Whenever people see our Christmas tree – fake, white, glittery, pre-lit, tacky or cool, depending on your taste – they always say the same thing. “It’s so you!” And that’s true. It’s me. It’s us. I can’t imagine us having any other tree.
But I didn’t buy it. It was a gift. And there is a story behind it that is real, raw, anything but fake. It is the story of another mother’s love—of struggle and strength. It is a story, as my husband says to our kids, about how “family takes care of each other.”
I wasn’t sure it would be OK to share the story of our tree, so first I emailed my Aunt Deb in Tucson to ask for her permission and her memories. She wrote back:
“I’ll have to ask Adam if that is okay with him.” Her son is private about his illness, she wrote. “If he says it’s okay, then I’ll write you what I remember, which truthfully, is very little. The one thing I truly remember is sitting in my bedroom and hearing Patrick and Adam laugh. I had not heard Adam laugh in months and it made me cry.”
Of course, I read that email and wrote back immediately: Please don’t give it another thought. I won’t write anything. I didn’t mean to bring up sad memories. Back in Austin, I kicked myself.
But then she wrote me back again. Adam says it OK, she said. “He thinks it’s a happy memory of us coming together.” That is definitely how I’ve long thought of it.
Here is how Deb and I remember.
Deb: “It was a dark time, Adam was in the middle of his leukemia chemotherapy treatments. When I heard that you, Patrick and Eileen were coming [to Tucson] for Thanksgiving and you would do the cooking, I was thrilled! Then, I thought to myself, maybe they are coming to say goodbye to Adam because he is going to die.”
Erin: That hit me in the gut. “We were not at all coming to say goodbye!” I emailed her. “We were coming to cook so life could be easier for you.” That’s the truth. Adam had leukemia. We understood that chemo was taking its toll on him and his devoted mom, and we wanted to come give them a traditional Thanksgiving meal in the midst of all the pain and illness. But I don’t ever remember thinking he would die. He was young—early 20s—and I couldn’t imagine him not beating the disease. I look back now and realize I was so naïve.
Deb: “I spent many a 4 a.m. planning his funeral. It was wonderful when you got here, because I didn’t feel so alone.”
Erin: Patrick’s sister Eileen is a great cook. Patrick loves spending time with her, and is generally happy in the kitchen. We all had our jobs on that trip: They would cook; I would put up the Christmas tree for Deb. One thing: the family is Jewish. But if Deb wanted a Christmas tree, Deb was getting a Christmas tree. I first became aware of the saying “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” at the Weiss house. It’s on a painting or pillow somewhere. I didn’t have kids at the time. I had no clue—still couldn’t possibly understand—all Deb had given as a mom and how hard Adam’s disease and treatment were on her.
Deb: “When we pulled out our white iridescent Christmas tree I remember you oooing and ahhhing over it. Right then and there I decided to get you one. I wanted to spread some happiness and joy when there hadn’t been any for a while. Adam was extremely quiet all during his illness. We didn’t talk much about anything. I was his caregiver and he was my patient. I would distribute pills and he would request food. I would take him to medical appointments, and he would spend all day and night sleeping in his room. Once y’all arrived, there was life in the house again. Happy voices. I have 3 favorite memories. 1. The sound of Adam’s laugh. 2. You decorating the tree in your bathing suit. 3. Eileen being so proud of her moist, delicious turkey. I felt some relief, some respite that there were loving people here in the house, laughing and living.”
Erin: It had been four years since my dad died. Holidays have never been the same without him. He used to keep a list of all the widows he knew, especially military widows, and call them all—just go down the list and call every single one—on holidays. After he died, I did my best to honor that in my own way, reaching out to friends. I remember being outside at Deb’s pool, hot as hell AZ in November, calling friends in my bikini. (Ah, the pre-baby bikini days.) Finally I came in from the pool and put the tree up, still wearing my swimsuit and towel. Patrick and I had never put up a tree before. I wasn’t a fan of going tree shopping. I don’t like the pressure to find a tree the whole family agrees on, nor the logistics of getting it home, putting it up, cleaning the needles. I like Christmas fine, but tree acquisition was never my thing. Putting up this tree for Deb though? I could do that. I could happily do my job.
