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Christmas trees and our Christmas ease

Fifteen years ago, my wife and I lived in a well-preserved pre-Civil War village on the Mississippi River. Life in this little college town was excruciatingly quaint. If we needed anything besides a sandwich or a watercolor landscape, we were in for a trek all the way to town, 25 minutes by car.

But people came to see us, because we were the real thing, a cluster of Henry David Thoreaus in a terrarium. Tourists from St. Louis clogged our narrow streets in the fall. Visitors discovered too late that their Lincolns couldn't turn around in the road that ended in front of our house. Most made the maneuver in our yard instead. A few actually hit the house.

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These people were in the market for autumn leaves and sights of us engaged in genuine antebellum activity. Spotting me grading papers on the porch, drivers would roll down their windows and ask if we were "open." They wanted to watch me tanning a piece of rawhide or churning my own butter. But my wife and I were poor substitutes for those rugged pioneers they'd come to see.

To be honest, the distance from civilization played on our natural lethargy, encouraging us to be more passive than we could have been anywhere else.

One summer, for instance, I had so little gas left in my car that I couldn't get to a gas station. So, when school started up again, I walked to work. Starved, the Chevy Malibu sat in our driveway till one of its tires went flat. Then another. Then wasps built a nest in the driver's-side door, which made me even less enthusiastic about attending to its needs.

We weren't conscious of how we were living unless we had contact with people from the outside world, people who didn't water down their milk to avoid a trip to the store or let their cars rot into the ground. Surveying the yard during a visit, an old college friend asked, "Did that tree fall down last night?"

"No," I confessed, "that was about two years ago."

"If I didn't cut that up the next day," he said with a mixture of pride and regret, "my wife would be on the phone hiring somebody to haul it away."

"That won't happen here," I noted needlessly.

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No one, perhaps, was more troubled by this state of passivity than my mother, a woman who spent her life directing high school plays and anything else within her orbit. She knew it was useless to complain, but I could hear muffled gasps during her visits as she moved through our neglected house.

"Where can I find a broom?" she asked once. The question hung in the air. I had a vague memory of having burned it in the fireplace one snowy night when we ran out of wood.

When it came to the Christmas tree, we crossed a line that called for an emergency response. Like everything else, getting a tree entailed a long trip to town, and since we never spent Christmas in the village, we didn't bother. To my mother, though, this was a cry for help, a desperate lack of sentiment, a marriage on the brink of collapse.

In early December, an enormous box arrived containing an artificial tree. I knew this was a horrible compromise for my mother, who considers fake Christmas trees the work of the devil, like margarine and gift certificates. We met her halfway and put it up without decorations. The marriage survived. (The car, alas, did not.)

Now, we live in a big busy city, and we're parents ourselves, responsible people who know the value of regular oil changes and the importance of priming. Our daughters try to get away with all the usual shortcuts, but we'll have none of it. "Don't let the dog eat that - get a paper towel!"

We've still got that artificial tree, though, and it still looks good, carefully decorated with ornaments both store-bought and handmade. The first weekend of every December, I put lights out on the front porch just like a hardworking Christian neighbor. And I buy pine rope at Home Depot to drape over the curtain rods in the living room.

When we're done, my wife sweeps up the needles and sprinkles them casually on the floor around our artificial tree. It's a subtle touch that fools everybody but my mother.