Tuesday, December 22, 2009
THE SQUARE TREE
It was a grim December. The year was 1943 and we were at war. Daddy was sick and couldn’t work, and we were all worried about Mama’s three brothers overseas.
When we could get gasoline that winter in Long Beach, California, Daddy would take us to the harbor. Huge, blimp-shaped balloons, tethered by strong cables, rose above the docks. Daddy said we put them there so that enemy war planes couldn’t come in low over the desperately needed ships. The steel cables would tear off their wings, he said.
At night all the homes used blue light bulbs because of the blackout. Even so, the block warden walked our neighborhood looking for an illegal crack of light. The cracks were mostly caused by the ill-fitting black shades at every window. Sometimes at night there were false alarms with stomach-churning wails of air raid sirens.
Most everything was in short supply, so that Mama, who carefully kept our ration books, often couldn’t get us what we needed anyway. Christmas looked bleak that year. There would be no tree, no toys, no Santa. Daddy swore. Mama cried and my sister Barbara and I had no illusions when we climbed into our shared bed on Christmas Eve.
Christmas morning came with thin sunshine. The air was crispy, the hardwood floor chill in our small bedroom. My sister and I woke early, padding hesitantly toward the living room. There in the corner was a beautiful, no, the most beautiful Christmas tree. Thick and verdant it stood, stray beams of light shining on the tinsel, which then scattered sparks of brilliance across the carpet. The whole room smelled wonderfully rich of pine. Under the tree were shiny red apples, sweet oranges and nuts of intriguing shapes and shades of brown. Dancing with excitement, we girls rushed back to awaken our parents. Christmas came! Santa came! It was a magical day!
Years later I heard the story. That Christmas Eve, as the few tree lots began to close at dusk, Grandma Jessie had walked the streets, asking at nearby lots if she could have the broken or discarded boughs lying in the sawdust. When Barbara and I were soundly sleeping, the boughs were brought into the living room. After sternly lecturing Mama and Daddy about “making do,” she created a tree.
Grandma carried in two wooden chairs. One she set upright, and the other she turned upside down atop the first. Using twine, she began to bind the piney boughs to the upturned chair legs. Every branch was attached until the results almost, almost, looked like a tree.
Below the greenery, parts of the chair were carefully skirted with a clean white sheet. Then she pulled a package of tinsel from her apron pocket and had Mama and Daddy, heartened by her peppery spirit, draping those silvery icicles over the needles. Out of her string bag came the fruit and tightly wrapped hoard of nuts.
Oh, the tree was square, all right, but those two little girls didn’t see the shape that magical morning. They saw instead, with eyes of hope fulfilled, a glorious, splendid Christmas tree, with all its beauty, love and tenderness.
With the determination and faith of an old woman to celebrate life in the face of that dreadful war, Christmas had come.
Written by my sister Ginnie Lou, the little blond below.