The tree was a thin one that year, matching the tall thinness of the Norwegian roots of my father's side of the family, but like the tree, this year was extra lean and the tree stretched hungrily towards the sky, sucking in water as if it knew this were its last chance.
My father's family never believed in cutting down trees. Even though they were farmers, they had a deep and abiding respect for life that didn't allow them to hurt anything merely for a decoration. Besides that, they were extremely frugal and having a "live" tree could be replanted to provide shade for the house.
The smell of pine filled the wood planked house. This house was huge, but without a plan. It meandered here and there as though a dreamer had architected a piece then drifted away, distracted by something else, who then returned and picked up, abandoning his old vision and besotted by this new one. The house was thus great fun for us kids as there were lots of places to hide and explore.
The tree always took center stage in the living room, the "forbidden" room where my Grandmother's few prized possessions stood as if on display in a musuem. We were only allowed in that room two times a year (a tradition that had been forced down from my father himself) - once on tree decorating day and the other on Christmas morning, where we'd race down to get our gifts before the room was closed, sealed back up on itself like a butterfly closing her wings.
The Christmas tree was beautiful. Especially to a child's wide eyes, the blue Christmas ornaments and white feather garland and little silver berries, all brought from the "old country" were a site to behold. The small round balls of shiny glass would reflect us in an obtuse manner with plump cheeks with the farmhouse silent behind us. I would often sit in the arched doorway, outside the forbidden area, and stare at the tree for hours.
We weren't allowed to actually help decorate the tree. My Grandmother would lovingly unwrap each ornament from its wads of tissues and cotton and hang them "just so" on the tree. She worked with some pattern I couldn't discern, try as I might to see her secret, but the end result was always magical.
Going back to the farm was a chance to see my father's "roots" and where he was from, far from the southern hospitality and dances and dinners in which my mother grew up. They were two mis-matched people who fell in love, as happens. They made the best of it. My mother detested the farm, and as I got older she begged off visiting more and more. The atmosphere was much more relaxed without her there so I preferred it when she stayed behind in the city of New Orleans.
My Grandmother had this gigantic armoire, carved by HER grandfather many years ago, transported at great cost across the ocean when the family migrated. Curved legs, full of memories, with three large drawers on the bottom and two outwardly swinging doors on top. It was stuffed with linens that my Grandmother sprayed with a perfume she'd make to keep them smelling fresh - a mix of flowers and lavendar and honey - or so I remember it.
My Grandmother would cook three meals a day for us when we were there. None of this "grab yourself a sandwich" nonsense. Three meals would be prepared and a small tea often in the afternoons. In the morning oatmeal or her version of museli, eggs and bacon. Lunch would be soup and warm bread and whatever fruit was in season. Dinner was always meat, vegetables and a dessert. Often just a simple cobbler with fresh fruit from the land, but every Christmas she'd make flan and it was delightful. A light, shimmering and fascinating for its substance, gelatinous mold of shaky, creamy, pudding like substance with a carameled topping that we all fought over.
When my grandparents died, when I was about 12; they died within one year of each other, the kids sold the farm and divided up the belongings. I prayed and prayed for the Christmas tree ornaments but was disappointed when we got some trunks and other stuff - my father had opted for more money then goods as he had a high maintenance wife to take care of back home. When I was younger I often blamed my mother for our sad attempts at making a beautiful tree. Ours were always boring with mis-matched and even broken ornaments, and I long to see that tall, reflecting tree sitting in the great room of the farmhouse just one more time.