Fifteen years ago today, Darren and I instituted our first family tradition.
We were barely into our 10th month of marriage, and Dani was 3 months old. We were poor. Darren worked nights as a typesetter for $7 an hour. I stayed home. We lived in his parents old house out in the boonies and only had one car, so I often didn't get out of the house. Things were so tight that we often searched through couch cushions and car floorboards for enough coins to buy bread and milk. But somehow, we were happy.
Darren had never decorated a Christmas tree; his parents didn't decorate for Christmas, save for a cardboard cutout of Santa and the Reindeer that they hung on the kitchen door. He'd always dreamed of the day he'd have his own family and his own traditions, and the first one he'd institute would be a Christmas tree.
That autumn day in 1991, he couldn't put it off any longer. "Let's go buy a Christmas tree," he suggested. I was over the moon about the idea. But then, if he had suggested "Let's go buy a can of tuna fish," I'd have been just as excited. But there was one problem: we were broke. The stores were already stocking fake Christmas trees, but starting at $50 apiece, they were out of the question. So off we went to Thrift Town.
I couldn't believe it when, in the back corner of the hand-me-down store, we discovered a Christmas tree in stock. It was a sad, ugly little thing that had definitely seen better days. The limbs hung limply. The branches were fat but sparse. The green metal pole was bent in the center. I was sad. I knew that if we bought this pathetic tree, I'd be stuck with it for years. I wanted something better - something taller and more slender and with smaller branches that looked more real. But the tag read $7, and it was ours.
Seven dollars was a pretty penny. In fact, it was a huge expense, especially for something so frivoulous. But we couldn't be sure that another tree would come along, so we bought it. I thought we'd store it in the garage until Christmas, but Darren had other plans. He wanted to decorate it that night. I thought he was crazy, but Darren, a mostly nondemonstrative man back then, was practically jumping up and down with giddiness. I couldn't help myself, so I got excited with him. Pushing the dining table aside, we sat up the tree right next to Dani's bedroom door, using lights and 8 ornaments that I'd brought to the marriage. It was, by all accounts, a pathetic excuse for a Christmas tree.
We spent the next 2 months making homemade ornaments. I learned to cross-stitch that November, and created a dozen or so small cross-stitched pieces. I also hand-sewed little hearts cut from old, red flannel pajamas and stuffed them with polyfil from old pillows. For his part, Darren carved a tiny treehouse from a tree branch, and fashioned a wood-shingle roof for it. I hot-glued tiny fake flowers to it. By the time Christmas Day rolled around, it was a pretty cute little tree!
We kept that tree for 4 Christmases. But the summer before the 5th Christmas, we moved, and I had a garage sale. That tree was the first thing I pulled out. We got $7 for it.
These days, we wait until after Thanksgiving to put up our trees (a slimline fake in the family room, and a real tree in the front windows of the house), but the handmade ornaments from 1991 are always the first to go on. They bring back sweet memories of young kids in love, making the best of bad times... of a sweet baby who loved to lay beneath the tree and watch the dancing lights... of a first tradition started and kept alive... of a young man whose dream became a reality. Even back then, it was the little things. Still is.