MEMORIES ON A TREE
Pine and cinnamon hung heavy in the air, the sharp tang wrinkling my nose.
“Geez, Nana. Do you spray these down before boxing them up for the year?”
Nana sat in her rocking chair overseeing the whole operation. Christmas was less than two weeks away and her house wasn’t yet decorated. Having suffered a hip fracture this past year after her eighty-fifth birthday, she was in no condition to be climbing the attic ladder to bring down heavy boxes crammed with tinsel and wrapping paper.
“Careful with those.” She pointed her cane at the cardboard box in my arms.
“What’s in here?”
“Memories.” She put the tip of her cane on the floor, her chin resting on the knobby handle. “Open it up.”
Gently, I placed the box on the table. Nana might be fragile physically, but she retained a fearsome attitude. Breaking something she considered a memory would bring out that side, along with a lot of cane whacks.
I lifted the lid and Nana straightened up in her seat, trying to see inside the box.
“They’re tree ornaments, Nana.”
“Not just tree ornaments.” Her cane clacked against the floor. “Memories.”
I sighed. “OK, Nana. What are we doing with all these memories?”
Her chair rocked as she sat back. “Decorate the tree, of course.”
“Of course.” I looked around the small living room for her Christmas tree, but there wasn’t one.
“Nana, we can’t decorate the tree. You don’t have one.”
“Well, go get one. I’ll wait. Haven’t got much else to do today.”
I checked my watch. “Nana, I’d love to, but it’s already two. I have to get home soon.”
“David James. You’re going to go get your old nana a tree.” The ferocious side reared its head.
“My name’s Dustin, Nana. David was my dad.”
“Dustin. Pah! What kind of name is that? Never understood why your mom chose such a foolish name over David.”
This argument was as old as me. Nana didn’t approve of Mom breaking tradition and naming me, her first and only grandson, anything but David. I think Mom did it because I would have ended up David James the Fifth. It also could have been because Mom never got along with Nana and rebelled against her mother-in-law anyway she could. Either way, despite my birth certificate clearly saying ‘Dustin’, for the last twenty-three years Nana insisted I was David.
“I really have to go.” I had been there since ten, lugging boxes down. Another perk of being the only grandson in the family.
“What’s so important you’re going to leave me with all these boxes lying around for me to trip on?”
“I need to walk Tiger.”
“Bring the mangy mutt here. You have to go get a tree, pick him up on the way.”
“Nana, I’m not bringing Tiger…”
“I said bring him and the tree.” Her tone left no room for argument.
“Yes, Nana.” I pulled on my coat and stepped out into the Illinois winter.
“Get a good one. I don’t want no Charlie Brown Christmas tree in my house, shedding needles everywhere.”
“No needles. Got it.” The door slammed behind me, knocking off the tattered wreath I had hung earlier.
“Language,” came the muffled admonishment from Nana. Woman had ears like a bat.
“Sorry!” I picked up the wreath and attempted to rehang it. The faded ribbons knotted together to form the wreath were frayed and moth eaten, leaving few spots to pin it. Like all decorations, this one needed replacing.
Snow drifted down as I drove to complete my chores. Only a dusting, adding to the five inches we accumulated at Thanksgiving. Light for this time of year.
First stop was the parking lot of Al’s Hardware. Al sold Christmas trees during the season and his prices were always the lowest. I’d be in and out and off to grab Tiger before going back to Nana’s.
“Dustin. Nice surprise seeing you. Thought you had gone artificial on me.” Al clapped his gloved hands together, his words floating through the air on frosted breath.
“I did. Nana didn’t. She sent me down to pick up a tree.”
“Take a look. Most of my really good trees are gone. Early birds show up the day I open shop and get them.”
I check through all the trees, but Al’s right. The ones left are scrawny with needles piled into green carpets below them.
“Sorry I didn’t have what you were looking for. Tell your Nana to come earlier next year.” Al adjusts his earmuffs and stomps through the yard to his store.
The only other place in town that sells trees is Target. Some guy from the next town owns a tree farm and he has an agreement with the store to let him set up shop in their lot.
Target’s parking lot is full with all the holiday shoppers. I find an empty space near the trees. This guy has a lot more than Al and the selection is much better. No Charlie Brown tree for Nana.
I settled on one slightly taller than me with full branches and paid the guy.
“You have decorations for it?” he asks when he hands me my change. “If not, Target has tree ornaments 50% off.”
I thank him and get the tree into the bed of my truck. Times like these are good reminders of why I keep the gas guzzler instead of trading it in for a smaller, more fuel efficient car.
The key’s in the ignition when I think about what the tree guy said. Nana could use some new decorations. It could be my Christmas present to her.
When I get inside, I find most of the decorations have been picked over, much like Al’s tree lot. The few ornaments left are gaudy or broken from being carelessly handled. The only decoration salvageable is a star tree topper.
The rest of her ornaments need replacing and her tree topper can’t be in much better shape. At least it’ll be a start.
I make my purchase and pick up Tiger. He’s so happy to see me he sits on the bag nearly breaking the star.
“No, Tiger. Bad dog.”
