This year, my mother didn’t get around to tree shopping until Christmas Eve. Her mother, a laidback Catholic and a strong though silent believer in family tradition, died around this time last year, and my mother decided we’d have a tree, even if she had to delay its purchase until after my arrival on the evening of the 23rd.
My father’s mother, who is eighty-five, Jewish, and as sentimental as a parole hearing, came along for discouragement. She’d spent the week wiping the stovetop while we were cooking and the tabletop while we were eating. She’d cleaned the toaster-oven of crumbs mid-toasting, undeterred by the brief ignition of her paper towel. Her singular concern was the unnecessary mess that a Christmas tree brings into the house.
Despite a cold drizzle, we found a tree lot still open, behind a gas station near our house. We were the only—and final, I assume—customers. A man with aviator shades and a white beard and ponytail limped out of the trailer and showed us the remaining few, the rejects of the season. One group of lanky, spiny, lopsided trees looked like middle-school basketball players posing for team photo. Those were twenty-five dollars apiece. There were others, real trees, fairly proportional, trees without scoliosis or bark acne, but the lumberjack shook his head.
“Those are fifty bucks. I’d come down on the price, but they’re these trees are on commission. The farmer takes back what he doesn’t sell and writes them off and burns them.”
“You don’t want to spend fifty dollars for a Christmas tree for one day,” my grandmother told my mother. “All that mess, just for one day.”
“Tell you what,” the lumberjack said, “we’ve got a whole flatbed full of pieces we cut off other trees. I’ll just give them to you.” He took us around his trailer to where they’d piled the extra limbs punctual families hadn’t wanted, the limbs that hung too low or protruded in the wrong direction or might have made it hard to get the star to sit straight. The lumberjack piled the healthier-looking scraps of other people’s trees for us, explaining which were Douglas Fir and which were White Pine, and how to secure the scraps with baling wire or twist-ties to make garland we could lay across the mantel or window panes.
And my mother, though she was tearing up a little, thanked him, and had me put the scraps of other people’s Christmas trees in our trunk. “Mom is turning over in her grave,” she said.
But my alive grandmother was pleased, and so was I, since I didn’t have to search the garage for the tree stand; and even my mother came around once we got the eggnog flowing. Personally, I’d like to think we come from many lines of reasonable people with talent for compromise. We set up a tidy table of pine scraps and presents, and it was fun to feel like we were winging this Christmas thing, figuring out as we went along what it was supposed to look and feel like, since of course we were and always have been.