The Memory Tree
A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young When he left WENN that night, his step was considerably lighter. After the uncertainty of the past few days, it looked as if it would be a wonderful holiday after all.
Miss Gloria Redmond, every inch a lady, had offered him a ride home, but he assured her it was only a short distance from the station and that he preferred to walk. They had chatted for over a half hour about Broadway and the Broadhurst and before she had left, escorted by a glowering Rollie Pruitt, she had kissed his cheek and, with tears in her eyes, thanked him for helping her.
As he walked he was still thinking about Betty Roberts, how her eyes had glowed like the stars he remembered from past Christmas Eves when she found out she could join her family for the holidays, thanks to Mr. Sherwood. And what of Sherwood? His estimation of that gentleman seemed to change every day. When Scott Sherwood arrived in Pittsburgh a few months back, he hadn't had much of a good opinion about him
but he seemed different lately.
He raised an eyebrow against the chill air and chuckled as he made his way past the little neighborhood stores, shut and shuttered now. Could the difference have been made by Betty herself?
Of course Tom Eldridge turned on his heel to see who had called him, but the doors of the little Italian grocery at his left were as tightly closed as any of its neighbors and only a small light burned from the back room. But he understood. Evidently it was going to be one of those nights where his memories took free rein. He always allowed it; most of them were pleasant, the sad or wistful ones even had a place in his heart, despite the hurt. And Christmas Eve was indeed a appropriate time for them to return.
He'd been here early this evening, of course, fetching his Christmas tree. Mr. Montella, the big bear of a man who ran the shop, always saved him a nice little tree. This one was three feet tall with dense branches, and he carried it with him now, having stored it in the gents at WENN, to trim when he arrived home.
"Why-a you not buy your tree early?" Cenzo Montella had demanded of him as the grocer sliced salami for the sandwich he'd ordered for his supper. "The bambini had Theresa and I put ours up on-a Sunday."
"We always had ours on Christmas Eve," he'd told the younger man.
"Ah, you keep-a the traditions!" Montella had replied in delight, adding provolone to the sandwich. "Here, let me finishI show you our ceppo, no?"
"You don't have to show it to me if you don't want to."
Montella was in his fifties, built like a football halfback. When he laughed and slapped him on the shoulder he was staggered backward, caught by the grocer. "Scusi! Theresa says I do not know my own strength!"
The younger man finished up his sandwich, wrapping it snugly in waxed paper and tucking it in a paper bag along with a ripe orange from the fruit display. When he protested, the retort was, "For Natale!" and the decision was allowed to stand.
Then Montella had guided him to a corner in the rear of the crowded little grocery, canned goods squeezed between boxed and bagged foods, yet other commodities hanging from the ceilingkerosene lamps, flyswatters, flypaper, ladles, colanders, cheese graters. There his wife had cleared a spot.
"The children, they want the new Medigone things, you know, the big tree, the Santa Claus? But Theresa and I always have our ceppo. We keep it here. The folks from the old country like it. Ecco!"
He had examined the four-foot tall wooden structure set on a fruit crate, made of upright dowels that supported triangles of wood starting at fifteen inches wide at the bottom and growing smaller proportionally as the decoration increased in height. The topmost triangle was small, with enough room to hold only an angel figurine; on the shelves set in between there were candy and trinkets and bits of pine bough that had fallen off the trees Montella had sold for Christmas, plus sprigs of holly. Carefully arranged on the lowest shelf was a nativity scene, to which the storekeeper pointed with a generous hand.
"You see? Guiseppe, Maria, the shepherds, the sheep, the little ass and the ox. And tonight..." And he rummaged behind the big counter for a moment and emerged with a small carved figure of a baby about an inch long. "...tonight it is time to put the bambino in!" and Montella set the tiny figure in the equally small manger. "On the Epiphany we put-a up the Kings and the camels. Therese, she will keep-a it up until Gennario is over."
He had felt quite warmed by the sight. It was a ceremony he knew Montella had kept for years, like his own tabletop- sized Christmas tree.
Before he left, Montella handed him a paper bag of sweets
round cookies covered in powdered sugar, wedge shaped brown cookie slices, several handfuls of hard Christmas candy, a candy cane, and a half-dozen minute boxes, each with a single nougat candy inside. "The torrone, it is a little-a hard. You put it near the radiator, it chews better, okay?"
