Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, my husband Jerry and I no longer waste time thinking about things we want to do someday and instead do them. The virus put us on the path to Colorado and Utah this fall. And it was there the virus finally caught us, no matter the shots we had racked up.
Jerry took ill first. As he recovered, I succumbed. The hacking threw my back out and, amid it all, a tooth abscessed.
Eager to shed that season of misery, I took to the front porch after dark on Thanksgiving Eve to hang Christmas lights — a lot of them. An over-the-top act of holiday set decoration, to be sure, but also family sacrament.
On our house in Oil City hang icicles, snowflakes, a wreath and also a lighted star Jerry modeled after one my late mother built in the 1970s with a staple gun, gold garland and blazing gold lights. That disco-worthy decoration was part of a whole-house symphony of Christmas shine and sound my parents composed in those years — celebrations which served as anchor and beacon during broken years that followed. My father and I barely mustered a tree during her decade-long erasure by early onset Alzheimer’s disease at an age younger than I am now. Her star — fashioned at her keenest heights — met its end dark and forsaken in the basement. Plugging it in then would have only served to underscore the unfolding horror.
As I readied my own lights, it occurred to me, again, that I should not have survived her loss. And yet here I stood decades on, swathed by abundant intervening time, intact, if not entirely whole, ready to hang my own family’s declaration of the season’s good news — deliverance.
Angels heard on high?
Then came the sound of a car and voices. I paused hoping it would pass. But no, up they came onto the porch, three college-aged girls, all dressed in long skirts, all with long hair, and oh dear God, I realized too late, the leader of the pack stood smack between me and the front door I usually close, politely as possible, in the face of proselytizers.
So happy to see you decorating for Christmas, she said. I braced for where the small talk was headed.
She tapped a button on her shirt that identified her faith community and commenced the examination: Was I churched? For how long? Did I know their founding text? If not me, did someone else in the neighborhood need “a message”? I parried as best I could, including the words, “please, leave,” with each response.
Finally, they climbed back down the stairs, and I returned to my lights, trying to shake off both the irritation at the intrusion and the guilt of turning them away so that I could fully enjoy the relief of their departure.
But it was not over. As they reached the street, one of them turned back toward our house and not to offer a Merry Christmas and God bless us everyone.
“Your Christmas decorations are going to look bougie and your house looks bougie too,” she yelled.
“Bougie,” as in bourgeois, French for middle class, Gen Z epithet implying a certain shallow materialism.
As usual, no tart comeback occurred to me until long after their white SUV pulled away. I was too stunned. But really, that rude parting shot and their bedraggled appearances lead me to believe they were not actual missionaries, more likely grifters.
Still, maybe there was something holy in that visitation. A celestial sign that perhaps it is time to celebrate love’s fortitude in simpler ways.
Let’s just call this one ‘calamity Christmas’
What followed: I spent the first day of deer season in a near fugue state culling from the attic ceramic village pieces made by my mother-in-law; a nativity set painted by my late grandmother; and the light strands, fake snow and extension cords needed to morph it all into glowing panoramas on the mantle and a room-spanning shelf in the dining room. So engrossed was I that I missed multiple texts and calls from Jerry, who ended up leaving the woods at midday, certain, given my plans for repeat trips to the attic, that I had fallen and could not get up.
The next day we set out for a tree, no matter the torrential rains, because tradition, and waiting a week more would mean the intolerable loss of seven days of light, scent and glinting decorations.
Each year, for nearly three decades, we have roamed northwestern Pennsylvania seeking the perfect live tree to cut down, drag from the field, haul home, wrestle into a stand and wrap in strands of lights so thick the evergreen comes to resemble the blazing core of a nuclear reaction. Or so I imagine.
Needles raise itchy welts on my arms. I lean on my inhaler and sometimes eggnog, but by night’s end there stands a tree rendered alpine star bright as the one guiding the magi to Bethlehem.
