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The Holiday Season

Clarksville's Christmas TreeThanksgiving has come and gone, quietly spent with family, the extended kind with children and grandchildren and stepchildren and their children. The dog that saved two of us from the fire that destroyed our home got the huge bone from the ham to gnaw on. Some of these grandchildren were among the brave who charged into stores full of deals for some early holiday shopping in the pre-dawn hours of the day after the feast. They’re braver than me; I would have been the person everyone else was trampling on in what has become an annual stampede at chain stores and malls across America. That’s not for me.

I hibernate after Thanksgiving, and I plan. I even start writing my Christmas cards, which I usually buy in July. Actually, I bought mine in July but they are crisply burnt now.

For many years, when children were living great distances away, and there was just my mom and I, Thanksgiving dinner was relegated to “a restaurant with very early dinners for two, where we could go in very casual clothes,” since turkey dinner was a good thing but we had other places to go and things to do. We headed into the Berkshires, to a place called Dayville, the far end of a body of water created by the Littleville Dam. There, on a winding little, pot-holed, frost-heaved road shrouded by forest, occasionally visited by eagles, we followed the river to this edge of this lake, parking our car near a favored fishing spot that was always the best place to catch trout, sneak a summer swim below the rapids, and cut mountain laurel and not get caught. It’s an abundant but protected plant in Massachusetts. I like to think that my careful pruning resulted in the ever-increasing amounts of spotless laurel to be culled there. No matter how much I cut in any given year, the next season’s crop was twice as opulent.

It was hardly a glamorous undertaking. Mom and I, clad in boots, winter jackets, hats and gloves, burrs stuck to our slacks, pruning shears in one hand and a box of dark green trash bags to stash the branches I the other, climbing through brush and brambles. All kinds of evergreen cuttings, the elusive black alder berries, even the open, dried milkweed pods, could be left in the open, but laurel…well, that’s another story.

Rain didn’t matter; sleet was a bit challenging, and snow made mom’s footing a bit trickier, but tradition is tradition. We filled the back seat with evergreens, and the trunk with bags of laurel. We’d often find ourselves grabbing a nice rock here or there for our gardens. Years later, it was one of the sacred places where my mom’s ashes were scattered.

In the ‘90s, post cancer, post car wreck, pre- and in early Alzheimer’s, the sign of a successful Thanksgiving was my mother’s porch full of “greens.”

My mom’s window boxes were filled, laurel interspersed with pine, the bright red stalks of berries providing the festive finishing touch. It didn’t end there, though. We wound Christmas lights around the arches of her porch, all around the wishing well built by her son-in-law during a summer visit, and around and around the forsythia bush that had moved from our old family home to senior housing, a handicapped unit when my dad was still living, and later a highly desirable end unit that was my mom’s last real home of her own.

That forsythia moved as much as she did. Given its size, it was rather like moving a tree every half-dozen years. In the wake of my father’s death, when my mom had to vacate the handicapped unit they occupied for years, my friend, Bear, came over, dug a pool-sized trench around the beloved forsythia, bundled its root ball and carryied it across the development, where he dug a second pool-sized holed and transplanted it. A Herculean effort. I have good friends.

As I sat among the piles of greenery, I often worked into the dark of evening, by porch light, to finish the task at hand. Mom’s neighbor, Janet, increasingly housebound, would arise Friday morning, when all of America seemed headed out to shop, to find the garden barrel on the edge of her porch overflowing with greens, as did an elderly couple across the street, and a few others among my mother’s friends. I kept enough for my own use as well.

Mom once gathered these things herself, and did the arranging as well. I used to accompany her. As her hands grew weaker, as the haze in her mind clouded over, she would follow along beside me, sometimes holding the bag, sometimes simply watching, maybe remembering, but always enjoying that annual sojourn. I’d play old Sinatra tunes as we drove, or some Glenn Miller music, watching her finger lightly tap the rhythm. Later, she’d sit in her porch rocker and watch, feeble hands selecting choice stems, slowly passing her loving tradition of arranging her porch, and all the neighbors’ porches, to me. I was happy to do it.

My mother’s been gone several years now, and from the distance of a thousand miles, I find myself wanting to go back into those hills, to emrge with a bagful of laurel, with the berries and the pines, but I want to pick them with her. Or with my daughter. Passing on the tradition.

I thought about the Thanksgivings spent at my friend Bill’s house, and another when my friend Robin came down from Vermont to spend that holiday weekend feasting on Bill’s cooking, touring the Norman Rockwell museum and sipping mulled cider at the Red Lion Inn.

This year, I came home with bowls of delectable leftovers to a home not unlike the last apartment my mother lived in. I found myself looking through some of the pictures spared by the fire, listening to music, digging into my Christmas box. I took out my snowman collection (in storage at the time of the fire) and scattered them around the house. They’ll stay up through February, simply because I like them.

I started writing the letters that will accompany my holiday cards, and put more of my new home in order. It’s a long slow process of acknowledging loss and celebrating found items that were thought to be lost. It’s a ritual of keeping in touch with family.

After my mother’s death, I carried her most cherished perennial to Tennessee in my carry-on, its green foliage spilling out of the top of my luggage; the steward even brought me water for my plant. I wonder fleetingly if I’d need a second seat on a plane for a laurel bush. Or permission from homeland security. The root ball would be pretty big. But the ground will be frozen in January, and the best laurel will be rooted deeply in snow and ice covered ground. I’ll just have to wait until summer, and think about bringing it back to Tennessee on a bus.

Thanksgiving, 2006, was bittersweet. The trauma of fire is burned into our memories; the kindness of friends and strangers was at the forefront of our minds as we each spoke of our reasons to be thankful. Another tradition.

I didn’t cut any laurel this year, or greens or berries. I’m the matriarch of the family (that sounds so old, and supposes so much wisdom). But I had toddlers climbing all over “Grandma Chris,” playing Inky Dinky Spider and singing the Teapot song. My granddaughters asked me if I could “smell the snow” yet (when I do, I’ll call them). And I didn’t go hungry. And I had a home to go back to.

Christmas is just around the corner now, and I am not quite sure where I’ll be on December 25. Clarksville. Western Massachusetts. Cape Cod. Connecticut. Vermont. Kansas. I have half a dozen choices. I want to taste falling snowflakes and laugh with friends. I have them everywhere. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll create a new tradition along the way.

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