My small daughter Amy and I come to live with Carol in October when the oak and maple trees around her house are shedding their leaves and preparing for their long winter’s nap. My mind is on Santa Claus awakening from his long summer’s nap and delivering his Christmas gifts. Will I be able to make sure there were several gifts for Amy in Santa’s pack? I’m not too certain. Five years ago, Amy’s father and my husband pursues a dream and a blonde and does not bother to contact us again. My wallet is as flat as my hopes and dreams and emotions. Then Carol and her Christmas trees come into our lives.
During the Christmas season, people in Carol’s neighborhood decorate their evergreens and arrange outdoor lights in artistic patterns in windows and on lawn displays. In front of Carol’s house stately evergreens survey the neighborhood with an aristocratic gaze. Inside of Carol’s house, the scraggly Christmas tree shouts "Merry Christmas" like a worn out Santa with his hat over one eye and toys spilling out of his pack. It tilts in the bay window so the birds and squirrels at the feeder outside of the window can laugh and point gleefully at the straight trees growing around them.
Family stories have it that every year Carol vows that she will pick out a better tree this time. She vows that she will reject the tree that looks bald because the branches are spaced in light year distances. She vows she will reject the tree with branches so thick that it looks like a one-tree forest. Carol vows she will reject the tree with dandruff needles and also the tree with finger fat needles. Every year Carol vows she will pick out the perfect tree and every year Carol brings home the tree that cries out for rescue from the Christmas tree lot.
Every year Carol vows that she will not listen to the feeble Help from a forsaken tree the tree and every year she rescues one from the Christmas tree lot. One year someone practices saw surgery on the stump of a tree and puts it back as too lopsided to be able to decorate. Carol takes it home, puts it in a Christmas tree stand, stands it up, and decorates it. She laughs while people lean sideways and compliment her tree.
Our first Christmas at Carol’s my daughter Amy is six. She loves to cut out paper snowflakes and other decorations and she and Carol spend a happy Saturday together cutting and pasting while I fret and worry and dart out to do one bag shopping. That evening Carol pops popcorn in the fireplace and we – mostly she and Amy – make popcorn strings to put on the tree, which looks like a green and white checkerboard. I watch them laughing together and scowl. I know I am using the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge for my role model, but I tell myself I don’t care. It’s better to be known as crotchety than heartbroken. As they string the popcorn around the tree, the crooked end leans over too far and the entire tree topples over on the floor.
"Amy, would you go into the kitchen and get me some string?" Carol asks my daughter. Eagerly, Amy runs to the kitchen.
"Grinch!" Carol mutters loud enough for me to hear.
"That’s Christmas for you," I mutter back.
Carol frowns at me, her golden blonde hair glinting in the firelight. Then she walks over and puts a Christmas carol on the record turntable.
Carol picks up the tree, takes the string that Amy brings her from the kitchen, and together they repair the tree and work on it so it will be able to stand on its own. Ashamed of myself, I help them retrieve the decorations and together we put them back on the tree.
The idea filters through my mind as I help them put the last popcorn chain on the lopsided Christmas tree. It’s how you work on an imperfect object or situation that counts. It’s how you shape it and decorate it like the crooked Christmas tree that loving input and eyes make beautiful. It’s loving someone enough to help them stand on their own, whether it’s a Christmas tree or a friend down on her luck.
This year will be Carol’s first Christmas in heaven, the place where Christmas trees, too, are supposed to be perfect. But I know Carol’s won’t be, because her love is still shaping crooked Christmas trees here on earth.
Merry Christmas from one of your crooked Christmas trees, Carol!