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BY LYNN SUNDAY
I was living on Funston Avenue in the Inner Sunset in 1980 when I bought a six-foot-tall, eleven-year-old avocado tree in a large red clay pot at a garage sale half a block down the street. I paid twenty dollars for it, contingent on the ability of the sellers--two strong, young male roommates--to successfully maneuver the tree, in its pot, up the narrow winding stairway to my second-floor flat. It was a precarious process, involving sweat, grunts, and an occasional curse, but the tree arrived in my living room without losing a leaf.
Marc and Abariss, my teenaged sons, were delighted by the unexpected presence of a living tree in our living room. I was too, having imagined that owning a houseplant taller than the man I was dating was a luxury reserved for rich people, not single moms like me living in rental units.
We set the tree before the front window where it would bask in the afternoon sun. We gazed at it worshipfully, sitting cross-legged on the floor beneath its large, flat, tear-shaped leaves. Light green veins ran through each darker green leaf, with smaller veins branching from the main one to their edges, like country roads branching off a highway. The tree trunk was brownish gray and rough to the touch. Smaller, smoother branches were a vivid tree-frog green. I breathed in deeply with satisfaction and then exhaled strongly, blowing carbon dioxide upward into the tree. As I did so, my breath caused a slight stirring of its lower leaves. I could almost feel the gift of oxygen pouring from those leaves in exchange.
I named the tree Apollo after the sun god. "Cool," my sons said.
The trouble began in December, when I suggested that rather than buying a Christmas tree this year, why not decorate Apollo. "This tree is part of our home," I said. "So why cut down another tree to use for two short weeks and then throw it away?"
My sons were horrified by my suggestion. It was enough when I divorced, when we moved across the country, when I started dating, when I legally chose my own last name--but this, they insisted, was over the top.
Marc shook his head no, like he couldn't believe what he'd heard. "We've always had a Christmas tree," he said reasonably, as his brother nodded in agreement. "It's family tradition. Ask Grandma."
When I was a kid in the 1950s, each December my mom hung on our front door a handmade evergreen wreath, decorated with pine cones and tiny red bells. A week before Christmas, my parents drove to a lot in our small New York town and bought a freshly cut pine tree, chosen by me. I inspected every tree on that lot before pointing dramatically at my choice, which my dad then paid for and dragged to the car.
My dad secured the tree in a stand before the living room window. He draped strings of multicolored bubble lights around the branches and set a silvery star at the top. Then my mom and I hung delicate round and pear-shaped glass balls and red-and-white-striped candy canes. We draped red paper garlands and added tinsel. We hung four flying bird decorations--they were small and glittery and fit in my hand. Their wings caught the light as they swung gently in flight. Finally, we placed holiday cards from friends and family onto just the right branches of the tree. The result was breathtaking, even before we turned on the tree's lights.
As a young married adult with small children, I didn't question Christmas tradition. Even after divorcing my husband and moving with my sons to San Francisco--where I came to regard myself as a somewhat untraditional person--I bought, dragged home, and decorated a tree each year. This year was the first time I'd considered doing otherwise. But still, feeling pressured by my sons and preferring not to discuss the issue with my mother, I went to a lot and bought a tree--far be it from a divorcee to mess with childhood traditions.
The Christmas tree was a five-foot-tall, bushy evergreen, chosen by Abariss. Marc secured it in a stand in the front part of the living room near the fireplace--as far from Apollo as it could go. Then we draped garlands and hung ornaments, tinsel, and candy canes. Marc set the star at the top and turned on the lights. I had to admit the tree looked great, but we all kept looking across the room at Apollo--the tree we lived with year-round--left out and undecorated.
A week after Christmas we took down the tree, dragged it down the stairs, out the front gate, and dumped it in the gutter, where it would stay until Sunset Scavenger came to cart it away.
"Maybe next year we'll decorate Apollo," I said, regarding the discarded tree. This time there were no objections.
I never bought a Christmas tree again. I would have felt disloyal to Apollo. And through that tree my connection to the natural world deepened and the seed of ecological consciousness was planted. (No trees would be killed for my family.)
We decorated Apollo the next holiday season with silvery garlands and delicate round and pear-shaped glass balls, then added candy canes and tinsel. Carefully, Marc set the shining star on Apollo's topmost branch, and Abariss hung the two shimmering, flying birds my mother gave me from her set of four. We placed our festively wrapped, beribboned gifts in and around the tree's pot. Then I remembered--the Christmas cards. One by one, we put each of our cards on the tree, setting them on just the right branch.
"Just like Grandma does," my younger son said with satisfaction while Marc nodded agreement.
I may not be so untraditional after all.
* * *
Lynn Sunday earns her living as a visual artist, but her writing has appeared in publications as diverse as the San Francisco Chronicle, the Half Moon Bay Review, and the Rosicrucian Digest. She will be in the premiere issue of Passing It On, an online Buddhist magazine, in January. She holds degrees in fine arts and education from Syracuse University, and she says, "My passions are animals and the natural world." Sunday lives near Half Moon Bay with her husband Lee, their dog Hootie, and Apollo the avocado tree, "who is forty years old."
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