It's nearly Christmas. My younger brother, my older sister and I have had an online conversation going on for a couple of years now. In it we were talking recently about Christmas and family and how hectic and overwhelming the whole thing can be. (I think we all save quite a bit of money on therapists by talking with each other this way.) Naturally, we thought about our childhood, because Christmas is 90% about children, childhood and memories. It's easy to think about a simpler time, but the biggest difference between now and then is the fact that we were children then and we are now adults with the attendant responsibilities that we didn't comprehend before. Of eight siblings, the three of us were the only ones left living in our mother's home. There is an age gap between us for one thing. Also, the first five have a different father with whom some of them were living at that time, and some had already moved out to begin their own lives. So, it was just the three of us for a quite few years with our mother and father. And, as in so many stories of the simpler times, we were very, very poor.
One year our father told us that there wasn't enough money for a Christmas tree, and judging from the way he was talking it seemed that we might skip Christmas altogether. I remember listening to him talk – much the way in old Charlie Brown movies adults speech is represented by a "Whah-WHAH-whaaaaaah". My father had a way of lecturing that tended to be rather long-winded and the tiniest bit imperious, as if he were explaining something to a bunch of hammerheads who had been arguing with him for an hour, when actually we had yet to say a word. The gist of it was that Christmas is about materialism anyway, and there wasn't extra money, so we were going to have to do without a Christmas tree this year. We didn't dare ask about presents. What will be will be; there wasn't much we could do about it anyway, and asking would only make him angry. (In his defence, this can't have been an easy conversation to have with children who were between twelve and four years old.)
There wasn't much we could do about Santa Claus bringing us presents, but we could do something about the tree. We were no strangers to walking to the park. If we had nothing else, we had time on our hands and it was an age in which children weren't expected to remain indoors and/or in constant contact with their parents. So, the three of us bundled up against the cold and set off on foot for the park where we knew there were evergreen shrubs. Wind biting the skin on your face was a way of life in the Panhandle of Texas and crunching through snow was as fun as anything else we could have been doing. We laid out our plan all the way there. We would gather up limbs from the evergreen shrubs, take them back home and build our own tree. I imagined in my mind using baling wire, because this was before duct tape became a common household item, and baling wire was how you held things together then. (Those simpler times had some limitations.)
On the way back home my sister and I were chatting about how we could put it together. My little brother, almost five years younger than me and probably only four years old at the time, was just happy to be along and part of things. We were not exceptional children with regards to bickering; we certainly had our arguments and screaming matches. Our parents' favorite way to put a stop to the fighting was to make us sit on the sofa holding hands. (The giggling inevitably started in less than three minutes.) But, carrying Christmas Tree limbs through the cold, back to our home, we had our heads together and we just tossed around ideas about how to build a tree.
I don't remember exactly how many limbs we managed to get or who carried what, but we got home and showed our mother what we had brought and told her about our plan to make a Christmas tree, since we weren't going to be able to buy one this year. She looked at the limbs and considered. I still wasn't sure how all of it was going to be held together, but mothers are magical creatures who know everything, and, as if she had been expecting us to come home bearing evergreen boughs, she almost immediately began putting them together. She had a trunk that she kept fabric in (still keeps fabric in, as far as I know.) This she covered with a sheet and she laid the boughs across the trunk, creating a bush right there in our living room – not really a bush, but more than a stack of limbs. Truly, what she made was a sculpture with our found objects. She used one string of Christmas Tree lights, winding them through the limbs and we put a few baubles on it. Then we all stood back.
It was beautiful. It was the most beautiful Christmas Sculpture I could imagine, much better than a tree. And, we did it together, the three of us and our mother. Warming up indoors after walking through cold wind, our fingers tingled, but there was a more subtle feeling of security that came from being warm when the wind was still blowing outside and the windows were fogged. Having our Christmas Sculpture there in the living room and feeling all warm, happy and excited, we decided together that it didn't matter if we had presents. It didn't matter at all because we already had the most beautiful Christmas Sculpture ever. We couldn't wait to show our father when he got home.
Santa did come that year. Christmas morning brought gifts for the three of us and for our parents. I don't remember what Santa brought me that year, but the thing about Christmas gifts is that seeing them wrapped first thing in the morning is the most exciting part. Lately I've been trying not to think about the past at all, to look only ahead. But, talking with my brother and sister this year, I very much remember the Sculpture and the three of us taking it upon ourselves to make sure that we had a Christmas.