Oh! Christmas Tree?

I have a little confession to make, and at this time of year, it's not pretty.

I struggle every Christmas with putting up the tree. There, I said it.

Buying gifts? No problem. I've got that all covered by Hallowe'en. Christmas cards? They're all written, addressed and postaged by the end of November. Shortbread baked? Yup, love it. All done and ready to hand out. But that darned tree? Hrummmphhhhh ..... somehow the job just haunts me like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Me and Christmas trees have just never seen eye to eye, and the reason is trimming a tree is never a quick and easy task.

I'm not sure when this neurosis about the tree developed. It was always exciting to me as a kid, watching my dad drag a real tree out of the trunk of his company car and stand it up outside on the veranda. I didn't even mind when he tossed out a swear word or two as he struggled to wrestle the tree trunk into the stand. Christmas tree stands of the 1950's were astonishingly ineffective contraptions -- a ring with three or four spikes drilled through it hovering over a shallow little water dish. It no more looked like it could support a forty pound six foot tree than a toothpick could support a boulder!

But even that annual episode didn't dim my enthusiasm for our family Christmas tree. Inside, after the carpet was covered in needles due to the dragging from the front door to the livingroom, the tree apologetically dripped droplets of water all over the floor as the snow and ice clinging to its branches melted in the warmth of our house. Now it was my mom's turn to be all flustered about the mess and she clucked around the room trying to pick up as many needles as she could to spare our twenty year old vacuum cleaner a heart attack, I guess.

This ... THIS ... though, was the fun part! Decorating it! Yes! I couldn't wait! But wait I had to because I learned early in life that not one ornament, not one shiny ball could be touched until one of my brothers finished stringing the lights. And THAT seemed to take hours! You see, in our haste to pack up the Christmas decorations the year before, we had stashed the light strings and tinsel ropes into their storage boxes in one garbled heap. That meant that this year we FIRST needed to untangle the lights, then check them for dead bulbs, and THEN string them around and around our symbol of peace and goodwill toward men.

Over the years, we've had more than our fair share of challenges with the Christmas tree.  One year, we overestimated the height of our livingroom ceiling, and bought an eight foot tree for a seven foot ceiling allowance. So my husband tried to trim the top of the tree after we had it up in the stand. He punctured the ceiling with the hacksaw and it was neither a silent night, nor a holy night that night!  Another year, when the kids were little, we spent a marvellous day trimming the tree, only to wake up the next day to find it lying flat on the floor, ornaments smashed, tinsel strewn, a total disaster! 

Somehow, though, hope springs eternal in the human heart, and now, with only one week until Christmas, I cannot procrastinate any longer. The tree must go up. Reluctantly, I headed out into the shed where we store the Christmas decorations, and dragged out the boxes of balls, tinsel, lights, tree skirt, star and of course, the tree. As I carried all of this cargo inside, I gave thanks to modern manufacturers who figured out how to make artificial Christmas trees that fold up like umbrellas. Perfect. That eliminates the needles, the melting snow, the confounding tree stand, not to mention the constant watering of the tree. Ever tried to wiggle under the prickly branches of a pine tree to water it? It's like wrestling with a porcupine!

Okay, so the tree was a snap to assemble -- three sections, start at the bottom, every row of branches folds down and feathers out beautifully. I'm feeling proud! This is easy! Remembering the number one rule about lights first, I find four strings of 100 lights each coiled neatly in their packages. Yahoo! The number two rule, test the lights before stringing them on the tree, brought my next victory. They all worked! I was pumped!

Before long I had the lights strung and lit, the tinsel rope swagged and all the shiny gold balls placed strategically (and artfully, I might add) in a symphony of proportion and balance. Next came the special ornaments. I savoured the moment, admiring all my favourites -- the ornament shaped like a Canadian flag, the bright red cardinals, the gold embossed wooden creations handmade by a close friend. I was so happy I began humming the tune to The Twelve Days of Christmas. Yes, a partridge in a pear tree!

