Saturday, December 26, 2009
The Heart of the Tree
Between Christmas and the New Year is the time to tell stories.
Decorating the tree is a yearly re-acquaintance with old friends: ornaments from my childhood and my son's, crocheted stars and shell angels from church sales, gifts from dear friends, toys that have found their way onto the branches, little flocks of feather-plumed or paper birds, a cardboard Santa, and favorite cards including one of the Madonna and Child that is always set at the heart of the tree.
I learned how to decorate the tree from a friend of ours from Montreal days, back in my preteen years. About whom I have this story:
In 1970, on a grey and snowy December Saturday so cold that even weather-hardened Montrealers shunned the outdoors, we went to Fairview Shopping Centre for groceries at Steinberg's. With the bags in a shopping cart we battled the wind and snow across the parking lot and back to the car. My mother and I got in straight away while my father and brother endured the cold and loaded the groceries into the trunk. Such was the civilized division of labour in those days, considerate and gentlemanly.
It was a relief to be out of the wind and I curled and uncurled my freezing fingers in my mittens. Suddenly my father opened the passenger door and thrust something into my mother's hands. "Here, take this" he said. My mother exclaimed and quickly put the something - I barely saw it, a glimpse of kittenish ears and fur - down the front of her coat. "What is it, let me see! Let me see!" I leaned forward between the seats excitedly, and my mother told me to sit back and wait, but also answered "Yes, it's a kitten, a frozen kitten". My brother got in beside me and then my father took his seat and started the car. My mother said, "It's starting to purr, in shudders", and my father explained how, while they were loading the groceries into the trunk, he felt a slight tugging on his trouser leg and looked down. A very small brown and white tabby kitten, weak with cold, was attempting to climb up onto his boot, looking up with a silent meow. If not for that tug it might have gone unseen.
We took him home, of course. He might have been 8 weeks old and, once well-revived with a saucer of sardines and milk, he took over the house.
I remember us sitting down for lunch (tomato soup and toast) while the kitten explored the kitchen and under the table, around our feet. My father had telephoned one of the radio stations with an announcement for the lost and found segment of their noontime broadcast. The announcer read out our bit, "Found in Fairview parking lot this morning, an 8-10 weeks old kitten, call (number given) for more information" and then added "Now that's too bad. Who would leave a little kitten out in a parking lot on a day like this?".
We already had a cat, an older and dignified male who did not take to the newcomer. A friend offered to adopt our orphan, she christened him George and took him home to her welcoming family. He seemed to appreciate having a home and people who opened a door to him, and expressed it in ready purring. And Christmas was coming.
Our friend had her own way of decorating the tree, putting things in clusters and decorating from the heart of the tree out to the tips of the branches. Small objects were at the top, medium-sized ones around the middle and large ornaments went on the lower branches. All were hung gracefully to complement the line of each branch. It was a work of art, every year. She closed the doors to the living room and none of the children were allowed in until the last strand of tinsel was in place. The doors were opened and glory was revealed, a glittering tree with many exquisite and irreplaceable antique glass ornaments, hanging like beautiful fruits from fairyland.
George climbed the tree.
I think the story really stops there. What happened next can be imagined by all - the fall, the soft explosions of fragile ornaments hitting the floor, the scattering of fur and glitter and innumerable fragments and constellations of fine pastel-coloured glass. The terrible silence that would have followed.
Pat didn't speak to George for days, but he still had a home. And I have always remembered how to decorate a tree.