Unpacking memories along with the lights

December 17, 2005|By ROB KASPER

Christmas disturbs your house and your heart. You root around in dark spaces, pulling things out of storage, stirring up the past.

This insight, not exactly a lighting bolt, hit me last weekend as I got the house ready for the holidays, stringing lights, washing windows, hanging wreaths.

First I pawed through the "Christmas closet." This is a storage space in the laundry room, where the holiday lights and decorations reside. Some of the greatest joys of domestic life are simple ones, such as finding what you are looking for. Last Saturday I beamed, for example, when I found the tree lights. They were stashed in the closet in an old Harry & David fruit box. The pears and apples that the box had carried disappeared shortly after they crossed our threshold. But the thick cardboard box has stayed around providing excellent off-season storage for the lights, and reminding me, each time I see it, of my brother who sent the fruit and who died three years ago. The past lives, especially at Christmas.

Down in the basement I found the tree stand that has saved our marriage. Its base is a large steel circle. About 2 feet above the base is a slot for a steel auger that burrows into the tree trunk, holding it firm. Since this stand arrived in our household some years ago, it has silenced doubts about the stability of the tree and the marital union. The green plastic bucket that holds the tree water was plucked from a dark basement corner and life was looking good. The world may be in chaos, but the Christmas decorations were in order. I was filled with comfort and joy.

The tree was parked in front of our house, strapped atop the station wagon, waiting the appearance of our college boy. In prior years, fetching and felling the tree had been an all-day, all-family adventure. Armed with saws, our tribe used to drive to Davidson's Christmas tree farm in Carroll County, which, when our two boys were small, seemed like the "country." But over the years, as the boys grew taller, the trees seemed smaller and suburbs swallowed much of the countryside.

Now, with our sons out of the house, our tree-fetching expedition had become more efficient if more expensive. Last Saturday morning my wife and I drove a short distance to a tree lot, Gill's Garage in Riderwood, spotted a nice, tall Fraser fir and, in a matter of minutes, it was atop the station wagon. I had reached the stage in life where I was the check writer, not the tree feller. It felt OK.

As we drove down the Jones Falls Expressway, I recalled tree-toting journeys of years gone by. There was the year that the fat tree -- a fir too wide to fit through the netting machines that could slim it down for the trip home -- caught a gust of wind and blew halfway off the car roof. We limped home, with the fat tree hanging over the windshield, like a bushy beret pulled down on a Frenchman's forehead. There was the year that I took a short cut through Hampden, to avoid driving on the JFX, and ran smack dab into the Hampden Christmas parade. We sat in traffic, as one of the kids, then a bored teenager, moaned in the backseat.

This year the tree didn't make any major escape attempts. It was content to sit on the car roof until late afternoon when the college boy appeared to help me put the tree in the stand. Like most kids his age, 20, he does his best work in the afternoon, when he is awake. While waiting for him to arrive, I washed the living room windows, a holiday rite my mother practiced. I also got some spare bulbs for the Christmas tree lights and stored them in a table drawer next to the tree, a ritual my father had taught me.

Eventually my son showed up and went right to work. Recalling the tree troubles I had encountered in previous years, he rotated the stand at the base of the prone tree until he found the most accommodating position. He snipped off a few low-hanging branches that blocked parts of the stand, drilled a hole in the base of the tree trunk to accommodate the stand's spike, and even sawed an opening in the side of the trunk base so that another part of the stand could slip into the sawed space and hold the base firm. Finally, he provided the muscle to turn the auger, driving it deep into the trunk. He was in charge, I was the assistant.

At the count of three, we lifted the tree up. It was straight, it was steady and its aroma was overwhelming. Scent memories are powerful stuff and the college boy lingered at the base of the tree to sniff the pine needle perfume. The aroma, he said, reminded him of when he was a little boy on Christmas morning.

It was not a new thought, but at this time of year, tradition trumps novelty.


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