lundi 15 décembre 2008

Rudolf the red-nosed

Christmas tree?

I didn't feel like celebrating Christmas this year. I still don't.

Yesterday, I sighed that I supposed that I was heading over to Florosny to look at the trees. Audouin roused himself from in front of the television, where he was fighting a headache and falling asleep after a terrible night on duty at the hospital.

"Tu veux que je viens avec toi?" I was hoping for more of a "Wait! Let me change my shoes, and I'll be right with you. I love picking out Christmas trees!" This is the first time in, oh let me count the Christmasses (2002, 2003, 2004... 2008 = 7 Christmasses), 7 years that he has participated in getting the sapin de Noël. Usually, Sam comes with me. Sam is, however, growing up and was having a writing tutoring session with Asmaa at the hospital. It was sort of a now or never get a Christmas tree this year, which disappointed Audouin more in what it said about me than the fact of not having one of my pretty Christmas trees this year.

"Non, non. C'est bien."

"Tu n'as pas besoin de moi pour le charger?"

"Ils ont les gens pour m'assister." I headed out the door, very much wishing I had said something more like, "I'd love to have your company. That would mean so much to me. Thank you." It was gray and chilly as a trod across the worn grass, covered with bits of stone and chaux. I opened the gate, turned the Voyager around in the street, and there was Audouin, closing the gate behind him. I opened the passenger door.

"Je pensais que tu restais."

"J'ai préferé être avec toi." Merci. I threw the V6 into drive and drove off up the road out of the village, toward my favorite, my one and only garden store.

I am nearly as picky as was my mother (and still is, if her returns to LL Bean's tree department are keeping up apace) when I was little and learning how one shops for a Christmas tree. This involved a first trip to Brang's Garden Center up on Genesee Street, at the corner of Maple Drive. It was usually snowing, and my little sister and I were bundled up in ski jackets with red knit mittens with strings up our sleeves and across our backs, which didn't prevent us from losing two mittens each instead of one. The young man would dutifully pull out one tree after another from the others, leaning against the wood rails of the racks of trees, and then, holding the tree on display for my mother's decision firmly by the trunk, he would bang it down on the ground a couple of times to make its snow-covered branches, scrunched tight to it from being pressed together with all the others, drop just like they would at home, pulled farther down by the weight of our accumulated glass balls and strings of colored bulbs (we were transitioning from the tuna noodle casserole -- my favorite pre-ski supper -- and Jell-O mold Christmas tree, but hadn't evolved all the way to tiny white blinking lights yet).

Mom would shake her head, while we nodded in support of her judgement, and looked more than a little longingly at the lights inside the warm store with the cash register for those who had decided they had found the right tree, and off we went in the car, feeling our mittens gradually soften and sodden in the heat, to criss-cross the town until we found the right tree.
Dad drove and never (that we heard) complained. Maybe he appreciated perfection in his Christmas trees as much as Mom did, and as we were learning to do, but what I suppose I really learned was to never go to more than two stores. That's my limit. Find the store with the best trees and become a faithful client, up until last year when I realized that Florosny sells them, too. Naturally.

Audouin followed me to the next to last greenhouse in the series, sensing that I was a seasoned veteran and knew where I was going, and doing his level best to be supportive and agreeable (we have been a little tense lately, ever since he brought up twice in one week that his youngest son would like to come live with us every other week, which he would also like very much, and to which I would prefer another difficult wisdom tooth extraction). Alright, I was appreciating it very much, but I didn't tell him. I suspect the truth is that as soon as I let up my guard, he'll spring the request on me again.

We gazed at the enormously fat and squat trees leaning in heaps, standing in their root bags, or stuck into the log bases that are actually quite a nice French addition to the Christmas tradition, even though you can't water the tree. I learned to appreciate these petits trees when I saw my sister-in-law's. I have even secretely pined for one ever since, but I don't dare tell Audouin or Sam, who are used to my majestic confections.

Besides, what would I do with all the ornaments I couldn't fit on it tastefully?

"Il y en a plus là-bas," dis-je, turning my head toward the last greenhouse. His followed.

