Neither Mom nor Dad ever had a tree growing up. Their folks were too poor or too practical or maybe just not sentimental enough. For my sister's first Christmas, Mom was living with her parents while Dad was in the Marines. She bought a box of ornaments and a tree, her own first Christmas tree as well as her daughter's.
Our childhood Christmases were magical. Mom baked and fixed and fussed. We cut down a tree together each year and put it up while we sang carols. We painted sugar cookies and made fudge. Dad popped popcorn and roasted almonds in the fireplace. Even as a little kid, I understood how blessed we were even though we didn't have much money.
I swear to you: I am not making this up. One year we spray-painted the carcass of the Thanksgiving turkey and turned it into a golden sleigh for a Santa we made out of Styrofoam balls. We made a lake out of aluminum foil and little people out of marshmallows. We gave them hats made of crimson peau de soie (French for "silk of skin") left over from the Christmas dress Mom made for Debbie. We arranged lights around the edges of our snowy little town and left it up until the marshmallow people shriveled into senior citizens.
Daddy wrapped all his presents for Mom in matching paper. He arranged them under the tree and twined lights around them in their own special display. The packages never contained anything more exotic than a small blue bottle of Evening in Paris cologne or a dish from the dime store, but the care Dad took with Mom's gifts made them glow.
Santa did not just leave gifts: He created tableaus. The year Santa brought my brother a Boy Scout mess kit, he hung the pot on a tripod over logs laid out for a campfire. The year Santa brought a horse (yes, a horse), he left a saddle and bridle on hay bales in the living room floor. Handsome, the horse, had to wait outside.
One year Santa brought ice skates for everyone. Mom packed a picnic and a cast iron skillet into a basket. We all skated on the creek until we were too cold to move and then huddled around the grill while Mom fried Spam for Spam-and-cheese sandwiches. She wore a white synthetic fur hat dotted with iridescent paillettes that sparkled in the sunshine. Laughing and twirling, she was the most beautiful sight in the world.
I've been a lot of places since that day, from the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center to Kimo's in Lahaina and hundreds of places in between. Nothing I've eaten anywhere has tasted better than a grilled Spam sandwich and steaming hot Campbell's tomato soup from a chipped brown coffee mug at a roadside park in the Ozark Mountains.
I understand why Mom and Dad didn't want a tree this year, but it breaks my heart. It's just another inevitable step on a path I don't want to travel. We've been to the mountains. Guess now it's time for the valleys.