Every year, it’s my job to pick the perfect Christmas tree. And every year for the past fifteen or more, we go to the Red Shed, a family-owned outdoor tree lot that pops up around Thanksgiving at 18th and Burnside, in the heart of the inner east side. Some years we take the kids; some years we don’t. If I’m being perfectly honest, it’s a lot easier to find the perfect tree without one’s perfect offspring running amok up and down the aisles.
This was my dad’s job growing up. He was also the one who attached the tree to its stand, a feat that got more and more difficult as the tree got bigger and bigger (thanks to the cathedral ceilings in the family room we added on sometime in my early teens). He custom built a stand to accommodate the increasingly thick trunks. One year, he even hung the tree from the rafters, where it slowly rotated in its bucket of water. (But it was perfectly plumb, he said.)
You know, I think this sort of annual one-upping is hereditary. Just like my dad, every tree I pick is bigger than the last, which means every year the angel on top comes closer and closer to bumping her halo on the 9-foot-tall ceiling, and every year I need to buy another string of lights to make sure there are enough. I think we’re up to four or five strings now (multicolored, to my mother’s chagrin; she only allowed white lights on our tree). Every year my wife shakes her head, wondering how we’re going to get it home.
Until this year.
This year there’s a tree shortage, which I had heard, but dismissed as being overly pessimistic. When we got to the Red Shed, the lot was nearly bare—something we had never seen before. The owner confirmed it: there’s a tree shortage. All the tall trees sold out the first two weeks they were open. So instead of going bigger this year, we went smaller. Our 2019 tree is shorter and slimmer than any we’ve had since the children were born. I hardly needed a stool to place the angel. It only uses three strands of lights. We stood the tree up, turned it so the best side faced the room, and—I was disappointed. It was so small.
We didn’t have room to hang all our usual ornaments—some inherited, some purchased, some made by tiny hands in kindergarten classes, the traditional red and gold and silver balls and the antique striped ones. We just stuck to the ones that mattered the most: the identical porcelain hearts my wife and I bought each other for our first Christmas together, neither of us realizing it until we opened the boxes; the clay hearts we bought for our children’s first Christmases, and the ones we have given them every year since, each a little snapshot of their personalities and interests; a handful of wooden ornaments from my grandmother and a few (unbreakable; we have cats) hand-crafted ornaments from my mother-in-law’s church bazaar.
The angel went on last. She lists a little to the left and forward; her wings are crooked and one arm is sliding out of its sleeve. I’m not really much of an angel person, but my mother-in-law made this one and gifted it to us, a quiet and solid show of acceptance way back when, and so up she goes, every year.
I had to do a little rearranging. The kids tend to put all the ornaments at their own eye level, sometimes two or three to a branch. But once I was done, I could see the story of my family laid out bough by bough, ornament by ornament.
It turns out I picked the perfect tree after all.