Tuesday, December 19, 2023

My Christmas story


Oh, Christmas tree --

The author, 2023

 what a spell

 you cast on me

 For most of my life, I've had a love-hate relationship with Christmas trees. I even told about this a mere 16 years ago on a stage in front of an audience of hundreds of people, in a Baltimore show called Stoop Storytelling. The theme of the night: Holidays From Hell, Part Deux. 

 Blame it on my childhood. When I was growing up, my parents never had a Christmas tree.

 Well, maybe that's understandable. After all, we were Jewish.

 One year, my father took me across our street in Northwest Baltimore, to visit a neighbor family and see what Christmas looked like. It was the home of the Landsmans -- Ray and Dorothy, and more kids than I could quickly count.

 Ray was Baltimore's first Jewish police lieutenant, but Dorothy was Catholic and they came to an agreement that their children (about a dozen of them, all with names beginning with the letter 'J') would be raised in the Catholic faith. 

 They had a tree, presents in various stages of unwrap, the kids running around in seeming chaos, the smell of a ham in the oven wafting out from the kitchen, and Dorothy upstairs in bed nursing the youngest of their brood. The Madonna of Royce Avenue. Close to 70 years later, I still remember it.

 We celebrated Hanukkah, of course. But no, we didn't have the proverbial Hanukkah bush. I had a modest Lionel electric train set, with a small figure-eight track that wrapped around a leg of our rarely-used dining room table. My father Ben set up the train every year for the holiday season, and by New Year's Day it was gone back into storage.

 The Jewish dropout

 Religion was not all that important to me. I had a nasty teacher in Hebrew school -- and early in fourth grade I walked out of the class in anger and never went back. My parents got a call from the school two weeks later asking why I hadn't been attending. 

We had a difficult conversation in which I was threatened with punishment, but the crisis was resolved with a compromise of taking private lessons for my bar mitzvah. And at 13, after the synagogue ceremony through which a boy becomes a man, I became a religion dropout as well.

 At 19, in a courthouse ceremony, I married a girlfriend, Vol, who had been raised in a Christian family -- but like me, religion was not relevant to her life. But there was this little thing that carried forward: She/we had to have a Christmas tree. In our mid-20s we also had a daughter. And in one of my last pictures of us as a family, she and our 4-year-old Jennifer (who later changed her name to FL) are sitting by the tree with presents. 

A few months later, after a decade together, our marriage ended.

 And I got married again. My second wife, Kathleen, also had been raised as a Christian, and like the first she came hard-wired for Christmas. We even once attended the midnight Christmas Eve service at the nearby Lovely Lane -- known as the mother church of American Methodism. It was, in fact, lovely. 

As for our tree, she believed in buying good ornaments -- and for my young daughter, a top-quality stuffed animal lion she named Li-Li (pron: lie-lie) that saw her through some challenging times as she bounced between parents in Baltimore and Florida.

 Marriage number two lasted about four years, and when Kathleen departed I was left with ornaments including a small herd of beautiful silken carousel horses and elephants that had graced our trees.

 The third proves the charm

 And I got married again. Yup, third Christian for this lapsed Jew -- this one not only having had a strong religious upbringing, but playing the organ in church and at age 12 leading a cherub choir. 

Attending Frostburg state college in Western Maryland, she made a point of going to services at every church in town -- eventually becoming the lone white person in the only black church there. The minister. Joe Gipson, became a friend, and after services each Sunday she traveled with him about nine miles down the road to Cumberland for his services at a second black church. She was their pianist.

 And near her 1967 graduation, when Bonnie married the first time, Joe was the soloist singing at her Baltimore church wedding.

 When we embarked on a life together in 1980, in our mid-30s, a Unitarian minister who was a favorite customer in her camera store, Bill Barnett, officiated the wedding in the living room of her little house just south of the city. And six weeks later, the daughter we created together was born.

 We began attending Bill's Unitarian Universalist church in Annapolis, which I enjoyed whenever I managed to stay awake during services. We wanted our daughters to benefit from its ecumenical education program, which was free of dogma and included sex education. Its services drew on beliefs and traditions from multiple faiths, with Christmas seeming to have a far greater joy than Easter. The existence of Christ was pretty much acknowledged, but for some in the congregation not necessarily a resurrection.

