The Perfect Tree

Low maintenance Christmas tree

Low maintenance Christmas tree

I actually wrote this story three years ago, and sent it out to some friends and family members in a holiday e-mail. I thought I would publish it again here, because now I have the tree painting to go with it. I had planned to send out a few hand painted cards this year, but got sidetracked by the crazy planet-building frenzy, so this is my attempt to compensate. Enjoy. And have a lovely Christmas day.

Almost as soon as I started taking watercolor lessons, burning with the desire to paint Grand Canyons and beaches and sunsets, it was time to paint Christmas cards. Christmas cards? I think the last time I sent out Christmas cards was over twenty years ago. I was still a student, trying to write a little personal message in each card to all my friends and family, and my in-laws, and trying to study for finals. No wonder I gave it up as a hopeless business.

But I decided to make the best of the painting lesson, anyway. Knowing how to paint a snow scene might come in handy some day, although Christmas in central Texas almost never involves snow. The next two lessons were “painting Christmas decorations,” and “painting poinsettias.” The Grinch in me came roaring to life and I skipped those two weeks. After all, I had paid for six lessons, and I could exercise a little discretion over which six lessons I chose to attend. At the “paint what you want” lesson I painted a beach scene and a desert scene while almost everyone else worked on their poinsettias from the week before. The next lesson would be “painting a snow scene.” Jeez, will this never end? Once again, I opted out, this time using my dad’s birthday as an excuse.

“I have to bake a cake that day,” I explained.

I used to enjoy the Christmas season. I was always eager to drag out the old decorations, dust them off, and set them out for another holiday season. So what happened? Maybe it’s because I live in the “House of Grinches.” Four years ago I left my job and life in Kentucky and came home to look after my aging father. My mother died in 1989, and since then, my dad and my divorced brother had been living under the same roof. Now I (also divorced) was going to move in with them. Oh, joy.

Neither of them has ever runneth over with holiday spirit. That was my mother’s department, and mine. Or it was thirty years ago, before I left home and tried to live with other people’s expectations. Come to think of it, I was married to a couple of Grinches.

So maybe I can paint a memory, I thought. Maybe I can paint a Christmas tree, and hang it on the wall where it won’t take up any room, and the dogs can’t knock it over, and I can paint all the old ornaments on it — the ones I remember from childhood. I can paint a perfect Christmas tree. And I remember one that came very close.

I think it was my last year in high school, and with one thing and another going on, no one had had time to go shopping for a tree until finally, my mother and I went out with only a few days left before Christmas. We were expecting to find a bargain. We also expected to find the trees no one else wanted — the ones with uneven branches that created flat sides and asymmetrical gaps. We needed a funny looking tree because some of those old ornaments I mentioned were eight-inch long daggers — glass and tin “icicles” — that needed space to swing.

The tree we came home with needed work.

“This is not going to fit on the coffee table,” Mother pointed out.

“So we’ll have to saw off a few inches. We can do that,” I assured her. The masculine family members were off hunting for the weekend, but I was confident that we didn’t need men for this job.

I found a saw and went to work. Mother held the tree while I removed several inches of the base of the trunk. Needles rained down. When I was finished, the tree wouldn’t fit in the tree stand; lower branches were in the way. Simple. They would have to go, too. I started sawing again. More needles fell.

“If we keep going like this, we’ll end up with a naked twig,” I muttered. Mother started giggling. The tree slipped. I dropped the saw. I started giggling. Pretty soon we were both laughing so hard we could barely stand up, much less cope with a balky Christmas tree. Finally, after much huffing and puffing, and pauses to get our giggling under control, we had the tree in the stand (with water, to save the few remaining needles), and the whole thing perched atop the coffee table in the living room, with a white sheet draped around the bottom to hide the stand and simulate a snowy landscape for our “Christmas village.”

We strung the lights, then hung the ornaments.

“Look at this,” Mother said, as she held up a huge blue globe. She added an extra hanger to the one already attached, and hooked it to a branch. She gave the ball a light push and grinned as it swung free.

“Now that’s how tree decorations are supposed to look,” she concluded.

After the ornaments we added the “icicles,” shiny strips of silver plastic, one strand at a time. Then I arranged the houses and residents of the village under the tree and turned on the lights. Mother turned off the room lights and we stood back to admire our work.

“Now blow,” Mother instructed, and we blew softly toward the tree, stirring the glittering icicles and swaying the ornaments. The tree sparkled. My eyes filled with tears. They still do, at the memory.

And that is the Christmas scene I want to paint. If I don’t get it right this year, I can keep trying next year and the year after; and every year, no matter how the painting looks, I’ll have that memory — that spirit — back again.

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