In 1959, when I was five years old, our family moved from an older 3 story farm house in a rural community east of Stanwood, Washington, to a rambler style home on seven acres just outside the city limits of Olympia, Washington. It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop. It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.
The rambler had side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space sitting between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other. The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room. The only opening between the rooms had a folding door which was shut most of the year. In December, the door was opened to accomodate the Christmas tree, so it was partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilling over into the family room. That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.
The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture, was sacrosanct. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas, a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company or for some very specific reason, like practicing the piano that sat in one corner. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived. The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side, only on the family room side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room where our family talked loudly, laughed much or roughhoused on the floor. This was not a room for arguments or games and certainly not for toys. For most of the year, the “living” room was strictly off-limits, not lived in at all. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.
One week before Christmas, a tree was chosen to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room. I enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.
It was as if the Christmas tree itself became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where “living” was actually taking place. It straddled more than just the two rooms. Every year that tree’s branches tried to reach out to shelter a family that was slowly, although imperceptibly, falling apart, like fir needles dropping to the floor.