Mother’s Christmas tree had to be perfect and it took her some time to
choose the right one to fill up the entire room. It would be the tallest,
widest of all, and she would smile as each branch fell into place by
the heat in the room. She would trim it with clippers then stare at
the tree, trim it again, then it was perfect and time to begin.
Father the artist – our family photographer, would be waiting, and
watching – agreeing with all of her choices – the corner she choose for
the tree to be trimmed was perfect, just perfect with him.
To father Christmas would mean his paintings on every window – he
took hours to draw, of winter scenes, Santa, elves, and presents too.
Then he reached for his camera he stored in his closet – it was black and
so large when the middle popped open, but he was known for it hanging
around his neck – now he inserted a bulb then counted – to three
“Cheese” he said, capturing a moment. He made us stand at every
window and point to his paintings.
So there we were, my brother and I – pointing, smiling, and repeating
the word, “Cheese.”
Mother would be in the living room, on her knees, and full of anxiety
concentrating on all of her expensive glass ornaments.
Each ornament had its’ own story, and everyone became her
favorite – she told me every year, “When I die, this one is yours.”
So each year we listened to her as she pointed to where each
ornament was to be placed – but I couldn’t help thinking how morbid
to think of her death. It was another part of the Christmas tradition
– to hear who got what, some were glass and expensive,
others glittered, some appeared to have mirrors, and then the ones
covered in red velvet. Two specific ornaments, one light pink and the
other light blue, shaped like a bird’s cage – had a flashy silver paper
and with heat, it began to turn.
My favorite one – a face of Santa placed on pink satin.
We had reindeer, elves, and some special ones that no one could touch,
she told us each year, as she stood on a ladder placing them too high
so children would not touch.
Mother said, “Remember, this one is yours, and this one belongs
to your brother.” I knew my brother didn’t care.
Father held up his black camera and began snapping pictures,
one by one – we kept turning our head’s to smile – “Say Cheese,”
he repeated, snap – a glass bulb would burst and fall to the floor.
Mother knew I stared in expectation watching the cages warm up –
then magic paper twirled.
We were not allowed to leave|our living room – but the job I
detest the most was about to begin – Mother gave me one end of a
string of bubble lights – she plugged them in to make sure they lit.
It wasn’t easy then, each light had to be tested if the lead did not light.
Before Mother’s tree was complete she returned to stare at it, knowing
one last thing would finish it off, that was her tinsel placed in neat
rows of silver on the coffee table. Tinsel in perfect lines, just like her
way of placing silver on our tree. She watched us with her eagle eye –
line after line, one by one, in perfect order – she made sure not one
strand covered the ornaments.
Mother told Daddy, “Plug it in.” He bent to grab the plug, then stood
holding his camera – to see all of us in his viewfinder, but I prayed to
myself, let every strand light up, knowing if they weren’t working,
we had to start again. In father’s eye would be all the beauty of silver
threads so perfectly straight.
I stared right before the lighting, then closed my eyes to tell Santa
please, let the tree light the first time this year.
Mother’s tree, strands of silver and her delicate collection now lit
the living room.
Thinking back, it was awfully difficult as we roamed around a
forest, cut the tree, and prayed it would stay up in our homemade so no
stand – we knew we would hear, “You hung the wrong one, that one
belongs at the top.”
Father was gentle and so easy going, he never complained –
he continued on with, “Say cheese,” while mother kept wondering
why one of her favorite ornaments had a few chips of paint – showing
the silver beneath – but even her old Santa made of plastic remained
on the top of our little television. One thing I forgot, her star at the top.
The star was as important as the manger at the base of our tree –
where it sat – and from what direction it would be viewed when you
entered the room.
And if a single ornament fell off her tree – Mother said,
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” I dashed away as if I were innocent.
Father let us touch his art he painted on each window, and I often
wondered as I stared at those black and white pictures how father
was able to wipe each window clean, removing all his hard work?
Mother enjoyed shopping at Christmas, for others she told us, Santa
brought our toys if we were good. Well, I knew I wasn’t good all
year, only in December when father hung the charts with the days in
December, and an elf would come at night and give us a star – gold
was perfect, and red, well we were okay, but blue was bad.
Those presents mother purchased were under the tree, near the
manager – I would shake each one, how I wanted to open only one –
it was a good thing those elves came out of the maple tree across the
street, and into our living room, at night.
Mother believed I believed in Santa – I believed in elves in trees
watching me through our kitchen window. I did believe, really.
“Elves magically enter our home each night – went directly to charts
labeled P.J. and Cookie – and yes, we stood in front of the charts and
The bulb blew up, popped out of the camera and fell to the floor.
Taking pictures, developing them in his dark room, was a hobby like
painting beautiful pictures, but the photos lasted a lifetime, his art,
Today in our house the tree isn’t real – yet it’s exactly the same – we
open the box and three pieces are twisted, reaching 22 feet high, and
a ladder nearby. And all those ornaments I heard about are strung
with ribbon and hang across our triple windows, in jagged lines.
As mother did, I stare at the tree, place all the glass ornaments on the
table, and wait for the children to do what they please – this year they
told me, “We know you move them when we are not here. . .”
Glass ornaments wrapped in tissue each year and carefully placed
not to break or chip, because I have this feeling my mother is watching
to see exactly what is hanging from our tree.
I do have a feeling she might be uneasy since the tinsel is gone and
now we use white beads, and one light pink cage is all I can find.
She must laugh in the clouds when the children count to three – each
hold their own bag of white snow – when they toss it up into the air
the tree comes alive, as if we were still in the forest – those bubble
lights now come in white – and if one blows out, the strand survives.
Our families traditions for trees and the season, continue to live from
one generation to the next – just a bit more modern, and colors that
match, but those elves they still stare through the window to watch. The
children had charts, stars, and bad days – they shook presents, and
looked everyplace – but an elf signed their tag, with words of love –
and thanked them for being a part of Christmas – we love.
My Dad now lives where the weather is warm, he draws, but not on
windows, he takes photos but not with his pop out camera – but he
still says, “Say cheese,” when he snaps a photo – and then asks if I
would take another.
Generations have heard stories both new and old – we laugh over tinsel,
shed tears from a picture. We are our parents, like it or not, most
of us have a bit of them filling our hearts. So we talk of those days
when we were small with hopes their memories carry on our tradition –
I listen and watch as the children prepare, square up the shoulders,
fix the hair – then the magic word, from their lips are said with a
smile, “Say cheese,” and a grandson calls out, “why not pizza please.”