The Hard and Soft Work

The end of December has passed, the magic of the holidays not yet a distant memory. Snow is on the ground and in the forecast, and the wood stove has been roaring, full throttle, for days on end. I miss our Christmas tree that took up residence in the living room, its twinkling white lights brightening not only that corner of the room, but also our air quality.

If you’ve followed along with me at all, you might recall —three years ago — a trip to a Christmas tree farm, my daughters and me. It had been my first foray into single parenting at the holidays. Wielding a rusty saw had proved to be a combustion of curse words and frustration, the drama of which I’d somehow not anticipated. Fingers were frozen yet I’d been drenched with sweat. Smiling at the earnest faces of my children while uttering — inside my brain — the most unfavorable words known to womankind. I was ill prepared. Not yet emotionally fit.

Far from my finest moment — to be sure.

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So this Christmas, I wanted a do-over — for a lot has happened in three years. I’m still parenting solo, still reeling some of the days. But I’m rolling up my sleeves, tackling the hell out of it a large amount of the others. Packing lunches. Helping with homework. Firing up the snowblower (with more success). Walking the dog. Tickling the backs. Administering the Tylenol. Dropping off, picking up. Cleaning up the vomit. Throwing the backyard birthday parties. Baking the banana bread. French braiding the hair. Freelance writing. Creating a business. Paying my mortgage.

Some days I really nail it, this parenting + home-owning thing. I’m, like, varsity adulting.

And others, I do not. I don’t nail it even the tiniest bit.

I’m kind of okay with that ratio because, well, there are so many lessons to be learned in three years.

So as it was last time, we pulled into the farm with less than an hour to spare. This year, the earth beneath us wasn’t sealed with a sheer film of ice, like crystallized sheets of mica, and the temperature was slightly more palatable. But the moon hung high over our heads, and I was reminded of that day, what had been our waning daylight and my increasing anxiety. My eldest, now a teenager, taller than me and with a mouth full of braces, carried the saw while my littlest, suddenly soaring in height, lithe like a gazelle, zigzagged her way deep into the fields of trees.

“This! This is the one,” she shouted, arriving at a steep and lush fir, already casting her gaze down the next line of balsams.

This happened ten more times, as we found ourselves football field deep. I looked back toward the car, which was now far from view, and recalled — with a smile — the absurdity of our voyage last time.

“WAIT,” she called. “No. That one. That’s the winner,” she said, skipping along the path, her fingertips lingering along each spiny branch that she passed.

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And she was right. There was our tree, like a fuzzy arrowhead, its barbed apex reaching high into the dimming blue-gray sky.

“Nice,” said the teenager. “Let’s get it done.”

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Down on one knee, this time I didn’t hesitate. I got to work. I started slogging away, eager to take on the task. Yet again, the saw — now in contact with the base of the tree — was sticky, not at all what I’d pictured in my mind which was a little kicking of some balsam fir ass. I was sure this time I’d have the tree down in two minutes flat — because I’ve learned soooooo much (cue my own eye roll – because with tools I tend to be one part awesome, two parts nope) about homeownership over the last few years. But as the saw faltered, as it stuck on every other pass, I was reminded that this tree was a living, breathing body of life. I was carving through years of its growth — its existence — as it stood tall, rooted amongst its family. Generations of weather endured — of Maine wildlife milling around its acreage — with the sun rising overhead and setting each evening at the edge of the surrounding wood.

Ooof.

But I was halfway there, no stopping now. Overseeing the process were two expectant faces, and — frankly —  we needed a tree. Sharing custody is not unlike a 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Can’t do tomorrow, dentist. Not Wednesday, piano. Thurs/Fri/Sat, kids with their Dad. Sunday, tree farm closed. So the goddamn Christmas magic was going to happen, and it was going to be today. Never mind that the previous week, I’d driven past a dozen different outfits, where pre-cut trees were standing all purty, ready to be taken home. Scarred from the drama that had ensued the first time, this is the route I’d taken the last two years: pull into parking lot, select tree from lineup, stuff it into SUV.

But no, not this year.

I had let my pride get the best of me  — LOOK HOW AWESOME I’M DOING, HOW I AM NAILING THE MOTHERING — and headed straight to the source, the motherland, to not only pay twice as much, but to guarantee the full pedigree of Christmas trees.

“Well, I feel a little badly, taking this tree down,” I said, as I sawed with all my strength and, finally, the mighty greenery fell to the ground. “But she’s a beauty. We’ll give her a happy home.”

“Yes,” said my youngest, keenly, “And we can plant her in a BIG pot so we can put her outside in the spring!” So proud. Her face beamed.

Silence.

“Ummm. Well. Not exactly, ” I said. “Because when you cut the trunk, it leaves the roots behind. In the ground.”

Her expression darkened. “What.”

“She can’t be potted, honey, because she won’t be able to take root. Her roots are here.” I pointed to the ground.

“I thought we were, like, getting a live tree,” she replied.

“Well, we are. But then we cut it dow—”

“NO. You cut it down.”

I let out a long sigh. “Yep.”

“You killed a tree,” she said flatly. ‘It’s dead now.”

“Well…” I looked to the teenager, hoping she would chime in.

And she did, rosy cheeked and irritated. “Can we go now?”

Back in the parking lot, the tree farmer helped me tie our dead tree to the top of my car. I use the word “helped” loosely, as he mostly heaved it on top, and I mostly tied the knots, which is why when we drove home, my youngest said to me, “Mom. MOM. It’s slipping. It’s hanging off the car.” I looked up, and she was right. Where once it had been covering the sun roof, it was now nowhere to be seen.

But we made it home, dangly Christmas tree intact.

I snipped the rope ties and carried it OVER MY HEAD like the friggin’ warrior that I was in that moment, and before you know it, said tree was standing proud and tall, neatly in its stand. White lights glimmering. Decorated with the memories of the years of all of our lives.

“Luminous,” said my youngest, eyes wide.

“Best one yet,” my eldest declared, a smile on her face.

I built a fire in the wood stove and, in its twinkle, my girls and I took in the wonder of our beautiful, freshly watered Christmas tree. Its glow tunneled into all the corners of the room, mining into the nooks of our hearts and minds. Instead of it feeling bereft of life, its presence felt like a gentle zephyr of radiant magic bound by family and togetherness, of hard and of soft work, of heartbreak and of love.

Our day’s events — it’d had some challenge. Some hilarity. Some thoughtful moments. And this, I’ve learned, is how it goes.

It’s simply part of the contract of living a well lit life.

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