It has to touch the ceiling. Always. Every year. That’s our criteria for a Christmas tree. Our living room ceiling is 8 ft. high, so that is a feasible reach, but our son’s tops out at 15 ft., presenting a little more of a challenge—especially since his living room/kitchen area makes up a large part of the second floor of his house. During the ten years we lived on a sailboat, we were occasionally able to put a tree outside on the deck, and then, literally, the sky was the limit.
But this isn’t about Christmas. Christmas is over, so why bother with this now? Simply because my husband’s annual obsession—and now our son’s as well—with procuring the tallest tree possible, got me pondering: Why? Why does it always have to touch the ceiling? Why is it so important? I didn’t have to think too much. It all pointed back to Papy.
Papy was my husband’s father, and a Frenchman, like my husband. Papy was also a French Gendarme. A French soldier in WW II (of which he spent a good portion of that time in a German prisoner of war camp in Berlin), Papy continued a career in that vein after the war, because French Gendarmes are a police faction of the French military. Consequently, he was called upon to serve in the post-WW II conflicts of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1956, and in Algeria’s war of independence against France in the 1960s. As the family story goes, Papy missed a Christmas while serving in Egypt and it was the saddest one in my husband’s memory. Papy, it seemed, always insisted that the Christmas tree touch the ceiling, and since he wasn’t home that year, it didn’t happen. The only tree his family could come up with was something akin to scrawny, prompting my husband to swear that his Christmas trees would always touch the ceiling. We have never had anything less in our 40 years of a life together.
Our son has now taken up the mantle of the ceiling tree mantra, and with his 15 ft. ceiling perched on a second floor that is further elevated atop a 12 ft. high garage, putting the annual Christmas tree in place is a major acrobatic endeavor. Nevertheless, this annual ritual has taken on such importance for my son that this year he specifically came home for just 24 hours between business trips for the sole purpose of taking his family out to find the tree.
When my father-in-law passed away, the village French priest presiding at my father-in-law’s funeral service deviated from the ethereal fairytale that this good man would find “eternal happiness in heaven,” (apologies to those offended readers, but I am not religiously inclined), and instead queried the mourners, “What is eternity?” He volunteered that maybe “eternity” is something a little more down-to-earth, yet intangible, as in something you leave your children or grandchildren—something of your character, your smile, a ceremony, a habit, a mannerism, that quirky raised eyebrow, a legacy…something along the lines of the indisputable rule of a touch-the-ceiling Christmas tree.
Our Savory Souvenir
Papy’s wife, my mother-in-law, Mamie, has also left her eternal mark on us. She was a supreme confectioner of French fries, or “frites,” the real deal, made in France with her deep fryer, or “friteuse.” Many years later, once we began growing our own potatoes, my husband was drawn to duplicate her success, and after some trial-and-error episodes, voilà, the perfect “frites” were reborn! Again my son was smitten, and not to be outdone by his father, vowed to continue this tradition and our family’s eternal French fries have found another life at a younger generation’s table. No more McDonald’s for us as we honor Mamie with each bite!
For many years we lived with our two children and traveled aboard a sailboat throughout many countries. Although neither my husband nor I come from marine-oriented stock, I know my father fostered my curiosity for adventure and the beyond, while I’m not quite sure how that spirit came to reside within my husband. At any rate, our two children have been irreversibly impregnated with this spirit and they continue today living by this creed, nurturing adventures on land and in the water with their own families. One of our sons is so exceedingly passionate about traveling, camping, and rock climbing with his dear ones that they quite possibly spend as much time on the road in their compact mini-home van, homeschooling their two little guys, as they do at their street address.
Ah yes, the “eternities” have taken hold, and are flourishing and thriving with my grandchildren!
While we tend to forget some of the “why’s” and “wherefore’s” of these whims, habits, and eccentricities living through our mundane routines the rest of the year, we never fail to recognize the spirit of Papy past, present and future when the Christmas season dawns anew. The village priest hit on something. That might just be what eternity really is.
The latest craze, fad, and craziness that has burst upon the pop culture scene is Pokémon Go, brought to us by, once again, Nintendo. I thought this company was dead! Well, at least in my mind it was. I had buried it years ago. It may still have been around in some form or other, producing insipid and inane games under some sort of pseudonym(s), but I wouldn’t know. Since the 1980s and early ’90s when “Nintendo” and “Game Boy” were ubiquitous amongst my young sons’ friends’ pastime activities, it was banned from our household. I just never listened for its existence anymore after that. I ignored it.
Now 25 years later, it has come back to haunt me. Could it be payback time for my past action and attitude? Or maybe it’s a revolving door that has come back to target my sons, now parents themselves, for them to deal with for their children, and possibly follow my example? A case of what goes around, comes around?
Indeed, in 1990 we disembarked from 10 years of living and traveling the world on a sailboat. We were aware of Nintendo. We knew it was out there in another reality. We could see it coming—the hypnotic pull of video games on our boys. Yep, we were back in civilization, and now about to be affronted by it. That summer of 1990, as we established ourselves on land, we made a point of sitting our two boys down before the start of the school year and forewarned them: There would be no TV, no Nintendo! We would not let our 8 and 11 year-olds be taken in by this hypnotic force.
One of the challenges that confronted us upon reacquainting ourselves with life on land was trying to keep a good balance between the simpler and wholesome life we led on the sea for our boys, and the new plugged-in home computer version that was just beginning to blossom in 1990. Nintendo was omnipresent at the time. We knew this would present a challenge to us and that it could infect our boys like a contagious virus. We were already dead set against it. How to strike a balance?
I distinctly remember my father setting down a rule in our family when I was coming of the age that what other kids did and said mattered very much to me. My parents were apparently aware that this was coming (as I later realized myself, as a parent), and early on my dad sat me down one day with this warning:
“I never want to hear that you want something, or want to do something, because ‘everyone else is doing it, or everyone else has it’. That’s the best way not to get it, ever. Period.”
He just threw that out randomly one day, and at the time I didn’t quite understand what he meant or why. But the first time I tried that reasoning on my parents, probably not long after his little talk, he nipped my whining in the bud, with: “Remember what I said. I don’t want to hear it.” Discussion over.
That always stuck with me, and I used the same scenario with our boys when the prospect of them wanting Nintendo was peaking through the cracks.
“Keep this in mind, we will not have Nintendo in our house. If you have friends who have it, yes, you can play with theirs, or at their house, but no, we will never buy it for you, so don’t ask. And I never want to hear: “But everyone else has it, or so-and-so has it. That’s the best way not to get anything.” I couldn’t believe it, my father’s words were channeling through me, even as I cringed, “I sound just like him!”
Soon, our boys did attempt to request it for Christmas. My father’s words again came back to me strong and clear, “Remember what I said. I don’t want to hear it.”
At this point I was nostalgic for a former, simpler toy they amused themselves with on the boat. While we were in a Cuban village, some children had given our boys an old fashioned handmade wax, spinning top that they played with often, but that was in the past. At least here in civilization they were still obsessed with Lego.
But returning to the present dilemma, there may be a redeeming factor (dare I say “only”?) in that this new craze seems to be getting people outside. In my town, however, notorious for rampant street potholes and heaving seismic sidewalk cracks where tree roots seem to be seeking the light of day, Pokémon Go may not be such a good idea. I fear that too many people may end up in the emergency room tripping over these obstacles, with their eyes glued to their phone screens. Even as I write this, I just learned today that two young men fell about 75-100 feet off a bluff in the San Diego area, chasing their Pokémons! I think Nintendo will haunt them too.