 At home, of course, we had a Christmas tree. Fortunately, Bonnie took care of decorating it. I just didn't enjoy the task -- or, for that matter, having to buy a damn tree every year. At least Bonnie preferred trees that were a little bare of branches. Lush trees did not show off the ornaments as well. Not quite a sad Charlie Brown tree, but one that looked good with its bare spots in back facing a wall. And usually priced lower than the "good" trees.

 And our collection of ornaments began to grow. The horses and elephants from my days with Kathleen galloped and trumpeted beautifully in company with "Baby's First Christmas" ornaments from 1944 (Bonnie Jean) and 1980 (daughter Lauren), little mice, a rhino and a hippo, lace snowflakes, intricate balls crafted by a blind Frostburg college friend decades ago, a German shepherd harking (not barking) to our dog Miss T, favorite teacher ornaments given to Bonnie by middle school students during her career as an educator, a tiny baseball symbolic of the too-much-attention I gave to my favorite spectator sport.

 And now, a dark turn...

 In 1994, I had a great idea: Why do we have to buy a tree? Why don't we walk into the woods near our home in suburban Pasadena and get one the old-fashioned way. Bonnie reluctantly agreed to my plan. 

Daughter Lauren, then all of 14 years old, was invited to join us on that December night, and was not so keen about the idea.

 "You mean you're going steal a tree?" she said. "Why don't you just buy a tree?"

 "I think poach would be a better term," I replied.

 So it was just me and Bonnie heading out about 11 o'clock, under a full moon on a foggy and unseasonably warm winter night. It seemed incredibly romantic. I drove us in our station wagon the nearly quarter-mile to edge of the woods, and, carrying a saw, was leading the way on its path in my usual fashion -- to make sure any residual spider webs did not reach my bride. 

 A little more than a tenth of mile into the woods, the path takes a curve and as I stepped ahead of Bonnie, she encountered an unexpected obstacle. I heard a thud and a cry of pain, and turned to find she had slipped in a small patch of mud and was thrashing around on the ground.

 I reached to help her up, and saw the bone protruding from her left wrist. We managed to get her standing, and as she was shaking I held her right arm on the short walk back to the parking spot. I gallantly put my jacket on her seat -- well, actually, to keep the seat from getting muddy because Bonnie had mud just about everywhere.

Back home, I helped get her clean and in fresh clothing for our ride to a hospital about seven miles away.

 The orthopedic surgeon on duty assessed the injury, and told us, "I have good news, and bad news Which would you like first?"

 "How about bad news," I suggested.

 "This is one of the worst fractures I've seen. But the good news is that I can fix it."

 I breathed a sigh of relief that proved only temporary. 

 "But I have more bad news," he continued. "First I have to break it again to get it into the right position."

 Bonnie was given some joy juice -- an intravenous painkiller -- and I held her right hand as the doc gave a quick twist to her injured wrist. The cracking sound stays with me even now, nearly 30 years later.

 While Bonnie was recovering from anesthesia after the ensuing surgery, I was dispatched about 3 a.m. to a nearby all-night pharmacy to fill her prescription for a pain med she would need at home. The pharmacist looked at the prescription and asked, "Do you want the name brand or a generic?"

 "What's the difference?" I asked.

 "The generic is 10 dollars, and the name brand is 35."

 Okay. I admit it. I was too cheap to pay for a Christmas tree. But now, I was overwhelmed by guilt. It's like the yin and yang of my Jewish upbringing. What to do?!!

 "Give her the good stuff," I stammered.

 So the upshot is I spent $50 for the emergency room co-pay, $35 for Percocet pills, and didn't even have a tree to show for it. 

 The next day, as Bonnie recuperated at home, I drove two miles up the road to Ace Hardware and found most of the Christmas trees had already been sold. But among those left in the store yard was the perfect tree for Bonnie. Not purely Charlie Brown. Just a nice, not-too-branchy tree. A store employee cut a few inches off the bottom so it would stay fresh resting in the water of our tree stand, and helped me tie it to the station wagon roof rack.

 I was pretty pleased with myself, and after pulling onto our driveway went into the house and invited Lauren outside to see the wonderful tree I had bought for $10. And looking it over, with more wisdom than any 14-year-old should possess, she stared straight at me and gave me the come-uppance I so cheaply deserved: "I told you so."


 Bonnie continued over the years to demand a tree at Christmas, and I coped as well as I could. One year a local garden center was having its last-day going-out-of-business sale, and had a beautiful $500 artificial Christmas tree priced at 90 percent off. I told Bonnie.

