Monday, December 14, 2009

Brother, Can you spare a tree?

Being unemployed is an interesting experience. The last time I was unemployed for an uncomfortable length of time, it was summer and I had a big landscaping project that took a lot of time and effort. I put in a retaining wall by myself, along with a lot of other things. My mind was occupied, my muscles were tired, and I had something tangible taking shape in front of me. Compared to now, living in a rented townhouse, in the wintertime; I realized again last night how much I miss my garden. I feel so useless right now, and I’m not suited to spending a lot of time watching tv. Sometimes I have moments of real terror and panic as I worry about the future. Despite this, I am trying to keep my concerns to myself at the same time being realistic with my child about some extravagant things we can’t afford.

The holidays are never a good time for me, and although I really love certain aspects of Christmas, overall I dread this season. The last couple of Christmases at my parents’ house, I tried in vain to avoid the Christmas Present Extravaganza that they unleashed on my daughter. My mother never listens to me, but I still tried to make her understand that I didn’t want to instill a materialistic concept of “getting” that heaps of presents would create in her mind. I also knew that as a single parent, I wasn’t going to be able to keep this going and didn’t want to set up unrealistic expectations. My daughter has lots of toys and other things, and her birthday is only 3 months after Christmas. The practice of buying random things just to have an impressive pile of wrapped packages makes me crazy. I wanted to try to make it about fun experiences instead of Stuff, but my mother did what she wanted and Christmas morning the last couple years was unbelievable. Along with the few nice, fun gifts that would have been completely fine, they kept piling on the crap so that she was clearly overwhelmed by the end of the morning, surrounded by piles of stuff that she didn’t even register.

This year, it is just the two of us in our little place, and she won’t be getting piles of stuff, and I tried to prepare her expectations without ruining her anticipation of Christmas. This year she is five, and believes in Santa, and Mommy is unemployed. I’ve tried to keep the conversation generalized, not so much about our own situation, and so we just say that this year, with the economy being so bad, that lots of people are having a more low-key Christmas. I reassured her that Santa will bring her something, and that we will have a Christmas tree.

Most years, no matter how poor I was, I found a way to have a tree, so I am certainly not going to short my daughter when I didn’t deprive myself, and so we set off yesterday to bring one home. I did tell her though, that we might have to go to more than one place because I didn’t want to spend too much money. She is so sweet and perceptive, and I don’t want her feelings to get hurt. I still remember how my little brother would howl if we left a store without buying anything.

I checked online to see where the lots were, although I had seen some cut trees at the grocery store and knew that if it came down to it, we could get one there. Those trees had been leaning there still wrapped up for quite a while though, and I knew what shape they were in. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Plus, the crappy grocery store trees weren’t cheap.

We drove around where I had read that they had a pretty good lot, and it took a while to find it. When we pulled up, we were the only ones there. It was windy and cold outside, and there was a lone woman struggling to tie down a wreath that had blown over. I rolled down my window and asked her what the price range on her trees was. I told her I wanted a little tree, about 4 feet tall. (Even if money were no object, we don’t have a lot of room.) When she came over to the car to talk to me, M piped up from the back seat. “Hi!” she said to the woman, who smiled and said hi back. The woman tells me what a 4 ft tree would cost, and she says she thinks they have a tree in our budget. M announces to her very seriously “We are running low on money.”

I felt a little embarrassed, and I also could tell that the woman probably felt worse than I did. I just laughed a little bit and said to M, that yeah, we were, but it sounded like we’d be able to get a nice tree here. We got out of the car and I couldn’t help but think about how it seemed that we were in an old movie, where I have my kid pretend to be destitute to con the tree seller to give us a good price on a tree. I thought about what we looked like, me with my little blonde haired girl, talking about how we don’t want to spend too much. I’d put what I thought was enough cash in my pocket and we followed her to the trailer to pay. When we went inside the trailer, mostly to get out of the cold, the guys who also worked there were huddled together, and they jumped up a little embarrassed, making room for us. They were young and had genuine smiles, and they looked like they’d been woken up too early on a cold windy day. When the woman told me what the total was with tax, I was short the 28 cents, which I told her as I handed over the bills, intending to walk back to the car for the change. Quickly she said she’d take care of it, and gave M a handful of little candycanes.

The young men cut the end off and wrapped the tree in my tarp, and took my rope and tied the tree to the top of my Rav for me, as I put M in the back seat. They were all very nice to us and wished us a Merry Christmas as we pulled away.

We decorated the tree, with M putting ornaments wherever it suited her, and she was pleased with my ornaments, which have been packed away these past years. She thinks we have a very pretty tree, and danced around happy last night in front of the twinkling lights.


  1. Aw, what a beautiful story. I too detest the concept of wrapping junky little things just to have more things to open.

    I'm so glad you got a good tree for a good price. Sounds like they treated you well at the tree farm, and I'm so glad. Your daughter is learning a valuable lesson - there is no greater gift than a safe home filled with love.

  2. Bev hit the nail on the head. We have all forgotten what the season is really about, and having less money forces us to scale down and buy less. Your tree is lovely and the prettiest ornament is standing right beside it! (I know, I know, cheesy....but true.)

    Happy Holidays!

  3. Nice looking tree and adorable kid! I think this is going to be a very special Christmas for both of you.

  4. Bev: They were very nice to us - and it was a little Dickens-ish. I think M had them convinced we didn't have a half-penny to spare!

    Kate: She's my best present, too! :)

    Mala: I'm hoping for a Happy New Year!

  5. What a great story! I'm so happy for you both! This year is definitely going to be a lean one, and Sam is just going to have to deal with it. He has no idea how much money I've spent on copays and medicine this past month, and the ER bills are just starting to roll in. The way I see it, I gave him the gift of life. If you need me, I'll be on the cross.

  6. Samsmama: I really think our cultural norms have been getting waaaay out of wack, and I don't see anything wrong with bringing it back to reasonable levels. Not to be a total Scrooge, but a warm bed and a hot meal are pretty damn great, and lots of kids all over the world would trade places with ours in a heartbeat!

  7. The "Tree" , aw , I remember it well .When we lived in Houston and the kids were little , it always seemed as if it was rainy cold wet weather the day we would go to pick out a tree. Loved this story . I felt as if I was right there with you two . Merry Christmas and a very happy and good New Years for you . Am sure good news is on it's way soon .

  8. I love the little tree, I went through the overkill of buying a 9-foot tree to go in my 8-foot apartment for years, because I loved the feeling of excess. But there were rarely gifts beneath it, since I'm a horribly practical gift-giver, and even think our daughters were relieved when Lori took over gift purchases from 'Us' instead of my purchases of books and museum passes and such.

    Last year, after skipping the tree a year, I shortened our artificial tree from seven feet to five and it suits the corner perfectly.