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Cutting Trees in Buffalo

November 26, 2015

The mixed emotions during the Holidays are bad enough, but when filtered through decades, they can become inscrutably murky.

Mid-Century Suburban families had built in distortions that inevitably burst forth, and mine was no different. But Holiday realities overwhelmed all denial mechanisms.

Perhaps it was worse then. Remember, in the the post Depression/World War generation drinking was still in post-Prohibition exultation. For WW2/Korea vets PTSD was just letters on your Scrabble rack. Women, minorities and the “lower classes” all had heinous prejudicial injustices woven into a social code straight jacket that was often legally enforceable. It was the last gasps of a culture created by and for white males, who had recently saved the planet from existential threats (which they, or I should say, we, of course, had created).

Something had to give, and in millions of micro family devastations the Holidays often added the last straw to an already overloaded camel’s back. The 6 week Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years pressure cooker simply added an insane layer of unreasonable expectations to an already doomed situation. No family is a Hallmark Card. No Holiday season is a soft focus movie.

My family could be movie worthy, but it was not “A Wonderful Life”. My parents had flailed into a bifurcated life – a split created by my mother between New York City-centric suburban Husband Maintenance and escaping to an inner city Buffalo home where her two sons lived while at school: My sister, stereotypically enough, for a time, was elsewhere having driven a Volkswagen Beetle to California.

But the 20 year suburban tether still pulled the family together in Westchester for some days during the Holiday Overload Time. Those gatherings happened in the first few years of the 1970’s. But as the Buffalo house gained a new kitchen, renewed/decorated surfaces and furnishings, the centroid of family life drifted to northwest New York State, despite my father’s full-time legal career in Manhattan.

In previous Christmastimes there were the “Mad Men” moments that make all children of alcoholics cringe, long past childhood. My brother asked my father to please watch his drinking when his first real girlfriend came to visit in 1970 – followed by an hour of ethanol-facilitated screaming, followed by 48 hours of complete silence as everyone walked on eggshells, broken on Christmas morning.

So, before I left for college, but after the domestication of our 19th century townhouse, there was a Christmas where we endeavored to once again simulate a family holiday, together. I am guessing it was 1972, as the decades passing have distilled the toxicity of the memories to a point where they are burned about the edges. Surviving the acid dip into the past is a severe reckoning, that makes even less sense now than it did 43 years ago.

I was a Senior in High School, as such I, and the other Jock Elite were anointed to raise money for Good Causes. Someone had offered up their tree farm for a pro bono harvest and sale. The senior athletes cut down about 30 trees, sold them, and the money went to a “good cause”.

I had set aside a particularly large 12 footer, as our 1870’s Victorian-ish house had ceilings at least that high. In doing this, I became The First Dickinson Ever to cut down his own Christmas tree. My grandfather had come over from Newcastle to play soccer in Brooklyn, so the tradition was to buy urban precuts, the ones which already had cascades of lost needles on a scale with those of a wealthy heroin addict.

But trees for our family harkened to another split. Children had enforced suburbs on my urban parents it was not easy for them. Parenting was passive, and guesswork, so when the culture pointed to a parental role that was mandatory, my folks hit it hard. Private schools. Church on Sunday. Parents as Santa.

Extremity of make-up calls was the pattern, so the first decade of Family Christmas saw an empty house as my brother and sister went to bed on Christmas Eves, but then my parents launched into a full-on Make, Wrap, Install Everything All Nighter. Voila! Santa brought everything down the chimney!

This, of course, ended with my birth.

My witness of Christmas tree insertion was an all-day testing of zillions of often faulty strings of lightbulbs, sorting through lead “icicles”, and unending, loud cursing at the inevitable results of creating something from parts rushed away in exhausted depression a year earlier.

I have continued that family legacy, just without the lead.

But the Christmas of 1972 was memorable because I had gotten the tree. Coming home, tree on shoulder, I opened the door to find my father and brother watching a football game (NFL playoff, I think, in the days before the Super Bowl flirted with Easter), and my mother was, in theory, cooking.

“I got a tree!”

Silence, then: “Great.”

I proffered “Let’s set it up!”.


I realized it was after 5, so my father was in ethanol infusion, and the fact that my brother was watching football meant he was likely stoned.

Being 17, I had seen things like this flambé to a bonfire of recrimination and reactionary defensiveness. Being a month out of captaincy of the Park Pioneer Football team, I was physically capable. Having witnessed and assisted a decade of cursing frustration that was the putting up and decoration of the Christmas Tree, I knew how to do that.

So I did it.

The game went on seen thru the blue haze of Kent Fog, and I got it all done while “the boys” ate by the game in the next room and my mother “cooked”. In about 2 hours I had erected the tree, put on the lights, and most of the ornaments.

I felt anger and sadness. Again.

It was the last tree I cut down until we had our own house. It was the last Christmas where my father was the Patriarch.

I could cut down and put up the tree, set the school record for tackles in a game, get into a couple of Ivies, but I could not make a family, until I had one.


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