Holiday Memories in the Making

Middle Tennessee grows a Christmas tree like no other geography or microclimate. Maybe it’s the cocktail of pollen-bowl allergens and fossil-rich limestone, but whatever it is, it breeds a cedar tree with a scraggly face that only a mother could love.

I love a cedar tree.

From as early in childhood as I can remember, all the way through high school at least, my family chopped a cedar tree in a Middle Tennessee glade that, had it been mapped, would have ranked as the epicenter of the world’s homeliest flora.

In what now seems like an impossible tableau, my parents, my brother and I would visit a friend’s farm, where we piled into the bed of a pick-up truck and rode across bumpy cattle pastures to where the ugly cedars lurked. When we spotted a tree that someone deemed beautiful—and it never was—the farmer would pull a chainsaw from the truck and fell a 30-foot specimen of shaggy red bark and ratty green lace, out of which he would carve the tippy-top eight feet, where the branches still held a conical form that vaguely resembled the fancy tree-shaped trees my friends’ families bought in town.

By the time we drove home, on pre-interstate roads, we were almost too tired to decorate, but my parents persevered, and after an annual regimen that involved equal parts vodka, olives and four-letter words, Dad would have the ragged tree mostly vertical  and strangled with lights, and Mom would begin the ritual hanging of vintage glass Disney knickknacks, which she treated as if they had been handmade by a Russian jeweler.

The real gems of the ornament collection, however, were the felt animals my grandmother sewed and beaded by hand—creatures of land and air, translated into wool and glass, to shine among the spindly asymmetrical limbs of the world’s ugliest tree.

Meme must have made the ornaments when I was very young, because by the time my childhood memory—and her arthritis—kicked in, she had moved on from the exquisite felt ornaments to even more-fabulous—if slightly more gross-motor-oriented—puppets, which she crocheted. There was a sheepdog, a raccoon, a fiendish-looking rabbit with funny button eyes, and a kangaroo with a tiny finger puppet in her pouch. When I outgrew playing with puppets, we hung the puppets in the tree. The puppets live at my house now, the felt animals still at Mom’s.

Meme has been gone for almost two decades, and while her handmade ornaments always remind me of her coming to spend the holidays with us, I’ve never thought much about her actually crafting them. I guess I always just thought of her packing them in her suitcase, like Mary Poppins, then doling them out to me over the 12 days of Christmas. I never thought about how she must have felt as she wrestled with needle and thread, racing the calendar to put final touches on animals and angels before she flew from Virginia to dress a scraggly-ass Tennessee cedar in her daughter’s living room.

That is, until this year.

This year, in the final days of the trimester at construction school, I found myself in my own holiday ornament scramble, hell-bent on hand-making angels, chickens and a six-pointed star to hang on a “Hanu-mas” tree for my own kids.

Unlike Meme, who worked with felted wool and needles, I worked with Southern Yellow Pine and a scroll saw. And unlike Meme’s ornaments, which hung on the ragged branches of homely cedars, mine hang on a tree I built myself. I made it out of two-by-fours and spray-painted it green, with help from my youngest son. We hung as many wooden moose, snowmen and foxes on it as would fit. Despite the many hours of carving, sanding and painting, the tree looks rather tiny, the ornaments rather crowded.

Someone suggested I make a bigger tree next year.

And I suspect I will. Because, while my brute-force as a carpenter doesn’t hold a candle to Meme’s patience and perfectionism as a seamstress, there is a common thread in our holiday crafts—the joy of making something by hand for children who will never know how much love went into it.

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