From Montreal, With Love

We’ve been gone eight days, but it feels like we have been gone a month. My third Christmas tree story takes place this year, when our family of four decided to break with tradition and drive until we left the country. We went to Montreal, Quebec.

It was all Carolyn’s idea. As I have mentioned here before, my daughter loves adventure and travel. She is also in her senior year of high school and speaks often about how much she looks forward to being done with us, on her own. Just as soon as she leaves for college. Does she know where she wants to go? I hear you say. If one more person asks her that, she’ll burst. I remind her about her deadlines and ask about letters of reference. She promises me, with a toss of the hand, that she has this college business sorted.

Many months ago she asked if we could travel to a foreign locale instead of going to Wisconsin to see our extended families for winter break. I thought this was sweet. It seemed to me she was signalling to us that her last Christmas before she moves away meant something to her, that she wanted to make it count. She says not really. She just wanted to change the routine.

Carolyn suggested Canada in light of the fact that both she and her brother would enjoy a properly snowy Christmas. My son Henry is 14 and loves the feeling of being cold. He got his wish. We left DC, a place where December temperatures were hovering around 70 degrees, for a place where the daytime high was 17.

Our drive to Montreal involved a stop in Rutland, Vermont, a town that represents to my husband what Shorewood, Wisconsin, represents to my boy — the most idyllic years of his childhood. We arrived in Rutland after a harrowing passage through the Green Mountains at night in dense fog. The next day, Paul stood in front of the house with the screened in porch where he once played poker with his grandmother while it rained and lightning struck nearby. He showed us where a candy store had been where he bought comic books, the gazebo in the park where activists gathered to protest the Vietnam War, and the hill where he and his friends raced bicycles.

Lastly, we found the elementary school he attended, which is now boarded up. The kids and I paid attention to his stories. We snapped a photo of the house. I told Henry that one day he may stand in front of our old house on Newton Avenue with his kids, describing what life was like in the early 00s. He laughed.

Watch, I said. Families change.

The next day we drove through an ice storm to arrive in Montreal which had seen quite a bit of snow. The storm had knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of people in Toronto, but in Montreal the weather was kinder. Plows had not yet cleared foot-deep snow in the streets. Cars, buildings, sidewalks and trees were all coated in white, like in a holiday greeting card.

In the weeks leading up to this trip, Henry was concerned about keeping our traditions on the road. Would we exchange gifts on Christmas Day? Would we watch Miracle on 34th Street like always? (We would.) What about a tree? I could see he was not totally on board yet with our travel plans.

About a week before we left, I secretly took Henry to a department store. We bought a few presents. Henry insisted we also buy a small tree, something portable that would fit in the hatchback with all of our luggage. We found a plastic evergreen that stands about 18 inches tall. After that, Henry was more excited about this holiday vacation. The first thing he did when we arrived at our hotel in Montreal was unpack the little tree and set it up on an end-stand with the gifts around it. We didn’t decorate the tree or spend much time looking at it. This tree was just there, in the background, with us all the time. I thanked Henry for setting the mood. “Yes,” he said. “Without the tree, this would be just another road trip.”

I loved the city. One night Carolyn and I walked to holiday-lit, Old Port of Montreal. She bought lithographs from a man selling art under a street lamp, and we got tickets to midnight Christmas Eve Mass at the Notre-Dame Basilica. I am not a church-going person, and Carolyn is a self-described atheist, but we went anyway. We enjoyed the grandeur inside and the roof-raising holiday hymns. Everything was in French which we don’t speak. But we understood well enough. I lit a votive candle and said a prayer for our family’s safe journey home.

One day, all four of us ate at a French-style cafe where the waiter brought a huge platter of meat — sausages and pâte and ham surrounding a pot of fondue. Afterwards, we discovered this meal cost a small fortune. So we bought a loaf of bread and some mustard and lived off the left-overs of that platter for two days.

In the morning, the kids and I trekked a series of snow-covered stairs up Mount Royal to take in picturesque views of the city in falling snow. Carolyn and I toured the Montreal Museum of Fine Art where we saw expert Inuit sculptures made of stone. This was Chrismas like we’ve never seen it before. Everything in Montreal was new to us.

We made two stops on our long drive back to Maryland – for sushi at our favorite restaurant in Sleepy Hollow, and for a walk through Central Park with a friend in New York City. We recapped the week, and got on each other’s nerves. We talked about whether there would be another road trip together anytime soon, since next year Carolyn may have plans to be with other people, or she might be traveling to Istanbul or Paris. Or, she may be surprised to find out she misses us, and all those cozy hours in the Prius. You never know.

