Spring Cleaning Has Its Limits on Matinicus
I write on the first of April. The sky is blue, the sea is twinkling, the storms are over, the breeze is — well, no, not exactly warm, but no teeth in it. We heard the peepers for the first time this year on the 31st; Paul came home from the evening check of the powerhouse and stuck his head through the kitchen door and said, “Step out here!” We’ve already had the crocuses; they’re almost gone by. Lobstermen are headed home from Florida and Texas and Tenants Harbor. The daffodils are poking up. You can even hang out your clean socks without getting frostbite on your fingers.
I suppose it’s time to take the church Christmas tree down.
Now, I most assuredly am not stating for purposes of documentation that we actually did or ever would forget all about the Christmas tree until three months had gone by; this purely hypothetical situation is merely a suggestion of what winter reality on Matinicus might offer; this picture is simply a figment of my artistic license. The trustees of the Congo Church would never plan at their summertime meetings to leave eight feet of sweet-smelling balsam standing all winter in the largest freezer on the island. The very idea. This writer cannot stand behind the veracity of such a rumor.
I took the decorations off the tree a couple of months ago, because I wanted to make sure that in case said evergreen were removed in haste or by neighbors with frozen fingers, the ten or fifteen dozen glass balls would be safe.
The Christmas balls on the Matinicus tree are precious. They are not antiques, nor are they costly art glass, nor are they uniquely painted by Chaney Ripley or anybody else. They are just ordinary three-inch colored baubles from Wal-Mart or K-Mart or wherever, but on each one is a name. Back fifteen or so years ago, when the church needed some mucho expensive carpentry, everybody who donated money on behalf of or in memory of somebody else got that person’s name on a Christmas tree ball. Every December, island ancestors, old-time summer friends who used to come around, deceased loved ones, and most of The Usual Suspects are recalled when the tree is decorated.
Some of the names are a mystery to whichever random people do the tree any given year. There’s always at least one little exchange like this: “Hortense Higginbottom? Who the heck is Hortense Higginbottom?” “Oh, you remember, that crazy old bat who used to rent on the north end…”
For the last couple of years, a couple of island teenagers took the duty of hanging the decorations on the tree just a few days before Christmas. When I took them down, it was all I could do to reach the highest few. We’ll have to speak to Lucien, much taller than I, about getting on the top rung of that ladder. Lucien is one of the boys from Gould Academy who keep coming back here; Matinicus does that to some people. Rumor has it that another one of that pack of kids secretly painted up a Christmas ball with Lucien’s name on it and which looks just like the original ones. Someday, another generation of kids will be decorating the tree and somebody will ask “Who the heck is Lucien Childs Mitchell?” “Oh, you know, he was that crazy old coot who rented on the south end…”
The kids who once ran around the pews helping Santa hand out the presents — Secret Santa gifts for the adults, packages from the Sunbeam wrapped in white paper and red string for the kids — and who wore their new dresses and traded around their crazy-colored Sunbeam-present watchcaps now tell stories of this place to high school and college friends who do not universally believe them.
Lots of people offer to help put the tree up, but after Christmas, many leave the island, and it’s easy for even those of us who stay to think “I’ll get to it sometime, later, when there’s a warm spell.” The church is unheated unless the furnace is started up for some occasion; it takes hours to get the heat up, and we don’t have church services in the winter anyway. There is little incentive to hurry, until somebody dies or wants to get married in the church or some such thing. Then, all of a sudden, we remember the tree.
One year a while back when I was town clerk, an island couple came to me to get their marriage license, but swore me to secrecy about the wedding, planned for Valentine’s Day, because they weren’t about to try and muster all the relatives. The big celebration would wait until warmer weather when people could more easily get to the island, and a party was planned for summer. I promised to say nothing as I issued the requisite paperwork. As soon as they were out the door, I realized, “Uh-oh, that foolish tree is still in there. They won’t want a photograph of their quiet little Valentine’s Day ceremony in the historic Matinicus Island church with some old dead Christmas tree in the background.” I scrambled up to the church and took care of it, hopefully before the couple found out.
Rob the Sunbeam minister sent an e-mail the other day indicating that he’d be up for doing an Easter service on the island this week should there be some interest. I had to write him back and tell him the Christmas tree was still up in the church.
Paul told me he didn’t think Rob would mind a bit if he had to do an Easter service with a nice fir tree in the background.