too risky for fragile bones to climb ladders. And then the tree got smaller each year……..until it dwindled to no tree at all, a single poinsettia replacing the gaiety of decoration in earlier years.
And, when Liz passed, not even the poinsettia….and the ham dinner came from Stouffers, eaten on a TV tray in the dimly lit room, Jimmy Stewart, seen but not heard, the TV muted as Jimmy ran down the streets of Bedford Falls, his soul newly awakened.
And now this was Dan’s last Christmas. His newly discovered frailty told him, and his heart told him too.
So, he decided to go out big. The lights outside strewn, he sipped the last of the coffee, now grown cold, and reached into the box that held the treasures from all the Christmases past. Resting atop the box of treasures were two tiny bundles of Christmas cards, each tied neatly in scarlet ribbon, each bearing witness to Liz’s fastidious preservation of memories past.
So Dan reached for his reading glasses, thinking he might visit yesterday for just a bit. Yet, somehow he knew that opening even one of those cards would send him deep into the shadows of afternoon, precious time lost for what he had to do.
Despite his best efforts, to go out and fetch his Christmas tree, Dan sank deeply into his chair and fell asleep.
He found himself standing in the aisle of a passenger train, shedding his snow gear, the snow covers from his boots. All about him other passengers were similarly busy, shedding winter coats, hanging them in coat cabinets, stowing packages and shopping bags in overhead bins, bags full of fruit and cheeses, golden baguettes emerging triumphantly from the tops of bags. 
The coach was festive with merriment that can only come when travelers, happy but weary, are finally going home. Dan felt it too. Caught up in the rosy-cheeked anticipation of a winter trip homeward, he felt companionable and engaging. 
After taking his seat he looked about him. In the row in front of him, the guy in the window seat turned and offered a “good morning”, then began to speak familiarly with him, as if they were old friends. Indeed the fellow did seem familiar. When he had turned his head, to issue his morning greeting, he looked like Fred, his old high school class mate. “Fred” wore a gray ski sweater, decorated with tiny pines nestled in the feathery white of snow bank, the scarf about his neck a snowy white, completing the look of one who has just come from a ski lodge, his cheeks rouged and rough, his blue Irish cap jauntily perched over close-cropped silvery hair.
Fred turned again Dan’s way and spoke to him as if we were old friends. “Well, I imagine you’re glad that it’s almost all over now”, he said. “It could not have been easy, and though I was not there, I can at least understand what it must be to have it done with….at last now heading home …to people you love”. 
Dan nodded and just looked away. He then turned his head to the front and began gazing out the train window. He did not feel comfortable speaking in intimacies to this stranger, even as familiar as he seemed. He spoke as if Dan was returning from some war, his tone sympathetic, as if some horror had left some visible manifestation of what the war had done to Dan. 
Dan lowered his head, chin to chest, and took note of what he was wearing; a ragged olive green sweatshirt, over jeans as pale as cornflowers, his boots a bit wet, but clean and serviceable.How did “Fred” know of a war from which Dan had no recollection at all?
Those thoughts were abandoned as an elderly lady appeared in the aisle before him, her gray hair carefully coiffed, a bright red scarf about her neck. She was cradling an infant, swaddled in pink, and she seemed happy at the task. With a nod of her head she motioned toward the window seat beside Dan, smiled as he moved his feet into the aisle, giving her room to slide past. She then carefully lowered herself and babe into her seat and tossed a smile Dan’s way in gratitude. Dan returned her smile, then thought, and almost said ‘Betty White…from Golden Girls’.
Just then the first half rotation of wheels, the metallic sound of steel on steel, signaled that the train was ready to roll. Dan inclined forward slightly, then peered out at the snowy morning at this unknown junction. Outside he saw a gathering of well-wishers, all dressed in heavy coats, waving their goodbyes, intermittently stomping their feet to get a bit of circulation in them, but continuing to happily windmill arms in displays of fond goodbye.
