Mother’s Christmas tree had to be perfect and it took her some time to choose the right tree to fill up the entire living room. It would be the tallest, widest of all, and she would smile as each branch as she watched it fall.. She would trim it, stare, and begin to trim it again, until the shape was perfect for us to begin.
Father the artist – our family photographer, would be watching, agreeing with all of her choices. To father Christmas meant painting on windows; scenes of winter, Santa, and trees that sparkled with presents below. He would reach for his camera stored in his closet – black and clunky but it was always hanging on his chest. He inserted a bulb, counted to three – captured a moment – when he told us to point at all his creations on all of our windows – all over our house.
So my brother and I would stand to each side – we pointed and father he said, “Say cheese,” he waited, “one more time.”
Mother is on her knees full of anxiety sorting glass ornaments – each one had a story and each one was her favorite. We heard her words as she unpacked the boxes, “This one is yours when the day comes,” she paused, “when I die.”
Every year we listened to all that was said, and we thought how- morbid to think of her dead.
But it was tradition to hear who got what, some were glass and expensive, some flowers, some glittered, others were gold with red flowers in velvet, and some lit up the room if positioned just right. My favorite – a picture of Santa strangely enough placed on pink satin. We had reindeer, elves, and some special ones – no one could touch, she told us each year, as she stood on a ladder, hooked them up high where children could see them but not touch – Mother repeated, “This one is yours, and that one belongs to your brother.”
Father held up his camera popped in a bulb began snapping photos one by one – we kept turning our head’s to smile, and “Say cheese,” he repeated this until he ran out of bulbs.
Mother knew I stared in expectation, waiting for her pink and blue cages – two ornaments held a mystery inside with blue magic paper that twisted and turned when a Christmas light heated – then it flickered and danced. We knew it was time to stand in a line to inspect each strand of bubble lights, and replace those blown out – so hold tight, not moving a muscle each strand was stretched out before draped on the tree.
Before mother’s tree was completed she stared, and took a few steps –now close to the table where tinsel of silver sorted by strands – and carefully placed one at a time on a tree limb, to hang perfectly, and heaven forbid if one piece of tinsel touched a limb.
Finally, mother told daddy, “plug it in.” He walked to the outlet, bent, and prayed while his camera was swinging on his chest, then inserted the plug – “please,” we whispered, “let this tree light up.” We all were there before to undress a tree, and not this year I thought, just let it be. . .
Mother’s tree had to be perfect, filled with delicate dressing – she sat on the old sofa her eyes glued to
the tree – I bet she was praying let every lead work as I crossed my fingers, and the tree it did work. So Christmas began with some happy faces, painted windows and posing for pictures. We counted stars on a chart where the elves marked each night, and we never got too close to fragile ornaments.
Father was gentle he never complained – he smiled as he pulled out a new package of bulbs -while mother was doctoring a plastic Santa Claus – she held in her hand some red nail polish, and painted Santa’s red lips. Then on top of the television she let Santa dry, near a snowman, a manger, and some paper she bought – to wrap presents for daddy since she helps Santa do that. . .
We stayed clear of the tree when it first made it’s debate since mother kept watching the closer we crept – if one ornament fell we heard he complain, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, get away from that place.”
Daddy was different we could touch his painting to feel Santa’s fir coat, and the coats on a deer. His art was shared throughout the house till New Year. As I grew older I wondered if father knew how his windows of pictures lived on like a story in black and white like his photos but stories of color which filled my house each Christmas to a new generation.
I felt sad when the time came to wash away all his beauty, from all the windows where Santa would smile – no wonder we have a collection of art – when daddy said, “Cheese,” and we smiled and pointed at priceless pictures he kept for only a month – then washed them away, until a new holiday.
Mother loved Christmas and all of the glitter, she gazed at trees sparkle in windows, and brought us downtown to see all the store fronts – how strange to watch Santa move in a window – and bells would be ringing for the Salvation Army.
And mother she believed I believed her presents were dads, so I knelt on my knees when she wasn’t around, to shake them, and listen, they made not a sound. I placed them back in perfect positions, beneath all the glitter, and strands of silver.
One morning when mother left for work, and grandmother was praying at her kitchen table – I opened a gift, as I glanced at the charts, hoping no elf was watching and marking those charts. When it finally opened – it was completely empty, no tissue, no present, simply another decoration.
Mother believed I believed in Santa Claus – I believed elves lived in trees watching me through our kitchen window facing Seneca Street. Mother warned us each night when she turned off the lights and the glitter stopped shining, as we glanced out the window one elf would enter during the night to grade us on how we behaved each day. If we were very, very good we received a gold star, but the elves played no games, if we misbehaved – in the morning a black star seemed to nick at our heart – one less gift we thought, beneath mother’s tree.
Oh, daddy took photos of us pointing at charts – he said, “Cheese,” and the bulb blew up. It would be daddy laughing, and this bundle he carried, all prepared for another, if we were ready – you see his Christmas were memories right from the start, filled with smiles and laughter in black and white – filled with color on windows and broken bulbs – he carried on Christmas each day of our lives.
While mother’s tree grew smaller, the older we got, and she forgot the tinsel, but it no longer seemed important – a few years past when she left us for Christmas but watched over the house deep in a cloud – her glittering gifts of ornaments hung – by ribbons each year on windows at my own home. When anyone mentions how different they are, I smile, remember – and I stare at the ornament with Santa placed on pink satin.
Art was a hobby for daddy like the windows for Christmas, and all the pictures he sketched from the Pope to Clinton – all signed and hung proudly about, he knew his life was becoming richer with duties, although no all knew him like Santa’s elf. Dad’s drawings and photos where like a permanent token he gave to us as we grew older – Christmas was moving to my children’s children – as we gathered to talk about those days - in black and white, how the house was so crowded, and he mention mother- how proud she was of her perfect tree. He looked again, and stared into space, as he knew his tree was small – and sat on a shelf.
Today in our home, our tree isn’t real – it’s exactly the same for twenty three years. When I stare at wrapped jewels, it is mother’s eyes that sparkle, as I hold up those rules, to be very careful – and five children all gather to handle the chore, I watch with my memories and with so much joy. Soon they will hear the same stories, and pass them along, and will have one ornament stand out from them all. I do have a feeling mother is up there and watching, she wonders why no tinsel, and what happened to the blue magic paper?
Now the children toss snow from their own special bag to create a realistic tree as one from the outside. The snow flies in the air, into their hair, over the furniture, beneath a rug, in eggnog, and flies up into the air, sticks to plants – then lands on mother’s ornaments- neatly kept in the window for show. Did you know those bubble lights come only in white they still resemble those I had all of my life.
Mother’s traditions live on – in our hearts each year we recall “Mother’s Tree” and those stories of elves who stared into our house, and how we began using those same “star” charts. .
My Dad he lives where the weather is warm, and paints very seldom, and each window is clean – but I tell all the children when the time is right, “Say cheese,” they smile, such a delight. Generations hear all the stories we tell as we laugh over tinsel, shed tears from a photo. We are our parents, like it or not, most of us have a bit of them – filling our hearts – reliving their joy as if mother was here. We share black and white pictures and hand them to children, so they can recall all the stories we shared.
Then, I hear my daughters, asking their children, “Stand still, don’t move, now say cheese.”