My Last Christmas

Lowell L. Getz

It is that time of year again. The days have grown short, the deciduous trees have lost their leaves. The southwesterly morning winds are brisk. Soon Christmas lights will appear, wrapped around me in a tangle of red, green, blue, yellow, and orange bulbs, and at my very top, a white bulb. But, this year will be different. This year will be the last time I will be so lighted. For, late last summer, my short greenish-blue spruce needles all turned brown. After four decades of struggling to survive in the shade of larger trees, I have died. Sometime next spring, I will be cut down, my brittle limbs trimmed off and cut into small pieces and bagged for the city spring yard-waste pick-up. Most likely, my dwarfed scaly trunk will be placed along the base of the board fence in back. This will be my last Christmas.

In my forty-two years here in the back yard of 2113 Lynwood Dr., Champaign, Illinois, I have been witness to the comings and goings of the owners of the house, Lowell and Mary Ruth (and when they first arrived, two daughters, seventh grader Colleen and second grader Allison; and the family dog, Lady, a mixed cocker-beagle). They had purchased the recently built house in the then new Devonshire housing area upon moving here from Connecticut in August 1969. Only a year or two earlier, this had been a corn field.

When the family moved in, there was only newly placed sod over the front and back yards-no tree, not even a shrub. I was planted here at the very back of the yard late in the summer of 1969. At the same time, several more trees were also added to barren back yard. Three other small blue spruce, all us about two feet tall, were planted along the back, west, lot line. One, each, was planted a few feet from the north and south boundary lines and one, each, half way from the mid point and the north and south ends of the lot. I was the one between the mid line and the north boundary. A small crab apple tree was planted about 15 feet to the northeast of me. A couple weeks later a small four-foot sugar maple was planted at the center of the west lot boundary, along with two six foot tulip poplars 20 feet apart, near the center of the back yard.

One morning in early fall, Mary Ruth returned, from an out of town visit with her sister, with two six foot silver maples sticking out of the trunk of the blue 1969 Pontiac. Lowell's stepfather, Keith, had helped her dig them up alongside a road near where he and Lowell's mother lived. Lowell helped her plant one maple, half way between the north tulip poplar and the north lot line. Because he was due at work, he had time only to dig a hole in which to plant the other maple, halfway between the southern poplar and the south lot line. Mary Ruth struggled with the heavy ball of dirt around the roots, once falling into the hole herself, before getting the tree planted. In doing so, the ball of dirt fell loose from the roots, exposing the root hairs.

So there we were, ten very small trees, all planted with hopes of soon having a shaded back yard. The maples and tulip poplars were to provide shade for the yard and house during the summer and we four conifers to break the cold southwesterly winds in the winter.

In July of 1970 Mary Ruth's brother-in-law, Norman, built a large grand piano-shaped brick patio between the concrete platform outside the sliding glass door to the family room and the back door to the north. During the first few years, the girls played in the back yard now and then. A crochet array provided a little entertainment for awhile, but they soon lost interest in crochet. Their play and socializing were elsewhere.

Small flower beds were planted in different places around the yard and next to the house. The silver maple to the south "died" the second year, most likely from having the root hairs exposed too long while Mary Ruth was planting it. Not having time to remove the small "dead" tree, Mary Ruth planted some flowers in the loose soil around the tree. A month or so later, two small green buds appeared on the opposite sides of the "dead" trunk. Apparently a few roots and part of the cambium layer had not died and watering of the flowerbed resulted in emergence of the two buds. With continued watering, two trunks grew from the buds. The tree was left in place, eventually becoming as large as the silver maple to the north. The spruce tree to the south of me soon died for some unknown reason. It was not replaced. The two at the north and south borders grew tall, both leaning toward the open sunlight to the north and south of the lot.

For a few years, there were cookouts on the patio, especially on holidays, when Mary Ruth's family would come to visit. But, as time moved on and the family became more preoccupied with other things, cookouts became less frequent. The back yard mainly was a place for Lady to "do her things" and to exercise. A low wire fence, later replaced by a chain-link fence, was placed around the lot to allow Lady to run loose. The silver maple trees grew rapidly, as did the crab apple, soon providing considerable shade to the back yard and patio and in the process, over-shading me. The tulip poplars and sugar maple grew more slowly. When only 15 feet tall, the tulip poplars became infected with some sort of blight that killed the cambium layer and both snapped off at the base one windy night.

In removing the southern-most tulip tree, a classic interaction occurred between Mary Ruth and Lowell. Mary Ruth was holding the upper limbs on one side and Lowell those on the other. Mary Ruth kept pulling the trunk her way and yelling for Lowell to "Pull!, Pull!", which he did, toward him. Finally, she gave an extra strong jerk and the tree slipped out of Lowell's grip, with the trunk hitting Mary Ruth in the shin. It caused a large haemotoma, so large that two drainings by the doctor did not remove all the blood. To this day, she has a dark splotch on her shin. Lowell said numerous times, that after having been married to her so long (24 years, at the time), he should have known that "Pull" actually meant "Push." At least the dark spot served as a convenient marker for her skirt lengths.

