Editor’s Note: Sights around New Orleans have a way of inspiring the onlooker. Some create art, some take deep sighs, and other have individual contemplations. When Frank Relle went for a walk and saw a pine tree bare of lights and ornaments, he was inspired to write, as was his mother, Lisa Fradella. Here are their stories that started as a sight and bloomed into a new reality.
Last night, I couldn’t sleep and went out for a shoot. I saw this scene and had some things I wanted to say but a first-person narrative didn’t feel right. I think this is the first bit of fiction I’ve written since 1998.
Thom didn’t want the tree in the first place–or so he said–but it was their first year together at the new place on Esplanade. After Zada dropped a few hints, he pretended it was his idea, and once they had it up he was hooked. The smell, the glowing lights…the good memories outweighed the bad. After the new year, Zada said, it was bad luck to leave it decorated, and she wanted it on the curb in time for the Coastal Restoration Project pickup. His skepticism peaked. Could a bunch of Christmas trees really save the coast?
He got the ladder down, untangled the lights and reluctantly dragged her out to the porch. Taking a break and sweeping up the path of fallen needles, he stood her up, stood back and shook his head. He blamed his back for not being able to get her down the stairs. If a few more days passed, he could get some Mardi Gras beads on there, make it all last a month or so more.
Is it a family home, lived in for generations? I hope so. The charm of it–the peeling columns with their unusual fretwork, the worn paint on the bead board ceiling and window trim, the eaves with scalloped brackets–say yes. Moss grows on the concrete fence wall. Cracks mar the stucco. The banana trees bear the scars of a hard freeze. But the ceiling fan speaks of long summer nights, maybe a pitcher of tea (sweet, of course) and a cooler of beer. The wicker table is the perfect place for a cracked platter stacked with ham sandwiches thick with Blue Plate mayonnaise.
I think it must be a home that is loved. It’s because of the big, fat tree. They didn’t choose a perfect tree of plastic and wire that pops right out of a box and then back in when the season is done. They chose a live tree that rains needles no matter how much water you keep it in. Its bare spots and holes are just places to put more ornaments. And I’ll bet they weren’t those themed ornaments in shades of pink and silver with a few peacock feathers for just the touch it needs. I think they were family treasures. The orange juice can lid covered in felt and rick-rack with the kindergarten picture glued on it, and several “Baby’s First Christmas” mementos, with teddy bears on rocking horses.
The gifts were not wrapped in coordinating colors. There were penguins on sleds and reindeer dancing. The stick-on bows that never stick were scattered on the floor. Lots of lights hung, clustered in one spot, sparse in another. But when you looked through the eyes of Christmas it was perfect, the best tree ever. I want to believe Aaron Neville was singing, “Please Come Home For Christmas,” and eggnog with a tip of Old Crow was being sipped while the decorating was done.
And now the tree is bare, a stranger from a farm far north, where these people will likely never go. Its few short weeks of glory are over. The visions of sugar plums beneath it came true. The failures were returned.
Now the once grand tree sits on the once grand porch, waiting to be taken to the street. But if they are a lucky family, its spirit will stay. Troubles and loss may come. Spring will arrive, then summer. The ceiling fan will stir a little breeze. The tea and beer will flow. The burned leaves of the banana tree will be replaced with bright new ones, and maybe a few bananas. The days will get shorter. They will start planning for Thanksgiving. Someone will say, “We should paint the porch before the holidays. Remember how big our tree was last year? I hope we can find one that good this year. And they will. They’ll go in shorts and rain boots to the lot stacked with trees. Their hands will be sticky and smell of pine forests as they run them over the needles to see if they are tight. Then someone will say, “I found it. This is it–the perfect tree.”
Frank Relle is best known for his long-exposure photographs of New Orleans architecture at night. Relle’s work is included in the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. His photographs have been printed in the New Yorker, the Southern Review, and the Oxford American, as well as many other regional and national publications. And, he’s a hell of a guy, so go visit him and his work in his studio at 910 Royal Street or follow him at http://www.frankrelle.com, Instagram: frankrelle, Facebook: Frank Relle Photography, Twitter: frankrelle.