Soon the train picked up speed and before long the train chugging along nicely, the panorama of snowy cornfields, dotted with an occasional farmhouse was all that was visible outside the train window. Inside the compartment the earlier bustle of settling in for a journey had ebbed to the occasional shuffling of rump, the quiet whispers of married folks, the steady hum of train wheels somehow a comforting thing.
“Betty White”, to Dan’s right had tucked her infant into the folds of her jacket, then found a pocket of comfort between headrest and window and nodded off to sleep. “Fred” had drifted off as well, his chin turned sideways against the back of his seat, his face buried in neck scarf, one lone drop of saliva resting at the corner of his mouth.
Dan turned his attention again to the window. Ahead, and to his right, he could see the first outlines of snowy mountain range ahead, and then he heard the almost imperceptible surge of the train engine as it picked up steam, in preparation for the climb. Soon the train engine settled into steady hum and the warmth of the train coach began send the others into a winter napping.
Dan too felt the urge. Settling back in his seat, he extended his legs, settled one ankle over the other, then began to nod off. However, just before he closed his eyes, he noticed, far up at the head of the train compartment, a gentle looking white haired gentleman standing in the aisle. The old gent, perhaps 5 foot tall, if that, wrapped elegantly in gray topcoat, his head cocked to the side as if waiting to hear something, or for something to happen. But Dan was too sleepy now. He could barely keep his eyes open. But just before the lids of Dan’s eyes closed for a final time, he again looked toward the front of the compartment…….and could have sworn that the strange old man was looking directly at him.
Dan awakened with a chill. When he opened his eyes he was again in his own home, the dream but a wisp of fancy visiting him in his slumber. Darkness had fallen and an evening chill had settled about the house. Dan flicked on the lamp by his side, then found himself again staring into that box of Christmas treasures. His mind still a bit cloudy from that death-like nap, Dan was startled to see that, atop that pile of neatly bound Christmas cards, was a picture of a train, climbing the snowy slopes of a low mountain range, its engine smoke stack trailing wispy puffs of smoke behind. When Dan turned his head just slightly, the train seemed to come to life, seemed actually in motion, and he could almost hear the clackity clack of steel wheels, grinding through the fresh fallen snow across the tracks.
“I’m going quite mad”, he uttered, and rose to turn the thermostat up a notch, the night chill now creeping into his bones.
He then walked over the kitchen sink, gave the cold water tap a half turn, then cupped his hands and splashed water in his face in an effort to drive the sleep from his eyes. He then looked at his watch, surprised at the lateness of the hour. He had wasted his day, and tomorrow was Christmas Eve, and if there were Christmas trees left anywhere in town, the best ones would likely be gone by tomorrow.
Resigned to his having wasted away an afternoon and evening, Dan plodded off to bed, eager to return to that Christmas train, bound from some unknown junction, a destination yet to be determined.
Dan awakened on Christmas Eve morning, feeling sluggish and unrested, despite the long slumber of afternoon and evening. The train had not visited him in his dreams and his regrets seemed magnified far more than they should have been. As he sat on the side of the bed, his shoulders shivered with early morning chill and disappointments over a dream deferred.
Forcing himself to his feet, he showered and shaved, dressed, then ambled out to his car, sat for a few minutes, allowing the defroster to clear the early morning frost from the windshield, then drove over to Home Depot to fetch the tree.
Unfortunately, the tree lot at Home Depot was closed. A sign posted at the gate just said “Sold Out…Check Down The Street”. 
After U-turning out of the lot, Dan made a turn up Chestnut Street. After driving a mile or so, Dan spotted a Christmas tree lot, a half dozen trees remaining under a festive red canopy that might have once sheltered a hundred trees.
Dan pulled into the lot, got out of the car, then walked over to inspect yule tree leavings. He found that all of the remaining trees were no more than five feet tall, not one of them as grand as those which had stood so majestically over his Christmas brood of long ago. Having almost deciding to forego a tree this year….after all wasn’t he silly to even consider getting a tree with just he to admire it, he heard the swish of nylon and turned to see an old gent, with beard as white as snow, the top of his head not reaching the pinnacle of not one of his trees, proclaim “oh, you simply must have a tree, old friend!”
