by Diane Fromme
It was the first Christmas in our new house, the house with the vaulted ceiling in the perfect Christmas tree spot. I was very excited…we could get the tallest tree ever! I pictured it stretching to the ceiling, illuminated at its peak with my father’s old, star-shaped tree topper.
My stepdaughter was just as excited. Brianna had just turned eight and the combination of a new house and the impending arrival of Christmas made her perkier than she’d been since her Dad, Brian, and I got married six months prior.
If I could have seen the vision of that first, shared Christmas tree through Brianna’s eyes, I would have noticed the tree topper was not my father’s star, but a blue and gold angel that Brianna’s mother had picked out several years before she passed away. Brianna’s angel was packed away in one set of family boxes, while my silver star lay in another.
In mid-December, we set a date to hunt for the highly-anticipated Christmas tree. It was a windy, Colorado weekend. With so much to do before the holidays, Brian and I decided to search the local tree lots rather than drive up one of the canyons to cut our own.
Around town we found an abundance of trees, each with its own special characteristics: this one had big, knotty, sap pockets, that one a long, skinny top, and still another had a robust front but a scrubby back. Each time I discovered my perfect tree, Brianna would scrunch up her face and deliver the bad news: “Mmmmm…it seems kind of bare.” When she picked out her favorite, I couldn’t see what made it best.
Brianna’s younger brother, Bud, scrambled around picking trees that neither of us girls would have chosen. By the third lot, Brianna grew quiet. When Brian and I settled on a fragrant, dense Noble Fir, we asked Brianna what she thought. She just shrugged. Her lingering pout exposed her real feelings about our choice.
For the next few years, the Christmas tree selection became a disappointing power struggle instead of an exciting, family outing. Symbolizing this struggle, those first stepfamily years featured either her angel or my star at the top of the tree. Each year, Brianna or I would concede. Though we both tried to be fair, neither of us was ever fully satisfied. “How could her flimsy, paper angel stand up to my beautiful, shiny star?” I thought. And no doubt, Brianna considered my star tacky and meaningless.
The death of her Mom when Brianna was six had interrupted the continuity of many strong, holiday traditions. Brianna clung to the rituals she remembered, such as fresh-squeezed orange juice on Christmas morning. And, having that angel on the tree.
Still young in my stepparenting journey, I didn’t realize that embracing and continuing those rites would encourage a healthy grieving process, one that recognized old rituals while breaking in new ones. “What we need,” I thought, “are tree traditions that will satisfy us both!”
I resolved to create a solution. On a crowded business flight, I burrowed down with my scratch pad and favorite pen. As if I was approaching a corporate deal, I analyzed interests and developed options. I worked through all the angles and finally came up with a great idea.
I could hardly wait for Christmas! The tree-picking day dawned bright and sunny, and we piled into Brian’s and the kids’ old, red van. This year we made the time to drive to a tree farm near Owl Canyon. There sprawled a few acres of live Christmas trees lined up like soldiers, row by rolling row.
I let Brian present the plan. ”What we’ll do,” he explained, “is split up into two teams. One team will go choose their three favorite trees. The other team will pick which one we take home.” The kids bought the idea! We split up as the Brianna and Dad team, and the Bud and Diane team. “I want to find the three trees,” Brianna piped up, and off she went, skipping out of sight next to Brian.
When Brianna and Brian were ready, they paraded us around to three trees bearing special markers – Brianna’s striped mitten, Brian’s jacket and some shiny gum wrappers. The beauty of the experience was that no matter which tree Bud and I chose, Brianna had already agreed to it. Yet we also felt we had an equal part in the decision. It was a wonderful way to agree at last. We sawed and felled the winner, took lots of smiling pictures and hauled our tree home to decorate. This tree had a secret bonus: two tops. I mounted Brianna’s angel and my star, side by side.
That Christmas Eve, I sat watching the tree and noticed the angel glittering amongst the blinking lights. On that night, it was illuminated as never before, glowing as if under a spotlight. Suddenly, I understood something so deeply it caused a pang in my heart. To Brianna, the angel was not just her Mom’s. It was her Mom. The angel had to have a presence on the tree to continue the memory of her mother, and when it was absent, Christmas wasn’t complete. More realizations flooded over me. Just as Brianna’s angel was her mother, my star was my father! Though he had passed away when I was an adult, not a child, I was as determined to include him in my Christmas traditions as Brianna was to include her mother.
On that silent night, I learned that grieving never really ends. It just changes, as we change, over time. We are constantly finding new ways to connect with comforting memories of the lost, and sort out their place in our evolving reality.
It was never just the tree that Brianna and I were clashing over; it was whose memories should prevail in our developing family. With time, compassion chipped away at fierce pride and yielded silver and gold. This is the lesson that our two-topped tree was trying to teach us; that we could hold onto our separate memories of Christmases past, while keeping them side by side.
Diane Fromme (firstname.lastname@example.org)