Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Birthday Tree

The Birthday Tree
by Seema Bagai

“Mommy, when will we get our Christmas tree?” Kerrie twirled around the kitchen as her mother prepared dinner. Gusts of warm, humid air blew in through the unscreened window. Pauline glimpsed the farmers returning from the rice paddies as the sun faded behind the palm tree-lined horizon.

“Sweetie, we can’t have one this year. Pine trees don’t grow in this part of India.”

Kerrie stopped mid-twirl and planted her fists on her hips. “But, we have to have a tree. We just have to. Where will we put the presents?”

“We’ll have one next year when we’re back home.”

Sensing a storm gathering across her daughter’s face, Pauline said, “How about you talk to your daddy when he comes home?”

Over dinner, Kerrie appealed to Russ for a Christmas tree. “Even a fake one. Please. It doesn’t feel like Christmas at all around here.”

While she cleared the table, Pauline observed her husband frown in concentration, as an idea flickered in his dark eyes.

* * *

On Christmas Eve, Pauline peeled potatoes while her mind wandered home to Ohio. She imagined driving through the snow-covered streets to the tree farm where Russ would cut the perfect pine for their living room. Then they would untangle lights and hang ornaments, the tree’s woodsy scent filling the room.

A thump jolted Pauline from her December daydream and she wandered into the front room to investigate. She found Russ and Kerrie standing beside a potted palm tree.

“Look, Mommy. We have a Christmas tree. Daddy said that where Jesus was born they had trees like this. I can’t wait to decorate it.” Kerrie’s face glowed with excitement. “First, I have to go tell Mala,” she called as she dashed outside to the neighbor’s house.

“It’s the one from the clinic verandah,” Russ said. “I explained that Kerrie wanted a tree for Christmas and they said I could borrow this one for a few days. None of them has seen a Christmas tree before.”

As her husband dragged the squat plant across the room, Pauline pined over the boxes of ornaments and lights sitting in their attic in Akron.

Kerrie returned and announced that the neighbors can’t wait to see a Christmas tree.

How will we decorate this thing? Pauline wondered. To buy some time, she ordered Kerrie to complete her chores. The clinic staff, and now the neighbors, was invited for a Christmas Eve meal. Now they would be expecting to see a decorated tree.

“Russ, I know your heart is in the right place. But, how can we decorate it? We don’t have ornaments or tinsel or anything.”

Russ leaned over and gave his wife a peck on the cheek. “You always had the best decorated home in the neighborhood. You’ll think of something.” He went into the kitchen singing, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”

The village had a general store crammed with everything from toothpaste to turmeric, so Pauline ambled over there, hoping to find inspiration tucked somewhere on an overstuffed shelf. She scanned the merchandise and found nothing resembling a Christmas ornament.

“What you need today?” the shopkeeper asked. “I help.”

Pauline sighed. “Gopal, it’s Christmas. Russ brought home a tree for us to decorate. But I see you don’t have anything like that.”

“Decorations? Is it birthday?” Gopal called out something in Telegu to a boy in the loft above him. Before Pauline could correct the shopkeeper, the boy threw down several small packages which Gopal caught. He thrust them at Pauline who examined the contents and smiled.

“I think this might work. Thank you.” She counted out some rupees and handed them to Gopal.
“Who birthday it is?”

Pauline started to correct him, but changed her mind and smiled. “It’s Jesus’ birthday.”

“Who Jesus? I not know of anyone here with that name.”

“Come to our house tonight. Bring your family. We will tell you about Jesus.”

Back at home, Pauline showed Russ and Kerrie the packages she bought.

“Mommy, where are the ornaments and that long sparkly stuff?”

“Well, this is all they had at the shop. Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, so I figured we could decorate the tree with these streamers and balloons.”

With a squeal of delight, Kerrie tore open one of the bags. She and Russ blew up the multicolored balloons, while Pauline unrolled a spool of crepe paper and wound the red strips around the palm tree. She tied a long piece into a bow and taped it to the plant’s pot. The family sang as they set the balloons on the broad leaves and tucked them between the branches.

In the evening, their guests poured into the house and marveled at the transformed tree. Gopal arrived with his wife and children. He clutched a string of marigolds and scanned the room.
“Where Jesus?” He held up the garland. “I give for birthday.”

Russ chuckled. “He’s not here. Let me explain.”

Everyone sat on the floor in front of the tree. Russ told the guests about the first Christmas as one of the clinic nurses translated the story into Telegu. He then explained that the Christmas tree was a symbol to remind everyone of Jesus’ birth.

Gopal stood up. “I put on tree for Jesus.” He held out the garland.

“Sure,” Russ said and gestured to the tree. Gopal draped the circle of orange flowers around the tree.

The guests drifted into the kitchen, while Kerrie lingered to admire the family’s unusually decorated tree. “Happy birthday, Jesus,” she whispered.

Read the previous story, "Highly Favored" by Jo Huddleston.

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