Christmas Sweet and Bitter


One of my favorite memories is my whole family together on Christmas Eve, trimming the tree together. My mother was born in Norway, and the tradition (at least in those days) was to put the tree up on Christmas Eve, so somehow she convinced Dad to go along with it). To help set the mood, Dad would get the reel-to-reel tape player set up with what I suppose was the one and only Christmas music reel we had. I don’t know how he made it, if he taped it off the radio or some LPs that we owned. This was the 1960s, after all. I remember the house we were living in then, a large old farmhouse in Massachusetts where we lived when Dad was involved in working on the Apollo space missions, and the same living room where we all gathered to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. What a house that was. I still miss it.

Once the tree was placed in the stand, centered and straight and watered, Dad would string the lights, those enormous old C9 bulbs. Then my sisters and I would begin hanging the ornaments as high as we could reach. Dad did the top of the tree. I remember him singing “O Tannenbaum” in decent baritone as he reached to place ornaments on the branches. Once all the ornaments were in place, the tinsel went on. I love tinsel. I think it gives the tree a more magical, fairy-tale appearance than big bushy garlands. I don’t think anyone uses it anymore, though. I don’t dare now with my cats.

Both of my parents have been gone for a long time (Dad in 1983, Mom in 2006), so holidays have long been a bittersweet time for me. When I had my own children I tried to keep that festive family spirit alive. We were living on the opposite side of the country with no other family close by so it was all on me. In the last few years I’ve become estranged from the last of my sisters (I have four) who are all on the opposite coast anyway. It’s one reason I’ve chosen to stay on the west coast.

So, I listen to the old music and the classical Christmas music that my dad loved so much, and think of my mom whenever I hear her favorite, “Silver Bells.” The music helps me connect to happier times in a way that nothing else does. Maybe I spend too much time looking backwards. It’s a kind of homesickness, I think. As they say, you can never go home again.

That’s me on my mother’s lap, with Dad and 3 of my sisters (the youngest not born yet). The fireplace behind us had a door in the bottom that you could sweep the ashes into, down a chute to a clean-out in the basement. I assume it was to keep the ashes from getting all over the living room when the servants cleaned it out back in ye olden days. The house was built around 1850.

3 thoughts on “Christmas Sweet and Bitter

    1. My dad had the camera timer set. He was a bit of a photography buff early on, used to develop his own photos. Sadly none of them survive. I’d love to have gotten my hands on my dad’s old camera, but it’s probably long gone, too.

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      1. Now I know where you got your “eye” from. I can only imagine your dad hiding out in his darkroom. Developing your own photos is no small commitment, but it might have been a few minutes of quiet in a full family life.

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