Linda Merlino, Surf City
Bungie cords rattled and thumped against my car’s roof. I95 stretched ahead, trucks and automobiles hurled themselves into and out of the passing lane. Thoughts of an early Christmas celebration propelled me and my loaded SUV through New York, New Jersey, Maryland, DC, Virginia, and North Carolina. A conifer, cocooned in a blue tarp, lay hidden from the elements its imitation boughs strung with tiny bulbs ready to glow on command. The disdain for the tree impersonator on my roof was mounting. What was I thinking? We never had a fake tree…the grumbling had begun. Picking a tree had always been a family tradition. Fresh, full, tall, and wide with ornaments too many to count and lights strung with laughter, sarcasm, oohs, aahs, and forgiveness. So many Thanksmas celebrations, Christmas Eve parties, family, and friends come and gone. For years upon years, Father Time brought us all together then flung us miles apart. What once was taken for granted had become treasured. There had been Christmas gatherings on the road but never one as cherished as the one that brought us to Gaston Lake in the winter of 2017.
This would be different. Five days … only five days to fill a rental house with our energy, our singular brand of family, of food, laughs, tears, and joy. Five days to decorate a house on a lake in North Carolina. Less than a week to catch up, talk through the night, just be. Crazy plan. Three grown kids, their spouses, grandchildren and my ex-husband in the same state, same place, together nestled on a cul-de-sac, quiet and neighbor free a week before Christmas. The lake encompassed the backyard, replete with a dock, kayaks, paddles, a firepit and nature. The night sky got my memo and twinkled in velvet splendor dressed by the gods for the occasion. We brought provisions enough to thankfully sustain us as the realization that a trip to the store could take hours became our realty. Isolated we burrowed in. Cooked, baked, and toasted the morning chill, the afternoon warmth of an outside fire and an evening of favorite foods to keep us reminiscing and grateful. Sleep, rise, repeat. Third generations slept on the top floor with enough windows for light to filter across each bed at sunrise. Adults spread out among the generous sized bedrooms on the main floor and downstairs, most with a lake view.
Gingerbread cookies baked in the oven, oysters roasted on the grill, red and white wine flowed, tomato sauce bubbled on the stove, fresh pasta was in the wings. Tiramisu, cheesecake, and chocolate mousse created the illusion of home. The tree, almost forgotten, came off the car, its tarp a bit frayed from the journey on the interstate. The lack of green needles and fragrance was a blessing and a missing reminder of Christmas trees past. Grandchildren unwrapped the uninvited, manufactured guest. Little and big hands spread the boughs, adjusted the artificial to appear fresh and snow worthy and despite those opposed, found a place in the center of the living room. Standing tall, she rose to the occasion adorned with homemade ornaments of glue and Crayola, construction paper and glitter. Familiar stockings came out of suitcases to hang on our rented mantel next to the chimney for Santa.
The first of five sunsets was mirrored off the lake onto the sliding glass doors and the reflections of our faces in the magic lights of our box store substitute. A glow not forgotten of a forever memory that shattered the resistance of non-believers in a make-believe Christmas tree.