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When I saw the tumbleweed rolling through the parking lot at the outlet mall near Phoenix, I just knew that it was the solution to my eleven-year old daughter Lulu’s and my holiday tree dilemma. My mind, exhausted from hours on the road, was suddenly flooded with a vision of this perfect sphere strung with lights and hanging from the twelve-foot ceiling in our living room back in Berkeley. I could just see all the cock-eyed ornaments we had collected or made over the years, dangling gracefully from its orb-like splendor. Our eight-hundred-square-foot South Berkeley apartment never looked so fine. I had to have that tumbleweed.

I had recently admitted to myself that there was no way I could continue competing with my ex-husband when it came to holiday traditions. As a single parent, I was tired of poking through the local Delancey Street Christmas tree lot in early December, looking for the tiniest table-top tree, while knowing that Lulu would soon climb into her dad’s BMW for their yearly trek to the forest, where they would chop down a huge evergreen, then decorate it with fragile ornaments, while sipping spiced apple cider and eating cinnamon rolls served on Spode China by Lulu’s stepmother.

I had recently begun to feel that a change was in order. For too long I had forfeited both Christmas and Thanksgiving to Lulu’s dad and stepmother, as if their large extended family entitled them to it. I wanted Lulu to have more time with my family, small though it was. When she turned eleven, which was shortly before my fifty-fifth birthday, we decided to make our claim on Thanksgiving weekend. This year it would be spent with my sister Cari, Lulu’s favorite aunt, in Tempe, Arizona. My parents were no longer alive and my brother, though nearby, was usually busy, so this was going to be a small, intimate, loving group of family. And while Lulu’s dad may have considered it a paltry alternative to their grand affairs, my daughter and I mapped out our road trip with great excitement and were soon on our way.

Sally, our Golden Retriever, reigned from the back seat of our ‘97 Honda Odyssey, and Lulu set up shop with a TV table and her school books in the furthest back seat. I slipped behind the wheel and took command of the CD collection. Easy. Six hours on the road, a stay in a Motel Six, six more hours of driving. Beatles songs were at the top of my list, so I belted out “Rocky Raccoon” as we barreled down the I-6l.

When I saw that tumbleweed rolling past, during a pit stop at a McDonald’s, I envisioned not only Thanksgiving as becoming uniquely ours, but Christmas as well. Call me greedy, but I wanted to shut down the comparisons in my mind. Yes, we could still celebrate the holiday the second week of December, an arbitrary date that, as a Buddhist, worked for me and accommodated Lulu’s dad’s holiday plans, but we could also have all our Christmas shopping taken care of by the end of November. By shopping at the Outlet Mall on our way home from my sister’s, we would be ready to hang the tumbleweed and do our gifts exchange right on time. Things were really taking shape. Lulu agreed and Sally barked her consent.

From behind the wheel, I announced my intention to transfer the tumbleweed from lot to car. Looking back, perhaps I underestimated the task. Lulu seemed unimpressed, but succumbed to my urgings when I threw the car into park, yanked out the key, and leapt out hooting, “First one to catch it gets a gift certificate at Big Dog.” Big Dog himself beckoned from a strategically-placed billboard looming on the skyline above the mall.

“Mom, it’s rolling over to that field!” Lulu shouted, reminding me that tumbleweeds have a life of their own on a windy November day. I was bleary-eyed from driving. As I paused to see where she was pointing, she punctuated her sentence with “Made ya look!” and took off running, visions of Big Dog apparently dancing in her head.

It took me a minute to react. She was, after all, athletic at anything she tried, and clever to boot, having learned a thing or two about negotiating from her businessman dad and her attorney step-mom. Feeling competitive, I leapt into action, accidentally leaving the car door open, a situation of which Sally took full advantage. She leapt from the car and romped with us, golden fur flying in what was turning out to be a mildly hurricane-esque kind of day. The wind was so strong that the tumbleweed was rolling uphill, with Lulu, Sally and me right behind it.