At last, it was time for the star. The star was my favourite childhood memory because that signalled the end of our task and the beginning of the most beautiful spectacle of the Christmas season, the lighting of our very own family Christmas tree.

Congratulating myself for having the foresight to make sure the female end of the last string was nestled up close to where the star needed to plug in, I placed the star on the top branch. But before I could connect its plug, it popped off and tumbled to the floor. Okay, a little adjustment was needed to make the star stay firmly in place. (Good thing this didn't happen to the real Star of Bethlehem, I muttered, or the wise men may NEVER have found the Christ child!)

Four adjustments and three topplings of the star later, it was stable and ready to be plugged in. Voila! I stood back in amazement as nothing happened! It didn't light up! It was deader than a doornail. My star was a dud.

As I yanked the wretched star off its lofty perch, I could have sworn the whole tree was staring back at me like a headless horseman, laughing at my audacity in thinking I had aced the tree thing. And in my mind, I started to re-write the lyrics to The Twelve Days of Christmas:

"Four hundred white lights,
Three dozen gold balls
Two pairs of cardinals
And a star that is royally pooched!"

A day or two later, with a new star firmly ensconced where it should be, illuminated with a soft golden glow, I sat back and thought of those early days of tree decorating and holiday making -- and the patience required to prepare the house and the family for the celebration of the birth of the Messiah.

And I realize that, after all these years, I am finally learning the lesson of patience. It will be my Christmas gift to myself.

And as for the tree? Aw heck, it's worth it!

Fifteen Strips Versus Half a Pound

I'll be the first one to admit it. I've learned alot from my kids.

And not just minor things either. Some of the stuff I've picked up from them has been pretty valuable, like how it doesn't matter if you can't see the floor of your bedroom because of discarded clothing. That means that you don't have to vacuum much. Or how you don't need to prepare for something days ahead of time. That frees up more time to relax. There is no end to the life lessons I've learned from my daughter and son over the years, and now, at ages 28 and 25, they've made it an art form to enlighten their ever-lovin' mother, and in the process, get a laugh out of it.

Take, for example, the proper technique for ordering bacon at the butcher shop. On a recent trip out west to visit my daughter Jennifer, my son-in-law Bryan and my granddaughter Brooklyn, I announced that on Sunday morning I'd make a big country breakfast for the family -- bacon, eggs, hashbrowns, sausages -- a meal event known in our family as "The Razzle Dazzle Club." (It was my sister-in-law who coined the term "razzle dazzle" to describe the action of scrambling eggs.) Each time any of our far-flung family members gather for breakfast at any location around the world, we refer to it as a meeting of The Razzle Dazzle Club, and we linger lovingly over our empty plates afterward, drinking coffee and catching up with each other's news.

So a trip to the butcher shop was in order. Wait a minute. Why, I ask my daughter trained as a registered dietitian, do we have to go to a butcher shop for bacon? What's wrong with grocery store bacon in sealed one pound vac-packs? With one eyebrow raised she gave me that "Oh Mom!" look I've come to know and love. It means, there's a lesson on the way.

"The bacon in the grocery store is disgusting," she says. "It's all fatty and frizzles up to nothing when you fry it. I'm taking you to Miller's." Miller's, it turns out is the friendly neighbourhood butcher shop known for it's lean cuts and wide selection of meats that we, as humans, shouldn't be ingesting, according to Jen.

Nonetheless, we make the trek around the corner and lo and behold Jen is right. The bacon in Miller's is, indeed, very fine bacon -- but it doesn't come packed up at all. The customer has to request a specific amount. No problem, I've ordered meat from a butcher before. Just tell them how much you want, right?

Remembering Jen's disapproval rating on fatty meats, I vacillate on how much to order. Too little and my meat-loving husband and son-in-law would wonder why I didn't buy more. Too much and my dietitian daughter would ultimately be left with unused portions she may not cook up. I could feel a bead of sweat trickle down the back of my neck as the butcher glared at me from behind the counter.