Deb: “I should also tell you about how I first acquired my gorgeous tree. I had celebrated Christmas growing up, Rob had celebrated Hanukkah. For a few years after Adam was born we celebrated both, but I felt hypocritical and decided to only celebrate Hanukkah. Many years later Rob and I were at Target. We were doing general shopping when I saw from afar this beautiful, gorgeous white iridescent artificial Christmas tree. Growing up, because my Dad had worked at a lumberyard, we always had a real tree. So, there I was, mesmerized by this thing of beauty, just staring at it. Rob must have seen me and the look on my face, because the next thing I knew my tall, very Jewish husband was lifting this 5-foot box and putting it in our shopping cart. ”Really????” I asked. “Yes, I can tell you love it”, he replied. I started crying. It wasn’t a thing of the past, it was mine, all mine. A new tradition for me and my family.”
Erin: I felt the same way when we returned to our apartment in Chicago and—surprise!—I received an email receipt saying Deb had bought us the same tree. I was blown away. It was just what I would have dreamed of, if I’d ever dreamed of a tree. I emailed her on that day: “Thank you thank you thank you! What a sweet, thoughtful, meaningful, lasting gift. We love you!” The white, sparkly tree gains meaning for me every year. I look at it and I think about how Adam eventually made it through, as did our best friend Ryan, who went through chemo around that time. We have lost other loved ones since, and we miss them, but not these guys. Their treatments worked. They are healthy now. Patrick has so much fun visiting his cousin in L.A. on business trips now, and he got to stand up in Ryan’s wedding this summer. I got to take his bride out for karaoke. Cousin Adam’s wedding is coming up next. We are so, so thankful.
And we have gradually made the white tree a family tradition—first getting its three parts assembled in 2007, then assembled and lights plugged in in 2008, then ornaments added in 2009, and so on. Now in Austin for our third Christmas, it has been in each holiday card, a photo of our growing family (Patrick, Annie and pregnant me one year; then Patrick, Annie, baby David, and me; now all of us so grown up in 2013) with this magical, glowing thing behind us.
We invite beloved nearby grandparents, aunts and uncles from both sides of the family to come over for taco dinner, old Disney and Raffi Christmas records played on my childhood Fisher Price player (still works!), and tree decorating. The decorating has become it’s own family tradition for us in Austin. Annie and I get positively gleeful about unzipping the big red bag every December.
Understandably, cousin Amanda didn’t feel as excited about the original white tree when she returned from college that 2007 Thanksgiving.
Deb: “When Manda came home she hated the tree, and possibly still does. ‘We’re Jewish!!!!!’ she cried. I explained to her that I had always celebrated Christmas as a kid and Rob had bought it for me and I was going to use it whether she liked it or not. A few months later she phoned me and told me she had heard the Sheryl Crow song ‘If It Makes You Happy’ and thought of me and decided that if that tree made me happy it was okay. She even has bought me a few ornaments for it. I tell her that she will probably marry a Christian and have a tree in her house and although she’ll never admit it, she will want it one day.”
Erin: I can imagine Deb and Amanda joking about that. They have a close, special relationship, as do Deb and Adam. And even from two states away, this one-of-a-kind aunt-in-law of mine has been one of my most heartfelt, hilarious, and helpful supporters since I became a mom. The tree is just one, especially bright example.
I got a text from a neighbor this week. “Christmas lights! Go, Currys!” it said. I wrote her back to say thanks but we left them up from last Christmas. I’m all about the low-hanging fruit this time of year—leaving the lights up, seeing Santa at a low-key church event instead of the mall, sending MLK Day holiday cards (or maybe none at all), skipping the big parade altogether until my toddler is old enough to not give me a heart attack in a crowd. Last year we told the kids we were going to Austin’s famed Trail of Lights, then took them for a walk on 37 1/2 Street, the one with houses with tons of lights. The kids were happy and so were we. That’s enough.
We don’t need to go “all out” to get in the spirit. We come home every day and see the white sparkle in the window.
Thank you so much, Aunt Deb.
Thank you to the Weiss family and my husband for letting me share this very hastily whipped up remembrance. We decorated our tree two days ago, and I wanted to hurry up and get the story out there.
Adam Weiss, we love you! We are so glad you are well. You too, Ryan Brown. Words cannot express it.
Whatever religion you believe in or not, at its best, the holiday season gives us time to spend with family, reflecting on our blessings, giving to others, and dreaming about the new year. Our “fake” tree gives us a real place to do that each year.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and here’s to a healthy and happy 2014!