If you look closely, you'll notice a subtle alteration to our Christmas tree. It's up there, right at the top, see?
That old plastic tree topper might seem a bit out of place atop a homespun Christmas tree adorned in simple, handmade ornaments. But there's so much more to it than a simple tree topper. This is a finial perched atop a child's holiday memories. A lightening rod that conducted the best energies of a father who was hard on his family, its presence and its meaning protecting them from the things that were hard to understand.
Last night, I shared my mother's love of Christmas, and her insistence on having a live tree to decorate. As a kid, I had no idea how the tree got there, it just sort of magically appeared. I know now that there was always quite a row about getting the tree, getting it in the house, and positioning it just so.
My dad was hard on us, and there were times when it wasn't always so clear whether he loved us or just tolerated us. He had such wonderful character, a silly streak, and an abundance of friends. But with five kids, lean times, and more challenges than a child could begin to comprehend, he was demanding of his kids, sometimes downright harsh, and almost always repressed any kind of emotion in our company.
I often wondered what it was that made dad so unhappy. And it wasn't until I was all grown up that I could truly appreciate the challenges he faced, how hard the man worked, and his struggles to keep food in our mouths and a roof over our heads. I grew to know and understand that his love for us was a powerful force in his life, he just struggled to express it.
And so, as a child, I clung to the few things that brought out the best in him. The happy, silly, fun daddy that made me want to jump into his arms and beg him to always smile that smile that seemed to come straight from his heart. Things like the Christmas tree topper.
My mother and my brothers and sisters and I decorated the tree. Dad didn't participate in any way, until the very end. And then, he would root through the post-tree-decorating chaos until he found his tree topper, and, holding it above his head like a scepter, would proudly declare that it wasn't a Christmas tree until HIS topper was on! Mom would playfully object, "But, Reg, that thing is so old and nasty." (And it really was!) "Why don't we get a new one this year?!"
And, oh, how he would rant!
"There's not a damn thing wrong with this one!" he would exclaim, even though both of the side pieces that held the little bells had long since broken off, the wire that lit up the bulb in the middle of the angel hair center had shorted out, and in general, it looked like something he'd dug out of the trash! Once, mom even tried to buy a lovely new angel and just quietly replace Dad's topper on the tree. He hadn't been in the house but a minute before he noticed the switch, and he immediately went digging for that old, broken, decrepit --- amazing, beautiful, perfect topper.
In later years, dad mellowed so much, and he became the most loving father and grampa we could have ever hoped for. He's been gone for more than five years now, and I never miss him more than I do at Christmas time.
When he died, my oldest sister Laura took loving possession of Dad's Tree Topper, preserving that broken mess of beautiful memories, cherishing it as the treasure that it is.
Last Christmas, on a whim, my amazing sister Tina Googled "vintage Christmas Tree Toppers," and lo and behold, she discovered an eBay auction that had several of these vintage wonders for sale. She gave them to us with no warning last Christmas. And when I opened that box...well, I still can't think about it without crying.
And so, this year, the first of what I hope will be many, our tree is adorned with Reggie's Tree Topper. And if there is an after-life, I know my dad is here with me, smiling his best smile.