Rated: ASR · Non-fiction · Biographical · #2061689
Barb remembers the trees of family Christmases passed.
|Tuesday, December 17, 2003|
Barbara E. Taylor
For my brothers, Bruce and Pete. Merry Christmas
The first Christmas tree I remember stood in the corner of the living room, just inside the front door of our little brick house in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. Actually, it is the bottom of that tree that appears in my mind’s eye. The lower boughs, laden with ornaments and tinsel were at my level. Far above my head in the vicinity of the ceiling were the upper branches and treetop. It required a few steps back and a dizzying tilt of my head to take in the whole of it. That was Christmas 1949 and I, at the age of two and three-quarters with no siblings to reorient my horizons, was the pleased recipient of one Mama doll with pink rayon bonnet and coat and one pair of Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer slipper socks. I’m sure there was a great deal more booty, but those are the items I remember 54 years later.
The next tree in my memory stood in our second-floor apartment in Washington, Pennsylvania in December 1951. I had acquired a brother, Bruce, the previous year and he was now old enough to be playing with his toy train while I cuddled my latest doll, a beautiful blonde bride in full wedding regalia. My chosen spot, sitting on the floor near the tree, remained a favorite position for all future Christmases. There is, as yet, no sense of participation in decorating or even the arrival of the tree in the house. I imagine my parents setting up and decorating these trees late of an evening after we had been bundled off to bed. They must have decorated trees together that way for quite a few years, until we children were old enough to be useful in the process rather than nuisances.
The great sense of anticipation and the hustle and bustle of putting up our trees began to include my brothers and me on Floral Avenue in Cortland, New York. By Christmas 1956 there were three of us, my brother Peter having arrived the previous February. Some aspects of Christmas tree selection and ornamentation had begun to gel in my mind. Clearly the family tree did not sprout full-blown in the living room each year. There was a process at work and the instigator of this process seemed to be our father, Frank Taylor.
Some years he would arrive home after dark with tree in hand. In hindsight I’m sure he was out and around town during the day or on the way home and had impulsively chosen a spur-of-the-moment tree. He also acquired automobiles in this fashion. Other years there seemed to be more order imposed, the living room having been set up first, THEN the acquisition of the tree, perhaps on a Sunday. Sundays were truly non-workdays then. The order of events undoubtedly depended on whether our mother, Orrie, had been consulted first regarding tree day. In any case, the set-up logistics would revert to her domain while my father busied himself with cosmetics.
The tree’s initial resting-place would be a bucket in the garage until the living room was prepared. This involved furniture rearrangement, thorough vacuuming and dusting and the placing of the tree stand. Floral Avenue trees were always placed in the center of the living room’s oversized picture window where the neighborhood could enjoy them and the reflectivity of the glass would enhance their splendor.
When the living room was ready and the ornament boxes had been brought from their yearlong storage area, Dad would bring in the tree, cold radiating from it in the warmth of the house, the sharp, fresh pine scent permeating the air.
We all hovered while Dad accomplished the critical phase of securing the tree in the tree stand. He acquired a state-of-the-art tree stand in 1956 or so. It had a vaguely medieval look to it. A long spike in the center of the deep pan impaled the tree trunk while three flexible turnbuckle hooks bit deeply into the tree higher on the trunk. This unique stand - unique in that I never saw another like it - provided stability and permitted placing the hooks to allow for lower limbs. It also allowed for “straightening” of any slant inherent in the tree itself. We used to spend a lot of time and energy on that feature. The tree stand itself was indestructible and remained in use for thirty years or so. Once the tree was standing, it had to be positioned for best effect. Even the most beautiful tree had a “best” and a “worst” side. Discovering the best and worst was a large part of the Taylor method and the tree would be turned this way and that until Dad was satisfied with its look.
The next step was the careful placement of tree lights. Style, size and color of lights evolved over the years but the placement ritual never varied. Dad strung Christmas tree lights in a strict routine. He had more than a few routines of this type. The other truly notable one was the way in which he painted doors. If a door needed painting, he would take it off its hinges and place it across two sawhorses. Then he would remove hinges, lock plates, doorknobs and any other stray hardware. This allowed for a wonderfully even application of paint with perfectly parallel brush strokes and kept the brass hardware spotless, but also resulted in hall doors that never quite latched again and the occasional dysfunctional lock. There was also the inconvenience of rooms without doors when painting season was upon us.
