There is a cut-your-own tradition in Vermont with Christmas trees. Decades ago when my family first started to have Thanksgiving here, we’d tag our tree during that long weekend. Then, weeks later, we’d head back to the farm, with sled in tow and saw in hand, we’d try to find our special tree. There were years when we’d have to trudge through feet of snow, and on hands and knees, dig our way down to find the trunk. Frozen fingers wrapped around the saw we’d tug back and forth until it was cut through. Oh those fresh trees would fill the house with everything Christmas. Sweet pine. Cold air and snow. Even the mountain view came into our living room with that smell.
There was one farm we especially loved with two ornery llamas who curiously spied us from safe stalls. Our kids would climb up on the fence and call to them, but I was thankful they didn’t come over. I was never quite sure they were indeed interested in making friends. Sternly they watched.
Last weekend we ventured back to that same farm, and were delighted that not much had changed. Trees are still the main attraction this time of year, although I did notice a new building where they sold small items and products made from the llamas. This is the thing about Vermonters. They get the whole diversification thing. Adaptable and changing. Survivors for real.
Before my mother sold her big New Jersey house, we went to her for Christmas: certainly her favorite holiday in every way. Actually once everyone had arrived, both my parents were thrilled, especially after the grandkids flew out of the car and were prattling away at the kitchen table or dashing up and down the stairs; within short hours the week-long celebration was in giddy swing.
Afterwards, we were the one with the big house, and she happily came with her entourage of bachelor and childless sons. Once again, the party was a lively one. For several of those years we ventured into our own woods to find the right tree. Finding an atypical pine, oddly shaped with just too much personality, that too was a special tradition which I loved. The scent that came into the house along with our tree would just speak of everything Christmas, and Winter, and Joy. The greenery brought the outdoors right into our good parlor, and us to sit in revery around the lights.
I love sliding on skis across a white snowy field as much as running into a warm lake on a summer afternoon. Both activities make me think of family. Of my mother surrounded by her children and grandchildren, glowing from what she felt with us. I am glad I was always there or always got her here, and made sure that we did what it took to host the holiday. The months of planning, the orchestrating of travel dates, the menus with ample food for a dozen or more, all of it a nonstop conversation until done. Then finally, the family walk along snowy roads, a football tossed, a child in a sled, cold hands and feet, and pure laughter as we made our way along, catching the last light and whispering to each other our secret story.
As we wandered along the rows of evergreens, I saw families here for their tree. In their distant voices, I could hear my youngest laugh as he pelted an uncle with a snowball, or my daughter as she chatted away with her beloved grandfather. I stood on this same spot with my mother, and was reminded of her happiness. Back then I was too in the middle of it all to feel the same. There was so much still ahead. Homework and sports and orchestra and drama to schedule for three, and endless dinners to prepare, all while racing back and forth to jobs, and the endless pile of bills we never could quite surmount. Sure I would stop, for fleeting seconds back then, but I dared not stop for long, for I always felt too rushed for time. Ironically, time felt endless too, as if it would shoot ahead for centuries, yet tiny moments hardly worth a pause. Now, celebratory or ordinary, we sense moments as weighty. Worth every deep breath.
Here we stand, only two, in this place where so many of us were. It is a little too quiet at times. But today we can still hear the ringing of those voices, those who are gone for good, and those who are just gone for a bit, and we remember those moments filled by all of them. We watch families hurry past with their tree, headed home to crockpots and homework and obligations. She takes my hand, and we hold still for a moment, remembering then, and enjoying this frosty moment.
Yes, occasionally, there is the chance to look back, to even go back, and within our memory, see that love, lingering still. We grab it tight.