When he finally arrived at the large Queen Anne-style house, he quietly opened the front door and ascended the stairs to the third floor. All of the other residents were probably asleep; the doors to the big front room were tightly closed. Tomorrow, as they had every year since he'd lived here in Pittsburgh, Mrs. Cole would have a big tree and a Christmas dinner for the few residents like him who hadn't gone to visit family.
Young Tom had invited him for Christmas, of course, the usual perfunctory request, but it would have meant a train ride and the strained feelings at the end of the journey. There was no way he could afford to see Daisy or Ellen, so he remained in Pittsburgh.
He had a day off tomorrow, but perhaps later in the afternoon he could walk back to the station, help Mackie and Maple and Lester with the Christmas programming.
It was a pleasant, even large room, that he had at Mrs. Cole's, which had once been a children's nursery. Where the flowered wallpaper had peeled down in one corner, you could still see Jack-Be-Nimble and Humpty Dumpty peering out in frayed and faded interest. The bed with its spindle posts was his, the only thing remaining from the old house, and above the bed were the family portraits: a badly-faded daguerreotype of his parents, Margaret in a beautiful ivory gown on their wedding day, Young Tom and Daisy astride the pony on his brother Joe's farm, Ellen sitting for a photo on her fifth birthday, the yellowing shot of Young Joe in his uniform, just before he'd left for France never to return.
The rest of the furniture was Mrs. Cole's, worn, but serviceable items, a small table and a chair opposite from the bed, an armchair before the electric heater that provided him with warmth in the winter, and a small end-table that he usually kept next to the chair.
It was now after midnight, but he was still too restive to sleep. Instead he opened the big closet next to the bed, burrowed deep into a corner, and withdrew a large pasteboard box containing the only other things he had kept from his married life.
But first things first: he mounted the little tree on the plain wooden base that had lain on top of the box. Then he set tree and base on the little table, which he had moved in front of his window.
This little spruce looked a lot like his mother's trees. Mama had been Pennsylvania German, from a town a stone's- throw outside Lancaster. Papa was teaching when she met him, a Quaker schoolmaster from Maryland, a tall sleek man with side whiskers and twinkling eyes. They were married in 1858 and he had been born right before the war broke out. He didn't remember much where they lived back then, it was a country place, and Mama always had her Christmas tree, although Papa didn't think it seemly for a Quaker household to have such a worldly thing. She decorated it with popcorn strings and ginger cookies tied on the branches with gay red and green ribbon; she told the children that at home her family had gilt thingswalnuts and little figurines made from bright paperbut cookies and popcorn were as far as Papa would bend.
Mama would have put candles on the tree, but as he grew older he never liked the risk. Instead he had a set of ten electric lights he had purchased from Woolworth's some years earlier. These he put on the tree first. Then he reached into the box for the first of the decorations.
He could hear Eustis' voice as if it were yesterdayfunny how he could barely remember what the last visitor before Pruitt had sounded like, but he could hear Eustis as clearly as ever.
After the war ended the family had moved South for a while, to Greensboro, North Carolina. It was the place he remembered as home for most of his childhood. Papa had a job teaching the freedmen and the climate was better for Mama, who was still weak from a fever she had suffered almost a year earlier. Papa had hired Elizabeth Mason to help Mama with the laundry and the heavy cleaning and with Mrs. Mason came Eustis. They were nearly the same age, Eustis on the high side of six, he a few months younger.
Back then he'd always thought it was funny that Eustis was so dark and his mother so light. It was only when he grew older that he understood that Mrs. Mason's father must have been one of the plantation owners, or perhaps a son of the estate. While Eustis had been the first colored boy he'd ever seen, he didn't see much difference in him than his white classmates. They were friends from the day they met, and his first fistfight had been at age nine, defending Eustis from some older boys pushing him around in the mud. The nicest epithet they'd called him was "darky."
Later Eustis had called at the back door to thank him. His face had been swollen and lopsided, his lip split, his clothing torn.
"Don't defend me anymore, Mars' Tom. It just gets both of us in trouble." It had indeed. Papa had punished him for fighting as well. It was not seemly for Quakers to fight, his father had said, although when he asked if it wasn't seemly to defend a friend who was being hurt, Papa had looked distinctly uncomfortable.