"Could I please have half a pound of bacon," I timidly asked him. The moment definitely felt like a scene from a Seinfeld comedy -- the one about how to order soup from The Soup Nazi.

Carefully, the young butcher puts a stack of bacon on the scale, takes off a few strips, then adds one back on before he slides off the whole amount, tips it towards me and waits for my approval. Another trickle of sweat. Clearly, half a pound is not enough. The butcher waits. He looks at me. I look at him. I turn and look at Jen.

"Just give us 15 strips!", Jen bellows. And in an aside to me, she says, "He just wants to know how many strips you want!" Honestly, I never thought of that. Fifteen strips. Huh. It was perfect, not too much, not too little.

On the way out of the shop, after killing herself laughing at her mother dithering over a bacon order in a city butcher shop, Jen said, "I love ya, Mom, but next time, just tell the guy how many strips you want!"

Lesson learned. Safely back home, I chuckle to myself and fast-forward to the next time I buy bacon, knowing that I'll be flinging the vac-pack in my grocery cart like I always do.

Unless, of course, I find myself at the butcher's!

For The Love of Dogs

When our Cocker Spaniel Brody died, my husband George was inconsolable.

Brody was a very gentle, very loving companion dog with big, warm brown eyes and a golden, curly coat that almost always looked mussed up – like an old suit that needed a good pressing.  If Brody was a human, you’d be suggesting to him that he might like to run a brush through his “do” before he went out.

But the plain fact of the matter was, Brody didn’t care what he looked like.  The only thing he cared about was that George was by his side.  You see, someone had abandoned Brody at our local animal shelter, and George was the one who rescued him by bringing him home to us. 

To Brody, that meant he owed George – in spades.  And he spent the rest of his days repaying his debt by loving George with all of his little canine heart. George, in return, loved him back by lavishing on him more attention than any little furry, four-legged critter could possibly hope for.

When the day came that Brody was losing control of his bodily functions, George took him to our veterinarian and listened with a heavy heart to the advice that for the dog’s sake, Brody should be put down.

Shaken and clearly distraught that night at supper, my husband vowed, “That’s it – no more dogs.”  It was just too difficult to part with the wonderful, unconditional love that a good companion animal can provide.

I looked at the Resident Dog Whisperer with an expression that said, “You without a dog?  That’s like a world without Ford, GM and Chrysler.”  It just couldn’t be imagined.

As each subsequent day passed, our house was strangely quiet.  No dog greeted us at the door when we came home.  No dog curled up beside us each night as we watched TV.  I scanned my husband’s face for a clue as to how long this situation would play out.

But George was adamant. No more dogs.  No more heartache.  He was more stoic than a Scottish clansman in a kilt on a windy, chilly day.

Two weeks later, I had just about decided that my husband was over the trauma of losing Brody, when he strode through the door of our humble abode with renewed vigour, a spring in his step and a smile on his face.

“Where were you today?” I asked him casually.  “I called from work and you didn’t answer.”

“I won’t tell you,” he said, coyly.  “I’ll show you.”  He disappeared into the garage and came back   In his arms was a little black and white dog, part terrier, part border collie, with the cutest little curl in his tail, and a coat that looked like it needed a good brushing.

“I got him at the animal shelter,” George stated proudly.  “He needed me.”

Mr. Fix It

It’s amazing what my husband can fix.

Of course, George has always been mechanically minded.  Owning and operating an automobile repair business for thirty some-odd years might have had something to do with it.

His motto has always been, if it’s broke, try fixing it first – and over the years, he’s saved us more money than a Conservative minority government in a recession. Take, for example his golf cart.

Now, if anyone loves golf and golf paraphernalia, it’s George.  His clubs and cart are the tools that allow him to stride up and down those fairways with reckless abandon, thoroughly enjoying the pure rush of adrenaline he gets from making a “good shot”.   In fact, George would cancel life saving surgery if one of his golf buddies suggested that they could squeeze in 18 holes that day.