We arrived at our home late at night and travel-weary, and we went through our mail which had piled up. In amongst the holiday cards and bills was a large envelope addressed to Carolyn. She took it to her room to open.

Through her door, we heard her holler out — she’s been accepted into that art school in the midwest that she wanted. And they’ve offered her a fat scholarship.

With that, we bid adieu to our winter holiday, and turned our attention to the coming New Year.



Christmas To Remember

This holiday season, I offer you three stories of Christmas trees — long-past, more-recent past and present. This is the second installment. However you celebrate the season, I hope you enjoy these. 

At the time of my earlier story about my mom and her Ambrose Christmas Tree poem, I was not yet born. By the time of this second story, I was an adult with children of my own.

The year was 2004. It was the first snowy weekend of December in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

Paul and I and Carolyn and Henry went shopping for a live tree together and brought it home and set it up. We set it in the stand and let it rest a bit first. Then, Carolyn who was 8 at the time and Henry who was just 5 helped decorate the tree. We used lights, candycanes, and some new orgnaments we picked up on the way home from the tree lot. I lit candles around the house and put on some music. Amy Grant was singing “Christmas to Remember.” Our house had dark hardwood floors and white Spanish plaster walls that reflected the ambient holiday light. 

Carolyn remarked several times, “This is the most wonderful feeling. I am all warm and fuzzy inside. This is the most perfect Christmas ever. I feel all smiley and relaxed.” 

The kids wanted us to all get together in the living room to look at the tree. Dad was busy hanging wreaths outside the house. When he was finished and I was done with my tea, we all gathered on the couch next to the tree. Whoops. Henry forgot his blankie. So he ran to get it. Finally, we resettled back into our places, all in a row. Paul sighed and said, “This is it, kids. It just doesn’t get any better than this.” 

In one synchronized motion, we turned together to admire our lovely tree. At just the moment we did so, it promptly crashed to the floor. “AHHHH!” Carolyn cried out as we all watched it tip slightly and then tumble in slow motion. Pop! Crackle! Smash!

Lights out, broken organments, the star topper snapped in two, water everywhere! Paul and I immediately started laughing. Our happy scene went from Hallmark Card moment to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in a matter of seconds. At first, Carolyn was mortified and couldn’t figure out what was so funny. Henry was likewise stunned.  

Paul and I sprang into action. After a little work, we got the tree back up again. Carolyn watched us struggle to find the center point of our wobbly evergreen and quipped, “I think this Christmas is going to be all about balance.”

The kids redecorated with the surviving ornaments. We restarted the holiday tunes and then took our places again on the sofa. At that point, we were almost afraid to look, but we again turned together to gaze at our pretty tree — only now with added appreciation for its perfect sense of comic timing. 

We spoke about the tree as if it had consciousness and knew exactly what it was doing. I pointed out that by falling down just then, the tree didn’t mean to ruin our perfect Christmas moment. I said the tree was just making sure we would never forget it.   

And so, we never have. 

Here’s wishing you and yours a holiday season to remember, with lots of light and laughter. 



Christmas Tree Stories – Part 1

This holiday season, I offer you three stories about Christmas trees, long-past, more-recent past and present. Whatever your traditions for celebrating family, friends and good will, I wish you well and hope you enjoy these. 

The first of these holiday posts is the story of the “Ambrose Christmas Tree”, a poem my mother wrote in 1969, when she had “only” eight children. I wasn’t born yet, but I was there in spirit. By the time it was printed the following year for the family holiday card, she was expecting me. (And there were two more kids after that.) As I was thinking of sharing the poem here, I wrote to ask my mom’s permission. I found out more about that moment in our family, and was amazed at the details a mother remembers more than 40 years later.

