They all looked happy.
The family live around the corner from me and my Lucy and I pass their home on our walks every night. (When the little girl first met Lucy last summer and discovered they had the same name, she was delighted. Their shared name gave her the courage to pet Lucy and giggle over how soft she is.)
Tonight, the curtains were wide open in one of their front windows. As they decorated their bright and colorful Christmas tree in a darkened room, they had opened the curtains to share the beauty of what they were making with the world.
They had no idea that my Lucy and I were in the shadows outside watching them, but I stood there in the frigid wind and rain sprinkles for a long minute — as my heart took in the warmth and joy of a family at Christmas, something which I haven’t experienced for myself in so many years.
I haven’t had a Christmas tree for years — partly because of the cats and partly because it seems like a waste of time to decorate one just for myself — but I still feel a pang of longing for the joy of a tree as Christmas gets closer each year.
When I was a child, one of the highlights of my year was putting up the tree and decorating it. I helped my mother from an early age — when she still lived with us — but by the time I was about 10, my sisters and I had taken over the tree by ourselves.
In my younger years, I remember my father being involved in setting the tree in the stand, but I hated his involvement, because he would always find something to get angry about. By the time I got old enough to supervise putting the tree in the stand myself — shaving off part of the trunk or finding a way to make it balance — I don’t think he ever again had anything to do with the tree.
I don’t know how this division of labor evolved, but I soon was designing the lighting portion of the tree and then my sisters would take over for the rest of the decorations. I spent many happy hours with wires strung out in the living room and nearby halls as I untangled strings and then replaced bulbs that had burned out.
I had a meticulous system for the lights. I didn’t want there to be a discernible pattern, so I had a complicated system for my lights. The first layer of lights circled the tree horizontally, from bottom to top. Then there was a layer of lights that were vertical as much as possible. And then there would be one strand that criss-crossed diagonally.
When I was young, all the lights were the old-fashioned kind that stayed on all the time, but at some point, I switched to the twinkling kind that blink on and off in random sequences. I always insisted on using as many colors as possible. I didn’t want a trendy mono-colored tree. I wanted something that looked like what you might expect to find in a Normal Rockwell painting.
It’s ridiculous to care so much about decorating a tree and to care so much about the specifics. (I still want a Scotch pine, for instance, even though the Fraser firs seem more popular today.) It’s ridiculous to bring a dead tree inside the house and deal with all the falling needles for a few weeks.
But I miss it very much.
I think about it a little bit every year — as I see other people’s trees — but I don’t think I’ve missed it as intensely as I did tonight when I watched little Lucy helping her parents decorate their tree.
Families develop certain patterns and rhythms — for good or for bad. I’ve experienced both the good and the bad of such patterns. And decorating a tree together is one of the good things. In my mind, it’s not just a tree. It’s not just interior decorating.
It’s a shared bit of history which a family creates together each year — and I desperately miss making those memories. I need my own wife and children so we can create our own family memories — with warmth and caring and joy and love.