Growing up in New Hampshire, I’d visit my friends’ homes around the holidays and stand in front of their Christmas trees decked in bulbs and draped with garlands and glistening lights — a reflection, I supposed, of the glistening normality of their lives. That wasn’t the case in my family’s home, where, every year, we had a conifer that glistened with trash.
The Trash Tree originated in the 1980s when, after my two sisters and I were born, my father slid our hospital-issued ID bracelets high up onto the Christmas tree.
As the years melted away and my sisters and I hit the typical milestones of American children growing up in the ’90s and early aughts, my father’s ornaments multiplied. A drawing of a rudimentary house with some stick people? Get it a hook. Tee-ball participation ribbons? Hook ’em. The physical fitness award patch, an old pin cushion, a wrapper from our favorite candy (Atomic Fireballs)? Find those hooks, ASAP.
The ornamentation grew to encompass not only our achievements but the life events of others as well. The candle from my mother’s 50th birthday cake? Hook it. A prayer card from the funeral of a close relative, or some distant acquaintance, or the many — many — now-dead people in between? Hook ’em. Hang ’em.
When my father grabbed a hook and scooped out a chunk from the 78-pound pumpkin I won in sixth grade after guessing its correct weight, my mother put her foot down, the only time she ever did when it came to his holiday decor.
“I’ll preserve it! Dry it out!” my dad said, though I think even he knew that dangling a hunk of rotting squash from a Christmas tree was too much.
When the standard Christmas decorations were overtaken by my father’s, I dubbed ours the Trash Tree, an evergreen covered in what most would deem nothing more than garbage. “Why can’t we just have a nice tree like everyone else?” I asked while holding up an ornament carved out of old soap that resembled a mutilated Santa.
A flash of hurt crossed my father’s eyes. “Because we’re making memories with this trash!”
It was only recently that I pictured my father, a bull of a man who used to throw lengths of telephone poles over his shoulders and run up mountains for exercise, strolling through the aisles of Michaels or Joann Fabrics, a basket slung over his forearm while he perused the holiday section for various hooks and crowns.
Unlike many people who become experts in their hobbies through sheer practice, my father had a craft that became less, not more, refined as the years went by. The fancy store-bought materials eventually gave way to fishing wire or twine, urgency replacing any sense of precision or artistry.
Now a fraying friendship bracelet can hang alongside a seashell found on the New England shoreline. My father’s military dog tags can sway next to a Smurf figurine bought decades ago from a Gashapon machine outside Shop ’n Save.
The day before I left for college, I found my father in the basement tinkering at his workbench, his creation station for holiday decor. “Oh, hey, KK,” he said, referring to me by my nickname. “Look what I found.” In one hand he held a ceramic creature I’d made in second grade that had faded into a brick blob of greens and browns. In his other hand was a piece of wire.
“I think that’s going to be the thing that takes down the tree once and for all, Dad.”
Five years after that, my father was diagnosed with a type of hereditary spastic paraplegia, a rare neurological disease that has slowly impaired his ability to walk.
A few days after learning his diagnosis, I found my father in the basement. “Whatcha working on?”
“Ah, silly stuff,” he said, pushing aside triathlon medals he’d won throughout the years.
After we decorated the tree that year, I examined it in all its glory. By then I’d come to have a deep sense of pride in the Trash Tree, this weird, ever-growing canvas of creation and memory, a continuous time line of a family, of our lives. There were the usual suspects and a few new ones, including one mostly out of sight — one of my father’s triathlon medals.
A couple of months before my son’s first Christmas, a package arrived. Inside was a meticulously curated mix of decorations created over 30-plus years, all specific to me, many of which I’d never seen before, like a small pressed bouquet of wildflowers and various pine cones strung with metal wire. “KK Discoveries, age 4,” my father had written. I later learned he had curated boxes for each of my sisters, too — a childhood in a box, small poignant memories layered between thin sheets of plastic.
My son is 3 years old now. He recently drew a picture, held it up proudly to his dad and me. “I see a butterfly,” my partner, Christian, said. “Or maybe a moose from this angle,” I added.
Later that evening, Christian found me at the table, hunched over our son’s drawing and fiddling with a piece of string. He leaned over to get a better view of the soon-to-be ornament. “Ah,” he said. “And so it begins.”
Mikaela Conley is a journalist, writer, and editor in Berlin, Germany. Her work has appeared in The Guardian US, Wired UK, and the Los Angeles Times, and on the BBC and Yahoo News. Follow her on Twitter at @MikaelaConley.
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