It was the time of year in Orlando when evergreen trees were brought in from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Washington to be sold to loving families who would decorate their arms with lights and chains of beads, glass ornaments, homely and sentimental ornaments, ornaments collected from trips and black Friday sales and school and church craft shows, regifted gift ornaments, white elephant ornaments, grandmother’s ornaments, Christmas wedding shower ornaments, estate and garage sale ornaments, ornaments from the Winter Park Art Festival, the Orlando Museum of Art, Disney, the flea market.
Valentine Halle was a prominent socialite in town who, every year, could make several trees last for almost an eternity, until the end of February, ignoring all pleas of her husband and family to strip the trees bare and put them on the curb already. But according to Valentine, to do it too soon would be a little like prematurely putting old family members out to pasture. Almost every year she just couldn’t bring herself to do it until at last her family lured her away on false pretenses and arranged for someone to bring the holiday to a close.
Trees were not much different from people in that they wanted to live a long life. Only a few people seemed to care about a tree’s desires and one of them was Valentine. If we were to understand trees a bit more, however, they may have one limitation: The tendency to impute purely unselfish motives to people. Yet their faith was born fully formed and never died, continuing even beyond the cutting at Christmas as trees stood in stands of water, beneath skirts. And that was the real reason people wanted trees as decorations in their homes – the faith the trees had in humans – though most people did not realize this, only felt it somehow, like feeling the effect of a dream but not being able to recall what it was upon waking.
It was thanks to migrating mockingbirds, gossipy chatterboxes, that trees further north on tree farms came to know of Valentine’s reputation. Charlie, Jamal, Tina, Fiona – Balsam and Fraser firs – had been spied standing in the cool shadows of the living room, front entry, children’s nursery, and those were just a few of their numbers known to have lived at Valentine’s house. Furthermore, Valentine’s reputation as an excellent cook and hostess were reported upon by mockingbirds, keen little buggers, who could smell delicious fragrances from the kitchen and who spied well coiffed ladies and gentlemen and their children streaming in and out of the house. In fact, as far as Christmas trees were concerned, Valentine’s home was considered one of the best ways to finish out one’s life.
How long the people of earth have relied on them, the trees said, conferring about this together on the farm, the older, taller trees teaching the younger ones, all of them growing together. They would all be cut down for varying purposes and at various times, and yet they shared their history and the meaning of it: For as long as the winter solstice was celebrated all over the world, the deep green boughs were brought into homes. And as time went on, the custom transferred into a way to celebrate the life of a religious figure. Entire trees were cut down and brought inside. These legends were passed down through communities of trees so all would know their noble and sacrificial purpose.
It was February of the year Amicia the Fraser fir had found a place in the home of Valentine Halle. And it was time for Amicia to come down. She had been chosen for a special place beside the fire in the living though not so close her needles became dry. It was a cherished position though each tree had its function: Ichiyo the twelve foot Douglas greeted visitors in the entry, Livia the Noble entertained the now grown children in the nursery, adult children who continued the tradition of sleeping there Christmas Eve, except now they drank wine and spoke of their friends and colleges and days past.
In the living room where Valentine and Thomas each sat in their own chair, silent in the evenings after all the parties, Amicia observed their quiet dynamic before the fire, Thomas with his paper and his pipe, Valentine with her embroidery, the grandfather clock against the wall by the entryway a silent father, approving and dozing until it startled to life and sputtered the passing of time on the quarter hour.
Valentine’s reputation had held through Amicia’s experience and true to everyone’s word, Amicia had lasted beautifully for three months with few needles dropped to her skirt beneath.
Alone after Thomas had gone to bed, Valentine pulled her chair up to Amicia. She spoke to her then in a language Amicia had quickly absorbed.
“Thomas is taking me away for my birthday tomorrow,” she said. She held an ornament in her fingers that was dangling from a branch, a Lenox figurine, a bottle of champagne in a bucket signifying the turning of the New Year. Tears fell down her cheeks. “I know when I come back, you will no longer be here. Our daughter will take down everything. But I struggle. Time goes on. My children have grown and are leaving me. Holidays remind me of what was but also what is no more.” And she looked into the fire, her face wet with tears.
Amicia knew what it was like to lose family to their purpose. Ever so gently she shifted so she could reach the top of Valentine’s head with a branch. She stroked it gently, reassuringly, until Valentine had calmed.
Thomas came into the room, having changed into his pajamas, robe and slippers.
Amicia straightened, not letting on she had made an exception to the rule of remaining impartial to human suffering.
“It’s time for bed, my dear,” Thomas said gently to his wife, helping bring her to her feet.
When Amicia was thrown to the curb the next day, crushed by the garbage truck, then thrown into the city dump, she dreamt of Valentine.
She thought proudly as her branches and trunk disintegrated in the mound of waste that she had served her purpose.
The one mystery of course is that she had crossed the divide.
As she felt herself disappearing, she felt an animal, a bird or a squirrel, pick a cone from her decayed branches.
And as she felt grateful the world would know the compassion and faith of her progeny, she felt able to let go.