8. Hope Beneath the Branches

8. Hope Beneath the Branches

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

Hope Beneath the Branches

The wings of hope carry us, soaring high above the driving winds of life.

~Ana Jacob

Helplessly, I watched my husband stagger from the sheer weight of the enormous box, finally hoisting it through our front door and depositing it with a thud on the living room floor. Before even freeing the carton’s contents, I knew the truth.

We had seriously overestimated our modest home’s ability to host our first artificial Christmas tree.

I remained undeterred.

Eight months pregnant, I was relegated to reading the crisply folded instructions while my husband coaxed each prickly pine branch into its predestined hole. Our living room shrank with each successive tier. Then, like a flag claiming new territory, the majestic top was at last anchored onto its perch. I stood in awe.

Our Christmas tree was larger than life.

Although I couldn’t know the significance this tree would hold in my life, the two of us became instant friends. To start, its billowy branches hid my burgeoning belly in our Christmas photos that year. In turn, I lovingly adorned our tree’s branches with baubles: a box of red and gold balls and a string of white lights reflected that simpler time of life. Finally, as my due date approached, and my bed became uncomfortably harsh, I retreated to the soft support of the living room sofa. There, under the cozy shelter of my Christmas tree, I slept like a baby — dreaming of my own first baby to come.

And she did. Arriving three weeks early on Christmas morning, my daughter Kelsey Noelle was born.

The days became a blur of joyous chaos, but the nights held a magical calm. I learned that, along with a serenade of “Silent Night,” nothing soothes a colicky baby like a midnight waltz under the glow of Christmas-tree lights. Those were precious nights, and I was loath to pack away my pine-tree friend.

Three years later, I relived that charming season of special births when my son Christian was born. But, as I rocked my new baby next to the tree that year, I was unaware that my infant son’s first Christmas would be our last of its kind. Like a giant spruce felled by a ruthless ax, life as I knew it came crashing down around me. Before Christmas gave way to Easter, I became a single parent.

Alone with a toddler and a newborn, I faced rapid-fire losses: first my marriage, then my home, and finally, my sense of security. Within months, my children were hospitalized for pneumonia, seizures, and asthma, and my already precarious finances began to crumble. Unable to find solid footing, I sought a safe haven where my children and I could establish new roots. I found one in a tiny rental flat in a quiet neighborhood where we would celebrate the first Christmas in our new life.

Little of our furniture made the cut that move, but our Christmas tree did. Early that December, I dragged the eight-foot carton from our basement storage locker and bumped it up the three flights of stairs to our unit. I felt a shiver of anticipation as I slit open the box.

It was akin to reuniting with a friend.

Impulsively, I hugged an armful of branches, releasing enough tears to water a redwood as a mix of emotions flooded over me.

Kelsey and Christian dove through the box like pirates digging through a treasure chest. Each branch elicited a “Wow” and was then placed reverently into one of the piles scattered around the room. After fishing out the now crumpled sheet of instructions, I slowly and patiently resurrected my pine. The kids were mesmerized to see the tree take shape, cheering me on as I triumphantly attached the top. If it had been oversized in our house, our tree was gargantuan in our flat. Stepping back for a better look, I watched the kids meticulously place each red and gold ornament — mostly on the bottom two branches.

I stood in awe.

The finished masterpiece filled our living room—and our hearts—to the brim.

That day, we were never further away than a four-foot radius from the tree. We ate under the tree, we read under the tree, we dreamed under the tree. Night fell; I was exhausted.

“Time for bed,” I announced wearily.

But my son — in Thomas the Tank Engine pajamas — stood resolutely behind the swell of green.

“Mama,” he began quietly and earnestly, “I want to sleep under the tree tonight.”

My heart lurched, memories flooding back to the many nights I’d given in to the same desire, drifting to sleep with a baby in my arms.

Dragging train blankets and Barbie pillows, we settled under the welcoming branches, warmed by the pinpoints of twinkling light.

I’m home, I thought. We’re going to be okay.

Of course, okay is a relative term. More challenges, more illnesses, and three more moves uprooted my little family and my larger-than-life tree. With each upheaval, I left more and more things behind, but never the faithful fir. Friends thought I was crazy, as they heaved the box over three more thresholds.

“What’s wrong with getting a real tree?” they asked, hoping to spare us (and them) the effort.

“Ours is not a friendship of convenience,” I defended our tree. “Besides, I don’t abandon my friends when the going gets tough,” I added, silencing their objections.

The going was tough — but our traditions kept us strong. Our tree became a sacred place for my family, nurturing us in the good times and the bad. Like a living tree that blooms anew following the harsh realities of winter, our Christmas tree, crushed and contorted in a cardboard box, sprang back to life each year, its branches unfurling in a perpetual symbol of hope.

I no longer had babies to rock under the tree. But, as the years marched on, many stories were shared under its branches, worries soothed in its glow, songs sung in its graceful presence. In a life rocked by change our tree symbolized permanence and loyalty, comfort and faith.

As life inevitably spins full circle, my now teenage kids have assumed new tree-raising roles: my son does the heavy lifting and my daughter the expert instructing. I am relegated to leading the parade of ornaments, which now number in the hundreds.

On a recent Christmas, while admiring a forgotten ornament and steeped in memories, I heard a voice from the past mingling with the present.

“Mama,” said my son, his deep voice interrupting my reverie. “I think I’m going to sleep under the tree tonight.”

I swallowed to hide my tears as my kids formed a circle of sofas. Then, with the cats nestled under the lower limbs, we tucked ourselves under blankets and quilts. Eventually, the flicker of cellphones burned out.

Our Christmas tree lights twinkled like stars.

It was a precious night.

And we slept like babies… under our tree that’s larger than life.

~Judy O’Kelley

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