12/24/2013 10:59 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2014

The Meaning of the Word Shelter

My mother was sick throughout most of my childhood and sorrowful for much of each year. She seldom strayed from the confines of our little suburban house and yard. But even in her illness and within the boundaries of her small life she found wonder for us. Or, more accurately, wonder found her.

Suddenly in spring there were baby squirrels to nurse whose nest had become a casualty of a neighbor's chain saw, and abandoned robin eggs incubating in cotton on the top of the water heater in the basement of our home. In late summer she showed us preying mantises mating on a bush by the front door. I can still see her stopping her stirring of a pot of chili to rush to the steamy window as autumn approached to find the oriole whose voice only she could hear over the barking of our dogs and the chatter of her children.

But these moments were always too few and too fleeting, lost in the dark fabric of her self-imposed asylum, her lonely retreat. Until December, when she emerged from the gloominess of her room, radiant as an angel. For us, the holiday evolved from and revolved around the Christmas tree. But the trip, the many trips, to find the right tree were for my mother only an excuse to shamelessly, obscenely revel in the pure pleasure of nature.

My father was interested only in plastic trees. He rarely disembarked from the car. If he did, it was only for a momentary escape from the fog of smoke fulminating from a series of cigarettes that had become too thick even for a man who sucked his way through two packs a day. I always knew when he had set foot out on the lot. Even through a deep maze of branches and needles and trunks, his tobacco smell emanated and competed with the sharp pungency of spruce and pine.

I felt genuinely sorry for him. He literally did not see either the forest or the trees. The scene before him, the tang in the air, left him untouched. Though he complained and cursed if we took too long, I could not be angry with him -- the loneliness of the man who paced at the periphery of our ecstasy pierced my heart.

I tried to see the trees through my father's eyes. Or not see them. I walked once with him, pulling his hand from his sweater pocket toward the outstretched bough of a pine, as Annie Sullivan might have done for Helen Keller. I still remember his fingers, yellow and calloused beyond feeling, brushing against the needled twigs. I swooped up a wreath and asked him to bury his nose in its fragrant softness. He shook his head. I crushed some needles in my palm and pressed them against his lips. He shrugged his shoulders.

But it was not just that the cigarettes had dulled his senses. He had no memory of trees from his childhood as my mother had. He had grown up in an inner-city world of concrete and steel and glass. And his life inside the second floor apartment where he lived had been just as sterile; he lacked a capacity for the miraculous. His blindness and deafness were of the heart.

But my mother would walk down a row of spruces, touching each one like a politician shaking hands with constituents. Spruces have twigs like fingers on a hand, she'd tell us. But the next row was of pines, and she wanted to show us the difference in the way the needles were arranged on the twigs, in clusters instead of singly. A blue spruce did not smell exactly like a balsam fir, and a nose could be trained to know the difference. She would run her fingers like a comb through my hair as she spoke, and all night long the fragrance from the sap of the cones met my nose as I turned my head on the pillow.

On clear-night journeys through the various and sundry lots along busy roads or in sleepy towns, my mother would kneel with her children, and from our vantage point near the ground she showed us how the sky had swooped down to lend the stars to the tree boughs. The tiny bright points of white light shimmered through the needles, and I shivered with a sort of delight I have seldom known in my adult life.

She would often walk into the arms of a fir and like a magician pull out a bird's nest from its branches or a butterfly's used chrysalis. Had these trees grown along a highway in our home state near the traffic and litter of cars and houses, or far up the Nova Scotia coast above a roaring sea? The guessing and the wondering were delicious, and we were delirious with the mystery of it all.

One year we found a hemlock garlanded by a gauzy snakeskin. Then there was the morning we came upon some Douglas firs already decorated by a group of busy spiders that must have worked all night to produce the finely filamented net that covered the boughs and had caught the dew in diamonds. My mother purposely directed us down an alternate route so as not to disturb the filigreed archway the spiders had created between the trees. Yet I worried for days about the people who came after us who might not be that careful.

Some would be like my father: They would not even know they had walked into a web until the strands pulled gently at their hair. Others would see the web and deliberately break it either in glee or disgust. That was another lesson my mother taught us, that humans could be cruel and thoughtless and that nature was all the more precious because its beauty was often brief and evanescent. And that was part of the sorrow that tethered her to her bed through much of many years.

Yet it is testimony to the magic and thrall of Christmas that she got up time and time again to find a tree. Sometimes it was snowing, and I can still see the confetti kiss her face and coat collar as we strolled. We squealed when the flakes landed on our lashes and melted on our outstretched tongues. Once in a pelting rain at a dirty city lot we snuggled under the umbrella provided by the wide glorious arms of a huge spruce, as she had as a child. We pretended to be sheep in the Nativity stable. We closed our eyes and suddenly there was the sound of lambs bleating and cows lowing. The donkey brayed, the baby cried. I knew for the first time in my life the meaning of the word 'shelter'. How lucky for them, I thought, that there had been no room at the Inn.