Where was I? Ah, yes. The lights. Dad enjoyed being in the forefront of holiday d’cor trends. We were among the first in our social circle to use miniature colored lights instead of the traditional full-size light strings. Proper tree illumination meant that testing and bulb replacement was conducted on the living room floor. Then Dad put each string in the tree from top to bottom in a circular pattern that hit each level of branches. His dictums included being sure that lights of the same color were not next to each other and that the overall pattern of light was evenly distributed. That meant that at some point in the light setup everyone was required to stand at the other end of the room and squint, the better to spot flaws in the pattern. It always was my mother who placed the angel hair around the lights. In those days, angel hair was made of spun glass and required careful handling. My mother had no wish to make a trip to the doctor’s office to have a child’s eye treated for fine glass abrasion.
When the tree passed the squint test the hanging of the ornaments began; smaller ornaments near the top, larger ornaments on lower limbs. Although this might seem logical to most, it must be taught to children. “No, no, that’s too big for where you’re putting it,” Dad would comment and point to the more desirable position. “It’ll look better here.” He would also invariably have a new box of ornaments to hang. There was the year of the red matte finish balls instead of the shiny balls of previous years. There was the year of ornaments that looked like hot air balloons with netting enclosing the fragile glass and painted figures.
Finally the tree was decorated to everyone’s satisfaction and we would turn out the living room lights and sit in the darkness together to enjoy its beauty. No matter how many trees or in how many houses over the years, this was the basic tree-trimming ritual.
The Floral Avenue Christmas trees were always Scotch pines. My father became enamored of them because of their fullness, long needles and straight trunks. He always bought them from the same place on Homer Avenue. The first time I can recall going along on the tree-selection buying trip was probably 1956 or 1957. I was purely a spectator and remember only that the trees were lined up leaning against a white board wall and were somewhat sheltered. I don’t know if that was special treatment for Scotch pines or simply the layout of this place.
Over the years Dad imbued all of us with the proper technique for tree selection. Never settle for just any old tree. It had to be beautifully proportioned, no gaps or holes where nature had failed to provide limbs. There were codicils to these rules. If a tree was exceptionally beautiful it could be forgiven a slightly crooked trunk - the tree stand could handle that - or a double top or even a slight flatness on one side. A Taylor tree had to have a certain look, a certain spirit, and Dad could spot them. He taught us to spot them in much the same way a mother cat teaches her young to hunt mice. You could handle any number of them, look them over, bat them about, but in the end there was only one tree that would do.
Sometimes the trees held wonderful surprises. A Floral Avenue Scotch pine sheltered the beautiful soft bird’s nest that became one of our most beloved decorations through the years.
We were fairly traditional regarding tree toppers, that special ornament that gets the place of honor at the top of the tree. I’m not sure about very early ones, but one year on Floral Avenue we began to use a silvery star on a tube that fit over the topmost tree limb. A hole in the back of the star permitted insertion of a tree light bulb and illuminated the star from within. It was a nice effect and we liked it so well it remained the tree-topper for years.
We stopped using it the year we got a tree with a double top that just would not accept the star in any configuration. Bruce created a delightful solution, two large gold bells that rested easily over each branch of the double top joined by a red bow. We all liked it so much we used it from then on.
Many of our most treasured ornaments were gifts that we had given to each other or that had been given to us. Many more were ornaments we had made as children that continued to be used through the years. Mom would take us ornament shopping from time to time and the results of those excursions became treasures as well. We always had birds for the nest from the Floral Avenue tree. Over the years we accumulated valuable silver, crystal and china ornaments. An ornament that was the souvenir of a place visited or a goal accomplished would take its place of honor on the tree. The ultimate version of our tree after we were all adults was one that no longer needed glass balls or commercial ornaments to make it beautiful. It had become a tree full of memories and shone with the love that decorated it.
Occasionally Dad’s Christmas decorating radar went awry. One year on Floral Avenue, after the tree had been completely trimmed, he produced a fully fluorocarboned aerosol can of spray snow and proceeded to anoint every square inch with sticky white stuff meant to simulate snow on the branches. Ideally it should have been sprayed before any decorating began. Ornaments and light strings wore white artificial snow like battle decorations for decades.
Floral Avenue Christmases came and went, usually in the retina-blasting glare of movie-camera lights. It’s a universal signature of 1950’s home movies that the fathers never appear in them and all the subjects blink rapidly and throw up their hands in defense from the onslaught of the spotlights. My brothers and I were captured on such films, mutely displaying our favorite toys and never looking directly at the camera for more than a second or two.
