Tree Top

 

That was the year we were relatively poor; relatively in the sense that we had home, heat, and food but little else. The newly formed company I had recently joined in June died an early death in November and my finances were wounded in the process.

Five years earlier, Terry had given up her Lab Tech job to begin a family that now comprised Julianne, age 4, and Joshua, 1 year. Now, we depended solely on my income. To add to the problem, we had earlier this year moved into our first home, a 10 room Victorian in a working-class neighborhood.

In case I didn't mention it, Terry is an artist and artisan by genetics but a pessimist by nature. I am an incurable romantic by nurture and a hopeless optimist by choice. Together, somehow, we would catch every wild throw that fortune's pitcher could send across our plate.

Back to the story. Luck, as was usual with us, changed rapidly. By the end of November, I landed a new job with a Minneapolis-based company called Flo-Pac. The only downside was the company paid monthly; I wouldn't receive a check for a month. Flo-Pac's sales manager, Leroy Schwartz, sent my airline tickets for orientation at the company's facility for the first week in December. I was off and running again.

That was the year.

I boarded a Northwest Orient flight to Minneapolis.

This was the first of many guilt trips. I always felt uneasy at the start of any extended sales trip, leaving Terry and the kids at home alone, and resolved that I'd eventually find something that kept me home. That wouldn't happen for another five years.

The pace of life in Minneapolis is so slow compared with the Boston area and the people are so warm and accepting. It was a wonderful experience. But, the highlight of each day was phoning home in the evening.

" Hi ma, it's daddy."

Terry would relate the days experiences. Julianne learned a new song 'Eentsy Weentsy Spider'. This afternoon, she snuck into Terry's bedroom, got into her makeup, powdered her face, arms, pants, shirt, and shoes. She applied lipstick in a random fashion and showered her body with perfume. Would have made a nun look like a hooker.

Josh crashed into several pieces of furniture and she's afraid to take him for his next doctor’s visit for fear of being labeled "child abuser".

Another day.

"Joshua swallowed some 'Lumpy Bumpy'. I called the Poison Control Center in Colorado. They were hysterical with laughter; I failed to see the humor. But, they eventually found out that 'Lumpy Bumpy' was harmless so I didn't have to induce vomiting. Oh, the heat went out today for 4 hours and we huddled around the gas stove in the kitchen until the oilman got there. Just a few Christmas cards in the mail and, thank God, no calls from bill collectors."

Another day.

"Josh is showing some mechanical aptitude. He took apart several of Julianne's toys today but she says she still loves him. Papa called with a litany of his latest illnesses. He may require brain surgery for a mole on his forehead and internal surgery for his hemorrhoids. Tish called to plan Christmas Eve in Salem and to see what the kids would like to have from her famous grab bag. She always ignores our recommendations anyway and gets what she wants. I don't know why she even asks."

Next day.

"It was quiet today. Aunt Margy called to announce she was making Gnocci for Christmas Eve. John Pellerin called to see if you would be singing with the choir for midnight mass."

The next day.

"We really missed you today. At about 10 o’clock, I heard this deep brass music coming from the driveway. When I got into the living room, the kids were standing at the window jumping up and down. I looked out and saw the skinniest Santa Claus I’ve ever seen with a tuba wrapped around him. He was prancing up and down the driveway playing Christmas carols to the kids delight and he drew quite a crowd out on the sidewalk. Turned out to be Matt Muise."

Matt was a friend I met as a runner. He was an alcoholic at 12, in AA at 14 and has been dry since I‘ve known him.

I trained well and ate well in Minneapolis but one thought kept gnawing at me. How the hell can I afford a Christmas tree this year. Let me explain. I wasn't worried about presents. The relatives would be Santa Claus to our kids. Terry and I would spend what little we had filling our Christmas stockings. But -- what about the tree! What could I do short of bank robbery. Our living room had a 10 foot ceiling and a curved alcove with three large windows and the area demanded a huge, wide tree. Uncle Ted had remarked the moment he saw the room and its alcove that it was designed only with a large Christmas tree in mind.

Christmas dinner was to be a family affair at our house this year. Aunt Tish and Nana provided funds for the dinner -- but again, what about the tree! Before I left for Minneapolis, I'd priced out the trees. They were as expensive as the Hope Diamond that year. I couldn't find one under $75. I told Terry we'd have one by Christmas week but this was merely a stall.

