The tree I chose was white and pre-lit. I almost chose bubblegum pink — why? Because I love vintage style. And because I could.
The tree arrived boxed. I opened it on the floor of my office, took out all of the pieces, read the instructions that showed how to click the pieces together. I clicked A into B, C into D, and plugged it in. It sparkled. I fanned the branches so it would look full. I was low on ornaments that year, having boxed so many for my ex — his childhood ornaments, and all of the mercury glass that had been his grandmother’s. And so I bought some pink and aqua vintage ornaments, a pink and teal tree skirt, and matching felt garland. It was exactly my taste. I didn’t have to sell anyone on it.
From Thanksgiving until the holiday, I’d come downstairs every morning, let the dog out and plug in the tree. I’d turn on “Crackling Birchwood Fireplace HD” — a lucky Netflix find. Or the kids and I would watch Rankin & Bass DVDs: “Frosty the Snowman,” “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” “The Year Without a Santa Claus.” I’ve always loved “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” best, the one with the Island of Misfit Toys. There was a train with square wheels, a gun that squirted jelly instead of water, and a doll with brown braids. I always wondered: What is wrong with the doll? She looks fine to me.
That first year after the separation I wanted — needed — Christmas to be special for the kids. I didn’t go overboard, but I wanted to find a few things for them that they’d be excited about. My son had wanted a basketball hoop. So that’s what I ordered — a full-size, free-standing basketball hoop to set up in our driveway. I imagined shooting hoops with him once the weather warmed up.
On Christmas Eve, after returning from the traditional festivities at my parents’ house and tucking the kids in bed, I dragged the large, heavy box up from the basement and out the side door to the driveway. It was dark out and freezing. I was wearing a full-length down coat, hat, gloves, scarf. I slit the tape along the box and opened it in the driveway. What would it take me to put it together? Some tools? I’d bought a kit when my husband left. I was sure I could assemble it in a half-hour or so.
My heart sank when I pulled the instructions from the box—not a sheet, but a book. Flashlight in hand, I flipped through the 20 or so pages, starting to sweat with panic despite the cold. It was 8:30 at night on Christmas Eve. I was alone. Years prior, my husband and I had made gin and tonics and together had assembled toys, dollhouses, bikes. We’d put cookies out for Santa and carrot sticks for the reindeer, always eating most of both but leaving some bits behind.
I texted my neighbors, Shawn and Gwen. Maybe I was in over my head? Could I borrow Shawn for a half-hour or so, just to get me on the right track?
Fifteen minutes later, Shawn was in my driveway with tools, homemade bourbon balls his wife had made and two bottles of beer, one for each of us. For the next two hours — yes, two hours — he assembled my son’s basketball hoop while I held the instructions, handed small pieces up to him on the stepladder, and drank my beer with gloves on. Whenever he’d leave to retrieve another tool from his house, I’d go inside to warm up for a minute or two, running my hands under the hot tap.
Around 11 p.m. there was a basketball hoop standing in my driveway. Back inside, I texted Gwen to thank them both — to tell her I could not have done it without them. Then I sat down on my couch, looked at the stockings all stuffed, and the white tree all lit up, and I cried. It was a shoulders-shaking kind of cry, and it was not from sadness. I cried that late Christmas Eve because I realized I was not alone. We were going to be okay.
The next morning, my kids ran downstairs to find their stockings and gifts under that tree. They also found a note from Santa: “Look outside.” They ran out in their pajamas, and when my son saw the basketball hoop, he yelled, “Now I know Santa’s magic is real!” My daughter said, “Yeah, because Mom definitely didn’t do that.” And she was right. I didn’t.
My first Christmas after my marriage ended was my best Christmas. Even better than waking up to presents from Santa when I was a kid. Even better than gin and tonics. In my time of need, I was not alone. I felt a sense of togetherness and community I could not have imagined, especially not that year.
Talking about the upcoming holidays with my kids recently, my daughter said, “See, now you can play Christmas songs or Christmas specials whenever you want, and you don’t have to worry about Dad saying it’s too early or getting sick of them.” I laughed. But it’s true. I can celebrate how I want, with my white tree and pink ornaments and all the Rankin & Bass I can stand.
“Rudolph,” however, is still my favorite. Maybe that’s because all the misfit toys find homes, even the doll who seems just fine to me.
Yes, I’m sure of it — she’s just fine.