November 16, 2015
Holidays and Brokenness
Posted by Steph
The road wound lazily through suburbia, bordered on one side by an upscale retirement community, assorted houses and neighborhoods on the other. Despite being two solid weeks past Thanksgiving, trees still held a few stragglers amidst naked branches. Remnants of yellow, red and orange dotted lawns ready to slumber for the winter, slightly crisp with frost and the amber morning light.
I slumped in the front seat while my mom drove, a fist holding up my face as I leaned against the window. Like most of our car rides, the drive was intermittently chatty and silent. My sisters piped up from the back seat and the radio interjected with holiday music in between. We were on a mission to find the perfect Christmas tree and bring it home.
And I wanted to be anywhere in the world but here.
As a junior in high school, scouting out the local tree selection was the last way I wanted to spend a Saturday morning. But this was part of the process; this was what we did as we pieced our lives back together after my parents' divorce.
I'd spent two years numb after hearing the news that my mom and dad were splitting up. Life continued moving forward, propelling me with it, but I was underwater with clothes on, trying to kick to the surface. When your world is interrupted by an experience that impacts everything you know, everything about you, things are never the same. But you find a new normal. You patchwork the pieces until it's some semblance of whole.
A broken whole.
So for two years, my mom, sisters and I painfully walked through the motions. We woke up. We worked. We went to school. We celebrated birthdays and holidays. We painted our faces with smiles at all the appropriate moments, just like we used to. But it wasn't the same. It hurt a lot of the time. And it felt disingenuous because it wasn't real in my heart. Not yet, anyway.
Looking for a tree, standing it in our front picture window, decorating the boughs with ornaments and garland, was part of our walking. These were our motions. So despite our resisting hearts, we got in the car and made our way to the parking lot littered with dead evergreens.
"We're turning here."
I looked over at my mom, who aimed the car down a dirt road seemingly placed between two yards on the side of the road.
"Mom, where are we going?" I asked.
She motioned her head toward my passenger window, where we saw a wooden sign haphazardly nailed to a telephone pole. The word TREES was scrawled across the board in black spray-painted letters, a crooked arrow directing left across the street.
My sisters and I collectively rolled our eyes. This was a classic mom move. For as long as I could remember, my mom was a sucker for deals. Whether it was the clearance rack at her favorite store, the Good Will or a grocery outlet, my mom couldn't resist. And with money tight after the divorce, she embraced these money-saving efforts more than ever.
I never knew a road existed here, and a business or residence did not immediately make itself known. But as we drove a little ways, a small structure appeared on the right side of the lane. It was, from what we could tell, a small ranch house. Slightly dilapidated, with a sinking roof and patches missing from the siding. Random debris was strewn across the property giving the appearance of a house abandoned; but a thin swirl of smoke from the chimney said otherwise.
"Can we get out of here?" my younger sister snarked with a disgruntled sigh from the back seat.
Without a word, Mom nosed into the patch of driveway leading from the road to the house. Unfazed, she got out of the car and strode to the house, rapping twice on the door. After a few moments, a man poked his head out. His face was covered in a dark beard, but his features were youthful. He wore working clothes: an old knit cap, an aging pair of cargo pants, and a well-worn flannel shirt. We watched them exchange words, and, with a smile, he gestured my mom to the center of the yard.
Here, several small pine trees were piled together on their sides. I got out and walked over to my mom to investigate. After examining a few, she declared one of the stubby evergreens a keeper. The man reached down with smudged and calloused hands to pick it up. Leaning against another tree, our Christmas tree barely stood taller than me.
"Do you have a tree stand?" he asked.
My mom's brow furrowed. "Oh. Well, we do," she started. "But we need a tree with a hole in the bottom. So it fits on the stand." She scrunched her face into a squint, as though willing a pre-drilled tree to materialize.
"Is...is there any way you could drill a hole through the trunk for us?" she asked, apologetically.
He thought momentarily and nodded, walking back to the house to get the necessary tools. We waited, and my mom looked around like she'd gained admission to a new arboretum, pointing out pretty trees on the property.
A few minutes later, the man appeared again, trailing two little girls behind him. Their golden hair hung midway down their backs in tangles, their feet bare despite the biting wind and frost on the ground. They approached shyly, without jackets, their thin little arms exposed in short-sleeved t-shirts.
My mom chatted the man as he worked on drilling the hole. We learned that times were tough for him and his two girls. Selling these trees was a way to make ends meet, as he was between jobs and it was the holiday season.
The man helped strap the tree to our car roof, and my mom handed him money. He beamed. "Thank you," he said. Two little blond pixies stood at his side, waving goodbye as we pulled away.
"I hope they have a Merry Christmas," my mom said with a smile on her face. "Maybe we can drop off some food next time we drive this way."
As we drove home, tears pricked at my eyes. It became clear to me that our stop wasn't about mom getting a good financial deal on a tree. It was something all together more real, something my mom has always understood: that we're all broken or patchworked in some way.
Mom never denied her brokenness, nor did she try to hide the imperfections of her life like a secret to be ashamed of. This was her life, and despite the fact that it was messy, she embraced it. And I think this made her attuned to the brokenness and needs of those around her.
We were in need; the man and his daughters were in need. they were different needs, perhaps. But needs, just the same. We were unabashedly human and doing the best we could.
That day, down the dirt road in the yard of the dilapidated white ranch house, we experienced the communing of two broken families going through the motions, finding their new normal. I learned that in the communing of collective brokenness we are made whole. Our brokenness wasn't a detriment; rather, a gift that opened our eyes and hearts to the needs of the other. We were broken and we were okay.
I was broken. Beautifully broken.
But I was okay.
Another Christmas carol flooded the speakers, interrupting the silence. I laid a hand on my mom's shoulder.
"I hope they have a Merry Christmas, too."