I arrived back home on the 15th. Julianne was so excited about Christmas. Josh mirrored her anticipation even though he was too young to know what it was all about. I don’t think most adults including yours truly really know what it’s all about either.

Saturday morning found us watching cartoons. Julianne sat on my lap and Josh ran around in circles like a caged lion. Then came the toy commercials. First, ‘Barbie’.

"Daddy?"

"Ya, nubs." (my pet name for her).

"I want one of those!"

"Those." Josh pointed.

Then came some cooking set.

"Daddy?"

"Ya, nubs."

"I want one of those!!" Even louder.

"Those." Josh pointed.

Then came a game called ‘Select Four’.

"Daddy?"

"Ya, nubs."

"I want one of those!!!"

"Those, those…" Echoed Josh as he fell on the floor.

"Nubs?"

"Ya, daddy?"

"Maybe Santa Claus is poor this year."

"That’s OK, daddy."

God, do I love 5 year olds.

I spent a good deal of time before Christmas organizing my sales territory and trying to help Terry where I could with the holiday preparations. The Sunday before Christmas, we got a call from Uncle Ted.

"Can you and Terry come over here for awhile? I need your help."

Let's leave this for a moment to talk about Uncle Ted. My mother's oldest brother, he and I always had a love-hate relationship. When I was a youngster, he was always trying to correct me. I, in turn, would give him a ration of back talk. He'd get upset that I had the nerve to argue with him and complained to my mother who would then tell me to mind my elders. I neither recognized him as an elder nor a relation. This animosity continued for years.

Uncle Ted stood about 5’ 8", a bit heavy, bald on top except for a fringe of closely cropped hair. His demeanor was in stark contrast with his musical abilities. Where he could be as mean as a starving bear when I confronted him, he was equally charming and passionate when he played piano. Even though Uncle Ted had good training in music, could read it pretty well, he basically played piano by ear. He would get hold of a piece of sheet music, get the drift of the melody, and then would turn it into something wondrous.

When I married Terry, my relationship with Uncle Ted changed dramatically. Either I became wiser as I got older, or more likely, Ted took a shine to Terry. They attended gardening and composting classes together at Essex Aggie, the local agricultural academy for high schoolers, collegians, and evening students.

They pounded sand together for quahogs with these weird tools Uncle Ted constructed for the purpose. It seems that after a storm, at low tide, if you pounded on the sand with this device and there was a quahog beneath, bubbles would rise to the surface of the sand. You then took a clamming fork and dug to pull out the large sea clams. Uncle Ted would then mince them in a grinder to make clam chowder, fish cakes, or my favorite, baked stuffed quahogs. I'd join them sometimes on field trips to gather seaweed for the compost pile and salt marsh hay for mulch. He claimed that seaweed was an excellent source of minerals and fertilizer for the garden and salt marsh hay was the best mulch. His garden proved all of his claims. All things considered, the guy was a genius, a true Renaissance man. And as the year’s went on, my hatred turned to respect-- then to love.

So now you'll understand that if Uncle Ted called, we came running. To go visiting, however, with two small children was an epic journey. You had to pile all the baby paraphernalia for Josh in the car together with all the meds this time of year required. He and Julianne had a history of ear infections that lasted until they both reached six years. After 45 minutes (I think it was a record), everything was in the car and we made the two mile trek to Uncle Ted's. Terry unloaded the kids and I unloaded the supplies. Uncle Ted then insisted that we go outside with him to check out his latest find while Aunt Thelma entertained Julianne and Josh. Uncle Ted's house was located at the intersection of two dead end streets bordered by Pine Grove Cemetery with its 5 ft. high stone and mortar walls, built as a WPA project during the Great Depression.

"I found this quite by accident near the wall in early November just before the ground froze."

Uncle Ted uncovered about two feet of mulch. He dug about a foot into the mulch protected soil and pulled out a handful of tubers.

"These are Jerusalem Artichokes. I tried growing them without success in the garden and here I stumble upon them growing wild!"

He put all but one of the two of the tubers back into the ground, covered them lovingly with soil, and rearranged the mulch. Ted pulled out a pocket knife and sliced the tubers.

"Here, try these." He said giving us slices. It was potato tasting with a nut like after-taste. All in all -- delicious.