He whines and shifts his weight, allowing me to pull out the bag from under him. He settles into the passenger seat and we’re off, returning to Nana’s Christmas Prison.
I bring the tree in first, leaving Tiger and my surprise in the cab. While I was gone, Nana had set up her tree stand. Made of wrought iron, the thing weighed a ton and I wondered how she moved it on her own. Maybe she wasn’t as helpless as she let on.
Nana was still sitting in her rocking chair, looking for all the world like she hadn’t moved. “Not going to get pine needles all over my floor, is it?”
“No, Nana. I got you a good one.”
“You know you’re supposed to let it relax before you decorate a real tree, don’t you?”
“Yes, Nana, but we can’t wait for it to relax completely. I can’t stay too long.”
“Thought I told you to bring that dog with you.”
“I did. He’s in the truck.”
“Then I see no reason for you to rush off.”
“Mom’s expecting me for dinner.”
Nana pursed her lips. “Allison’s making dinner?”
“Mom is making dinner, yes.”
“Hope it’s something microwavable. Woman doesn’t know how to cook anything that takes more brains or skills than pushing a button.”
Told you they didn’t get along.
“Whatever she makes will be good. Excuse me for a minute while I get Tiger and a surprise I picked up for you.”
Tiger doesn’t bark or wag his tail when I reach the truck. His big brown head is hung down, staring at the floor.
“Come on, boy.” I open the door and discover why he’s lost his enthusiasm over seeing me. On the floor is the star, chewed into five pieces. Most of the gold paint is gone, exposing the cheap white wiring beneath.
“Bad dog! Bad Tiger!” I shout, picking up all the pieces and shoving them into the bag. Sticks and star angles fall back out as fast as I put them in, slipping through the holes ripped in the plastic.
In frustration, I gather as much of the destroyed star as I can and grab Tiger’s leash. I march him up the porch steps and into Nana’s house.
“I’m so sorry. I bought you a new tree topper, but Tiger ate it.” The pieces tinkle with a fake metal ping as I dump them on the table.
“Why on God’s green Earth would you buy me a tree topper when you know I have one?”
“I wanted to surprise you with all new ornaments, but all they had left was the star. I thought it would be a start to replacing some of these old ones that keep falling apart.”
Nana said nothing for a minute. Her hand, crooked with arthritis stroked Tiger’s head. The dog knew he was in trouble with me, but Nana hadn’t berated him yet, so she was safe.
The tip of her cane came up and pointed to the last box I brought down. The cardboard box she called ‘Memories.’ “Bring that box here.”
I picked it up and placed it on the coffee table next to her.
Slowly her hand went into the box and pulled out a little ceramic tree painted a multitude of colors.
“Your dad made this when he was five or six.” She holds it out to me and I see ‘David James Grade 1’ in faded black marker on the bottom. “Well, don’t just stand there, take it.”
She practically threw it at me, so I took it from her, cradling it in my hands. “What do you want me to do with it?”
“Put it on the tree where it belongs. Boy, you must get your common sense from your mother.”
I ignore the jab and hang the ornament. When I return, Nana has another one out. This one is homemade as well, but better craftsmanship. A lace angel, once pure white now yellowed with age.
“This one was made by my mother. She gave it to me the Christmas before she passed away.”
I take it and hang it near the little ceramic tree.
Ornament after ornament comes out of the box, each with a story attached. Dad’s first Christmas. Grandpa’s death. Marriages and children. Heartbreak and loss, all recorded on one Christmas tree.
I’ve helped Nana decorate before and seen all these ornaments hundreds of times. This was the first time any of them meant something. The first time instead of seeing a macaroni picture frame missing half the noodles, I saw the gapped-toothed second grader whose youth lived on only in the photo.
The last ornament to come out of the box was the star for the top of the tree. Looking at it with new eyes, I noticed it had six points instead of the traditional five.
“Nana, why do you have a Star of David tree topper?”
A smile stretched across her face, a mixture of joy and sorrow, much like the memories now decorating her tree. “This was my parents’ star. Papa made it for Mama when they married.”
“Why the Star of David?”
“Papa fell in love with Mama, but the only way they could marry was for her to become a Christian. She gave up her religion and people to follow her heart, but she couldn’t part with her past completely. That was a few years before the Nazis rounded up Mama’s family and sent them to concentration camps. Mama escaped to America, made easier by her marriage to Papa. When they made a home here, Papa turned her Star of David into a tree topper to remind her of who she was. He always said Jesus wouldn’t mind since he was a Jew, too.”
“I had no idea you were Jewish. Why didn’t you ever mention it before?”
“Guess maybe I forgot myself. Mama didn’t practice, even without the danger of persecution. Nothing but that tree topper left to remind us of our own past. Forgetting is what happens when you keep all your memories locked up in boxes.”
I place the star on top and step back to take in the whole tree. A simple evergreen decked out with bits of past belonging to my family. A past I’ve only begun to discover.
At the top of it all, a Christmas star to remind me of where I come from.
*This story was originally posted on Pen & Muse's 12 Days of Christmas Author Showcase.