The Leaning Tower of Christmas

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and I’m going off the rails on a crazy train. But that’s nothing to cry over, right? Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark
Editor’s note: The following story is an excerpt from the book “Bootstrapper” by Mardi Jo Link (Copyright 2013 by Mardi Jo Link, published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC,
For more details about this new release — the memoir of “one woman looking down the long barrel of a pending divorce,” determined to save her Northern Michigan farm, raise her three sons on well water and wood chopping and find her way back to a life of richness, see Wavelengths on page 10 and visit

December 2005

Christmas Tree StarThe next morning, the day before Christmas Eve, the boys and I embark on a housecleaning adventure. This is a hazardous trek that takes us deep into the long-unexplored wilderness underneath living room furniture and behind large appliances and provides us with the rare opportunity to see things previously unimagined: half a dusty cinnamon roll, moldy dog kibble, a wrinkled copy of Rolling Stone with Britney Spears on the cover in her underwear.

Without shame or embarrassment, Will admits to ditching the cinnamon roll.

The only actual wildlife we find on this slog is small game that’s already dead. A mouse is spread-eagled, preserved like snakeskin on the coils behind our refrigerator. Luke is the only one who can stomach prying it off.

“Someone finally built a better mousetrap,” he says. “It’s called a refrigerator.”

I stand on a chair and wash walls, then dispatch the rest of the wet jobs — toilet scrubbing, sink scrubbing, mopping, mirrors — and the boys hunt down the dry ones: dusting, rug shaking and vacuuming. Together we clean the grime from every doorknob, light switch, and stair railing. Housework is not my best skill, and so this ceiling-to-floor scrubbing is long overdue. But while it leaves the place smell great, like a pine forest, it accomplishes something else.

There’s now a big empty corner across from the fireplace. I stand back.

Family at ChristmastimeI see tiny colored lights, I see tinsel, I see ornaments. Because this is where we would have put up our Christmas tree by now.

The realization makes tears shoot straight from my eyes like ammonia from a spray bottle. Christmas is in two days, and this is the first time I’ve even thought about a tree. The boys must have wondered why we don’t have one up yet, but they haven’t asked me about it. Not once.

I can’t believe I’m crying over this, but I am…I am a failure. A failure at life, a failure at single motherhood, and, maybe worst of all, a failure at Christmas.

I can’t replicate the mythic Christmas trees of my childhood, or, now that I think about it, of theirs, either — when we divided up our winter things, Mr. Wonderful got half our ornaments. And our Christmas tree stand. At least, I think that’s what happened to it. Maybe it got lost. But who loses their Christmas tree stand? Who is that irresponsible? Either way, it’s gone.

There’s no stopping my pity party now, and the tears turn to sobs.

“It’s not that bad, Mom,” Owen says, shutting off the vacuum cleaner. “We’re almost done.”

Without the blare of the vacuum cleaner his brothers hear me crying and, dust rags in hand, come into the room.

“We need a Christmas tree, you guys,” I blubber.

“What’s so sad about that?” Will asks.

I blow my nose on a piece of paper towel.

Owen, bless his nearly grown-up heart, answers for me.

“Moms are just like that, okay?” he explains to Will. “They get all emotional over Christmas. Because they . . . love it so much.”

Ever since we moved to the Big Valley when Owen and Luke were little, our tradition has been to cut our own Christmas tree fresh from our woods, the biggest one we can find that will still fit through the door, then put it up and decorate it together.

But most of our tools were Mr. Wonderful’s, and I don’t think we have a handsaw big enough to do the job anymore. The hatchet is dull again from all the firewood chopping, and even if we sharpened it, it still couldn’t make the clean cut required for a tree to fit in the stand. Then again, we don’t have a stand anymore, so what’s the point?

Christmas TreeI manage to explain all this to the boys, minus the tears. They look at me like they can’t believe I am getting so upset about something so minor.

“We’ve got a whole woods right there,” Owen says, pointing out toward our little woodlot. “I’m sure we’ve got something that can cut down a tree.”

“Yeah, like karate chopping!” Will suggests, offering an immediate example with his hands of how this could work. With sound effects.

“Would you get real?” Owen says, though, like me, he can’t help laughing.

Luke says nothing, but I can tell he’s thinking. Math and the space-time continuum might stymie him, but he’s all over practical problems like this one.

Once again I am reminded of that basic lesson: the one that says knowing how bad things are is better than not knowing. Except this time, in our clean house, on a snowy December afternoon, with Christmas bearing down on us, there’s a second lesson, too. Knowing how bad things are, and sharing that knowledge with my sons, is a lot better than shouldering it all alone.

“Okay,” Luke says, “I got it. What we need is a really big bucket and some rocks.”

Luke’s idea sends us first to the shop and then to the woods; and the boys, the dogs, and I bivouac through squeaky new snow to the far corner of our woodlot and pick out a tree. It’s huge. A white pine, tall and stout, with lacy blue-green needles and thick branches covered with pinecones.

White pines produce a lot of sap, enough to gum up most tree stands, and their branches are too flexible to hold big ornaments or heavy lights. They are Michigan’s official state tree, though, and their delicate needles are the softest of any evergreen. That sap won’t matter to us because of what Luke has rigged up for a stand, anyway, so a white pine it is.

The boys and I take turns hacking around the trunk with the dull hatchet, then Owen and Luke grip a branch halfway up on either side, bend the whole tree down this way and that until it finally breaks off near the frozen ground. The end of the trunk is all jagged and the bark is torn, but I already know that won’t even matter.

It gets dark so early now, and the light is fading over the hill as we drag our prize back to the house with Will and the dogs in the lead.

“I call putting on the star,” Will says as we pull the fat pine through the front door, dumping snow and dirt and pinecones all over our clean floor.

In a snap it’s ready for its corner, where Luke has already set up our makeshift stand: a white, five-gallon bucket of joint compound he found in the shop, set up in the corner, and filled with fist-sized rocks we chipped out of the frozen ground.

Christmas Tree OrnamentWill holds the bucket steady while his brothers and I grunt, lift the tree up, and jam its ragged trunk as straight down as we can into the rocks, then anxiously let go. We hold our breath and watch as the tree stands there steady for a moment, then slowly leans away from the staircase and out toward the center of the room, and mercifully stops before it tips over.

The leaning tower of Christmas.

Before any of us have time to think, Luke runs up to his bedroom and returns a second later with a handful of thick rope. What 13-year-old boy keeps a length of perfectly coiled purple climbing rope in his bedroom? I shake my head in wonder that my son does.

He lassos a top branch and pulls the loop tight while we straighten the tree, then ties off the other end to a staircase bannister. It holds, the tree is straight and we can’t help cheering.

“Yeah, baby!” Owen says, standing back to admire our work.

Luke has gone to the sink with a juice pitcher for water to fill our bucket tree stand, and Will is digging through the ornament box. While the boys decorate our tree with our only set of lights, several strings of popcorn we’ve just made, old ribbons from my sewing box, and a few ornaments, I turn on the CD player. A little jolly music in the background, as Owen lifts Will to place the star.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and I’m going off the rails on a crazy train. But that’s nothing to cry over, right? Not at Christmastime.

And not here in front of our mighty tree.

Author Mardi Jo Link lives on the Big Valley in Northern Michigan with her sons Luke, Owen and Will and husband, Pete — a cabinetmaker she hired to build an addition onto her century-old farmhouse and fell for “hard as timber.” Visit

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