AUTHORS NOTE: While very loosely based on real events (the decision to switch to a fake tree after many years of having a fresh evergreen cut from the forest behind our house & my learning about Santa) the story shared here is a work of fiction for the purposes of a contest. Any resemblance to people who I actually know (my family) is intended as a homage and should not be considered biographical. Additionally this is a first draft and changes are bound to happen to it before it’s finished.
I can’t say why her words caught me off guard like they did, maybe it was Dean Martin crooning about being home for Christmas – if only in his dreams or the late hour, but my heart sunk. I think it was the first time I ever looked at my mother as a mortal being. The lines under her tired eyes, the way her long blonde hair had become duller and her hands were not just soft anymore… her skin was looser somehow. ‘Like Grandma.’ I noted silently.
She was growing older and weary of the ‘holiday nonsense’, even as she toiled endlessly on this year’s treasure trove of sugared goodies. I wondered, for the first time, if she only kept this up for us kids and not for the love of the holiday I’d always told myself she had. I stared at her, not saying anything right away. How could I tell her that I’d suddenly decided to become sentimental after years of complaining and yearning for the ‘finer’ things that all my friends’ had?
“Do we have to?” I pinched some sugar cookie dough off near the edge of the counter and popped it into my mouth.
“It’s a lot of work to go get a tree. Your brother’s legs aren’t up for the trek. The snow’s too deep. And your dad… even if he would help us get the tree this year, he’ll be working over near Traverse City right up till Christmas.” She pressed out a few snowmen, pausing once to adjust her wire frame glasses on her face, “It’ll be easier this way.” She said with a finality that indicated that the matter wasn’t up for further discussion. At least not tonight.
When the record that was playing came to it’s end, I changed it and kissed my mother goodnight. Slipping between my covers that night, the sounds of winter outside my window kept me thinking about the tree we wouldn’t have or rather the trip into the woods I wouldn’t be taking with my mother and sister this year. What might I have done differently last year, if I had known that it was to be our last; that the Christmas tradition we girls had held too all these years despite the frostbite, slivers, and fights was over? It felt as though I just learned that someone I loved had been sick, had died suddenly, and I was left to find a way to go on without them – all without warning.
The next morning I was up early, knowing that mom wouldn’t be out of bed for a bit. After going down stairs to get the fire in the wood stove going again, I dressed quickly and went to find my kid sister. As expected, she already had Saturday morning cartoons turned on a large bowl of captain crunch poured.
“Hey Kid?” I whispered, sitting down beside her. “I’ve been thinking about our tree this year.”
“Mmm-hmm.” She said nodding, eyes still locked on the flashing lights in front of her.
“Mom wants to get a fake tree.”
My pre-teen sister paused mid-crunch and with a mouth full of breakfast asked, “Why?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. She just doesn’t want to. So I was thinking that, well, maybe we could do it this year?”
She smiled. For all that my sister and I fought about, all the horrible things we did to each other, at the end of the day we were partners in crime. If something needed doing badly enough, and if I was of a mind to suggest it, then my kid sister was ALWAYS a willing cohort.
Swallowing her mouth full of cereal this time, she whispered back, “Mom’s gonna say no.” Already the barest hint of a mischievous grin tugged at the corners of her lips, pulling them upward towards her giant brown eyes.
“I know how to use the hacksaw.”
“She won’t let you.”
Again I shrugged. “We could have one back to the house in no time. Probably pick out a better one than we’ve ever had before. We’ll pick a smaller one than last year. You know how she always picks those huge things.” My sister nodded slowly. I could see the wheels turning in her head. I was an idea person, creative and ambitious… but my sister on the other hand was a positively meticulous & devious thinker. Even though she was younger than I was, she was exactly the sort of person you were always glad to have on your side rather than against you.
“I get the top bunk for the next month.”
I sighed. Of course there would be negotiation. “A week.” I countered.
“A month or not only do I say no… I’m gonna tell mom.”
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever.” I huffed and began to walk away.
“It’s just a stupid tree.” She called out behind me. “It’ll probably look nicer from the story anyway.”
I turned back to her, hurt and a small bit angry for her inability to see how much this ‘stupid tree’ really meant. “But it won’t be OUR tree. It’ll be some crappy piece of plastic. Look, I just wanted to… gah! Forget it.”
“What?” She asked, tilting her head to the side, her dark hair framing her doe eyes as they considered me carefully.
“It’s stupid.” I muttered.
“You’re stupid.” She said, half-joking. “So?”
“I’ll be going to college soon.” I wet my lips. “I don’t have a lot of Christmases left with you guys.” There was no illusions in our household of futures full of family holiday dinners. If our level of poverty wouldn’t keep it from happening, certainly our level of family dysfunction would. My sister and I, even that young, knew our future was free of such hallmark moments. Whatever might pass for them would have to happen now or they wouldn’t happen at all.
“A week.” she finally said, rolling her eyes slightly and taking another bite of her breakfast. It was a payment I was happy to render and happy that she was willing to accept … for the right reasons. Her attitude, after all, mattered more in this endeavor than her actual compliance. Despite her acquiescence & apparent desire to have at least one last traditional Christmas with me before I left home for good, she kept right on faking her annoyance even as we began hunting down mis-matched wool socks for our hands and set off on our ill-fated yuletide quest.
(To Be Continued – Come Back Tomorrow!)