Because the silver maples now were so tall as to provide shade over much of the yard, the tulip poplars were not replaced. The crab apple and sugar maple soon added even more shade. I was completely over-shaded and essentially stopped growing at around 12 feet. But, I hung on for 42 years, providing a place for Christmas lights each year, even if too small to contribute to protection from the cold winter winds.

The years moved along. Colleen graduated from high school and went east to Smith College, and then to Washington, D. C. to work. Five years later, Allison graduated from high school and went to Ann Arbor (back to where she "had been conceived", as she told her friends) to the University of Michigan. She returned home briefly to obtain her MBA at the University of Illinois, but then moved away to work with a variety of companies in Chicago, Boston and Baltimore, eventually coming back to Chicago and then to Skokie. The two girls come home at Christmas, but infrequently during the rest of the year.

Pets came and went. Lady died after a few years, to be replaced by Patty, a peekapoo, and Farnsworth, a blond cocker. They eventually had to be put to sleep, to be replaced by black and white cockers, "Molly" and "Murphy." Molly died at a little more than two years and was replaced by a black and white Chihuahua, "Scooter. Murphy has just left us. Although he was blind for the last four years, he maneuvered around the yard with little difficulty. The back yard served as the family pet cemetery, even if such burials are not condoned by the city zoning board.

Allison adopted a two year old son, Will, from Russia in 2002. Will played in the back yard, picking up sticks and throwing rocks in the large fountain that was placed near the sugar maple in 1998. But, as he grew older, he began playing computer games when visiting and now spends little time in the back yard.

Over time the family made less and less use of the patio and back yard, other than to plant flowerbeds and to try to keep the grass green. As the trees became larger and the crown cover more dense and the near-surface roots of the silver maples spread out over the yard, maintaining a good grass cover became more and more difficult. Typically, by mid summer, there were large bare areas in the yard. But, Lowell was too busy with his research, teaching and Department Head duties to spend much time on the lawn. And, Mary Ruth began working full-time after the girls had left home.

Eventually Lowell retired. The same summer he retired Mary Ruth finally convinced him to do something she had wanted to do for years-add a sunroom to the south side of the house and to have a small garden shed built on the northeast side of the back yard. These were finished during that summer and the following spring. The next summer, Lowell addressed the problem of a grassless back yard. A large fountain was placed in the middle of the yard, surrounded by a large area of square patio blocks. More of the yard was covered by crushed red granite, pine needles, English Ivy, and pine nuggets, and the brick patio expanded. During the summer, a large number of urns and planters were filled with flowers. The northern silver maple was blownd down during a slight wind storm that year. A large urn for flowers was placed on its stump. Loss of the tree did not help me. I was already over-crowned by the crab apple and sugar maple.

Each Christmas, beginning the first year I was here, Lowell strung strands of colored lights over me, eventually placing up to six strands around my limbs. In so doing he often exclaimed some language almost as colorful as the lights when the wires and lights kept slipping off my drooping limbs. Eventually the lights were in place and I provided the back-yard cheer during the Christmas seaon. But, all good things must come to an end. I simply could not compete with the larger deciduous trees that over shaded me. There was not enough sunlight to remain viable. This past summer I finally gave up the ghost.

So, this will be my last Christmas, my last "hurrah." My work is over, Lowell and Mary Ruth soon will have to move to a retirement home. Most likely the next owners will remove the large silver maple and crab apple trees and perhaps plant another small spruce tree upon which to add color to the back yard at Christmas time. That is the "cycle of life." I have had "my family." I witnessed the members of the young family in their progression through their professional careers, to their retirement and old age. The next tree will have its "family."


Epilogue

Christmas came and all too quickly passed. Lowell placed only two short strands of lights on me for my last Christmas. The squirrels immediately chewed through the wires of one so that only about 35 bulbs provided light. A few days before Christmas there was a deep snow that covered the yard and left a blanket of white on my dry brittle branches and over the Christmas lights. Thus, even though few lights were left, I provided one of the most colorful Christmas display ever. A fitting end to my Christmas ritual.

Now Christmas is over, the lights are dark, the snow is gone from my limbs. Some warm day Lowell will take down the lights. Then, all I can do is wait until spring when he will cut me down and trim away my limbs, ending my stay in the back yard. Hopefully I will remain in the memories of the family as the small spruce that struggled against the odds in the shade of the large deciduous trees, to provide a little Christmas cheer each year. But, for me, it is over. I have had my last Christmas.


Fig. 1. My last Christmas, only dead limbs to hold the Christmas lights.