Far from the madding crowds of Los Angeles’ spider-webbed freeways; San Francisco’s millennial and tech-frenzy fueled, lofted start-ups; and California’s mad-grab housing market; there lies a pristine, isolated coast in a far corner of Northern California where time undeniably just pokes along. Not easily accessible by car, and aptly named the Lost Coast…
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.