When I was growing up in bucolic southwestern Pennsylvania, my grandfather, a Renaissance man, former bank president, developer, Christmas tree farmer, and skilled craftsman with his own woodworking shop, lived with his wife, Betsey, on the crown of a hill. My father and mother built a home on a 1/2 acre plot of land at the bottom of the hill. It was a lovely corner lot, and we faced out onto Harvey Road, with rolling hills and dales all around us, and very few neighbors. We moved out there from North Hills, a suburb of Pittsburgh, in the mid to late 1960s when I was about 6.
One of the things we looked forward to most as children, or I did, anyway, was the day when we would go to pick out our Christmas tree. Usually there was snow, and we would put on our snowsuits, tramp in our boots up the hill to Granddad’s christmas tree farm, where we located the perfect 6′-7′ tree, and, with a manual saw, felled the tree, then dragged it behind us through the snow down to the bottom of the hill. There we cut off the bottom boughs, and evened up the bottom, if necessary, wrestled it into its holder, and turned it up on its end in the living room. We all had prescribed duties for this day. Mine was basically to look cute and help pick out the tree (mind you, I was not adept with saws at age 7 or 8, nor am I now). My dad and brothers had to saw the thing down, and then lug it back to the house, so their memories of this ritual might not be as rosy as mine, which always ended with a hot mug of cocoa.
From there, it was Dad’s job to put the lights on the tree. This was his clearly prescribed duty and resulted in the predictably clenched teeth of a hard-fought victory. Then we would all put the decorations on the tree, ending with the annual ritual torture of single strand application of tinsel. Mom’s job was to make sure the tinsel was dutifully applied strand by painful strand until the tree shone with its unhealthy but fashionable tinsel gleam. No doubt it is a universally shared experience, that moment when the tinsel watcher leaves the room and those left begin hurling untidy nests of tinsel at the tree.
As an adult, I eschewed the tinsel right from the start, but my husband and I kept up the practice of driving to the tree lot, and picking out our tree, tying it to the top of the car, and driving home, wrestling it into its holder and upending it in the corner of our living room. At the beginning, Jimmie would help with the lights, and then we would decorate the tree together. There was always that moment when the lights were plugged in and one was out, then tracing which one was out and replacing it. We learned, over the years, to test the lights before mounting them on the tree. As bulbs went from the clumsy C7 sized lamps to the elegant little LED lights, this became imperative. Heavy ornaments went on the bottom of the tree, where the cats and children could bat them around.
The first year that I decided to use an artificial tree, I remember feeling guilty about my tree transgression, but with time, that guilt passed.
When we moved downtown about 6 years ago, and downsized everything, including the full-sized tree to a tabletop version, my guilt dissipated – how much time and energy was I saving when I could whip that tree up and out of its box, decorate it and plug it in in about 30 minutes? A lot!
Then, sadly, after about 3 years, that tree, when it wouldn’t light up anymore, went the way of all cheaply crafted Christmas trees, into the trash. I ramped up the Christmas stakes by buying a full 6′ high tree, complete with lights incorporated into its boughs. I was careful to choose one that advertised that if one of the lights went out, the rest of the tree would work. And work it did, that is until today.
Here’s how far my Christmas tree tradition has come from bucolic SW PA. I went to look for the key to the padlock for our storage area in the garage. It was missing. I remembered that our son had borrowed the key when he was home last, and had not returned it. I grabbed a small screwdriver, thinking I could jimmy it open and not have to replace the padlock. This is what I saw when I went to the storage area.
I reported back to the security desk that we would need to cut the padlock off my locker and move the stuff that had migrated in front of it. Then I made a trip to Home Depot for a new padlock before cutting the old one off the storage unit.
I had texted my son that we were missing the key to the storage unit and when I emerged from Home Depot with the new padlock, my phone pinged with his response:
Shit, I’m pretty sure it’s on my key ring.
My response was a snotty little selfie video from the parking lot of Home Depot – something snarky and very anti-Christmas-spirit-
Thanks a lot for my trip to Home Depot this morning.
As I lowered my camera, my gaze caught the dirty pickup truck idling in front of me waiting for my parking space. I couldn’t even make eye contact with the driver, but ducked into my car and backed hastily out of the parking spot.
I got back to the apartment, and down to the storage unit I went with the guard and the bolt cutters. Took us about 5 minutes to move the pile of stuff away and replace the lock with the new padlock. Because there wasn’t a cart to carry up the Christmas stuff, I came back up with the guard, then got the cart and eventually wheeled my Christmas supplies up to the unit.
I assembled and plugged in the tree – the bottom and top worked, with a dark band of no lights in the middle. Crap. I dove back into the prickly artificial pine, cursing as I unplugged the lights and with the directions in hand, replugged, until a third band of lights came on. How far from my bucolic child hood memories was I now? I was sure as tooting going to tame this knock off tree into submission. I replaced the fuses in the offending section of tree’s plug. Two different times. Still not working.
My poor husband had watched my odyssey under the tree, and remarked at one point,
I’d rather skip the Christmas tree than see you so upset, dear.
To which I grunted and fanned myself with the instruction manual for the tree.
Off I went on a second trip to Home Depot. Which, by the way, is my average number of trips any time I undertake a home improvement project. There is no such thing as a single trip to Home Depot. That’s why we have taken to calling it Home Despot, right?
I was back in about 20 minutes with an extra set of fuses – I couldn’t accept that the string of lights was not fixable. The road to Christmas is paved with the carcasses of the men and women who refuse to accept that the product they bought was disposable.
The cheat fix worked. The 50 lights inserted in the center of the tree elicited the necessary light for me to go on without chucking the whole thing in the trash. Phew. Christmas saved. Now for a cup of hot cocoa.