R.J. and I stared at the wreckage of our family’s holiday cheer. Between us lay a flapped open cardboard box labeled Christmas Decorations.
Mom poked her head into my bedroom. “I’m sorry, kids, but we can only afford one gift for each of you this year. And money is too tight for a tree.”
R.J.’s shoulders slumped. He picked up a shiny ball by last year’s wire hanger, but only a jagged piece of ornament dangled from his hand. “Must have broken in the move.”
A plastic ball, once covered by silky red thread, stared up at me, a white Christmas eyeball.
I met R.J.’s gaze and knew he replayed last Christmas in Stuart like I did.
Our cats, Blackie and Gunther, had streaked across the living room and up the tree, knocking down an ornament—cat toys to them—with every pass.
Sadness bunched in my throat as I ordered R.J., “Go get a garbage bag.”
I waited for his ten-year-old smart-mouthed “Get it yourself,” but it never came.
I picked out another plastic ball and placed next to the first one on the hardwood floor.
R.J. disappeared and came back with the bathroom trash can. He dropped to his knees beside me.
We leaned over the battered box, fished out pieces of broken ornaments, and tossed them into the can.
I smelled dust and the past.
The tree that grew through the cracked skylight of our Florida room tossed its branches against my upstairs window.
I shivered, the cold of the house seeping into my bones, and pulled up my sweatshirt hood.
I lifted a tangled mess of lights and garland, then let it drop back into the box. “What’s the use? We won’t even have a tree to put them on.”
R.J. set the jumble on the floor. “Let’s untangle it anyway. Maybe we can thumbtack this ropy stuff to the wall in the shape of a tree like my teacher did at school.”
He was right. We had to do something for Christmas.
As we extracted a three-foot length of gold garland, one string of lights, and a ten-foot length of silver tinsel my brain cast around for a way to save Christmas.
When we finished, we surveyed our meager decorating stash.
A flash of color in the box caught my eye.
Next to one of last year’s candy canes, my hand closed around an intact silver and red glass bird. I held it out in my palm, its tiny alligator clip protruding from its belly.
The bird had decorated our tree every year for the seventeen years of my life.
I grinned at my brother.
I didn’t think about how unusual it was for R.J. and I to do something together. I didn’t imagine we’d remember this Christmas as the most special one of our childhood. I didn’t know we’d spend our adult lives separated by an ocean and 3,000 miles.
What I did think about was that we hand to come up with a tree for our bird—no matter what.
A phone call and fifteen minutes later, I piled out of the car at the Voegeles on Riverside Drive in Edgewater.
Fourteen-year-old Bob met me in the driveway carrying an ax and a machete. “Let’s get out of here.” He cast a look over his shoulder and crossed the street to the river.
I glanced at the house, expecting his brothers to traipse out the door. “Looking for Dick and Randy?”
He held the boat steady. “No room in the boat for all of us and a tree.”
I stepped into the center with light feet as though it had been weeks and not years since I’d used my sea legs.
My mind shot back to the Christmas before the divorce on the Annie Lee when we’d tethered our tree to the tiller. Dad gave Mom a can of paint that Christmas. Maybe they’d still be married if he’d bought a decent gift.
I looked at Bob as he primed the five horsepower motor. “Do you really think we’ll find a tree?”
“Sure. No problem. The island is full of them. I think I’ll come back later and get one for our house.” Bob’s bicep flexed when he yanked the pull cord. He had some bulk for a freshman. I’d never swung an ax or machete in my life. I was counting on Bob’s muscle to save our Christmas. I didn’t have a Plan B.
We scrambled onto the rocky island Bob and his brothers had visited so many times they considered it their own.
Hope surged in my chest as I surveyed the scrubby pines. The branches were sparse, the needles long and droopy, but with a little imagination…
I looked up at a tree. “This tree would be perfect.”
Bob shook his head. “It won’t fit in the boat.”
I spotted a tree a head shorter than my five-five height. “How about this one?”
Bob eyed the whimsical tree. “Okay, let’s do it.”
He hacked off the lower branches with the machete, then slammed the ax, making a tiny nick in the trunk. He wacked at it several more times, not making much progress.
My heart sunk. “Let me try.”
He handed me the ax.
I planted my feet like a baseball player and swung. The impact vibrated up the ax and I dropped it.
The trunk felt like stone. We were never going to get this tree off the island.
But I hadn’t counted on Bob’s tenacity—or imagined that seventeen-year-old girls, even old family friends, were worth impressing.
He snagged the ax and smirked at me. “Such a girl.”
A half hour later he macheted the last eighth of an inch and I cheered.
I probably wasn’t the first girl Bob Voegele impressed. And for sure I wasn’t going to be the last.
On Christmas morning we went to mass and came home to open gifts, but the real prize stood in the corner, ten lights blinking proudly from scraggly green arms. Gold garland hung from top to bottom in the bare spot. The rope of silver tinsel wrapped around the tree six times, set off by the string of popcorn the family made one evening. R.J. and I had covered the plastic balls with Christmas wrap and tinfoil. Magazine photos we’d pasted on construction paper cutouts hung on loops of ribbon.
One glass bird perched at the top—the link between our past and future.
Though far from Burdines beautiful, our tree looked kind of comfy in a Charlie Brown kind of way.
Not so different from our cobbled together family itself.
I couldn’t remember a time when my relationship with Dad hadn’t resembled a broken Christmas ball. But now my Dad drama was limited to infrequent visits.
Mom married Ralph, an orange link in the red and green paper chain of our family. After four years I was getting used to him.
This year I got a sweater. And the deep down sense that life was better in New Smyrna Beach than it had ever been before.
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