 She said no.

 In 2019, my friend and former newspaper colleague Frank Roylance posted on Facebook that he and his wife were downsizing for a move into a condo and did anyone want their artificial Christmas tree -- free! And I jumped at it, begging Bonnie to relent. So off we went, to Frank's house north of the city, and together we managed to get the long and heavy box wedged into our hatchback car.

 We stored it on a high shelf in our backyard shed, but in ensuing years the tree just lay in its long heavy cardboard box. We were not able to set it up for Christmas in 2019, as I had just battled a life-threatening ordeal with a MRSA infection and sepsis.

 And in 2020, the pandemic turned our world upside-down. Bonnie late in the fall had surgery to remove her gallbladder, and there would be no Christmas fanfare. And in early January of 2021, as the first vaccines for Covid were rolling out, we learned that Bonnie had advanced and aggressive pancreatic cancer.

 A few weeks later, Bonnie wrote about the uncertainty of how long she would survive -- hoping that she might be able to attend a nephew's wedding, or see another Christmas with our families. But it was not to be. Her life journey ended in March, 10 days before the arrival of spring. 

 And the tree lay in its box in the shed, until this week.

 Inspired by a friend I have been dating in recent months, and her artificial but lovely tree I had helped assemble in her apartment (yeah, she is a Christian... just the way my life continues to play out... and seriously hard-wired for Christmas), I trudged back to my shed a few days ago and lugged that heavy box into my house. 

 Sunday night, I took it out -- it was in three pieces, the bottom and middle sections very heavy and the top relatively light. I cleared away from the living room half a dozen boxes of some of the too-much-stuff accumulated during four decades in suburbia, pieced the tree together in front of the bay front window, and plugged it in.

 Miraculously, every little light bulb on the seven-and-a-half-foot-tall tree was illuminated.

 On Monday morning, I climbed into the attic and went down to the basement to retrieve boxes of Christmas ornaments and decorations, including some that have outlived three marriages and half a century of moves, divorces and loss, and set to work.

 I had never in my entire life trimmed a Christmas tree solo, and I spent hours at the task, sorting through ornaments that came with memories of mostly happy times and joys.

Bonnie's 1944 ornament

 There were the sand dollars netted from the surf on Florida's Gulf coast by our kids in 1989, which they painted for that year's tree and endured for nearly 30 others over the course of our lives. Some were so beautiful and evoked such wonderful memories that I was in tears.

There's even a dragon ornament, purchased at a science fiction convention years ago -- before Game of Thrones hatched three of them into pop culture.

 The tree left only a few inches to spare below the ceiling, and was too tall for one tradition that had been a continuing bad joke: Deciding who gets to put the tree up the angel's butt. Well, that would be me this time. The angel was much too tall, so I set it on the windowsill next to an ornamental Buddha. Several smaller angels, in various sizes, found perches elsewhere on the tree.

 When I was done, I turned off the lights in the house and plugged in the tree.

 I was overwhelmed by its beauty

 And I thought maybe I wasn't really alone, after all. 

My 2023 tree, in its glory


Tree dragon

A closer look


Alice said...

Thanks for another good story.

Anonymous said...


Ola Horn said...

Loved your story, David!

kbmoore said...

Beautiful, bittersweet story. Thank you.

Kevin M.

Anonymous said...

A Christmas miracle! Our best to you and yours. Delighted our old tree is back in service. 🌲

Anonymous said...

Oh, David, what a lovely remembrance of all of your life experiences. Christmas is a time of memories, of hope, of new years and beginnings to come. Your tree is lovely, and you are not alone.

Anonymous said...

Did it suddenly get smoky in here?

Touring an art exhibit with Bonnie, and hearing her commentary on the art remains one of my favorite memories.

Kathleen said...

Your tree is lovely. As is your skill as a storyteller.
I read your stories and feel the person behind them.
And, no, you are not ever really alone.

Lorena said...

Beautiful. I mean, the tree is lovely; but the honesty and love in the words is beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, David—both the story and the tree.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, David….so moving and wistful.

Anonymous said...

Wow, David! Thank you for sharing this story with us! I hope you are enjoying the holidays!

Anonymous said...

So lovely. Thank you for this beautiful story. Yes Christmas is a time to remember sweet times past which the ornaments often evoke. So there are multiple layers to Christmas as you have discovered. Stay well, David. And have a good new year..