The bay window Christmas tree. I blame Annabella Terrace.
1953, the year that my mother built the bay window. I was 8.
For the building of the Bay window I blame posh Annabella Terrace all bursting with bay windows like a self-important row of Mallow potbellied shopkeepers. I blame Annabella for planting such an idea in my mother’s mind .I am sure plenty of her friends tried to dissuade her, what in the name of God do you want a bay window for, far from bay windows you were reared but once my mother got an idea in her mind she became a heroic figure, fit for a motivational speech on single mindedness. In other words that Bay window was going to be built as she would say “even if it is over my dead body”. It was built and she lived. The bay window however had an unforeseen effect, her future choice of a Christmas tree.
This story is about how I came to save my mother’s dream of Christmas.
This is how I remembered it. My father did not play a significant role in the day to day running of the house but anything he did inside the house, like the wash-up or for the house was in the pursuit of what he called” the quiet life”.
Outside he passed life as the tall bespectacled man cycling 3 miles back and forth to the offices of the Beet Factory twice a day. Spectacles, height and a certain sense of his own importance reminded people of DeValera, the long fellow, the Chief and so my father was known to his work colleagues as the Chief. My mother however had a less elevated view of my father’s organisational skills. This view was well founded, based on his many failed forays into the world on her behalf.
This is what happened that Christmas. He was asked by her, well more ordered by her, to get a Christmas tree fit for the new importance of her new bay window. This was a task, I even knew at 8 was way above my father’s domestic abilities and may I say far beneath his Chief like dignity and like many a boss he shared his dilemma with one of his clerical colleagues, one Mikey Cronin, yes a relation to a certain person here. Mikey was a part time farmer who on hearing of his Chief’s dilemma volunteered immediately to cut a Christmas tree down on his own farm for my father. At lunch hour my father after his cycle in from the Factory announced the good news to my mother.
“Where is it growing now” she asked bluntly?” suspecting it might be a stray conifer blow in on a ditch.
She was indeed a woman defined by her own bluntness.
“Ah leave that to Mikey” my father said “and would I insult the man by asking him where it was growing and he doing us a favour”.
In other words my father was telling my mother to butt out and leave it to the men.
On one of those dismal December Saturday’s Mikey Cronin appeared at our front door with the Christmas tree. The signs were not good. He held it in one grasp of his fist. The tree was set aside. It even seemed to vanish into a corner in the front room while the farmer-clerk was brought in for the traditional Christmas drink and lapped up my father’s blandishments, god you are a great man Mikey and you going out and you cutting down a Christmas tree just for us, as if it was a forest tree, trying all the while to warm my now staring mother up into some sweet feminine appreciation, she who was not into undeserving praise even if it was deserved.
She said nothing. She bided her time. Mikey Cronin eventually left, my father shouting eternal gratitude after him as the farmer ambled down the garden path and closed the front gate.
Before I was just the nosey onlooker but I was now enlisted by my mother for the lesson, the lesson of shame for my father. I was instructed to place the tree in the good bucket, the special one used for holding up Christmas trees, firm it straight with my father’s books, the penguin paperbacks of Evelyn Waugh, Tom Barry’s “My Guerrilla Days” and there it stood, not in all its naked glory in the space of the bay window, but an embarrassment gradually shrinking before my mother’s stare. I swear it practically shivered and shed the last of its few needles, getting smaller and smaller by the second in the ever vast expanses of her Bay window.
“God isn’t it a grand specimen” said my father making one last attempt at exaggeration, followed by a desperate won’t it do, his powers of rhetoric, logic and persuasion disappearing by the millisecond before the scalded eye of my mother.
“You call that a Christmas tree” she woundingly said, her mind probably full of the platonic ideal of what a real man was, a somebody from Annabella terrace and what a real Christmas tree should be a huge elegant tree filling her bay window and with a customary nod of her head to me she damned the imposter to the hell of the outhouse coal shed where it would be stripped to provide the blaze for the Christmas morning fire.
There was an ambivalence to a woman’s view of the purpose of a Christmas tree in those days. There was the inward Victorian ideal of a happy family gathered around its branches exchanging gifts and there was the second outward view, the importance of display. That damn tree had to be seen to fill that huge bay window and bloody well impress the neighbours. Even at the tender age of 8 I knew that.
And so it happened that my mother passed her Christmas tree ideal to the next generation. I became throughout the 1950’s her eyes and ears for the perfect Christmas tree. From early December on I consulted with shopkeepers, kept an ear out for Christmas tree deliveries and my eye was trained and zoned in on any Christmas tree that loitered for sale outside the doors of grocery shops, Mortell’s the fishmonger, and the three hardware shops in the town. I was quick to reject the scraggy, the short stumpy, the tall skinny arboreal giants pretending to be specimen Christmas trees. They were all dismissed by an eye trained by the expansive arrogance of that bay window. This tree had to be as wide as it was tall. Like an ample matron.
At the age of 8 I became a Christmas tree aesthete.
At the age of 8 I learnt the psychological needs of a woman.
At the age of 8, I became a counsellor to the soul of my parent’s marriage.
So in those distant 50’s every December the people of the Spa would witness a walking tree heading to the only house with a bay window, enveloping the legs of a boy.
When the correctly proportioned tree filled the bay window I knew my mother’s secret desire for ostentatious display was satisfied. On the way home from midnight Mass she would take pride in its luminous presence shining down the whole street through the frosted bay window. My father was assured of his “quiet life” for Christmas and my sisters were indeed happy playing with their prams and dolls under the shadow of the tree on Christmas morning. All absolutely content! As content as that colossal lit-up Christmas tree in that vast Bay window! As content as my mother in her kitchen, cooking up a storm.
P.S. The reject was spotted by one of my playmates and ended up living out its Christmas tree dream in his family’s much more modest window!
All was well with the world. I had done well for an 8 year old.