Wednesday, December 16

Christmas in a Minor Key

"Do you remember that first tree?" Henry asked me the other night with a smile. He was watching me try to hang a few more ornaments on our already-stuffed Christmas tree after the kids had gone to bed. Some trick of memory and light had made him think he'd spotted a gingerbread ornament from years ago. I was having trouble finding room for another single solitary ornament. Our tree tells the story of many Christmases. There are, of course, the requisite gilded macaroni wreaths with our kids' shining faces sticking out of their middles, some early 1900's glass balls I'd inherited from my grandmother, the growing collections I'd started for each of the kids, a few from my childhood, plus those I've picked up over 17 years of married life.

"Yes." Of course, I remembered that first tree. I'll never forget it. Our first married Christmas, Henry and I lived in a three-room apartment right outside of Boston which we thought was a palace. The apartment was on the first floor of an old 3-story Victorian which was painted peach, purple and green. No, those colors aren't a typo. We'd gotten a reduction in rent because Henry repainted the exterior the summer we moved in. It had an iron spiral staircase on the outside of the house crowned by a styrofoam head with a wig on it. We were in heaven.

We were 22 years old. We didn't have much money. We brought home a fat white pine that Christmas which took up one-third of our petite livingroom. I spent the next week rolling out and baking fragrant gingerbread people, trees, hearts and stars from a recipe in a red Good Housekeeping cookbook we'd gotten from a wedding shower at my grandmother's house. I still have that cookbook and still use that same recipe. I made holes in the tops with the eraser end of a pencil and strung them with twine I bought at Tony's Spa which sat kitty-corner to our apartment. ("Spa" is what corner stores around Boston used to be called and some still are. Tony's still was.) I cut out snowflakes from plain white paper making the cuts as tiny as I could get them. Those I fastened to the tree by slipping some of the long soft needles through the holes I'd made.

My cousin Jane had made us a few ornaments as a gift at that same wedding shower. I hadn't known how important they'd turn out to be. Some looked like funny little rainbow windsocks and some were red airplanes made out of clothes pins. I added those and one solitary string of lights. We couldn't afford any store-bought ornaments that year. That was it. We needed a tree-topper so I made an angel out of a scrap of material, a silk flower that I ripped to shreds and some moss. She was a little strange but after I tied her to the top of the tree with some purple curling ribbon....she looked ok. In fact, the whole thing did. It didn't look like any tree either of us had ever seen but it was ours. In fact, there's a picture of the two of us in front of that tree, holding the first of our shelter dogs, Sally, and looking so very young and hopeful. The tree doesn't look bad either.

A few years after that first tree, my grandparents decided they weren't going to get a Christmas tree that season. Too old. Too much work. They were in their early eighties by then. Still newly minted entrants in the marriage game, this seemed completely unacceptable to Henry and me. We borrowed a car, tied a tidy and reasonably-sized fir to the top and headed for the northwest hills of Connecticut and the small Colonial my great-grandfather had built for his son's family 50 years earlier.

Henry climbed up to my grandparents' cold, dark attic and brought down the boxes of painstakingly well-wrapped ornaments. Then he carefully carried down the lights with their brittle wiring which my grandfather had meticulously wrapped around rectangles of cardboard. He moved the rocker that usually stood in the tree's place of honor and followed my grandfather's every other direction with a smile. God, I loved this man. We had only the vaguest hint of understanding that they felt frustrated not being able to do everything they wanted to themselves.

I unwrapped the ornaments from their newspaper nests with Grammy, listening to her tell me the vintage of each one. Grammy was always full of magical baubles like these: trinkets with stories. Just like the charms on her bracelet...she could rub their surfaces with her bumpy, arthritic fingers and out would flow the tales for each one. When we were done, that tree was loaded with both sparkling and faded ornaments not only from my father's childhood but also from my great grandparents' homes. And, of course, my grandparents had married decades before the subtlety of white lights came into high fashion. The big brightly colored bulbs they owned clacked when you knocked them together and the wires connecting them were covered in stiff fabric. They generated quite a bit of heat so you took your life into your hands if you left them plugged in too long. My grandfather was an electrician and his handiwork could be seen all along their dark skeins. Back then, people didn't go out and buy a whole new string of lights if one broke. You fixed it. Or, at least, my grandfather did. I can still hear him, almost completely deaf, singing to himself, "Ho dee doe, doe, doe. Dee, doe," in his deep rumble as he approached a task like that with some glee.

