Monday, December 13, 2010

That Christmas Tree Smell

We set up our Christmas tree in the living room yesterday and enjoyed a wonderful family time decorating it. My daughters were sipping eggnog and Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Wizards in Winter” was blasting on the living-room stereo. We all laughed heartily as one of our cats, Augustine, attacked a little nutcracker-soldier ornament dangling from a lower branch. Later in the evening, we watched the movie “Elf,” which has almost become a family tradition. Seeing the sparkle of the Christmas tree lights in my daughters’ eyes made these moments magical. I thought of Greg Lake’s line, “that Christmas tree smell and their eyes full of tinsel and fire,” from one of my favorite Christmas songs. After the movie but before we started to hang our customized stockings from the fireplace mantle, my wife and daughter Monika brought out the delicious Christmas sugar cookies they had been baking and decorating. Thanks to the blizzard on Friday night, we could view a wonderful white wonderland outside our bay window. These two weeks leading to Christmas will be a joyous occasion for the Viator family. We’ll sing Christmas songs, eat pie, play games, and let the season kindle our imagination. The kids will no doubt enjoy seeing the gifts gradually stack up under our balsam fir.

Unfortunately, the scent of pine—a wonderful part of the Christmas experience for many—inevitably evokes in me feelings of fear and revulsion. You see, my Uncle Josh tortured and murdered two teens in the woods on a dark autumn night. The poor high school lovers were unaware that he had been stalking them for hours. When he struck, they were helpless to defend themselves. I was seven years old at the time, staying with him at his farmhouse while my parents were away in Florida. In retrospect, family members, especially my mother (Josh’s sister), should have suspected he was a deranged serial killer, given offhanded comments he’d make, coupled with disappearances of prepubescent children and teens in the vicinity of his home. Yet who can really believe one’s brother or uncle is capable of such vicious, sadistic murder?

I was present during the murders, but I have only the vaguest of recollections. I remember the green vinyl seat in the back of my uncle’s car where I cowered in fright. I just kept staring into the seat, afraid to look out the window or into the front seat. Uncle Josh, wearing overalls and a flannel shirt, was probably within a few yards from me as he mutilated those kids. I really don’t have any images that are imprinted on my mind directly, apart from the green vinyl. Certain smells, such as the iron-like scent of blood and the aforementioned pine trees—not to mention fear itself, which has its own smell—conjure up my darkest nightmares and haunt me whenever I’m around a coniferous tree, which of course is Christmas time, unfortunately. Yes, these olfactory “inducements” inevitably translate into the most horrific mental images, whether nor not they correspond to an accurate recreation of what happened.

I didn’t say a word about the murders to my parents, or anyone else for that matter, in the months before the authorities arrested him, for my uncle threatened to cut off my penis and kill my sister if I said anything. Years later, I read a newspaper clipping at the public library to get some of the facts straight and hopefully gain some healing in the process. Investigators with the county sheriff department found the boy’s dismembered body in a garbage bag next to my uncle’s garage. Uncle Josh hung the girl—or what was left of her—on a meat hook in the basement. Authorities had found her socks only a few days prior hanging from a tree, like a ghastly ornament signaling a dark fate.  They knew she was probably dead, but the sight that met them in the basement was enough to shake even the seasoned homicide detective's faith in humanity and all that is sacred in this world.

The police eventually solved the crime from the tire tracks and inconsistencies in my uncle’s lame explanation of his whereabouts that evening. Two Aryan nation inmates exacted “prison justice” on my uncle about three years into his life prison sentence, but the consequences of his evil live on for the victims’ family members. I was likewise a victim, though it took years of therapy to overcome feelings of guilt and recognize my victimhood. Consequently, the holiday season is a mixed blessing for me. Hanging an ornament on a tree and smelling the pine needles bring painful memories. But I must put on a brave face for my children’s sake. When it comes to Christmas caroling, for instance, I’ll belt out the tune loudly and with exuberance: “Christmas is coming, how happy we will be, the family will gather ‘round the Christmas tree.”