In the weeks leading up to the holiday season, I flip through aspirational magazines peering at magnificent mantles and imagine dry needles in my Turkish rug.
Instead of immersing myself in the gorgeous garland, I picture myself on hands and knees trying to pick the pine bits out of the pile. It is not pretty.
I set a row of pillar candles on the sideboard to bring seasonal warmth into our dining room. As I look at the pillar candles balanced on gilded plates I see the pool of wax gathering beside and beneath them. I remember the time I lit my living room on fire with a similar set up for a holiday party and realize I never learn.
I wrap Hanukkah gifts in environmentally friendly brown paper and tie the burlap bows tight. I personalize each package and line them up under the tree. I know what will happen over the next eight days. Despite my careful labeling the boys will barrel into the bunch and jumble the packages as they tumble over each other.
As they open their gifts I will concentrate on smoothing out the brown paper for future art projects. I know by the end of the evening I will pitch the whole wrinkled ripped wrapping making my efforts moot. It is likely that whatever they unwrap will end up in the bathtub. Even the booklights.
When the festival of lights ends the celebration continues.
It is time turn from the menorah to the tree. We turn on the Christmas music and mull cider on the stove. The fire crackles. We tilt the tree left and right, right and left and spin it around in search of its good side. One boy thinks every side is best. The other wonders if a conical prism can have a side. Steve wonders if the tree is a conical prism. I conjure up a conical prison.
As I unfold protective tissue I remember the time the dog knocked over the tree trying to drink from the dish that held half water and half his own pee. That was a particularly un-merry morning, slicing my finger on shards of vintage ornaments. I see their absence in the empty slots in the divided cardboard box. I appreciate that I have a few less pieces to place.
My younger son’s face turns to mine. The lights from the tree cast him in gold. He holds a foam ornament from pre-school, one I always try to get to the back of the tree in one hand. He points with his other hand to the same empty spots that I celebrated moments before. “What happened to these?”
In a wave I remember him as a tiny toddler, crying over a broken crayon as if the world was about to end. I saw his face exactly at the moment that he learned that life was not perfect, that not everything could be repaired. The reality of mortality was clutched in his plump hand. I remember his tear streaked face as he thrust the crayon bits at me with one fisted hand and the tape with another. It was a sad moment for both of us.
I realized there was one thing I could repair…my attitude. This was not a broken crayon moment. The world was not about to end. So I pushed aside the inevitable problems of the prickly pine and focused on my family.
I told my son the story of the dog and the pee tree as we laughed at, rather than lamented our loss. Engulfed in the sound of his enjoyment I realized that things did not have to be perfect to be precious. After we finished the tree with the foam ornament front and center, we took on the rest of the decorating together.
We filled birch buckets with evergreen boughs and he told me tales of holidays past. He remembered the fire at the holiday party and shared his version of the story. He had been the one to discover the fire and alert me. He had gotten guests out of the room safely and opened the french doors to the porch to allow the smoke to exit. I hadn’t realized what a hero he had been.
He talked about the time we had collected pine cones from our lakeside lot and spray painted them gold. He remembered the sticky sap on his fingers that held the color and made him look like he had golden freckles for the entire winter. We giggled over the time our fluffy cat stormed past the menorah and caught his tail on fire. He ran from us as we tried to put him out. After the original scare it was ridiculous to look at his charred hair, which the cat licked and licked with pride probably wishing that damn oil had only lasted one night.
Looking further back at holiday hi jinx he finally admitted to sneaking downstairs and opening every single gift while we slept upstairs the Christmas he was four. For many years he had blamed the dog. He figured this conversation was a good time to come clean. He seemed to know I would enjoy his antics.
His last story was about the January night that we burned our tree in our outdoor fire pit. I remembered the race to undecorate its branches before ornaments were scorched. As the three guys in the family marched the tree to its final glorious blaze I frantically pulled the last golden pine cones from its branches. He remembered the flames leaping as high as the sky, the sound of the popping pine needles, and how he had run to the house to fetch me to see the spectacle. He found me miserably vacuuming up leftover shreds of paper and bits of tree.
He dragged me outside, taking the vacuum hose with us. He tossed his brother one end of the hose and they stood together aiming their imaginary firefighting gear. It had been years since they had pretended to be firefighters, but this epic sight had brought them back to the age of magic.
Not me. I had wondered why so many of our memories included flames and inched back inside to return to the work of undecorating.
This year was different. I could see it as he did. The golden glow of the seasons was reflected in his reflections. Mishaps and ripped gifts, broken ornaments, and the dog in the figurative dog house were the stories that made up our holidays. The work and the play were woven together. The fact that the decorating and undecorating were never done was exactly the point. The mess of it was the best.
Which we might use to burn down another tree. And talk about it for years to come.