“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember.” Ophelia in Hamlet
The tree-shaped rosemary plant, her pot cloaked in gold foil in honor of the holiday season, gives off a lusty, minty, pine-laced aroma as I mist her each morning. It’s important to counteract the dry winter heat spewed out by the nearby radiator in my city apartment. Her spikey green leaves reach up toward the pendant light above the dining table as if toward the sun, hungry for the kind of warmth and illumination that can no longer be provided by the large windows just feet away. The skies are December grey, the wind whistles off the Hudson River and hurtles down 93rd Street, shaking the windowpanes. I sympathize with my plant’s feeling of deprivation, her yearning for the heat provided by a celestial body, the warmth of days past. I feel the same loss of light in my life.
I’ve decided to forego the usual Christmas tree this year. This is not just a logistical decision, a practical response to the difficulty of maneuvering a six-foot spruce the size of my dead husband into the apartment and onto a stand without assistance. I could after all pay someone to do it, or get help from a neighbor, or invite my daughter and son-in-law and grandson to a decorating party.
But I just can’t.
The ancient Greeks believed that spruce trees symbolized eternal life, their evergreen needles paragons of resilience and strength. The pagans marked the winter solstice with spruce branches or entire trees placed by their hearths. More recently, spruce trees became associated with birth in the Christian tradition, with evergreens decorated to commemorate the arrival of baby Jesus. But for me, this holiday season is a reminder of the impermanence of life, of death not birth, of fragility not hardiness.
Last December my cancer-riddled husband, newly released from his first of four emergency hospital admissions, was determined to maintain all of our holiday traditions. We bundled up, he in his heavy grey parka and striped grey beanie – no gloves, me in my khaki goose down coat and shearling lined suede mittens. Dan’s hands were always warm, which was somewhat incongruous given that he was otherwise always cold, often dressed in enough layers to resemble a human onion. I, on the other hand, always had cold extremities. Walking down the street in winter, my gloved hand was always in his, savoring the heat that he shared with me. My heart, too, was warmed by the knowledge that this man was my partner in sickness and in health.
We picked out a perfect specimen at the corner bodega and had it delivered to our apartment. Dan helped me to center the tree in the stand, that effort sapping him so thoroughly that he was too weak to assist with the lights or the scores of handmade ornaments that I had collected since acquiring my first wispy Norfolk pine in college. As always, we played Christmas music and drank eggnog, this time only mine spiked with Goslings rum.
He sat on the couch, the corners of his mouth turned up into the grin that had won me and that still sent thrills from my cheeks to my groin. He had a tiny scar on the right side of his upper lip from an accident in his late twenties. He had been planting evergreens as part of a Mt. St. Helens reforestation project when the dibble bar he was using rebounded off a rock and grazed his mouth. I adored that imperfection, feeling that it added a touch of mystery. I saw it as a beauty mark of sorts, perched jauntily on his deliciously sensual mouth.
We both knew but did not say that this was an ending, not a beginning. And so it is that I cannot bear to choose, to light, to adorn a tree, no matter how beautiful, that has been severed from its roots and given one last hurrah before being tossed into the shredder just as Dan’s physical body, granted a few months reprieve, was subsequently turned to ashes.
I need a living thing to accompany me through this first holiday season without him. My little rosemary tree’s formal name is salvia marinus. Some say it is because she is named after Mary, who hung her wash on a little shrub, thereby tinting its blossoms blue. She will, if I can make it so, live to see another Christmas with me, perhaps even blooming in the meantime.
The rosemary plant was braided by the Greeks into garlands worn on the head to strengthen the memory. Branches were exchanged by lovers to signal fidelity, and burned in medieval homes to counteract the vapors of illness when someone died. All of these things feel right to me now in my time of mourning. Like me needing light and warmth, like me trying hard for new growth despite cold winds and long hours of darkness, my little rosemary tree helps me to remember and remain faithful to my soulmate, while still trying to reach for the light, endeavoring to sprout new roots in the soil of a new phase of life.