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Rose Simpson: My Christmas tree and the kindness of strangers

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(This post originally appeared on Rose’s Cantina on November 30.) _ This afternoon, we will clear out my antique accountant’s desk from under the front window, vacuum up all the dog hair that’s been hiding under it, and put up our fake Christmas tree, the one we rescued from a neighbor’s lawn, the one that had a sign on it that said “free to a good home”.

We got that Christmas tree three years ago when we were so broke we couldn’t afford to buy one. We were at our lowest point. Nobody in the house was working much, a baby was one the way and I was about to become a Grandmother, and the planning for Christmas had become more of a nuisance than a joy.

The previous few years hadn’t been much better. Our video business had failed spectacularly in the midst of the digital boom. Our once profitable little enterprise had been crushed by a technological lightening strike enabling any teenager to afford an HD camera. Our expensive professional gear, meanwhile, was gathering dust in the corner.

There was no reason to feel sorry for ourselves.

It’s not like we had small children and a lot of mouths to feed and expectations to meet at Christmas, we were simply wallowing in middle age as a dual divorced couple, people who got together with nothing in hopes of building something. And we had. We had, and still do have, a loving house, Scott helped me raise three wonderful young adults, and our home has always been filled with warmth, laughter and the wonderful smells of homemades coming from the kitchen.

We weren’t about money, not at all.

But something terrible came to our house the year of the free Christmas tree. Aside from the usual financial worries, we’d had to suddenly put down two of our precious dogs. Hannah, our beloved golden succumbed to cancer. Ming, the pug, died on the vet’s table prior to dental surgery. And Gordie, the last pug standing, had had a stroke during that same dental ordeal.

In a blink of time, we went from being the owners of three dogs, to the caregivers of one, very, very sick dog.

It was almost more than we could bear.

We spent the year in a state of utter grief and mourning. Our house of cards had started to topple one card at a time.

We had both given up and were living in the same house, worlds apart, Scott chugging to his sketchy car job with the stricken look of failure on this face, me fumbling around the house, bouncing from the television to the computer to the kitchen, trying to rattle my brain and find my voice again.

I can vividly remember that Christmas three years ago, anticipating the birth of my granddaughter but dreading it still, wondering what kind of life she would have, fearing she would be raised like I was, in poverty and struggle, wearing hand-me-downs, and wishing for the one good toy that the Santa at the mall could deliver.

Somehow, we managed to cobble together enough money for a few presents for our family and for the nice home cooked turkey dinner, but the Christmas tree was another matter. We nearly became those old people who give up on Christmas, who either buy a dollar store tree or just do without a tree altogether.

That would have been the ultimate sadness for me, the single mom who was always able to pull out Christmas like a magician does a rabbit. And the Christmas tree had become a symbol to me that all was right with the world.

But three years ago, I had my doubts.

So, I asked myself, how was it now, when the kids were grown, that our Christmas wishes could have been dashed so totally that we couldn’t even afford a tree?

I was hoping that if I just blinked, Christmas would be over.

And then came the miracle tree, found on the neighbor’s lawn with the sign ” free to a good home”.

Scott found it on his daily walk and dragged it home. He put it up and it was the most beautiful tree I’d ever seen, even though it was man-made. It was plump and pretty, nearly new, with all its branches. Our neighbor had saved our Christmas, at least the Christmas that was in my mind’s eye.

And we were Christmas whole again.

That’s not the end of the story, not even close.

Last year, again a tough year, my son Nick was cleaning out the garage and he threw out all my Christmas decorations. There wasn’t even a string of lights or a bauble, not a hand crafted and glittery home-made star from Marissa’s public school collection nor a “baby’s first Christmas” ornament.

You know the drill, ladies. You start out with nothing and collect them, a few baubles at a time. You carefully pack up your finds with tissue paper and gingerly put them in a box at the end of each season.

Now my collection was gone, all out in the trash.

I was livid and devastated.

The grumpy cat in me reared up and showed her claws.

“That’s it,” I cried. “I’m cancelling Christmas.”

I put my fury all over Facebook, breaking my own rule not to post in a snit.

Then I left it alone, went for a walk to the mall and spent my last twelve dollars on lights that covered only one third of the tree.

“There,” I said. “That is our Christmas tree.”

Then, another Christmas miracle happened.

My neighbor called. She was moving. Could I use her old ornaments and lights?

I rushed across the street and she gave me bags and bags and bags of stuff including ones from her own family Christmases, the ones made by her grandchildren. She hadn’t any use for them anymore, she said.

And so it was that our tree was filled with the wonder of the season again, from her house to ours.

What a wonderful seasonal surprise, even better than getting the free tree. What a kind gesture from a woman we knew only from brief conversations over the fence.

My heart was filled to the brim.

And the story’s not done yet.

This year, I’d painstaking planned for Christmas, saved for our dinner with our Loblaws’ points, put aside a little money every month so there would be no surprises.

And yet, there was still one to come, like God was rewarding me for being a good planner and saver.

A Facebook friend asked me if we could use some decorations, new ones she’d bought thinking hers had been lost. Turns out, she found her own, and had no need for the baubles and lights she’d bought.

How wonderful, I thought, as I climbed into the old car and headed out to meet her at her daughter’s Ringette game. She opened her trunk and filled my car with gorgeous and delightful symbols of the season, ones that would replace some of the older ones that had been good enough last year.

In all the years of single motherhood — twenty plus — I’d never been able to afford ornaments that actually matched before.

This year, we will have a posh looking tree, thanks to the generosity of my Facebook friend with a loving heart.

As my mother might have said: “Look at you, Rose, now aren’t you the Queen of England?”

Yes, mother I am. Maybe not the Queen of England, but Queen of the Christmas season.

This morning I will get busy, warm up the homemade quiche, put on a pot of coffee, and start my journey towards Christmas, assembling the bones of the borrowed tree from down the street, adding in the Christmas ornaments from my neighbor, the ones made by her grandchildren, and adding a dash of icing from the brilliant lights and balls provide by the other kind Ottawa neighbor.

I will cherish them all, and one day, hand them down to another other family members once I’m done with them. And I will sit around the borrowed tree and tell the story to my grand-daughter, now three, as I hug my three dogs, Gordie, the blind, incontinent, stroked-out pug and my two new ones, Finnigan and Sophie.

The Grinch is a good story, I’ll tell you, but I have the best story of all.

It’s about a Christmas tree doesn’t belong to me, the a community tree, made possible by the love, generosity and kindness by strangers, a reminder that just when you think you’re at your lowest point, you are never alone.