December 13, 2017

Spitting at the Tree with Dolly and Kenny

My earliest Christmas memories include cutting down our own Christmas tree in the woods near our home. The tree was usually so tall and heavy, that traditional tree stands were not up to supporting it.  So my dad, the engineer, would suspend the tree from the ceiling with high strength fishing line. This had the amusing side effect of making the tree rotateable, like a drug store comic book rack. 

It would be decorated to the sounds of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers (who none of us listened to outside the season) with my three older brothers and sisters.  I remember that my oldest brother and sister were usually tasked with the tinsel because it only looked good when placed on one strand at a time and they were the only ones who had the patience.  At the bottom of the box of decorations was a string of blue plastic beads. My brother taught me how to bite off a bead and spit it at the tree trying to hit the metal ornaments, which would yield a rewarding ding if one’s aim was sure.  This activity was frowned upon by my parents, but it was hard for them to get too angry about it, since it was sort of funny and wrapped in years of nostalgic mischief.

These were purely happy days for me.  The season, our family rituals, and the senses connected to them are well guarded sources of warmth for me.  To this day, I only listen to Dolly and Kenny’s Christmas songs when I’m alone.  My relationship to these songs, and the high octane happy memories they inspire are private. I’m protecting them, but from what, I’m not sure.  It’s not that I’m worried about the ridicule from wife or kids (which would surely come). It’s something more sacred than that.  Those are holy days—tucked away in our upstate New York farmhouse, with snow falling outside the bay window.  If our family were a tv show today, it’d be labeled “normcore” by some clever critic.  There were miracles involving surprise gifts that we were told “we just couldn’t afford this year”. There were acts of kindness directed toward our family in hard times, and to other people by our family.   And there was mystery. 

I remember sitting on the couch staring deep into our enormous suspended tree imagining I was two inches tall and exploring it’s branches like a Christmas spelunker.  I dreamed of eating enormous popcorn pieces that were strung with cranberries around the tree and looking at my reflection in the silver ornaments, only slightly dented by plastic bead projectiles. 

Even now, as I recall these sugarplum fantasies, I’m a bit ashamed.  I know very few people had it this good. So there’s some guilt about enjoying such a lavishly rich happiness, when so many I’m close to were living hand-to-mouth when it came to happy moments.  

Perhaps it’s because I know that the memories are wrapped in sentimental selectivity.  That they don’t include my parents’ nearly constant worry about finances as my dad’s job seemed to always be gone or in jeopardy around the holidays.  They don’t include one of my sibling’s complex struggles with mental health and identity issues that none of us fully understood. 

Happiness guild and nostalgic white-washing aside, there’s a kernel of something real there.  The love in that home was good. It was done right.  And the flame of that love is at the heart of the dad and husband I try to be. It’s the driving image in the home I want to create for my family. 

And maybe that’s why I am ashamed.  Hard-earned wisdom and unsolicited world-weariness have left that flame a weak flicker.  It might just be easier to forget that place existed—to believe that the spinning tree and bay window were merely fantasies, fables. I’ve seen too much pain in my life and the lives of others to indulge in such childhood fantasies. I should know better. And so, I secretly delight in Dolly Parton’s country giggles and Kenny Roger’s bourbon-smooth crooning alone.  They are just for me.  Dolly sings:

I believe that everything in life is what it's meant to be
I believe there is a God somewhere although he's hard to see…
I believe in Santa Claus, and I believe in you.

When I hear these songs I feel like a child, far too old to believe in Santa, straining to hear sleigh bells.  Straining to believe.

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