"Oui, je les vois." We headed to the farthest corner of the store, but what I saw were the banana trees and a few decorative olive trees trained on "tiges". I looked farther into the corner, and there were the trees I expected to find, piled on two palettes. I pulled one Nordmann upright that looked promising. They don't smell Christmasy like the Epiceas, but they have softer green needles with bluish undersides, and hold them longer. I began to tear off the netting with my cold hands.

"Tu as le droit de faire ça? Tu es sure?" Always the worrier, my husband is constantly concerned that I am breaking some other unwritten rule.

"Yes, I have the right to take the netting off the tree. How else can we actually see it? Tu n'aurais pas un couteau dans ta poche," I asked, pretty sure that he had given up that practical and usually useless habit sometime when I wasn't paying attention.

"Non, mais tu es sure que tu as le droit de faire ça?"

"Oui, et aide-moi." We got the netting off, looked at the tree with its long branches pressed to its trunk. I asked him to grip it by the trunk and bang it down a couple of times, you know, like you supposed to do, but he wasn't quite as cooperative as those young men at Brang's and all over Syracuse, NY.

"Aie!" he looked at me, "Ca pique." I looked back somewhat accusingly and suggested he was a little over-sensitive. "Mais il y a des épines. Ca fait mal aux mains." He was injured in his pride. I thought of his surgeon's hands, not made for banging down Christmas trees bare-handed. Not that those guys at Brang's or anywhere else hadn't worn gloves to do that.

I pushed down the branches, and looked at the tree, which bulged out on one side and had only slightly more branches at the top than the others that had nearly three-feet of bare top. They've been blaming this on the heat wave of the summer of 2003 for some time now. We both turned and looked around us for the next likely candidate for our living room, when Victor came around the corner. Saved.

Only not.

He trumped my tree choice with his announcement that his work there was done. Audouin understood before I did. He had to explain what Victor was saying to me. It took a minute.

"Vous partez? C'est fini ici? Vous partez?" The next day would be his last. Today. Last week, Chloé died, and this week, Victor goes to a garden center in les Alluets le Roi in two more. "It's on the way to Ikea," I consoled myself, while I listened to him explain the situation to us again. I knew it by heart. I couldn't blame him: 500 euros more a month, after taxes. He has a wife, two kids and a Golden Retriever who need to eat and have a nice life. I can understand that.

What I cannot understand is why Florosny never understood how to run their business to make, rather than to lose, 300,000 euros a year and pay him every centime he's worth to accomplish it. You go to Delbard, Truffault and Jardiland and tell me if you find the same range of plants of the same quality. I defie you to tell me that you do.

You won't.

So, this is as far as I got with the ornaments this morning. I let Wisp cuddle with me for an extra hour, worrying about the ball (ah, the Grassroots Ball, another story and another sigh), before I got up to make coffee and start adding the ornaments to the lights I strung last night, while Audouin watched something on television. Oh, yeah, the end of the season race drivers' competition at Wembley. Joyeux Noël.

I opened the box of red and the box of gold balls, the "base balls", as I have come to think of them. The ones from Ikea. I hung one red one, and then another. Stepped back to stare at the tree. They were hung at the same height on either side of the tree and looked ridiculous. Eyes.

I went and got another, a red one, a nose, hung a few gold ones from the antlers, and reached for the camera.

Rudolf the red-nosed Christmas tree.

It took another hour to load the digital camera software onto the desktop computer, since my laptop has been non-functional for nearly two months now. Dell. Say no more, say no more.

That's the real reason, or one of them, for why you haven't heard much from Sisyphe of late.

Joyeuse préparations pour les fêtes de fin d'année, tout le monde.

Me? I am heading to Ikea for furniture for Sam's room. That will surely make the difference between motivation to succeed and disdain for everything school means, starting with the teachers and the work. His friends are getting into Princeton, Barnard, and Northwestern early decision, and to McGill and Oxford and King's. Let's hope that that, along with a more organized room and a bigger desk, will make a student of a quality brain going to academic waste.

But, if anyone can persevere in that task, Sam can. I have never met a more stubborn person in my life. Convinced is how he would probably prefer to characterize himself. Sam marches to his own tune. Let's hope life likes the music.

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