Weekend Edition: Christmas memories of there and here

James Bornemeier

In a way we planned it. In a way we didn’t.

I suppose there are many people who find themselves living exactly where they want to be after weighing this factor and that factor, absorbing the surprises life dishes out and building on thoughtful decisions. The fact that for the last decade we have divided our time between Manhattan and the Island can be partially explained by some of the classic determinants like jobs and family. But on this frigid day, watching the birds snack on suet and seed and hearing the wind howl as it does only at the front of the house and nowhere else, the wintry Island tableau outside the bay window contrasts so mightily with the mix of urban sights and sounds of two days ago that I could be living in a fantasy.

When an ornamental birdhouse awaits you under the Christmas tree in Queens or some falling ice hitting the Manhattan air conditioner 16 floors up sounds exactly like a window bird-strike in Island summer, you know your dual lives have blurred in ways you could never have predicted. Take Christmas tree-buying for instance. Two paths to ownership; neither superior to the other.

Around the block on Second Avenue awaited the woman from Quebec. She has sold us our last half-dozen trees and seems to remember us from year to year. We certainly remember her, with the French lilt, stocking cap, cheery country manner and sweater littered with evergreen parts. In the city, you tend to place undue importance on such human connections. How many people in Manhattan do you see annually for about 10 minutes over a six-year span whose reunion is inspired by the acquisition of a Douglas fir? It has become the official opening act of the city holiday season: exchanging friendly greetings with our Quebec amie; being shown a tree she had “for us”; and savoring the three-block trip to the apartment, tree hoisted on my shoulder, banking smiles and glances all along the way.

Breaking the spell, our favorite tree saleswoman didn’t show this year. But we managed to find a handsome New York apartment tree, hiding behind some pushy Frasier firs, all by ourselves. Despite this minor hitch in our routine, this recently concluded city-based holiday endurance contest was the most stress-free in memory. Mostly, because we paced it well.

I corralled the music event by getting tickets to the choral concert at St. Bart’s, an Episcopalian cathedral in the Byzantine style noted for its occasionally thunderous pipe organ and chorus larded with professional singers. The sounds rising from the throats of the girls’ and boys’ choirs would have melted the heart of Putin had he attended. Although the concert program was, for my taste, too heavy with Handel, the opening “O Come All Ye Faithful” snuck up on me and stole my voice as I redeployed resources to deal with tear duct-control issues.

My wife looks forward every year to taking in the Rockefeller Center tree and somehow prevails on her son and daughter and their spouses and kids to join her. This quest is preceded by a meal at the apartment, a very snug affair that makes considerable demands on my personality’s better half. Or third. Or fourth. Over the years I have brokered a deal: I bail out on the tree visit in return for cleaning up. Seeing as how I clean up all meals, all the time, under all circumstances, this is a meager bargain indeed.

The gift exchange was held Christmas Eve with this same crew at the step-son’s abode in Queens. Christmas Day was a rack of lamb and trimmings in the apartment. New Year’s Eve was crab cakes and the sound of renegade fireworks in our Upper East Side neighborhood. As usual I missed the ball-drop. A few days into the New Year we went with friends to Birdland, the venerable Midtown jazz club, to hear a very good big band. And that was our city Christmas.

Before the advent of grandchildren, who tend to pin us down in Manhattan, there was Island Christmas. I still like the AWOL Quebec woman, but nothing beats the North Fork Christmas tree-buying experience. You know the drill. Ferry to Greenport, take a right off Route 25 in Mattituck into (our favorite) Shamrock Christmas Tree Farm. Trooping through the designated field of trees dredges up distant memories from another life of searching for the perfect one in an unnamed forest in Vermont. With spousal accompaniment, selection can take a while; alone, my radar finds the right tree in minutes. One of the Shamrock guys fells it, trundles it to wrapping central, drills a hole for the stand, lashes it to your car and you’re off.

What is better than motoring along with a fir tree on top of your Subaru? That’s right, nothing. As for Island Christmas activities, I can list fire-building and … eating. Why complicate matters when your rustic aromatic 8-foot tree looks like it could have come from an unnamed forest in Vermont?  Byzantine-style cathedral? Jazz club? Who needs it? Throw another log on. It’s Island Christmas.