By the mid-1960’s we were living in the house we had built on Gray Street in Amherst, Massachusetts and all of us were equally involved in decorating for the holidays. Mom liked to wrap the lamppost with garland and add a big red bow. The front door always sported a handsome wreath and most years it was spotlighted from a light near the garage. Occasionally the mailbox got some holiday treatment as well.
My brothers and I were now more than old enough to participate and even direct some of the festooning of our home. Through whatever means he used to gather such information, my father located a Christmas Tree farm on the slopes of Mt. Toby in Greenfield. We all piled into the car one wintry Sunday and tromped through snowy fields to find and cut down our first fresh tree. This became our favored mode of tree selection. Most years the whole family went together. Sometimes my father and I would go, sometimes my father and brothers. It was a great occasion, one we loved and looked forward to each Christmas season. There were a few memorable variations on this theme in future years, but most often we cut our own trees.
We had changed our preference from Scotch pine to blue spruce and our lights were tiny white lights by the late sixties and early seventies. One year my mother and I went out of town for a wedding in mid-December. In our absence my father and brother Bruce selected a tree from the Boy Scouts’ lot in town. Its chief virtue was that my brother could hold it upright with one hand extended through the passenger window of the Volkswagen Beetle while my father drove them home. This is a tribute not to Bruce’s strength but to the spindly nature of the tree. My mother and I were appalled but had to admit it was pretty funny. I think it was Pete who christened it our Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. It received all the ornamentation it could hold and still remain upright.
One year we visited relatives over the holiday season, including my father’s sister, Polly. Her Christmas Tree was a revelation to us all. She had abandoned live evergreen for white plastic. Her favorite color, pink, dominated her living room. Pink rug, pink sofa, pink-toned mural on the wall. It was not overwhelming, simply graceful and feminine and very much in her character. She had managed to find a way to have her Christmas Tree blend in with her d’cor. A footlight with colored gels was aimed at the artificial white tree and it obediently took on the color of whatever gel moved past the light. It was beautifully decorated, required no water, presented no fire hazard, did not drop its needles and would, of course, be available the following year. I admit to being dazzled by the sheer wizardry of it all.
The following Christmas season, my father arrived home from work one evening with a suspicious box under his arm. He couldn’t hide its contents because the evergreen tree it contained was pictured in photographic glory on the side. Derisive comments and catcalls came at him from all sides but he gave us the “Wait until you see it before you decide” speech and disappeared into the living room, instructing us all to wait until he called us for the inspection.
Not nearly enough time elapsed when he reappeared in the kitchen. His expression revealed nothing. The rest of got up from the supper table and walked to the living room to view the artificial tree, determined not to like it even if it was beautiful. We needn’t have worried. It looked like a green bottlebrush. It was so awful we collapsed in howls of laughter. As soon as we could compose ourselves we returned to the table where my father was calmly eating. He said nothing, we said nothing. The bottlebrush was gone the next morning and the following Sunday we went on our usual trek for the tree. Artificial trees never darkened our door again.
There was a year when neither of my brothers was home on tree decorating night so my parents and I did it together, following all the usual routines and customs. When the tree was perfectly appointed, my mother went to the kitchen to make tea, my father settled into his easy chair and I stretched out on the sofa to admire our handiwork. The tree began to tremble. With his impeccable timing, my father yelled, “Timber!” and the tree fell face down on the living room rug.
The year finally came when we knew we would no longer be a family of five because one of my brothers was getting married. With a certain sense of passage, my brothers and I went forth in search of a tree that year. We went to a trusted local source, the Atkins farm market, and being our father’s children, drove the attendants crazy while we looked at every tree. Finally it came down to a choice of two and no compromise was possible. I loved one tree and both brothers loved the other just as adamantly. Finally we decided to take a vote, and knowing I was outnumbered I magnanimously voted for my brothers’ tree so it would be unanimous. Being my brothers, they had arrived at the same strategy and both voted for mine. We all stood there for a minute in shock that we were still divided on the issue of the tree, laughed till our sides hurt and then took my choice home, my brothers arguing that I had been outvoted.
We didn’t know that day that there would be one more family tree for us to select. Many years later, the day after Dad died, my mother sent my brothers and me to select his gravesite. The cemetery superintendent showed us sunny spots and shaded spots, sites on banks, sites on flat ground and one other site. Each of us knew it was perfect, even though we had gone past it to look at all that was available. Bruce remembered and suggested we take a vote. With pointed fingers we gestured to the spot on top of a hill in the shelter of a forty-foot blue spruce. We all knew what we were doing, but it was my brother Pete who said the words. “Let’s give him one last Christmas tree.”