10 December 2002
It was 1956. My grandmother had a house in
Middletown, Indiana. It was a brown brick house with cream-colored
gables and a cherry tree
in the back yard - the canonical Midwestern
house. In those days,
Christmas trees were always real. People
who had pretensions to
higher class had what were called "flocked"
trees. Some chemical
substances (similar to the pesticides in
our Wonder Bread, no doubt)
were sprayed onto the tree to approximate
the aura of snow. In 1956, my Grandma had an idea.
Now I must digress a moment about my Grandma.
She managed the Eavey's food store in Middetown, Indiana
(pop. 1500) at the time. In about 1946, she made the amazing discovery
that a grocery store could be a place that one decorated, a place that
could offer excitement and artifice and wonder for the folk who bought
their food there. I think the idea actually came to her one day when
she was chasing one of the tarantulas that regularly crawled out of
the banana crates with a broom. It was near Halloween and so she started
making spiders and witches, and then at Christmas she made elves
and then she just kept
going. My Grandma had a flair for decoration.
Anyway, in 1956, she was down in the basement
of her house the week before Christmas flocking the tree. By then
it had been discovered that a strong mix of soapsuds and water and
some mystery ingredients could be combined to do the flocking yourself
at home instead of buying a pre-flocked tree on the lot for
twice the money. Always before the tree had been flocked white, of
course. But that year Grandma had an idea. She had just had the
walls of her living room (at the far end of which were gas logs on
which my younger cousins and I would hurl various chemicals to make
bright colors) painted light aqua. She decided to mix some of the
paint from the walls into the flocking mix so the tree would match
the room (matching was big in those days; I am told by my children that
it is uncool now). And so she flocked the tree with aqua snow. And
when it appeared to be dry, she dragged it up from the basement,
through the dining room, and into the far corner of the living room,
over the finely woven, incredibly expensive light gray wool carpet.
Because there was oil-based paint in the flocking, and because
it wasn't quite dry, the tree left an indelible trail.
The next year, an aluminum tree appeared
at Grandma's house. At about 4 feet distance stood a floodlight
with a slowly rotating color wheel divided into quadrants: blue, green,
red, yellow. I was amazed. This was tripping for an 8-year-old
in Indiana in 1958. She kept that tree for eighteen years.
Shift-edit. When I first moved here in 1979
my good friend Joe took me up in the mountains (Black Road, which
was later the venue of my kids' elementary school) to cut a tree from
the earth at a tree farm. This was the most amazing connection with
Nature that I had ever experienced. I recall the dim but real desire
to live up here someday. Little did I know that an error
in the real estate computer system would make that possible,
but that's another story.
Now I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains of
Northern California. My Grandma has gone on to the Summerland where,
presumably, there are better things than aluminum Christmas trees.
I have Douglas Fir trees on my land, but they are spindly (if
under Oaks) and viable (If in Sunshine). So you see my problem. Luckily
there are many a Christmas tree farm on Skyline Ridge.
We sigh deeply on Thanksgiving, knowing that
the next day the Flatlanders will begin to arrive on their
mountain pilgrimage to get Christmas Trees from the tree farms. They
will drive very slowly. They will occasionally do things wrong. About
four years ago I passed a family going downhill from one of
the farms with the tree tied to the top of their car, pointy end
forward. Now, I imagine that the man of the family was thinking about
wedges. He was thinking aerodynamically. But he was an F-
in biology, poor bugger. He forgot that trees have branches that reach up. I don't even want to imagine him arriving at home in San Jose somewhere with
his tree blown inside-out like an umbrella on a windy day.
The very big trees don't often get cut on
the tree farms. We harvested a hoary 15-foot Scotch pine on
Skyline Ridge (with respect and thanks). After repeating the weird annual
ritual of falling on
Rob, the tree allowed itself to be wrestled
into the back of our pickup with a good five feet hanging out
the back. Several kids whom we passed on the way out said things on the
order of, "Whoa, big tree, dudette!" The last vehicle we
passed was a cherry 1957 Chevy truck, black, with black plates. The onerous gas-guzzlingness
of the vehicle was redeemed by the two small boys in the front seat. I gave
thumbs-up for the truck, and the little dude
by the door - the youngest - gave me that nod: "yeah,
man, we have a wicked cool truck."
And so our tree was driven home (slowly)
and hoisted and decorated and lo, it smells wicked good. It ties us
to the land, in contrast to the way the aluminum tree tied my folks
to the bright new baby of
50s consumerism. And so and lo, I have the
kind of Yule tree that I always wanted and never had till I was all
grown up with kids of my own. Although they are sophisticated teens,
the girls even helped to
I also have an apartment in Pasadena, near
Los Angeles, because I teach down there. I had to ask myself, how
does an old Hoosier lady do hip decorations for a Yule party for a
bunch of design students? A real tree would be just too corny. And
I already used up my quota. What to do? After a desperate search I found
an answer at Orchard Supply Hardware, where this year they are
selling artificial trees with fiberoptic extensions from every branch.
These trees rely on the same color-wheel idea that sent me to
heaven forty years ago.
I will hang the star from the ceiling, and
it will not quite touch the fiberoptic tree. I hope the distance
will be a reminder. A distance, not unlike the distance between
an aluminum Christmas tree and the Earth to which we belong. A distance
that keeps us aware of what is real and true, as the color-wheel