5:00 a.m. It's just me and the tree. The house is quiet. Nobody else loves the morning as I do, since my father's gone. There's snow on the ground and sleet has turned the trees outside to fairyland, ice palaces crisscrossing my front yard, transforming the winter-blue light into magical dreamscape.
I throw a log on the fire and warm my hands that have carried the wood in from the porch. The fragrance of the coffee pot tumbles memories out of their store house in my heart.
And then I sit with all of it. Loving the tree and the quiet and the time to just be, not do. It isn't just a tree I see in the firelight and the pale blue dawn. It's my life and the lives of all I've ever loved. Every ornament a memory. Child hands tangling the tinsel onto the lowest branches, kindergarten ornaments made with ineptly brilliant baby hands. A cockeyed potholder. Round John Virgin. A ceramic blob that was meant to be a goat at the manger. Ice skates black and white to commemorate the skating ponds of my childhood, holding Papa's hand to ease the wobbles on the ice, a metaphor for so many other wobbles in life made easier by his steady strength. Tiny porcelain tea cups for every cup of solace in a lifetime. Rudolph's elf, Herbie, who wanted to be a dentist. The golden bows made from ribbon bought more than 40 years ago, while I was pregnant with my middle daughter, now gone. Ribbon-hung cookie cutters from the year we had no money for ornaments. Hand-knit mittens and tiny sweaters. A reindeer made from popsicle sticks. A tree so laden you can barely see the pine needles beneath. The angels emptied heaven high to dizen that wee tree, it said in some half-remembered childhood poem, till all outshine with holy light for little Christ to see.
A lifetime perched in perishable branches. Just as we all are.
Memories tumbling, tumbling ass over teakettle, as the Irish say. Time captured in a Christmas tree. Time capsule. Tree of life. Each new year a branch. Each new loss a step closer to eternity. Each new birth sure proof that God thinks the world should go on.
The teacup in my hand smells of warmth and cinnamon. The tree smells of history as much as pine, and the foreverness continuum of family, friends, celebrations and the inevitable, unstoppable, unsettling, unmistakable passage of time.
It's 5 a.m. and I'm alone with everyone I've ever loved.