Quest for the perfect tree

The glass ornaments my mother used were old-fashioned. They were nothing like the new, cutting-edge ones the neighbors had.

I've always wanted my Christmas tree to be the most beautiful, elegant, perfect symbol of the holidays. Yet, just when I'd acquired everything needed to duplicate last season's requisite color scheme, lighting style, and tree topper, another holiday magazine appeared. I'd cringe, because I knew I'd be headed for the trim-a-tree shop yet again.

My quest for the perfect Christmas tree began when I was an adolescent. One evening, my family would drive to a grocery-store parking lot after supper. There, a forest of trees, circled by a line of naked light bulbs, stood in snow and ice. I'd drag Leonard, my 11-year-old brother, around the lot, searching for a tree without a lower branch sticking out at an awkward angle and whose top didn't fork in two.

Leonard would send little white complaints puffing into the air. "Just pick one!" he'd huff, hunkering down into his coat collar.

But creating a perfect tree didn't stop at finding the tree. Decorations had to be perfect, too. As a teenager, I thought the glass ornaments my mother used were old-fashioned. They had been on the tree since my parents' first Christmas together. To me, they looked like something from Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." They were nothing like the new, cutting-edge Styrofoam balls in shiny gold, blue, green, and red that I saw through our neighbors' windows.

After I married and had my own home, the Christmas tree's ornaments varied year to year. Gold-sequined "Our First Christmas" balls gave way to "country Christmas" - calico donkeys and gingerbread men with pink rickrack.

Later, I gamely painted smiling reindeer and elves on the heads of clothespins. After that, our tree puckered with pink French horns and burgundy trumpets. They were replaced in succeeding years by Mickey Mouse, purple snowflakes, and miniature golfers.

Meanwhile, boxes of Christmases past piled up in the garage.

I firmly believed tinsel distribution could make or break a tree. Fortunately, my husband and I agreed. But as children, my brother Leonard and I did not. In what to me was an unforgivable act, he threw the tinsel in great clumps on the branches. I'd wait until he left to watch TV and then would sneak back to the tree, carefully untangling his bunches and replacing the strands so they were perfectly parallel, alternating short and long.

But last year, something strange happened. I bought a technologically correct, state-of-the-art tree. It cost a fortune. I put it in my living room's bay window. I draped beading around the tree - withno uneven sags anywhere. I stuck baby's breath between the branches. Ribbon drizzled down the sides from the loops of the tree topper. The front and the back were identical; top and bottom were symmetrical.

And yet, when I was done, it was just an 8-foot night light.

Discomfitted, I assembled the old tree in my office - the tufty, artificial one whose branches looked like toilet bowl cleaners on a stick.

I rummaged through the leftover decorations. I found the white satin and gold "Our First Christmas" ornament. I hung the red glass ball, a memento from the night my kindergartner had walked down the runway with white frilly anklets and a smile as sweet as candy cane. Her brother's Cub Scout Santa Claus came next. Its stuffing was lumpy, and the glitter spelled out only part of his name. Under a tangle of angel hair, I discovered a blue ornament with "Clifton" written in red fingernail polish, a gift from a fourth-grade student to his "favorite" teacher. I found the calico donkeys and the clothespin Santa. I even came upon my mother's Charles Dickens streetlight.

Little by little, the tree filled up. It had no coherent color scheme or theme. This hodgepodge tree was simply hung with memories of people who had once gathered around my Christmas mornings.

Then, when I was nearly done and ready for the final touch, I thought, "This is for you, Leonard." And I threw tinsel by the handful, all over the tree. Shimmering strands, like slivers from a winter moon, settled in clumps on the branches.

And you know what? It was just perfect.

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