Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Now winter comes slowly . . . *

Atop the tree
Every year I tell myself that I’ll take down the Christmas tree by Martin Luther King Day. Setting a goal doesn’t mean I succeed; more than once the tree has come down on St. Patrick’s Day, despite the silent disapproval I feel from the cleaning lady (how lazy can she get) and from Dan, the firefighter’s son.
Neither of them understands how I feel about the Christmas tree. It’s a plant, a living thing, and each Christmas I declare that year’s tree the most beautiful I’ve ever had. I water it and become fond of it. Dark January mornings, its red chili pepper lights warm me. In Claverack, where I lived on one floor, the tree glowed next to the desk where I wrote before sunrise.  

To discard the tree into the cold seems cruel, to cut its branches off and use them to cover the garden, as I know I should, feels barbaric. 
This year, I steeled myself. Although this tree is so special, with its long, soft needles, one of only a half-dozen like this that the tree farm grew, I don’t want to be a sentimental old lady, so on a bright, frigid Sunday, a few hours before the annual Martin Luther King service in Hudson, I got the boxes down from the attic and put on Sting’s If on a Winter’s Night. I would just take the ornaments off; I’d leave the lights on, the tree up for a few days more. I’ve heard Winter’s Night called solemn and gloomy, but it suited me perfectly. 
My tree is never taller than I am, so that I can handle it by myself, and I can tell you the provenance of every ornament I put on it. This year I had particular affection for them as I decorated the tree (to Bach’s cheerful Adventskantaten), probably because I’ve been writing this blog, thinking more about Dan. Each ornament carries a memory, and the Christmases I remember are those I spent with Dan. 
As New Yorkers, we were automatically considered the itinerant relatives, but we always had our own tree, and I remember one year in particular when a combination of car trouble and bad weather kept us in the city. With our across-the-hall neighbor V. we created a delicious Christmas Eve dinner. Our downstairs neighbor G. joined the three of us for Midnight Mass at the Episcopal church around the corner. The three of them groused about the service, but I loved it, and I still feel that we all loved that serendipitous Christmas. 
Dan and I had to make up the time later with family, but family was fun too—watching the younger generation grow, our parents still active, years of cross-country skiing together (that freezing afternoon at Hildene) . . . 
No. Joy only, no regret. 
If the ornaments make me sad, I should give them away, get new ones. 
I won’t do that. 
Bambi stays out all year
These days I spend Christmas as we did that one happy year in New York—meals with friends, special services at church. What’s missing is Dan; this is becoming tiresome, Sweetie, I said to him in December, not easier but harder each year to make my own Christmas. A. travels at Christmas now, determined not to be home, but I’m not there yet, with still enough here to keep me by my tree. 

*Thomas Betterton


  1. Love the easy-to-read font.


  2. I love the font, too, vote (if I have a vote) to keep it. Nice piece, Debby. I confess our mantle still has the colored lights and pine boughs too, although Nan has slowly but surely taking down the rest of "Christmas" here in Santa Fe.

  3. Hi D. ,
    It's familiar to me that you want to hang on to Dan in simple and concrete and daily ways. Mourning has its ups and downs but I think ideally never ends. It's weird to say ideally, but you never want the memory to disappear. That would be a bigger loss.
    Hope you don't mind if I put a poem up here.
    See you,


    The Fabric of Memory

    Mourning is a pulse throbbing in your wrist,
    there beneath the skin. A particular unexpected memory rises up,
    even just the memory of loss, and you feel that empty place,
    cold and warm at the same time. People, even you, might think
    that you're done with it, and then you feel it again, alone and private,
    like a cool spot in the ocean when you’re swimming,
    and maybe you wonder for just a second
    whether it will stay there or move on in the current.

    Years ago, people mourning moved through life wrapped in death,
    yards and yards of black, dull cotton and rustling taffeta,
    veils and gloves and jet beads, locks of hair in secret lockets,
    to gaze at blankly, remembering something flashing in the sun.
    Black for a year or more, so that everyone knew it was happening,
    a private ritual made public.

    It isn’t like that anymore.
    People expect you to shut up about it,
    get over it, move on.
    It's good for you
    to lose the visible traces,
    erase the empty spaces.

    Then it rises up and fills your chest and throat,
    always a new surprise,
    as if you had forgotten for a moment.

    It becomes a secret, without you wanting it to,
    like the closetful of clothes you couldn’t give away.
    Chinese dresses, a velvet cape, a sequined jacket, tiny boots.
    Someone would see those things,
    still carefully arranged by season, and think,
    Oh, so that’s how it is.
    She’s gotten stuck.

    Which isn’t exactly true.
    You hadn’t even opened the closet for months.
    Except once in the summer, remembering a brown and cream cotton shirt
    your mother brought from Hawaii. It would have looked so nice.
    You took it out, off the padded hanger,
    and slipped it on. But it seemed that her perfume still clung to the fabric,
    that something too intimate still inhabited the soft collar, the carved wooden buttons.
    Whether that was true or not, you decided not to wear that shirt,
    returned it to the hanger, and shut the door,
    but not before running your hand, just for a second, across the sealskin coat,
    forever unwearable, but so soft you could have buried your head in it right there
    and sobbed, as if the fur, so deep and dark, could muffle anything.