It bothered him that he couldn't even get Eustis to quit calling him the hated "Mars' Tom." "Folks hereabouts hear me not respecting you, I could look like this again. Might even make it bad for Momma."
It was a kind of invisible fence between them that he hated.
The first Christmas they were in North Carolina, Mama had set up the tree at their front window and people came to stare at it the entire holiday season. That first year she was exhausted from offering the visitors tea and cookies.
Eustis had actually pointed at it and asked him, "What's that?"
Mama didn't understand; they'd all heard so many stories about how the holidays were celebrated down South, instead of ignored as in dour New England. Elizabeth Mason had explained, "Well, yes, Miz Lottie, we did, but we just decorated the house with greens. Never heard of putting up no tree. There was lots of food and Master would give us a holiday for three-four days." Most folks, he learned later, saw Christmas trees at Sunday school classes or in church.
Mama died of consumption just after he turned twelve and Papa took them back to live in Maryland where his sister Eleanor could care for them. It was autumn and he remembered feeling as bedraggled as the leaves lying wet and muddy on the ground.
"These all are for you," Eustis said as they met on the road for the last time, "for yo' Christmas tree. You probably won't be wanting no Christmas tree this year, but maybe next. I always was thankful you let me share it with ya'll."
What Eustis gave him was a string of gilded balls made from sweet gum pods. "Went to the shop myself and got me some gold paint and colored 'em," he added.
After seventy years several of the pods had broken and the gilt left on the rest had tarnished and the spikes were dull. But he placed the makeshift garland around the tree as gently as if it were spun glass.
Where was Eustis now? he wondered. Buried in the old colored cemetery past the grove of chinaberry trees? Or a shuffling old man like himself, still kow-towing to people who didn't understand, like George Smith?
He owed George a letter. He would write one directly, he decided, tomorrow, after Christmas dinner and the festivities in Mrs. Cole's front room.
Living with Aunt Ellie wasn't bad. She wasn't Mama, but she treated them well. But her little home was bulging at the seams and when he finished grammar school he quit with formal schooling forever and took a succession of clerking jobs. It grieved Papa, who'd hoped he'd become a schoolmaster as well. But Louisa had gone into teaching and that had partially mollified Papa.
When he was eighteen Papa received an appointment to teach in a boys' school just north of New York City. The whole family had moved: Louisa to go to the Normal School, Katie to keep house for Papa, Grover and Joe to finish grammar school. He began work at a prosperous dry goods store and to Papa's dismay, began to frequent the vaudeville theatres and minstrel shows in the area. He loved the music and the comedy acts, and
although he wouldn't mention it to Papa the attractive young ladies that seemed so free with their charms. If he had, Papa would be certain to think he would grow up to be a wastrel.
"Hello! You must be new here," a bright, light voice said in his memory as he removed the tissue wrapping from the glass angel that had sat on their treetop since the new century had begun. Ellen had spied it in a shop window and persuaded her Aunt Katie to buy it. "So we will think of Mamma every Christmas," she told her.
As if they had not been thinking of Mamma every day.
But the Margaret who spoke in his memory was not the thin, wasted woman who had died of rheumatic fever in the fall of 1899. Instead it was the fair-haired girl who had strolled into the dry-goods shop that morning, just back from a summer at the shore. When she smiled at him angels had sung.
She introduced herself boldly as Margaret Heuleatt and, to his surprise, he found out her father was an empresario at his favorite vaudeville house, the Star; his favorite as much from the buxom female performers who attracted him as for the quality of the shows. Several years later he would meet a fellow named Patrick Connally, a.k.a. Pepper Canarsie, there, but now there was only Margaret, in her rakishly tilted straw hat over a stylish striped walking suit, who had bicycled to the store to pick up sewing supplies for her mother. Instead they'd chatted for a half hour about the theatre and the acts and Margaret had returned home without the silks her mother had asked her for.
He smoothed the top of the angel's glossy head with a rough thumb. Papa had disapproved, of course, but he ended up spending more and more time at the Star, eventually getting a part-time position there evenings while he worked days behind the dry-goods counter. It was Margaret who was the attraction, now, although the vaudeville life compelled him as well. He was good with his hands and soon he found himself working full time behind the scenes. Technically he'd been hired as stage crew, but he found himself building sets, constructing a crude version of the trap door he perfected many years later
and courting Margaret Heuleatt. They were married in '85 and young Tom was born a year later.
