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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

My boy, our tree, and me

I tend to write one of those holiday letters each year. A few years ago, in 2007, I wrote about the very last Christmas that my son, then 21, and I would decorate our tree just us together. The letter seemed to mean something to a lot of people who read it, and I've sometimes shared it again since then. This year I thought I'd share it with you. It comes with my very best wishes for a nice little holiday break, and the very happiest of holidays with people you love.

Dear Friends and Family,

Our tree is up. I wish you could see it. The rest of the house, I wouldn’t be eager for you to see — because when you combine a total absence of flair for decorating with almost two decades, now, of self-employed, male, single-parent householding, in our case you get a tiny house that looks inside like this is the stuff left unsold from the yard sale. It’s at the point where if I patched the sofa with duct tape I think it would be a visual improvement. (I haven’t, though. And that about sums it up.)

But the tree! Of this we are proud. Every year we add at least one ornament to the collection that we began when Brad was very little and I didn’t see how I could ever put up a respectable Christmas tree. I had to do something, though, so I walked to Aubuchon Hardware in Montpelier, where I found and gratefully bought two boxes of shiny colored bulbs. They were $2.69 per box (we still have the boxes) for, in all, 14 bulbs — big ones, red, green, blue, silver and gold, the same as we had on my childhood family tree. And I bought some Sculpee clay, the colored kind that you can bake in the oven. That year we made a red star festooned with yellow, lumpy little balls (I made the star, Brad rolled and stuck on the balls), a green wreath with a red bow, a square box with a ribbon, and a Love Truck. The Love Truck is a simple van with simple wheels and a heart on the side. It’s what Brad was into drawing, then. Actually, Brad the preschooler rarely drew anything; he would, instead, tell me what he wanted drawn. “Dad, draw a Love Truck.” So we made one. It’s orange with yellow wheels and a red heart. We glued loops of string on the backs of our new-baked ornaments, I bought strings of multicolored lights and a star for the top, and us two decorated a tree.

Every year, like families small and big, we have added to our ornaments, and I have come to realize that our night of tree-decorating is, for me, the most meaningful event of the holidays. And each year I almost miss it. I don’t mean I’m not there! It wouldn’t happen if I weren’t, though the years are past when I had to do everything: wrestle up the tree and get it straight and stable, string the lights while praying they would work, serve dinner then bring down the boxes of ornaments, then put on the Christmas music (starting always with the Temptations’ “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” from A Motown Christmas), and finally, by now frayed and exhausted, begin the very special part, all the while doing my best to be cheerful for this night that I knew Brad treasured. And when he would hang ornaments in odd places, too deep in or drooping from the ends of branches, I would know it was best to leave them and love the tree just that way, but I could never do this. Instead I would relocate the ornaments, sometimes impatiently, and this would add to the stress that I would wrestle half-distractedly with the whole evening, until it was all over — we would have put the star on, and then I would realize that this had been the best night of all. That’s how I would almost miss it. Sometimes I would realize this suddenly, after Brad had gone to bed, when I would be looking at our lovely, glimmering tree full of memories.

Well, this year Brad is a just few days from turning 21.

We still started our decorating by putting on the Temptations’ “Rudolph.” (It’s great!) We still talked about our ornaments as we put them up, where we found this one or who gave us that one. We still keep some funny little traditions: when we unwrap a favorite little red-painted airplane, Brad has to call this the Santa Bomber, and I have to say “Brad, Santa doesn’t have a bomber,” and he says “Yes he does! The Santa Bomber.” And when we come to the antique bulb with the pointed ends and the concave foil center that Brad poked his finger through, exploring it not quite carefully enough when he was about five, we have to put that ornament with the broken heart in the center of everything — the front center of the tree. (It’s next to the Love Truck.) And this year again we put the star on top, and we toasted another beautiful tree.

And then, when it was all over and we had each gone to bed, it hit me that, since Brad’s 21st birthday is January 2, this is the very last tree of my only child’s childhood. And someday he will have his own tree, with I hope his own family and his own new traditions. And all at once I had an overwhelming sense that everything has gone by so very fast, and maybe I’ve somehow missed the real thing — maybe I’ve missed the heart of it, because I’ve been so busy and never perfect and maybe I was trying too hard, and maybe I should have left the ornaments where they were and just loved it all, just as it was, every moment that I possibly could. Did I ever do that, I mean did I ever really?

I finally had to wake Brad up and tell him how I felt. I said this was the best night of the whole year, for me, but I always felt like somehow I missed it because there was so very much to do, to try to make just right — but I wanted him to know that nothing had ever mattered more to me than being his dad and just decorating our tree. He was still mostly asleep. He sort of mumbled, “Okay Dad, okay thanks.” And I didn’t know if I had done the right thing, saying anything at all. But I think so. I do. I know I will be glad, in years to come, that I did say something, late that night.

Whatever holidays you celebrate, and whoever you share them with, even with all there is to do and so much to get right or just get done, still there come certain moments, if we are lucky, when this is it. And these are almost always moments that are shared. I hope you will have these, this year, and I hope you’ll know you are having them — because then you will know what to do. And if this involves telling or showing someone how much you appreciate them, I hope you will give that a try. Myself, I wish you the very best and happiest holidays, with people you love who appreciate you, too.


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