The Tree Story
Sheila Black | December 2019
I have a friend, the poet Gaia Thomas, who posted recently that she is busy studying “the culture of kindness.” Something about that phrase caught at me and so I Facebooked her—“I love that idea; what is it exactly?”—and she said, “Let’s make some time to talk about it.” In my typical busy, scattered way, I have not yet had the opportunity to have that conversation, but I started to think about that phrase when I was asked to write a holiday story by my friend and co-worker Juanita Lester. Specifically, I started to think about that phrase in reference to Christmas. I thought—and forgive me for articulating this quite so baldly—when was the last time I had a Christmas where I wasn’t partly enjoying Christmas and partly just stressed over presents, wrapping paper, ribbons, bills--did I buy enough presents, did I forget to buy someone a present? And what about all those lights? And what about the tree? The tree!
My memories of childhood Christmas—the complicated ones that perhaps give some indication of how I became the person I am—begin with a tree. It was a spectacular tree, and it stood in the middle of a meadow in a forest on the outskirts of Sao Paolo, Brazil. where I lived as a child. Christmas in Brazil occurs in the middle of the summer. While people I knew there had Christmas trees, most of these were plastic in bright glittery colors and decorated with ornaments in equally bright glittery colors. These were not the winter pines decorated with plaid ribbons and candles and popcorn strings we saw in the picture books we had about how American children celebrated Christmas. And so, my sister and I begged my father—we were merciless about it—to somehow get us a real tree for Christmas.
We were persistent; in fact, we were relentless, and my father eventually caved. He had a friend, who had a friend, who had a farm, who would, in exchange for a fee, let us choose one of the trees on his property to be our Christmas tree. Here is the strange part: I have no idea what kind of tree it was that we saw in that meadow so many years ago; for years, my sister and I claimed it was a jacaranda, but in preparing to write this story, I looked up pictures of jacaranda trees, and discovered that the tree, our tree, was nothing like them. It was some kind of pine; it was tall and elegant and tapered and perfect. And my sister and I, who were seven and four, respectively, danced around it, and chanted, “Here is our tree! This is our tree!” And my father talked to the man who had the farm, and they conversed a while, and then the two of them came back with axes and chopped it down.
I have no memory of how we got that enormous beautiful tree back to our house in Sao Paolo, but I do remember the thrill of decorating it, and we had candles, and we had glass balls in many colors, and we had tinsel, and we made strings of popcorn, and the tree filled the room—it was so tall, the top had to be bent slightly to fit in our living room, even though our house had ten-foot ceilings at least. It was the most shimmering, grand, amazing tree we could ever have imagined. We loved that tree and—this was the thing—at some point during Christmas, or the days after when we were still entranced with our gifts, our visiting relatives, our neighbors’ parties, my sister and I realized something: we realized the tree was dying. We began to tenderly and obsessively feed it water and ice cubes from the freezer. We repeatedly asked our parents if there was a way this tree could somehow be planted in our backyard. I assume we felt this—unconsciously, I might add—we were really very young—because it had not been a tree grown on a “tree farm” or sold already cut. It had been growing in the middle of a wide meadow full of tall grass and creeping vines and flowers, and we were the ones who had made it get cut down.
We watched in increasing distress as the tree slowly, but insistently, turned yellow, then brown; the needles, which were long and clumped together, began to fall away in great handfuls. We gathered them up and put them in shoeboxes under our beds. We were perhaps overly fanciful children, but the tree had become a kind of person to us—and when it was finally clear it had to be thrown out, chopped up for firewood, carted off by the garbagemen, my little sister and I stood over its now brown corpse and wept. It was our first experience of how what you thought you wanted so badly—the giant glimmering tree pictured in our fairy tale books—could have unintended results or that wanting itself could be a source of harm or grief.
One of the extraordinary things about Christmas is that it is really about a story—a story that is pure genius in its simplicity—a baby, so young who can say what is in its cloudy head, is without shelter, and the small family around this baby do everything they can to find shelter, and they do it just because the baby is so small and vulnerable, and along the way, they are given the kindness of a barn, a rough kindness of warmth and being close to other living creatures, and this is more than enough, because it turns out this baby is a kind of miracle in the world, which is, of course, true of any child that is born anywhere.
When I think about Christmas—the holiday my atheist family continues to celebrate, and why—I think of these two things: the tree we cut down, and the original story of the baby in the barn. There is no real easy answer to what would be “a culture of kindness,” but I am sure it begins in recognizing the wonder and vulnerability in every living creature. It is fifty years since I saw that tree—that huge perfect tree breathing in the meadow—but I can still picture it with uncanny clarity, even though to this day I have no idea what kind of tree it was.
Sheila Black was the Executive Director of Gemini Ink, a literary arts center in San Antonio, Texas, prior to joining AWP. Before that, she served as Associate Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at New Mexico State University Foundation. She is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Iron, Ardent (2017), and has co-edited two anthologies, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (2011) and The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked: The Fiction of Disability (2017). In 2012, she received a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. She holds a BA in French literature from Barnard College and an MFA in poetry from the University of Montana.