Kate Flora here, taking a break from frantically writing toward a deadline to chat about a totally unwriterly subject: the holiday tree and other sources of seasonal angst. I grew up in a traditional small town household where everyone had a tree. Each year, my father would go out into the woods–we had about 200 acres–and cut the tree and bring it back.
My mother would go up to the attic and bring down the stand, and they would put up the tree and string the lights and then we children would decorate it. I remember that everyone had their favorite things that they liked to put on the tree, and among those favorites were special ornaments known as “the Koster ornaments” that were hand-painted, jigsaw cut wooden ornaments made by my mother’s old friends, the Kosters, who lived in Tuckahoe, New York. There had to be lights. There had to be tinsel, which was carefully removed before the tree went out and stored in the attic for next year. I don’t remember anything particular that needed to go on top.
Fast forward several years. My sibling and I are grown and coming home for Christmas. Our parents are estranged, though still together. I have recognized that despite putting up a good front, my mother hates Christmas. She’s not good at buying gifts. She hates shopping. And after decades of counting every penny so the lights and phone won’t get turned off, she fears every year, as the spirit of the season seizes him, that my father will go out and spend money we don’t have. They are still trying to put up a good front for the “children,” except that this year my father has neglected to go and cut a tree. Finally, in desperation on the last day of school, my mother, a teacher, wrestles the school tree onto the roof of her little Pinto and brings it home. She drags it to the door, and finds that my father has finally cut a tree. Faced with the dilemma of choosing between his tree and hers–part of the fraught politics of the season–my sibs and I set up TWO trees, one at each end of the living room.
Fast forward again. Now I am a wife and mother, trying to put up a tree for my children. My husband is too busy to help. The tree keeps falling over. Finally, I say to him: Help me! Husbands put up Christmas trees. “Not Jewish husbands,” he says. I open the door and throw the tree into the yard, which reminds all of us of a scene in one of the children’s favorite holiday books, Mole and Troll Trim the Tree. Later in the day, I recruit a friend, and we get the tree up. But my own personal tree trauma has begun.
The children grow up. They lose interest. They become too busy to help. The Jewish husband doesn’t do Christmas trees. I ask the boys if they will at least go down to the farm stand and bring home a tree. Days pass. No tree. Finally, I throw everyone into the van and drive from place to place until we find one that still has trees, and get a tree. Coming home, I am rear ended by an inattentive driver. My tree trauma increases.
I solve the problem by buying a small, live tree that can live outside in the yard except for ten days at Christmas. For three years, I am happy. Then the tree dies. I get another one. Two years later, after a too-hot summer, it looks like it has been flattened and gnawed on by rats. Christmas is coming. The boys will deign to drop in on Christmas Day. My husband is still Jewish. I do not have a tree.
Then, miraculously, I see this on Facebook. A holiday tree made out of books. And find a website with the twelve booktrees of Christmas http://www.themarysue.com/12-christmas-trees-made-out-of-books/ I do not find books traumatic. No one has ever rear ended me when I’ve gone out to buy a book (even though three years ago, another inattentive bimbette on a cell phone did run into me while I was waiting at a light. The moral may be never leave home in December) and the book tree is very appealing. So maybe this Christmas, I’ll solve my tree problem in a very innovative way.
(As writers, we know that there is what appears on the surface and what lies beneath. What I learned from writing this post is how much subtext there is in a story like this that can be used in my writing–like the symbolism of the two Christmas trees and I’m reminded of how I can use that in my current book.)