Two days after Halloween, the kids started in on me.
"Mom, can we put up the Christmas tree early this year?"
"Early? It's too early to even think about it," I said.
"We'll talk about it later," I would say, using one of the three handiest lines in the parent's phrase book (the others being "Because I said so, that's why," and "Why don't you ask your father?")
By the week before Thanksgiving, as transient forests sprang up on corners all over the county and street lights were being transformed into giant imitation candy canes, the kids squirmed and pointed every time they got in the car.
"Mom! Look! We can get one there!"
"Or over there! They have some with snow on them!"
"We'll talk about it later ," I would say again.
"But couldn't we just go look at them?"
"Later," I would repeat.
The neighbors were no help at all. The people across the street set up a 10-foot faux snowman in their front yard, made of spray-painted tumbleweeds. On the next block, another family sculpted a reindeer out of lights in the bushes and wound red flashing spirals up the spindly trunks of the palm trees.
And worse, people started leaving their curtains open at night.
"Look, Mom, look!"
"When, Mom, when?"
Finally I realized I could hold them off no longer. On the first Saturday in December, I told them the hard, cold truth.
"I'm not going to have a Christmas tree this year."
They stared at me in silence at first, their faces bearing identical expressions not so much of disappointment as concern. I've always been a bit of a grinch; they knew that. I prefer giving gifts when the mood strikes me, not just because the calendar declares it's the season. But every year they can remember, at least, I've always gotten into the spirit, even though it sometimes seemed their only contribution was a long and costly list of requests that seemed more like demands. And we've always had a tree, a big one.
The kids already knew this year was going to be different. For the first time in 6 years--an eternity if you're 11 and 13--they would have a Daddy Christmas, not a Mommy Christmas. For them it's either one or the other; their father and I split up so long ago that neither of them has any clear memories of a Christmas that included everyone.
I'd already bought the airline tickets. They had already asked a hundred times to see them, to touch them, to be sure it was really going to happen.
"Oh, I hope it snows while we're there," my daughter would say each time I tucked the tickets away.
"So do I," I would always reply.
"It probably won't, " my perennial pessimist son would conclude.
They were so excited about their Christmas that they hadn't given a thought to mine. They didn't know how much I was looking forward to taking a few days off from everything. They didn't know how relieved I was that this year, for once, somebody else would get to be the responsible parent. How could they understand that I was looking forward to being a kid again, Santa or no Santa?
After I broke the news, my daughter got up and put her hand on my shoulder. She began, "But, Mommy . . . "
"Don't worry," I said. "You'll have a Christmas tree at your Dad's house in Cincinnati. But I don't see any reason to go to all that trouble just for me."
"But what about you?" my son said. "You have to have a Christmas."
"And I will," I assured him. I wanted them to feel comfortable about leaving, without worrying about what their mother would do without them. "I'll rest, I'll go to the movies, I'll do things with my friends. Maybe I'll go to Palm Springs or someplace for a few days."
They liked that idea. "Yeah!" my son said. "Then you can ride the tramway and see the Christmas tree on top of the mountain."
Uh-oh. Could we change the subject, please?
For a few days after that, neither of them said anything more about trees. They made me close my eyes and led me around shopping malls, shouting, "Don't look!" almost as often as they said, "Look, Mom!"
After each trip, they would rush into their rooms and lock the doors, peeking out only to argue about whose turn it was to use the scissors or the tape. Finally they would emerge, arms full of wrapped gifts.
At that point, my no-tree policy became a practical dilemma.
"So if we don't have a tree, where are we going to put these? " my son demanded.
"In the corner," I told him, pointing to a clear space next to the pile of newspapers waiting to be recycled. He took his time arranging all the boxes just so, but something was definitely missing. Even after we hauled the newspapers out to the garage, it didn't look right.
"Forget it," I said. "I'm not getting a Christmas tree."
The next night, I wavered. It was the night of the "Charlie Brown Christmas Special" (not to be confused with the "Smurfs Christmas Special," the "Care Bears Christmas Special," "Pee Wee Herman's Christmas Special" or even the "Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles Christmas Special").