As Leonard leaned forward to plug the extension cord into the wall socket, he heard the ding of the kitchen timer. He raced to the oven and removed the cookie sheet, placing it on the stovetop, then returned to his task.
Now that the lights were in place, hanging the glass ornaments would follow. Leonard gently removed lids from the old, worn cardboard boxes. He knew all of the ornaments well, like old friends he visited each season. Some of the boxes were left from his own childhood and when he saw their contents again, he smiled at the warm memories that flooded forth. Leonard began hanging some of his favorite ornaments, spacing them on the appropriate boughs. As he reached for the second box, Mildred burst back through the door. She paused briefly to stare at the tree.
"What do you think you're doing?" she shrieked. "You have all the gold ornaments on one side and all the blue ornaments clustered in a group. For God's sake, mix 'em up. You have no eye for this sort of thing. Did I ever tell you that? Your sense of color and balance is faulty. I don't suppose you want my advice on the tree, though, do you? Did the timer go off? Did you remove the cookies? You must have because I don't smell them burning." She returned to the kitchen, apparently not expecting a reply.
Leonard wondered when Mildred was able to draw a breath or perhaps she was able to control her breathing so as to complain without additional breath intake.
About an hour later, the Evans' tree was completed. Leonard thought it looked wonderful and stepped back toward the hall doorway to admire his handiwork.
Mildred approached from the kitchen when she saw that work had stopped. "Well, it looks fairly good, I have to admit. It could use a little more height. Thank goodness you used a tree bag, because any moment now the tree will start to shed."
"It's pretty fresh, really. I had it cut only this morning." Leonard extended his hand to feel the needles. They were soft and pliable, shiny droplets of sap glistening in the lights' reflection. "See, still soft."
"That just goes to show that you know nothing about evergreens." Mildred spat her statement, emphasizing the words "know nothing."
There was no need for Leonard to respond. The tree was fresh and wouldn't be shedding for some time. He knew it and he also knew there was no arguing. Mildred turned and left the room.
Leonard stood before the tree, focusing on each limb and the decorations applied. He was pleased with the finished project, the balance and color scheme. No one could tell Leonard about trees and when they would lose needles. He packed up his emptied boxes and removed them to the garage. Now that the tree was complete, it felt officially like the Christmas season had arrived.
During the previous week, Leonard had decorated the outside of the house. After having experimented over the years with colored lights and various themes, his favorite combination had become an oversized wreath on the front door, illuminated by two clear floodlights. It was a simple but beautiful scheme and always drew compliments. With the storage boxes removed, Leonard flipped on the switch to illuminate the outside lights. Christmas always made him feel like a boy again.
Mildred had already headed to choir practice at the church. There were many activities at their church during the holiday season -- rehearsals, concerts, a Santa party for the children. Fortunately for Leonard, many of these events did not require his attendance while at the same time providing treasured moments alone.
As his thoughts turned toward dinner, Leonard wandered into the kitchen to make himself something to eat. The kitchen was peaceful with Mildred gone. This was her territory and she seldom let Leonard do what he wanted. He fixed himself a roast beef sandwich, opened a beer and sat down at the kitchen table to read the paper. Mildred would never have allowed beer at the kitchen table or, for that matter, reading the newspaper. It pleased Leonard that he was breaking a few of her steadfast rules.
Spending time alone was important to Leonard. Some people believed that his quiet personality and amiable nature made him easy prey for the dominating Mildred. Leonard really didn't care that she bossed him and he seldom let her temperament bother him. Even when Mildred did manage to wear thin, Leonard was able to restrain from saying anything in his own defense, preferring the quiet approach, often simply leaving the room.
But inside Leonard was often miserable. Even if Mildred's comments didn't bother him, her mere presence intruded on his privacy. Her shrill voice, so lovely in the choir, penetrated Leonard's ears, annoying with its high-pitched, unrelenting tone.
"I don't know how you can listen to that voice," his friend Marvin had said repeatedly through the years.
When people made comments of that type, Leonard would shrug, smile and generally say nothing. He knew that others appreciated his position and that they recognized his precarious balance. Somehow he found that awareness comforting.
As Christmas approached, every day was filled with holiday activities and Mildred was busily involved with events and absent from the house.
The week after the tree selection, Christmas Day came and went with little or no fanfare. Presents were opened and generally deemed acceptable.
The day after Christmas, Mildred began to hound Leonard about the tree being dry. "It has to go soon," she announced. "Christmas is over and I am tired of looking at it. You know, it never was a very nice tree."
"So soon? Well, sometimes we have left the tree up until New Years," Leonard offered. "But I can take it down anytime you wish, I suppose."
"No, no. If you are going to make a big thing out of it, leave the tree up. It's all right. I was only expressing my opinion. Not that you ever pay attention."
The issue was dropped for the moment. Leonard knew when to let a subject cool off.