"Oh, I almost forgot." He motioned us toward his driveway and there lying on the side of the house adjacent to the dormant garden was a fir tree nine feet tall tapering out to five and a half feet of width at the base. It was only then that I noticed a 40 ft. tree was missing from his yard.

"The tree roots were growing into my cellar so I had it cut down today. I told the workers I wanted the top nine feet. Ever since I saw that alcove in your new house, I knew the tree top belonged there."

We were stunned. It was magnificent. Almost as if it had grown for years knowing that its final destination was our living room.

Terry and I both choked up the same time and gave Uncle Ted a group hug. He was embarrassed.

"Come on. Let's get the tree on the car."

He went into the garage and came out with a piece of four mil thick plastic and laid it upon the car’s roof. Then he produced a roll of rope.

"Don't stand there looking stupid, Tom, give me a hand."

We heaved the tree on top of the car and secured it with the rope. I sure hoped it would hold until we got home.

"Okay, get your babies and get out of here. You’ve got a lot of work to do."

We piled kids and supplies back into the car and headed home. We held our collective breaths until we got the tree there. It only swayed dangerously to the side once or twice when caught by a gust of wind. Once home, I called my buddy Paul to help me drag the tree into the house and set it up.

It was one week before Christmas.

We spent the next three days trimming the tree. Josh would watch and babble as Terry and Julianne removed ornaments from their boxes and placed them on tables and the sofa until the tree was ready to trim.

First, however, the lights must go on. This was the daddy's prerogative and required a great deal of patience -- something I sadly lacked. Untangling and testing strings of lights took testicular fortitude. I prepared the first of several amusing beverages to lighten my mood and attitude and began the task. By the end of my second drink, the lights were setup, working, and I had achieved the first of many holiday glows.

The tree was like a scene from a Victorian painting when it was completed.  Terry used her multiple talents to design the tree trimming.

The garlands of previously strung popcorn, the burgundy bows at each point of the garlands, the sparsely laid leaded tinsel, and the ornaments completed the picture. Julianne placed about 20 ornaments at the bottom of the tree. After all, that's all she could see and as high as she could reach. In later years, Josh would do the same thing. We’d wait until they were sleeping to rearrange things. They never seemed to notice the difference.

This year we continued the family tradition that the youngest would set the angel on the tree top. Against Terry's better judgment, I grabbed Josh in one arm, the angel in the other, and ascended the step ladder to the top of the tree. With Josh's hand in mine, we placed the angel as Terry gasped waiting for me to topple. Terry and Julianne let out a collective sigh when we finally got down from the ladder.

Fast forward. It's Christmas Eve around 7 p.m. We got the kids to bed early so I could sneak up to the attic and spend what seemed like years putting together toys mislabeled "some assembly required". What form of twisted mind conceived of such a notion?

I was well into the project when Terry whispered up that we had a visitor. I ran downstairs right into Uncle Ted.

"You look like a raging maniac." He said steadying himself.

"Sorry, it requires an engineering degree to put some of those toys together. Some have parts missing and they give you an 800 number to call. But, of course, it's busy with all the other dads in the world trying to get parts. Come on in."

"I can't stay long. I've got a lot of relatives to visit before midnight mass."

Ted went to the dining room table and took three things from various pockets of his coat: a hip flask of fine Kentucky bourbon, a plastic bag with Saltine crackers, and a mystery package.

"What's that?" I asked as he unraveled the package.

"Terry, would you get three glasses?" He said.

Terry came back with the glasses and napkins.

"What have you got there, Ted?" She asked.

"Smoked Sable. I picked it up at the Chelsea Smoke House on the way home from work. Try some."

He also began pouring a shot into each glass.

"Ted," said Terry, "I’ll have soda instead."

Ted divided a shot into both of our glasses.

"Merry Christmas and to hell with our problems!" Toasted Uncle Ted. He looked at the tree. His eyes moistened.

After about 10 minutes, he put the fish and crackers back into his trench coat pocket, settled the bourbon into his back pocket, and was off.

Terry and I went upstairs to check on the kids, then went back down and shut off the living room lights, lit the tree, and sat down on the sofa.

I sat with my arm around her.

Soon, I'd have to get ready to join the choir for midnight mass. What should have been an empty living room alcove was now alive and glowing with Uncle Ted's tree top. All is well.