This year the whole enterprise went sideways. Jerry and I stopped by a farm we had not visited in several years. The trees, expertly pruned, were dense and stunning, but also of great girth. They won’t fit, Jerry said.
I won’t tell you how many times he said it because that would be embarrassing for me and add to a too-long list of other examples of his unfailing judgment and my lack of it. The owner said if the bottoms were too wide, we were free to just cut off the top part of any tree. Clearly, it was meant to be.
Or not. The fact that three of us could barely hoist the tree into Jerry’s truck should have given us our first clue that there might still be a size concern. It was so hearty we could not close the Ram’s tailgate. (Did I mention also that the truck is newer, with black paint prone to scratches? If I did, it is probably because I am trying to forget that part.)
Miles from home the straining orange twine holding the fir in place snapped, spilling its plush corpulence onto the highway and fortunately not any cars. I sprinted to the landing spot and began sinking my entire body weight into tugging it off the road inch by leaden inch, while Jerry threw the truck in reverse and sped back toward me. The festive red fleece top I wore to get the perfect holiday photo served an entirely new, helpful purpose as I waved my glowing arms wildly to warn oncoming traffic. A man from a nearby house appeared with a coil of rope. Mercy. We were back in motion in a matter of moments, but the rest of the ride, and the grim, panting efforts at home to cut more heft from the bottom and force the tree into the stand and through the front door passed mostly in careful silence.
As the shock wore off, there was brief talk of rearranging the living room furniture to accommodate it. Instead, it now stands, as the tree always does, in the front foyer. It is just the whole foyer. You have to turn sideways if you want to get to the kitchen.
Two days later, I stepped onto a folding wooden chair I knew to be rickety to hang some lights above the breakfast nook windows and instantly toppled backward, pegging the landing with my right hip. On the way down I somehow took out a boxed drill that had been on the chair and broke apart a six-pack of root beer sitting beside the chair. When I finally climbed to my feet, the strand of lights, a favorite translucent multi-colored C3 set, went dark.
The next weekend? One of our two cats, Spooky, seized a few hours of our absence to leap to the mantle as she is wont to do and play hockey with the ceramic baby Jesus she found nestled there. It took a while, but I eventually found his head. I have yet to pray about that. I am afraid if I close my eyes, my late grandmother, who worked so hard to make the set for me when I was a child, will be there waiting. I have no answer.
What it means
I know there came a time in older relatives’ lives when Christmas rituals ebbed. A simple stocking, a small artificial tree. Is that time really drawing near? I probably don’t need Dickens’ Jacob Marley or his pushy prescient ghost to show me.
It is not just our pandemic-induced appreciation of mortality or the recent spate of Christmas mishaps. Jerry and I now talk often of the change setting in with the passage of time. It is the diminishing capacity to labor for hours on end as we used to or stay up past 9. It is the dawning realization of the overwhelming maintenance obligations and mental bandwidth that the lifetime accumulation of worldly possessions imposes and consumes. We have now survived COVID, and at least three other life-threatening bouts of disease and bone-breaking peril, but all good things do and will come to an end. We ask ourselves more and more how we want to spend our time left.
Is it really work for work’s sake?
I trust balance will be found. It is a refining, I think. Not a letting ago, but a burnishing of the bright core that gives meaning to the spaces and events shared between us. Which is less about objects than curating time, connection and memories in the bright times, and in the darkness, that always comes, holding fast. Sometimes more hope and joy await at the other end. Sometimes just that you leave behind, the promise beamed out by a long dead star.
I can edit my Christmas decorations in ways that make their display less exhausting and perhaps more meaningful. We can shed some of things we own and choose carefully the place in which we want to spend our final years.
A smaller tree next year, agreed.
But the lights, bougie or spare, those stay, I think, because of the truth they witness.
Love that shines in the darkness and is not overcome.
Opinion and Engagement Editor Lisa Thompson Sayers can be reached at [email protected] or 814-870-1802. Follow her on Twitter @ETNThompson.