When the tree was completely dressed, my grandparents were beaming. More pleased with our attention, I think, than with the actual tree. But I was happy because it felt like we had staved off the something that was looming over us for another year. They couldn't really be getting that old. Not really. Not if they still had a Christmas tree in the same corner of the livingroom same as every other Christmas. If nothing looked different, then life could continue as it always had on New Litchfield Street. That was my deepest wish.

In the car, just the other day, my youngest, Lucy, asked me if I knew why so many holiday songs were written in a minor key. What? I didn't even know she knew what a minor key was. I can't exactly define it's been more years than I'd like to admit since I sat in a music class....other than to say that I know those sadder, more serious sounding notes when I hear them. They must have been talking about it in her 3rd grade music class with her hip and knowledgeable music teacher with the spiky hair. "Yeah," Lucy elaborated, "like Blue Christmas...and Silent Night...and then there's The Little Drummer Boy...." Hmmmm. Yes. She was definitely onto something. Struck, I told her I didn't know why Christmas songs were often written in minor keys but asked her why she thought that was. Her answer was to launch into a loud rendition of a Kwanzaa song. In a minor key.

Well, I fibbed a little. I think I do know why so many Christmas songs have that melancholy sound. Don't you? But it's a lesson my daughter's much too young to have to know yet. At least, not too intimately. Inside every Christmas we celebrate is the kernel of a Christmas past. Or of every Christmas past maybe. And there's something sad about matter how happy some or most of those holidays may have been. And, like nesting dolls, those Christmases gone-by get unwittingly unwrapped along with all those boxes of decorations we lug down from the attic. They're the extra ingredients we mix into Christmas supper, some bitter, some sweet. And we're placing those old Christmases under the tree along with all the other gifts we're offering, whether we intend to or not. No wonder the holidays are so exhausting!
  They're that vacant spot in the corner of the livingroom, the empty place at the kitchen table. They're even the new faces we wish so badly someone had been able to know. Mixed in with all the joy of Christmas is always a little bit of sadness. For Christmases, that for whatever reason, just can't be the same. Life changes. I think that's the reason we sometimes go overboard this time of year. I know I do. We're trying to reach back for something that's gone with....things. But we can't reach back to those Christmases with stuff. It just doesn't work. The irony is that, often, all we need is something small and simple to acknowledge a loss. A word. A small ritual. A quiet thought. I miss... Do you remember? I wish...

Someday, Lucy, Sam and Finn will understand why there's always a little bit of tears mixed in with the smiles this time of year. Why I just have to make my mom's sour cream twists. No matter what. Why my mom gets pretty sad at Christmas missing her parents. Why we give Grandpa Harry extra hugs. Why their Papa wasn't that crazy about Christmas until they were born. For now, I'm so glad all that's a mystery to them. We'll teach them that lesson in time...that it's all right to mourn while we celebrate, to miss while we enjoy. That the two don't cancel each other out. We'll teach them that it's all right to make room for both at Christmas. That their Papa and I made a beautiful first Christmas out of practically nothing. That I miss my grandparents like an ache in my belly at the holidays. But my grandparents also gave me so many of my best Christmas memories that they're closer by at this time of year than at any other.

 One thing my kids already know for sure is that the three of them are my deepest wishes come true. And when I see Christmas through their eyes, music blasts from my heart in a major key.


  1. thank you, J, I soo needed this. I am going to share this with my "kids". keep trying to tell them that you can celebrate and mourn at the same time, and they are not sure what I mean. This is so much more eloquently put than anything I can say. Merry, Merry Christmas to you and your family! Thank you for being YOU

  2. Oh...I'm soooo glad. You know, I think that's behind so much of the stress and depression people feel at the holidays. We feel so much need to feel like everything's perfect and ideal...the picture of the "perfect Christmas" and it never, ever, ever matter what our situations. The pressure we put on ourselves (and our kids) to look and feel happy this time of year is a lot...when it can really be a complicated time. Thinking of you...


Welcome! So glad you stopped to leave a comment or share your own story...