by John Bieniek
One of my great joys and fondest Christmas memories came from a time when I was a small child living with my grandparents in a wonderful old brownstone house with high ceilings and welcoming entry.
It was an exciting sight to see my dad and grandfather struggle to squeeze a very large full-limbed tree through our front double doors. The rope-wrapped beauty was placed gently in the middle of the living room floor. My grandfather would bring out his well-oiled and shining saw, place some newspaper on the floor and cut the base of the tree to better drink in moisture. The room would fill with aromas of sap and pine needles.
A big galvanized tub filled with coal and water served as the base to hold the fresh-cut, angled end of the tree. Green string wrapped round the trunk stretched out to nails in the walls to hold it proud and straight. Boxes from the basement were now opened to search and separate ornaments and lights. My dad would check the light strings and replace burned out bulbs so the lights would work. My mother would sort shimmering glass balls, dispose of the broken ones and add hanging hooks when needed.
My grandmother was busy cooking in the kitchen and would check in on the tree’s progress while supplying cookies, coffee and steaming cups of hot chocolate topped with tiny marshmallows. Grandpa picked through the records in the phonograph cabinet to find the Christmas carol record, which he would put onto the turntable.
A familiar song started to play with the also familiar skip from a scratch I had caused last Christmas. Grandpa now walked to his chair, lit his pipe and sat down to relax with his feet up on the red hassock and oversee the trimming process.
I moved the six new boxes of tinsel, just purchased at the 5 and 10 cent store, to one side as I proceeded to search for our traditional next step. Found it in the middle of the last box! A newspaper with a January date, folded and wrapped carefully, had held it safely. I picked at a corner and slowly started to pull away the paper. A soft-eyed red cheeked face looked up into mine. Silver and gold shone next from the folds of a velvet blue robe. And now the wings, which looked feathery and fine, no damage; the angel was intact.
This year the angel would be the first ornament to be placed on the tree. Last year the angel was placed last, but I really liked to put the angel up first, so she could watch over us as we trimmed the tree. I carried the angel to my dad, and we both looked up at the top of the tree. It was a blue spruce, at least nine feet tall, with a solid needled spike at the top. I handed the angel to my mom.
My dad reached out, took my hand, bent down and swung me up onto his shoulders. His hands held my feet tight against his chest. Mom reached up and placed the angel into my hands. Dad shifted my weight on his shoulders, and we moved into the outer branches of the tree. The touch and smell of the pine needles pressed against us. Dad’s hands cupped under my shoes and pushed me up toward the tree spire. I raised the angel in my right hand stretching up and out. I was just able to drop the angel down over the tree top. It fit!
I turned her slightly to face out into the living room. I sat back down on dad’s shoulders. He stepped back a few steps, and we both looked at the beautiful tree with its shining angel on the top. Mom looked up and called grandmom to come in and share the moment. Grandpa smiled and sang along with the record.
Mom and I had picked this particular angel out a few years ago. Mom loved and believed in angels. She felt that this particular angel had been specially made for our family Christmas tree.
Over the years I have reenacted this moment in many variations with relatives and friends in a great many places. My own daughter sitting on my shoulders, her small hands reaching up, an angel nestled within them. My mother sitting in a wheelchair, placing a tiny angel on the top of a small tree that sat on her tray table.
This Christmas the angel has a new, but familiar face, my mom’s. Her passing this year joins her with my dad and grandparents. They are once more all together again. To all my friends and family members, to all the caregivers and health professionals, I am eternally grateful for your many caring acts of kindness and personal support throughout the last years.
May your coming year be filled with love, joy and a celebration of each day of life.
Ed. Note: A talented artist and swing dancer, John Bieniek, 75, is a resident of Ambler who formerly lived in Chestnut Hill and Springfield Township. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.