The Not-So-Empty Christmas Tree

There are so many ideas I cling to in life. From one day to the next, I set expectations, measure myself by them, and then attack all the various feelings that accompany a life of plans, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that life doesn’t ever go as planned. So as Christmas 2020 approached, I found myself a mess of emotions-partly anxious because our home was no longer standing and I had to somehow create a Christmas from scratch, and also scared because this was my sons’ first time home since the fire and I honestly didn’t know how to handle such a homecoming.

And of course there was my deepest fear-staring at the empty Christmas tree.

Decorating for the seasons has long been a hobby of mine ever since I had a home of my own. I love autumn as much as Christmas as much as spring. I got it from my mother, she loves a well decorated home. Nothing though, was as well curated as the Christmas tree. It began with my mother and godmother, who each gave me an ornament every Christmas since I was born. When I moved out of the house, my mom gave me all my ornaments and I still remember putting them up on that first tree of my own. I lived in a studio in Chicago, by myself, and while I had forty ornaments or so, I lacked a tree-topper and skirt. Moreover, the tree still looked bare. So I ran to the store down the street and picked up a few boxes of simple, golden, glass balls. They were just the thing to add to the tree. That evening, as I lay down to bed I heard a little crash from the bathroom. Confused, I stumbled out of bed to see what was up, only to find my kitten at the time, Benjamin, sitting on the sink, tail curled around his feet. On the floor was one of those golden balls, cracked into dozens of small pieces. He’d taken one from the tree and brought it all the way into the one room that wasn’t carpeted to break it.

Those golden balls would be broken several more times over the years, by little boys, a second cat or two, and even the dogs. But last year, as 2019 came to a close, I still had eight of them, along with ornaments from my husband for over twenty years, ornaments for the boys since they were born, and my husband had his own collection from his childhood. In total we had hundreds of ornaments, each with a story of their own. Even better, there was the hand painted angel tree topper that Walt’s grandmother Ruth had made him as well as a tree skirt quilted by his other grandmother, Audrey. We needed at least a nine foot tree to hold all of it and each year, when we took out the ornaments to decorate, we had hundreds of memories and stories. It was a collection created over decades. And in August of 2020, the fires took all but five of them away.

As this first Christmas without them began to arrive, I wondered how in the world I would cope with an empty tree. I wasn’t even sure I could manage the stockings. All of it loomed before me. To top it all off, there was the pandemic keeping our loved ones away as well as all the parties that would normally provide Yuletide joy. The end of November was gloomy-nothing but a long December before me. I was at the hardware store replacing some gardening supplies when I saw him in the window-a gnome with a long, white beard and a red hat that covered his eyes. He reminded me of the years when the boys were little and in Waldorf schools. I had no idea then that Christmas 2020 would be come the season of the gnomes, but I had to have him. I brought him home and over the next few weeks, my home transformed, slowly, decoration by decoration, into a festive realm. I began to enjoy myself, putting together decorations that would work in the house we currently live in, but not so specifically that I couldn’t use them when we finally moved home. It was a balance between function, beauty, and future.

But still, the empty Christmas tree loomed before me.

I called my mom and asked her to send me some ornaments and she delivered almost two dozen beautiful trinkets. She’s the master of decorations after all, and has an attic filled to the brim with Christmas cheer. Then I did what I had as a young adult; I went to the store down the street and bought a bunch of cheap ornaments, only this time they were red, green, white, silver, and golden. They were also plastic, not because I live with a cat or toddlers at the moment, but because that’s how they make the cheap ones now. They were for filling in the tree with color, so that we didn’t have to be reminded of how much we’d lost.

Then there was the fact that due to covid-19, all the tree lights and stands in the entire town were sold out. I guess since people weren’t traveling, they were putting up Christmas trees instead. Worse, while I was fretting and putting off the exercise, they were buying out all tree trimming supplies around Thanksgiving. It seemed like the entire world needed what we needed, as if they too had lost all their Christmas decorations and were starting from scratch. In the end, we turned to Amazon and had lights delivered just in time.