The old man looked so eerily familiar. Dan was sure he had seen him before…the jolly red cheeks, his face marked by rivulets of age, the wealth of waist, the stubbiness of feet in black boots.
“I’ve got to let these trees go”, said the old man. “My lease on this lot is up at noon and it would be a favor to me if you’d take one off my hands.
Dan, ready to be quoted a ridiculous price, for a man desperate for a tree, queried “how much?”
“Five dollars to you, my friend!”. So the five dollars changed hands, and the stumpy old man helped Dan lash the tree to the roof of Dan’s car, and he was once again bound for home.
While waiting out a red light, Dan’s phone rang. “Hi pop!”, the familiar greeting from oldest daughter, Caitlin. “I wanted to call and wish you Merry Christmas, pop, cause tomorrow we’ll be on our way to Bridgeport, and I don’t know what the cell signals will be along the way”.
“Merry Christmas to you, dear….you off to Sam’s clan for Christmas, huh?”
“Yes, Dad….but don’t forget, next year we’ll be coming out your way for Christmas!”
“Looking forward to it, honey”, Dan said, even as he knew that visit would never come. Sam and Caitlin had been far too busy these past years….far too busy running their family business, the trek his way far too cumbersome to lasso the children and heard them thousands of miles…to a home no longer graced by a mother.
“Did you put up a Christmas tree, Dad?”
“Setting on the roof of my car, as we speak”, answered Dan.
“So late, Dad?…why the dilly-dallying this year?”
“Just too busy with other things”, Dan lied.
“Well, Dad, I have to go….can you hear the yelps of my demon children? They’re hustling me out the door because I promised them I’d taxi them over to the ice skating rink!”
“Can’t keep them waiting…thanks for the call, sweetie!”
“Love you, Dad. Wish you were here or we were there! Bye, Dad! And Merry Christmas!”
A half minute later his phone chimed again.
His screen showed the number of his other daughter, Tess.
“You two choreograph your phone calls?” asked Dan. “Just got off the phone with Cait.”
“Merry Christmas, Dad!”, a giggle accompanying the greeting.
“How’s your Christmas going, Tessie?”
“A lot less hassle than last Christmas, Dad. We put up our tree the day after Thanksgiving, and I did half of my shopping on Amazon, only half of them while fighting crowds in the mall.”
“Wise woman, said Dan. Ham or turkey this year?”
“Going with ham, dad! Wish you were here to have some. And I’m making your favorite…..deep dish apple pie!”
“That alone ought to get me on a plane winging your way, sweetie”.
“So wish you would, Dad. I know you miss Mom, but we have to go on, Dad”.
Swallowing hard, Dan just said “maybe next year, dear.”
“Dad, I have to run, gotta make one last dash to the grocery store. I’ll call you again sometime tomorrow, okay?”
“Merry Christmas, Tessie”
Arriving home, Dan pulled into the driveway, mindful to stop and pull the tree off the roof of his car before continuing into the garage.
Before standing the tree in the corner of the garage, he bent to sniff the fragrant aroma of Christmases past. This tree made up in fragrance what it lacked in height and he decided it was a perfectly fine tree, all in all.
After poking around a bit, Dan found the old Christmas tree stand, carried it into the house, spotted it in the empty corner of living room, then filled the pan with water. That done, he retrieved the tree, inserted it into the center of the stand, then tightened it down with the screw clips.
He then stood back and admired his tree. The scent of pine and rich sap infused the room, boosting his spirits a bit. But, from the back of his mind, again came the puzzling over where he had seen that old Christmas tree vendor before. He thought surely he had met him somewhere before, in an earlier time. 
Dan shook off those thoughts, saying to himself “got to get this tree decorated for tonight…it damn sure won’t decorate itself”.
Again retreating to his Christmas box, Dan lifted the ribbon bound Christmas cards from the box, and set them aside. He then retrieved two sets of Christmas tree lights, each bulb cluster representing a tiny crystal snowflake. Unwinding them, he carefully carried them over and walked around the tree, placing the lights strategically so that all of the branches of the tree would reveal the green branches in illuminated brilliance. 
