Christmas of 1989.
You’d think I wouldn’t remember the specific Christmas when I was 17, and to be honest, I had to do some rough calculations to come up with the year. In my thoughts I don’t remember it by the year. In my thoughts I remember it as the first Christmas of we celebrated separately after my parents divorce and the first Christmas I was able to drive. So it must have been 1989, but don’t hold me to it.
I don’t know how I got home from Andover that year, and I have a vague recollection of bringing a boyfriend home with me (Chris Swihart, if you came home with me that year, I’m sorry for a thousand reasons). I remember arriving in the dark, driving down our black driveway and climbing the path of stairs made of railroad ties to our glass front door. I remember that the house was not decorated for the holiday. And what I recall most clearly is a flood of of indignation, disappointment, and heartbreak that nothing had been done.
This emotional cocktail, the contempt shaken up with sadness, I predict will be the quintessential misery of parenting teens--the way the child’s heartbreak gets braided up with disdain for the failures of the adult world--will make for a painful hormonal kick out of the nest for the whole family. I don’t have a teen yet, but I’ve been one. And, in 1989 I was in the thick of it. I was a rulesy kid, which made for a heavy dose of disdain. Really, it’s humiliating to remember but it’s true.
The next afternoon, fueled by self-importance and boredom, I stepped into my mom’s two door sedan (with the boyfriend I’m pretty sure), and drove to the Christmas Tree Farm to save Christmas on my own.
The sky was gray and dimming, drifting into a raw, cold New Jersey winter evening. Men with dark jackets and knit beanie hats stood around waiting to help people. One of them was smoking a cigarette. Christmas trees tilted against a fence, lined up in a row, and there was a pile of trees still bound in twine off to the side. I scrutinized each tree, finally picking one that I was sure would be a good one. The men helped me tie it to my car and I (or we, if the boyfriend was there) drove home.
At home I put the tree in a stand and began the project of stringing white lights on it. But no matter how I turned it or cleverly arranged the strands of bulbs, it looked all wrong. It was too tall, too fat and tilting; in my eyes it looked like a dissolute house guest had moved into our broken home for the holiday. Tears welled in my eyes. And as I teetered on the brink of the emotional Grand Canyon truth of my life at that moment, I was struck by the idea that I didn’t have to keep this tree. I could return it, exchange it for something better, less dysfunctional as Christmas trees go.
So I did (Chris Swihart, do you remember this? I think you might). I pulled off all the lights, dislodged the trunk from the stand, and dragged the tree out to my mom's two door sedan. We wedged it into the trunk of the car and returned it to the tree lot.
The men in beanie hats looked at me like I was crazy, but they kindly let me exchange my tree. With a little less scrutiny and a dizzying feeling of desperation, I picked a small, more modest tree. And like deja vu, the tree was tied onto our car again.
At home I strung up the lights again. I got out our family’s lifetime of Christmas ornaments and decorated the tree piece by piece. I liked this second tree better, and by the time I was done, in my mind it was maybe one of the best Christmas trees we ever had. In my mind I did this all by myself, the myopic lens of my teenage eyes, still alive and well all these years later.
This is one of those family stories that we remember this time of year. The year I returned the Christmas Tree. There is a way we tell it in which I am a crazy, funny, control freak, perfectionist. All of which, I am afraid to say, people might accurately still say about me. These are the behaviors I turn to when I see the ship sinking, when I am afraid and ashamed, and have used up all the other tricks up my sleeve.
At the time, I really did think it was one of the best trees we ever had. I think I needed that--to feel that at least one thing was more than ok. But looking back, I can see that the tree was not one of the best trees we ever had. It was the tree that we had that year, and that still counts for something. It was the tree that carried me along through a spasm of grief and confusion. It was the final product of a ritual that could handle what my family’s life brought to the process that year, not the least of which was my own heartbreak and contempt.
And despite all that was riding on it, on the darkest nights of 1989 it was beautiful. It twinkled magically, dense with lights meant for a much larger tree, my family’s history dangling from the tip of each limb. I remember standing in front of it. Just standing there, as the winter night silently blanketed our house, dazzled by all that light.