He set the angel on the treetop, fussing over it until it stood up straight. How Ellen would have scolded him! "The angel goes on last, Papa," he could hear her say.
Betty Roberts reminded him of both his daughters, he realized. She was creative, like Daisy, and practical, like Ellen, the Ellen who, at age eight, had made the neat crocheted snowflakes he drew next from the box.
She was their fifth child, but only the third surviving one. Two babies, a girl born after Tom who had a cleft palate and only lived a month, and another son who had lived nine months only to be snuffed out when diphtheria ran like wildfire through the theatre community, were represented by little kid shoes in the Christmas box. Margaret had wept for days over Bonnie, but privately he had thought her death kind: there were no surgeries then like now to correct her twisted mouth; had the child been able to eat she would have been unable to talk, taunted by the cruelties of that earlier world. But Freddy...he had been the most engaging baby, already starting to pull himself up to walk, babbling incoherent sounds that resembled words, the darling of backstage.
And then there was little Ellen, forever doomed to be in the shadow of her older sister Daisy. If she felt resentment about it, it was never voiced: Daisy was the butterfly of the family, but it was Ellen, especially as they grew older, who held things together. At five she was already helping out her mother
later her aunt in the kitchen, by ten she was an accomplished housewife. Daisy was not above housework, but she was awkward in cleaning where in painting and singing she could do no wrong, and capable Ellen overshadowed her in what her Aunt Katie thought the more useful of the two talents. Daisy made things pretty, Ellen made them warm.
He scattered the small tree with the small lacy flakes so that it looked as if a veritable snowstorm had come upon it. They were limp and yellowed; he recalled that last year Mrs. Cole had offered to bleach and starch them, but somehow he had been reluctant to release them from his possession. Perhaps this year. Elmira Cole was a gentle soul; she would treat them with care, restore Ellen's craft to its original beauty.
The two kid shoes, one tiny, one baby sized, went on the tree next. He set them under the angel; three angels there now. Oh, how his Aunt Lillie and Papa and sister Louisa and even brother Grover had predicted that their children would grow up wild, wandering backstage, associating with those "heathenish theatrical people." And how he and Margaret would laugh, watching their "wild" children grow to be polite and forebearing, while many of their fellow "disciplined" classmates taunted and bullied others.
He drew in his breath as he withdrew a smaller box from his container of Christmas ornaments. Inside nestled six baubles, five of them newer, in different shapes
a zeppelin, an angel, a striped sphere scattered with the remnants of isinglass, a Santa Claus's head chipped by years of small children's caresses, the traditional German pickle bought year by year by beauty-loving Daisy, who saved up a precious five cents each fall and availed herself of Woolworth's glittering selection of German- imported finery. This was before the Great War, before everything "Boche" became abhorrent, when they could still admire the craftsmanship of the fragile Lauscha trimmings.
The sixth ornament was older still.
"Please Papa, please, may I have it?"
Tommy... That was the Christmas of 1895, its cruel edges still as keen as if they had happened yesterday. A destructive fire at the Star had curtailed performances, times were hard. He was working part time days and Saturdays at a lumberyard, and Tommy had pleaded to be able to help. For his small chores, sweeping up sawdust, keeping the yard clean from the continual messes of the dray horses, the nine-year-old boy was earning a few cents to "help out."
But on Saturday evenings there was a treat for both of them: Margaret would be working at the Star, the rest of the children with her. On their way to join the family, he and Tommy would stop by the delicatessen and have a thick dime sandwich of pastrami and cheese that came with a hot cup of coffee (the coffee was their secret, considered bad for growing children).
But this night, a windy, cold evening in late November, Tommy was pressed up against the display window of Woolworth's, his blue eyes wide at the beautiful ornaments dangling on fine wires in the window. The window dresser's talent was evident, for the display had stopped more people than just a little boy, and a blast of steam-heated air ruffled Tommy's hair each time a new patron entered the store.
"Papa, look!" He was pointing at one of the three-dimensional ornaments. The display card said they were Dresdens and actually made of embossed paper; they looked metallic and were hand-painted with colorful trim. Tommy's choice did not surprise him: it was a dragoon mounted upon a cavalry horse, silver with red, gold, and green trim. Other boys were crazy about the new horseless carriages, but for Tommy all that existed were horses, whether plow or carriage animals. He knew every horse at the lumberyard by name, helped to groom them whether the hostlers offered him money or not, although more often they did. "Papa, might I have one? Please?"
