My mother goes avant-garde

A Christmas memoir of trees and family

GRAFTON — The Saturday before Christmas is sunny and cold - the kind of cold that makes me feel like I'm breathing icicles. My parents and I are getting ready to make our annual pilgrimage to Aunt Sophie and Uncle Kirk's farm near the Bohemia River on Maryland's eastern shore.

It's an hour's drive and I can't wait to get there. Uncle Kirk tends a grove of evergreens on the 30-acre field behind their house. This is the most wonderful day of the year: the day we go to pick out our Christmas tree and chop it down.

My father has already packed his ax, our leather gloves, and our tall rubber boots into the back of our Oldsmobile station wagon, ensuring that our feet will be warm and dry as we tramp through the field in search of our tree.

My mother doesn't take part in this adventure. She doesn't like to be cold or wet. She is dressed as she always is on these occasions, in stockings and heels, a tweed skirt, and a thick wool sweater.

We pile into the station wagon - my parents in front and me in the back - and my mother takes a tube of red lipstick out of her pocketbook, pulls the visor down, and peers into the little mirror as she applies it. Lipstick is the only makeup she ever wears, and she always looks perfect, as if she were going to tea with the queen of England.

We set off, and my mother pulls the wool lap robe over her legs and turns the heat up high. We aren't a mile out of town before my father rolls his window halfway down.

“Bob, the draft!” my mother says.

My father sighs and rolls up the window.

This is a predictable pattern. In another mile, my father will crack his window open, and my mother will say “the draft!” and he'll close the window again. No matter how many miles we travel, he will keep trying for a breath of fresh air, to no avail.

I can't understand why my mother won't wear socks and long underwear in the winter, like normal people.

Whenever I suggest that she wear more clothes, she simply says, “to each her own” with a lofty tilt of her well-sculpted chin.

“Oh, brother,” I grumble.

“Anne, don't be impudent,” she replies.

I don't mean to be “impudent.” I'm only trying to be practical.

I dislike being called “Anne,” instead of Annie. When my mother is annoyed, she drags it out to two syllables. “An-ne.”

* * *

We've just turned onto the winding back road that leads to the farm when my mother announces that this Christmas we're going to have a “color scheme.”

“A color scheme?”

Mother explains that we will have a blue and silver centerpiece on the dining room table. We'll fill the hurricane lamps on the big sideboard with blue and silver balls and sprigs of blue spruce, and we'll install two blue lights on each side of the front door. The tree will be decorated solely with blue and silver ornaments.

I know better than to say this is the stupidest idea I've ever heard.

I think wistfully of the feathered robins, cardinals, blue jays, sweet gray sparrows, and the splendid Baltimore oriole that will stay in their cardboard boxes in the attic. My father had hung them on his tree when he was a boy, along with the diminutive baby Jesus in his wee manger of frayed white wool. I'm afraid he'll be lonely if we leave him in the attic.

“I don't want a blue and silver tree,” I wail.

My mother swivels her head backward.

“An-ne! Don't be impudent.”

“But I want the oriole. And the baby Jesus. It's not Christmas without Jesus.”

Years later, my father will tell me that he'd been impressed by my theological argument, especially because, after months of attendance at Sunday School, I had already expressed skepticism regarding the strange circumstances of Jesus's birth.

“Next year we can decorate the tree any way you'd like,” my mother says, but this Christmas, we're doing it my way.”


“Annie, there will be other Christmases,” my father says.

“Not with me. I'm going to be someone else's girl. I'm going to live where people decorate a proper tree.”

My mother spins her head in my direction again, and merely purses her lips. Apparently, I've rendered her speechless.

“Whose little girl would you like to be?” my father inquires.

“I'd like to belong to Dr. and Mrs. Weaver,” I state firmly. “They have fat trees with long needles instead of skinny ones with prickly needles, and they put real candles on their tree.”

“Candles are a fire hazard,” my mother says, talking through her teeth.

“Well, we could ask them, but they already have three children,” my father says. “They may not want another mouth to feed.”

“OK. What about Mr. and Mrs. Keim? They only have Gerry Jr., and Mrs. Keim always says she wishes they had a little girl, too.”

“An-ne, that will be enough.”

Her voice is very low, like a mama wolf reprimanding her pup. That's how I know she is serious.

I sit quietly, sullen and unrepentant.

* * *

I don't forget my ire until Aunt Sophie and Uncle Kirk greet us at their door with smiles and hugs.

My mother goes inside to sit at their kitchen table, where they will chat and drink tea while my father and I scout the field, looking for a perfectly symmetrical tree that doesn't have what my mother calls a “bad side.”

If we fail to find such a tree, my father will spend many tense minutes on the floor of our living room, turning the tree round and round in its stand while my mother directs him until the “best side” of the tree is presented. This is an ordeal to be avoided if possible.

At last, we find the perfect blue spruce. My father chops it down, and we drag it back to the house. Aunt Sophie, Uncle Kirk, and my mother come outside, and my father stands the tree up for my mother's inspection.

“It's perfect,” she proclaims.

My father and I smile as he lifts the tree into the station wagon. In this season of miracles, we've been granted one.

* * *

On Christmas Eve, after we've wrapped the tree in blue lights and blue and silver ornaments and hung the silver star on the top branch, we turn off all the house lights. The tree glows in the dark room.

It is so beautiful that I'm immediately divested of my fundamentalist perspective.

“I love our tree, Mom!”

“I'm glad, sweetie.”

On Christmas morning, when I tiptoe down the stairs before dawn and plug in the tree lights, I look up and see the baby Jesus and the oriole perched on a branch right below the silver star.

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