Reigning my husband in to only a six foot tree was also tricky, but a crucial part of the plan. He still really wanted a huge fir tree, but in the end we got a decent Fraser fir that was as tall and narrow as him. I held my breath as we put up the ornaments from my mother. Fortunately, they were just what we needed and the tree began to take on a life of its own. Then we added the plastic balls, one at a time, until the tree glimmered. Five of our ornaments survived the fire and they went up next. Best of all, the angel tree topper Walt’s grandma Ruth made him had survived the fire, albeit a bit blackened, which made it more suited for a Nightmare Before Christmas than my decorative tastes could handle, but a little white ceramic paint fixed that, and by dinner time we had a tree that wasn’t actually so empty at all.

Given we’d lost so much in the fire, most of our presents this year were replacements-books, slippers, PJs, the entire Calvin and Hobbes collection, glassware and the like-soon the space under the tree was also full. Better yet, the eldest son came home and two days later, my younger one. Since the Bay Area was yet again on pandemic lockdown, and they’d just arrived via airplane, we had to quarantine for ten days together, but it was a wonderful time playing games and watching The Umbrella Academy. Our house-for-now is much fuller than I could have hoped for. And even better, my dear friend Regan gave me a huge basket of ornaments on Christmas Eve, so next year I won’t have to use those cheap plastic balls to fill up the tree. Though, they’re not all bad-my youngest son has taken to hiding them around the house. I’ve found them on lamps, in closets, in the fridge, and even in the vents. Who needs an Elf on the Shelf when you have a kid like that?

Early on in our quarantine, we all went up to the property for our first visit as a family since the fires. It was magical. Every home site on our street was almost clean, and boy does that make a difference. Even better, our neighbors, a young couple just starting their family, Magda and Josh, were at their home, their little girls playing in the garden that survived. My own sons were climbing the mountains of tree trunks left by PG&E, playing catch with one of the many baseballs they keep finding now that the bracken and raspberry thickets are gone. The laughter of her littles, just starting out in life, combined with my older sons, just starting out in their adult lives, truly changed everything. I can see the new neighborhood taking shape, the children yet to be born playing in the streets, sons becoming men, grandchildren returning, daughters marrying. It’s already there, waiting in the wings of life.

Afterward, we finally went up the mountain, to see what really happened here. We hiked Eagle Rock at the end of Empire Grade. We’d been there only once before, in July 2020, to see the comet Neowise. There we realized just how big the lightning fires of August 2020 were. Our dear mountain burned all the way to the sea in one direction and right up to the mountain valley towns in the other. It was both terrifying and beautiful to behold. Even in this state, Bonny Doon is the beautiful mountain. It truly is.

Moreover, I can say that life is still beautiful, perhaps even more so, than it was before the flames. I can’t recall all that has happened since that night we fled-life was a bit of a blur for a while there-but every moment before the fire is faded, like the gods shook the etch-a-sketch of my life and left me with a blank page. It appears I’m turning the little white knobs again, creating something from scratch in all directions of time.

During our Zoommas with my parents, my mother asked me what I was planning to do with my lilfe now. Was I going to write more? That had been the plan after all. In the fall of 2019, I found myself with an office, a publisher, and all the time I could wish for since my boys were both at college. But then came summer of 2020 and I had them back in my life, parenting them through a pandemic and the loss of our home. I still have my publisher, but that office of mine is nothing but a memory. As I pondered my answer, I realized it didn’t matter anymore what I had planned. At every stage in my life-from the birth of my first son, to the time I fell fifteen feet or so from a rope swing and broke my hip, to the fires-whatever I was preparing myself to do wasn’t what I ended up doing. There will never be a time when I wake up and say, “Now I can do the work I want to do.” Instead, life will always give me work that must be done.

For now, I will continue to be a homemaker, this time is the most physical sense, for a home needs to be built and I guess I’m the project manager that’s been hired for the job. It’s okay, like all the other surprises in life, there is a lot of beauty in this agony. There really is.

Originally published at on December 29, 2020.

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