Tommy had labored so hard in the past weeks that he actually drew our his purse to count his coins. It was no more than had been left this morning, a mere dime and ten dull pennies seated in his palm. The rest had been used to placate the landlord and pay the grocer something toward their account. He showed the coins to his son regretfully. "This is all we have, for our supper."
Tommy looked longingly at the ornament, back to the coins. He had seen the little boy swallow, for the enticing aromas of the delicatessen had already called to the hungry child.
"Mayn't I have this, Papa, instead of my supper?"
There were dreams back then in young Tom's eyes that he couldn't fathom, dreams of becoming an Army officer, perhaps, but always something to do with his beloved horses. "You've worked hard all day, son. You'll be starving in a few hours."
"Skipping supper won't hurt me," Tommy had pleaded, and his memory had flickered back earlier in the day, the boy's small back bent resolutely over his broom, intent on "helping out." In a moment they were inside as well, thawing as they paid for the piece of finery, Tommy's face aglow as they left with a carefully carried brown paper parcel.
He'd given Tommy half his sandwich and half his coffee that evening, notwithstanding his own hunger.
He tenderly placed the tarnished ornament on the tree. What had happened to his boy, the dreamy, sweet Tommy of that winter's night? But he knew the answer as clearly as he remembered that evening: four years later the brunt of his mother's death would fall on his shoulders. He was a long time recovering and his eldest had taken up the cause dutifully, but the dreaming boy was forever lost. Now they barely spoke: Tommy
no, Tom was too absorbed in his business, determined to never have his children want as he felt he had wanted.
The next voice spoke too soon after that harsh memory.
"So how do I look in uniform, Pop? Pretty snappy, eh?"
He had to close his eyes and swallow for a moment, for another bittersweet item lay at the bottom of the box, freed from its wrappings: an enameled Red Cross pin. It wasn't properly an ornament, but it had graced the tree since 1919, when Young Joe's effects had been returned from France. He'd been too young to go for a soldier, but so determined to join up that he'd reluctantly signed the papers that let the boy become an ambulance driver. He'd told himself it would be safer: the crowing baby that had been his only solace after Margaret died would come home, marry his childhood sweetheart, with his father's knack for fixing things find himself a good position somewhere. He told himself so even though he was afraid.
The Red Cross pin was tenderly affixed between the baby shoes.
There was one more parcel in the Christmas box, carefully wrapped in soft red tissue paper. Here were happier memories, the products of Daisy's hand, cornucopias made of silvered and gilded paper, trimmed with "scraps," little paper figures of St. Nicholas and angels and little Victorian girls in muffs and warm coats. Sweet Daisy, like her mother, one who could make something beautiful of the littlest things. She'd telephone him early tomorrow from her home near San Francisco, bright with some news of her husband, also an artist, of their children. He'd revel in the sounds of their voices calling "Merry Christmas, Grandpa" and find out what each of them was doing in school
not even school, because Joey, her eldest, had just been graduated from college last spring.
His eyes blurred suddenly. Time flew so swiftly. He remembered walking down the aisle with Daisy, her wedding dress a confection of pale blue because she loved color as she loved her art, and how the family had shaken their heads. And a few years later it was with Ellen, of course in a more traditional gown, but that was Ellen, as Daisy was Daisy, and he was so happy and proud for them both, desperately wishing Margaret had lived to see her daughters married
when he wasn't trying to corral mischievous Joe, who felt that even weddings were prime opportunities for small practical jokes.
And now baby Joe was out in the world making a living.
The cornucopias dressed what was left of the tree. But they were empty.
Then he smiled, finding Montella's small parcel of treats, distributing the multicolored hard candy in each of the containers. Tomorrow morning after Daisy and Ellen telephoned, he would take them downstairs to share with the young engineer and the elderly seamstress and the music teacher who also boarded at Mrs. Cole's. They would have dinner and music and later he would write a letter to George Smith and then wrap himself in hat and coat and walk back to WENN, where his other family, his adopted family, spun music and laughter for others. It was good to spread such things on Christmas day.
But until then, until he fell asleep, he would sit and watch his Christmas tree and all the memories strung upon it.
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