The blade bit into the base of the balsam and wouldn’t let go until the seven-foot tall tree, its limbs quivering and dripping, gave up and toppled onto the yellow grass soggy with a light sheen of snow. Before the tree could cease all motion, my phone rang from my coat pocket. I handed the metal bandsaw to my wife and answered the call, which came from my mother and alerted me to the death of George LeBarge, who, until the day before, had lived in a well-kept Colonial not two miles from the tree farm.
George had appeared to be in declining health since his wife Shirley died two years ago; nonetheless, the news came as a surprise, for when a man has been a family friend since memory began, you come to expect that relationship to continue forever. He was my father’s best friend – my father, who will drive up to Maine later this week to attend yet another funeral of yet another friend or family member. My parents are well aware of the mortality rate of their contemporaries, and never hesitate to announce their dwindling numbers. I feel for them. I’m sure it’s going to be hard when my generation starts fading, too.
Last year’s Christmas tree lacked that rich balsam scent. We felt robbed, but didn’t go so far as to hang those tree-shaped air fresheners from its limbs. We couldn’t think of an explanation, since the tree had been freshly cut – just as all the ones we’d harvested for more than a decade had been. And they had all smelled great. Not last year’s, though.
I put the phone away and shared the news with my sister Suzanne, with whose family Diane and I have gone on annual Christmas tree safaris since their youngest, now 12, was a baby. She was visibly distraught, and said I shouldn’t have answered the phone. The news certainly put a damper on the festivities – with the scores of families out cutting down their trees and sipping hot cider and laughing and posing for pictures with Santa – but life is life, and we can’t always choreograph it to our liking. Friends die.
While Diane was out shortly thereafter picking up fresh haddock for our Sunday dinner, I prepared the living room for the tree, which I lugged inside, still loosely wrapped in its red plastic fishnet stocking. I screwed it into the metal stand, filled the base with fertilized water, snipped the sheath off, clipped the spire which bent into the too-low-by-three-inches ceiling, and strategically placed some old bath towels and sections of plastic sheeting under the still-dripping boughs, which were grateful for having been freed.
When she came home, Diane smiled and said, “It smells wonderful.” Having slowly been exposed to the scent, I had to go outside and step back in to be able to agree with her.