So when his aging golf cart gave up the ghost, he knew it was time to take serious action. 

I should tell you, though, that this cart had been through some pretty major surgery of its own in recent years.  One wheel had fallen off, and George replaced it with another – never mind that it didn’t match the first.  When subsequent parts and pieces broke, he duct taped them together in such a way that even Red Green would have been proud.

But even repairs have a life expectancy, and George came to the conclusion that he may have to replace this cart.  So off he went in search of the perfect club caddy.

One day when I got home from work, he announced, “I got myself a new golf cart,” proudly indicating the Bag Boy in the corner of the garage.  Fully expecting him to tell me he had driven to Golf Town, or to the local Canadian Tire, to find his purchase, I began mentally tallying up the “hit” our bank account must have taken that day.  Naturally, no brand name cart was going to come in at anything under a cool “C-note”.

“I went to the used sports equipment store downtown and paid 10 bucks for it,” he beamed with enthusiasm. “Ten bucks?”, I repeated incredulously. “How did you get away with only paying ten bucks for a Bag Boy?”

“It was broken,” he said, with that wicked, self-satisfied grin.  “And I fixed it.”

There should be a Nobel Prize for Recycling. Something named “Better Living Through Repairing.”

If there was, he’d win it. 

Waldo The Magnificent

Our dog Waldo is one of the world’s greatest communicators.  And he knows it.

In canine parlance, he can rival some of history’s best speakers – Sir Winston Churchill, President Abraham Lincoln, even Fidel Castro with his long-winded public oratories.

Simply put, Waldo has the doggie equivalent of “the gift of the gab” and he can get his point across faster than he can chase the neighbour’s cat right out of our backyard.

What I should tell you about Waldo is that he is slightly neurotic.  Not only are his nerves a bit frayed from time to time, but he has a really bad case of chronic anxiety disorder.

And for good reason.

You see, Waldo was a rescue dog, meaning he was rescued from a bad situation by the kind folks at the local animal shelter.  A Good Samaritan found him in a densely wooded area, badly mauled by some type of wildlife, bleeding and barely breathing.  Luckily, he was nursed back to health in the offices of the SPCA until my husband George showed up to adopt him.

It took Waldo several years and untold hours of George’s patient love and attention before the wild look of fear in his eyes was replaced by a wide-eyed softness, indicating that he had at last regained some trust in and affection for, anyone or anything. 

Today he ranks right up there as one of the best dogs we have ever owned.  But if he doesn’t get out for his ritual evening walk, he takes it upon himself to tell us, quite plainly, that he is perturbed.

When he sees us settling into our easy chairs in front of the TV in the evening, after the dinner dishes are cleared away, he takes it as his cue for action.

Ears pricked, tail wagging, he paces back and forth at the front door.  Then he plops his haunches right up against the door, all the while giving us the “death stare”.

If that doesn’t work, he sits directly in front of the TV facing us so we cannot mistake the fact that he wants our undivided attention (not to mention he really louses up our view of  Peter Mansbridge trying to deliver  the evening news on “The National”.)

Occasionally, George and I will ignore this bit of canine grandstanding – but we do this at our peril. 

Ratcheting up his tactics, Waldo scampers over to us and begins what looks like an old fashioned minuet.  He swiftly approaches, stops and goes down on his front paws in what I call his “begging stance”.  Then he backs away a few feet towards the door, then down on his front paws again, rear end up, tail slowly waving back and forth.

His message is becoming increasingly clear.

Finally, in the face of impending defeat, he gets really adamant.  He bounds right into my lap, front paws pinning me down at my shoulders, his tongue licking my face with the urgency of a paramedic performing CPR.

In a single leap, he’s back at the door, a look of expectancy and excitement in those little doggie peepers.

It’s enough to make anyone cave.