When I got my first apartment, I bought many things: a bed, shelves, a plant stand. But I didn’t buy a Christmas tree. I went back to my hometown in Ohio for Christmas, slept in my old bedroom, woke up on Christmas morning and opened gifts that I pulled out of the red velvet stocking my mother had sewn for me.
We always unwrapped gifts next to the Christmas tree in the living room I’d grown up in, and the tree had signature Cawood decorations: lots of clumps of silver tinsel, strings of white lights, two Santa Mouse green gift boxes with gold ribbon, and ornaments from my childhood (a yellow porcelain duck, a blue stained-glass madonna, a red bird in a wooden house, red bells and gold balls). On top of the tree perched two angels—one at the peak, and one right below. My angel was silver, and my sister’s was gold, and each year we took turns as to whose angel got to be the one standing at the top.
Even when I got married the first time, moved to North Carolina and finally bought a condo instead of renting, I didn’t buy a Christmas tree. I told myself it was because I had no place to store ornaments or a tree stand, but it was also that the condo never quite felt permanent. I always went back to my Ohio hometown for the holiday, anyway, with or without the husband, which might have been a sign he would become my ex. After the divorce, I kept the condo but still returned to Ohio for Christmas.
I didn’t need a tree. I didn’t even want one.
It wasn’t until I married Preston and moved to Tennessee, where he lived, that I considered getting a tree. It must have been around Thanksgiving that I asked him, “Can we get one?”
“Of course,” he said, and I think we were both surprised at how gleeful I became, jumping up and down in our den. We were getting a Christmas tree!
Had I really wanted a tree all along?
I can see now that I had, and I hadn’t.
* * * * *
When I had been preparing to move to Tennessee, here is the thing you should know: I freaked out about the moving company. I don’t remember exactly why, but it was something about the company not being able to give me a quote on how much it would cost or not being able to give me an exact date for the move. I just remember that I didn’t want to use the company at the last minute, and I didn’t have a backup plan. Preston said, “I’ll help you move,” and I felt a huge sense of relief because I knew he would somehow make it work. That’s who he was. He could always stop the freakout.
He had driven to North Carolina with a Penske moving truck, and I begged my friends to help load it, and after we were done, Preston drove that truck by himself across the state and back to Tennessee. I had to stay in North Carolina to work another week, so he was the one who shepherded my belongings to his place and begged his friends to help him unload all my boxes, which they did on a Sunday night. Three of them hauled the last decade of my life into Preston’s house and what would become our new marriage.
Before I arrived a week later, Preston cleaned out bathroom drawers so I could get first dibs on which to use. He emptied out 3/4 of the bedroom closet and let me have it all. And then, he started unpacking for me. He didn’t decide where to put things, but he carefully lifted my clothes and books and life from the cardboard boxes and folded and stacked things neatly. When I arrived a week later, it was so much easier to settle in because I didn’t have to try and find which box had what. I thanked him and asked him why he’d done it. He said he didn’t want me to arrive to boxes. He wanted me to feel like I was home.
I can see now, it wasn’t that I had longed for a tree all those years. It’s that I wanted a home to put one up in.
* * * * *
I was 40 when I got my first Christmas tree, but I felt like I was 4. Preston got the tree into the stand, and I decorated it. I wanted to leave the tree up well into January, but Preston didn’t, so we agreed the next year the tree would go up November 1, which it did. That was a very good year.
From our Christmas tree hang ornaments of glass candy my mother gave me. They shine and make me think of her. I have gotten other new ornaments: an owl, a gingerbread man, a gold glass ball. Though the tree doesn’t have tinsel, it has the signature strings of white lights, and it has the yellow duck and the red bird in its wooden house, and some of those felt ornaments.
Every year, Preston is the one who places the angel on the tree while I watch. She’s silver and she glitters and she always gets to be the one who stands at the very top.