That task finished, Dan realized that he was tired. He had not even bothered with his first cup of coffee in the morning. He wandered into the kitchen, flicked on the coffee pot, and waited for it to brew. While waiting for his coffee, Dan peered out the kitchen window. The winter frost still covered the ground and there was just enough of a winter breeze to send the branches of elm and fir into gentle dance. Then, just as he turned to fill his cup with coffee, he caught from the corner of his eye, a brief glimpse of cardinal red, moving about the branches of fir tree just outside his window. And when he turned back to look, there in splendid glory there was indeed a cardinal dancing from branch to branch, as if in celebration of the season itself. Then the bird took flight, into the gray blanket of winter sky above.
Dan filled his cup, then retreated to his easy chair for a bit of rest. As he sipped his coffee he looked over at the tree again. Despite the draping of Christmas lights, it still seemed less festive than a Christmas tree deserves. So he finished his coffee, then gently lifted two boxes of Christmas ornaments from the Christmas box. He then carried them over, then lifted each ornament one by one from it’s little paper nest, and lovingly hung them with care…his memories flooding back…of tiny little hands who had performed this task each year, back when time and hearts were young. He missed those Christmases now, more than at any time in his life. And he missed his Liz, more than he thought his heart would bear.
He was again tired. He walked to the kitchen and re-filled his cup, then again retreated to his easy chair. He looked over at those tidy bundles of Christmas cards. He lifted one of the bundles, carefully freed them from their scarlet ribbon bindings, and smiled when he saw that they were all the hand-drawn cards that his daughters had made in school. The stick figures adorning the card fronts, the words of love all drawn in rough crayon, seemed more dear to him now, the drawings and words as soft and comforting as a psalm.
When he had finished with the first bundle, he turned to the second bundle, the top card being the beautiful lithograph of that Christmas train, smoke billowing behind, chugging up the snowy slopes, destination unknown.
When Dan opened the card, he saw that the endearments written within, in Liz’ lovely hand, simply read: “we must not be passengers in life…we must leave that for heaven”. Below her quote, Liz had simply written “Christmas, 2012”.
Dan thought about what Liz had written. Had she too anticipated the reality of her own last Christmas? And what did those words really mean? Could it have been her regrets that, after the children left, we had starved Christmas into extinction?
“Well, dear”, Dan spoke to a love that now dwelled in heaven, with a love in his heart that should surely reach to those heights, “I’ve tried to make this Christmas a good one…just look at that tree, dear….it speaks for what is…and what was…and what shall ever be. See how that beautiful tree is so full at the bottom? That was us, dear, laying the foundation for Christmas for our children so many years ago. And, look higher, Liz. Look at the younger and smaller and tender branches toward the top. Those are our children and their children, celebrating the season from the traditions passed to them by us. And regard that one magnificent point at the top, Liz. That is where we always place the angel, symbolizing all those loved ones now in heaven, but shining down with joy at all who live below them.”
And, from some far off place, Dan could swear he heard Liz whisper “yes, my love, we nearly starved Christmas, but you have brought it back to life, and I love you even more for that, if it’s even possible to love you more than I already do.”
And, with that, Dan was very tired. And he sank back into his chair. And in the stillness of that Christmas Eve, Dan could swear he heard the faint echo of a train whistle, preparing to chug up the snowy slopes, to destinations unknown. 
And when he awakened, he was on that train. And as he opened his eyes, he saw that someone was clasping his hand with a tenderness he had not felt for years. And when he turned to look, he found he was staring into loving eyes that had once said “I do” one spring with that same brilliant reflection of love.
And, after the flurry of hugs and kisses, and the mutual exchange of “Merry Christmases”, Dan sighed and looked down the aisle of that train coach….and standing there, in the middle of the coach aisle, was the stocky, white-bearded old man of recent acquaintance. And the old man stared straight at Dan, then offered a wink of an eye, a thumbs up, and the quiet mouthing of “Merry Christmas”. 
So, Merry Christmas to family and friends. May you never starve Christmas, and may you never forget the magic of the Christmas tree…….oh my!

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