“That poem doesn’t tell it all,” my mother said in a recent email. “That was quite a December. We had 5 kids in school and 3 at home, two still in diapers.  That year, the nuns at school requested different items for the kids to bring to school for projects they were working on: one wanted ribbon, another wanted yarn, another spaghetti pasta, another a different style of noodles and so on. Rusty (the oldest) had the flu and stayed home from school. When he started feeling better he decided to put up the Christmas tree. When he took it out of the box, guess what? The major stem was broken. But you know Russ. With a little creativity, some nails, glue and tape, he managed to put it together well enough so that it didn’t fall down…

Finally the last day of school before Christmas vacation arrived. The kids started bringing home all the things they had made. Lea’s project was a huge Santa made of two pieces of construction paper stapled together. It was decorated with glitter. However, when she applied the glue, it ran. So of course her glitter was crooked. She was so devastated. Nonetheless, I placed it on the tree in a very special spot. Everything was so hectic. But every time I looked at the tree I chuckled and started jotting down my thoughts. My little poem just about wrote itself. I started to write a story about it one time, but I don’t think I finished it. I called it: ‘The Red Paper Santa.'” 

Mom said that her mother sent the poem out to people she knew and rumor was that someone read it on-air over radio in Ohio. My mother’s aunt taught in a classroom and used it one of her classes. So, Mom figures it’s okay for me to share it online.  This poem is one of my favorites. I think she should write more. Enjoy.


By Joan Ambrose

When we were first wed, on the yule tree we bought
  All trimmings were placed with a great deal of thought!
Each trim had it’s place which had to be right- – –
  From each piece of tinsel to each twinkling light.

But when all of our children, one by one, came
 Somehow our tree just wasn’t the same.
The bright fancy trims about which I have spoken
 Over the years have come to be broken.

But alas! Alas!  Do not despair!
 This year our tree is the best anywhere!
From the bottom branch to the top of the tree
 It is loaded with new trims.  The finest you’ll see.

There’s a red paper Santa with glitter askew,
 Chains made of paper, fastened with glue.
There are bright little toys made of cornstarch clay,
 And huge wads of tinsel hung every which way.

There’s a paper cone angel with a styro-foam head.
 And our babe in the manger has a tinsel bed.
There are paper plates, glitter, assorted strings,
 Cotton and noodles made into all kinds of things.

This year our tree stands proud and tall
 Boasting so many trims both large and small
Made by our kids with such loving care
 I know it is the best Christmas Tree anywhere.



Moving at Winter’s Speed

Outside, a cold weather front is trying really hard to snow. Or, what passes for snow in the DC area. Which is actually sleet. Inside, the aroma of a leftover roast being reheated into sandwiches wafts up from the kitchen. The house is full of us, but quiet.  Though it’s still astronomically autumn for another week, it sure feels like winter has arrived. 

My family and I came from a place where winters are considerably tougher. My teenage kids especially miss the deep snows of Wisconsin. I am glad for the longer falls here and colorful early springs, which make the winter season shorter and easier. Even so, I can find the darkness a challenge, since my office job takes me inside during the few bright hours of December weekdays. I have to make a conscious effort to see the sun.

Winter used to get me down. But years ago, an apple farmer pointed out something to me that people closer to the land understand. Every living thing that experiences winter goes through an adjustment, a change of gear. Trees pull into their roots. Animals grow new coats, hibernate or fly south. Our own bodies go through metabolic realignment as we become accustomed to the cold. We crave different foods for a reason. Before we had artificial light, allowing us to stay awake at all hours, people slowed down in winter, too. Winter asks us to change our routine. But how many of us do? How many of us expect to keep the same pace all year round, or worse — speed up as we move through the holidays?

Once I accepted the premise that winter is about down-shifting, I began to enjoy it more. Roll with it instead of fighting it. I go to bed early. I switch sports. I bike less and do yoga more. I tighten my social calendar. Family sees more of me and friends see less. I get back to reading my book list. Mostly, I take the pressure off to be productive every single minute. I allow more time for sitting still. And in that sitting still, I reflect. On the past year, a snowy view, a warm house…

A few weeks ago, I finally finished a couch-to-5K program that I had been working on, guided by podcasts in my phone. My progress was so slow. Life kept getting in the way. It took me three tries before I could complete the nine-week regimen, which requires three interval training sessions per week with incremental increases in the running time. And then one day, I ran the full 30 minutes. Sometimes progress is like that. It can be hard to see your next breakthrough when the improvements are imperceptibly gradual.

Winter can be like that, too. From the moment it officially arrives, on the solstice, the season is already on its way out. The days start growing longer again. Just a few minutes per week, but that’s all it takes. Soon it will be time for a new growth spurt and a new year.

So in the meantime, below the surface, winter is strengthening the roots of your life. My advice is try not to rush it. Enjoy. Do get out in the daylight if you can. Bundle up. Reconnect with loved ones. Then have a cup of tea and a nap. And let winter do its thing.