The sound of the siren arrived as a blur in the wind. That was followed by a voice over a loud speaker. “Ladies, this is not an off-leash area. Come down from the hill. Return to your vehicle immediately.” A police officer stood in the parking lot, bullhorn pressed to his mouth. Lulu, looking horrified, stopped in her tracks. As for me, a Berkeley girl at heart who had faced her share of police during demonstrations against the Vietnam war and, years later, having professionally conferred with them regarding subduing psychotic patients at the psychiatric hospital where I worked, I was in my element. I stood my ground.

“I don’t believe it is posted, officer,” I shouted in his direction. “We’ll be down in a minute, after we catch this tumbleweed.”

“Mom,” Lulu chastised. “He’s the police, let’s go.” Over the years, I’d taught my daughter to respect the law, primarily by slowing down whenever I sighted the black-and-white on the freeway, and by being polite in those unusual instances when the police car was unmarked and I got caught. I taught by doing.

“Sweetie, we are not breaking the law,” I assured her. “Let me handle this.” I was determined to get that tumbleweed. The police officer walked toward us, and I wondered if I had gone too far. Lulu stood beside me, clutching Sally by her collar. I smiled generously, noting the man’s name tag flashing in the sun. I took my hands out of my pocket, displaying the absence of weapons. I knew the drill.

“Ma’am, it’s Arizona law, and it doesn’t have to be posted. All dogs must be on leash in commercial areas. Now send your daughter and your dog back to the car and let me help you catch this darn tumbleweed.”

Lulu headed down the hill with Sally, and the officer and I worked as a team to surround the tumbleweed and grab it. He directed me to wait at the bottom of the hill, while he stood behind the tumbleweed and coaxed it down to where I stood. I swept it up into my arms, and we walked back to the car laughing. I couldn’t help but notice the Arizona tan on those strong arms, his broad shoulders accentuated by his uniform. His eyes reminded me of steel, and his graying hair seemed just right. Sadly, he wore a gleaming gold band on his left hand.

We scrunched the tumbleweed into the car, taking care not to break its branches, and Sally was forced to join Lulu in the rear seat. I offered the policeman the phantom gift certificate at Big Dog, which he passed on to Lulu. At this point, she was beaming her best golden-girl smile. “I’ve always taught my daughter to respect the law,” I insisted, although I remembered those days when I had stood among hundreds of demonstrators yelling “Off the Pigs!”

I thanked him for his help in corralling our Christmas tree and his eyebrows furrowed in apparent confusion. He shot a glance at my car, as if unable to ascertain my meaning, yet too wise to ask. He took a deep breath and looked at me, eyebrows raised, as if to ask, “Okay, what’s next?”

I smiled reassuringly. “Thanks for keeping the peace.”

We shook hands, and he walked away shaking his head.

Shortly thereafter, we arrived at my sister’s, sat down to a beautiful Thanksgiving meal, and gave thanks for the love of family and the surprises along the way. We hung out in our pajamas, played Apples to Apples, and visited Big Lots on Black Friday.

Two days later, we returned to the scene of the crime, executed our Christmas shopping seamlessly in the mall, Lulu spending a full hour in Big Dog, and with all the packages stacked on the passenger side and Lulu and Sally seated behind the tumbleweed, drove back to Berkeley. Even in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I felt the joy of the moment, singing along with the Beatles to “Let It Be.”

In that long weekend trip, I reaffirmed my connection with Lulu as the spontaneous, fun-loving mom, the stunning provider of holiday traditions, tossing rivalry out the window to die in the desert. Unlike the character of Rocky Raccoon, who shoots off the legs of rivals, I felt no need. When it came to Lulu’s father and his wife, there were no longer any comparisons to be made.


Ellen Woods is a writer living in Berkeley, CA, who has a year-round Christmas tree with green-grape lights and cock-eyed ornaments on a Japanese folding screen.  Her work appears in Skive Magazine, Noyo River Review, Inquiring Mind, Hip Mama, Looseleaf Tea, and the upcoming anthology, Stepping Up:  Stories of Blended Families.

© 2013, Ellen Woods

One comment on “Tumbleweed, by Ellen Woods

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