Lesson from a Small Town: A Christmas Tree
The frayed collar on my wool snow suit irritated my neck. My little fingers scraped the raw skin under my curls. There was no relief. The itching only made my neck bumpy and hot so I opened my one piece outerwear to let in some air. When I did, the front zipper’s jagged metal track caught the yarn tether suspending my hand-knit mittens under my chin. The puffy pieces in turn reeled up to my ears and gave me another reason for scratching.
My three sisters and I sat wedged in the cab of Dad’s Chevy truck like a litter of hamsters in a wire cage in Woolworth’s front window. Smoke from his glowing Chesterfield circled around our heads and settled on the inside of the already dirty windshield.
“Remember now men, nothing over $2.50,” Dad announced.
A half-smoked cigarette dangled from his lower lip. We knew the budget but he liked to remind us as if he was giving instructions to some of his workers at his small construction company. He liked to call us his “men”.
His rusty hacksaw made a thud as it bounced in the open bed of the truck along with some spare pieces of wood, a spool of twine and an old dirt shovel. The bumpy ride tossed around the load like steel orbs in a pinball machine. The wooden shovel handle acted like the flipper and periodically scattered the load even more.
Mom never accompanied us on the annual Christmas tree cutting adventure. She stayed at home and prepared hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows and waited for us to return with our trophy. The tree farm was about 45 minutes away from our house in Ames. Sometimes we sang Christmas carols to pass the time as we bounced unrestrained on the leather bench seat and poked one another for more space.
When we got to the Christmas tree farm we fell out of the truck onto the packed snow in a collective heap. A string of bare light bulbs hung from wooden poles and defined the perimeter of the parking lot. A three-sided wooden shed stared at us from the far end. Next to the primitive structure a hand-painted sign announced:
Pay Here. Cash. No Refunds. No Returns
After a few yards of walking, my fleece-lined rubber boots began to fill with snow and started to weigh me down. I tried to hop into my father’s deep footsteps but my gait fell short. I was left to forge my own way through the deep drifts. My warm breath turned white in the cold air and led the way.
Each year we sought out the perfect tree. Each year we maintained we found it. It had to be at least as tall as Dad and smell like Christmas.
The first Scotch pine we inspected had a nest in a top branch. Although empty, we did not want to make any birds homeless so we passed on by.
The next potential tree did not have a nest but it did not smell like Christmas. In fact I think a skunk was living in it, or at least had left its scent. I held my nose between my mittens and scooted past yelling “pew…skunk!”
After a detailed examination, a third contender was eventually dismissed. It was missing a critical branch. We had to make sure that we had the perfect tree.
Further up the hill we trudged. I lost sight of Dad’s yellow truck down below. The bulbs in the parking lot were now turned on. From a distance they formed a small square and reminded me of the penny toss booth at the Ames Old Home Days summer festival. My shadow started to grow longer and the snow around my ankles was starting to melt and saturate my over-sized socks.
“I love this one!” my youngest sister suddenly proclaimed.
“This is the one Dad. It is the perfect tree,” we all chimed in. I think we were all getting a little cold and tired. But Dad didn’t question our choice. It was our tree.
Kneeling down, my older sister Chris and I cleared the snow at the base of the tree so Dad could cut down our choice. My two younger siblings each wrapped their colorful mittens around an outer branch like they were holding on to a subway strap for an uptown trip. Jill and Vanessa were supposed to steady the tree while Dad sawed.
The rusty hacksaw chewed the trunk and scattered wide slivers of shredded wood on the mounds of snow that my older sister and I had piled up. When Dad gave the signal, the former base clearers moved into the next position. Chris and I stood on our tippy-toes and strained to reach the highest branch and pulled the perfect tree towards us.
Down our prize toppled in slow motion. The tall tree pushed me face first into the cold powder. My eyelashes struggled to flick away the flakes. My tongue pushed out a wad of dirty snow. My arms and legs were pinned under my body and I thrashed and rolled away to free myself from the mass of long pine needles that shrouded my body.
When everyone was safely standing, Dad gripped the gnawed trunk with his strong bare hands and started to drag the evergreen corpse to the truck. The walk back seemed much longer. Now ice was forming between my toes and snot collected on my upper lip. Lacking a tissue, I licked the warm, salty liquid from under my nose instead.
“That will be $2.50 sir,” the owner said in a gruff voice from the shed.
Of course it was.
This wasn’t our first time. We were veterans.
The man tucked the bills and coins in a rusty tackle box and we hoisted the perfect tree in the back of the truck.
Once again we crammed in the same order onto the front seat. But this time I did not mind the warmth of my sister’s bodies next to me.
“Keep an eye on our tree now,” Dad instructed as he drove towards home. He lit another cigarette and flicked the ashes out the open tiny triangular window on the driver’s side.
The whole way home I kept looking back through the small rectangular opening at the bouncing conifer. I felt a tremendous responsibility for its safety.
When we got home, Dad backed the truck into the driveway towards the open barn door. When he unlatched the back of the flatbed, we scrambled up to help push out the perfect tree. As the evergreen slid out, the flood light on the roof of the barn illuminated a trail of fresh pitch on the truck’s metal floor. Loose needles stuck to the goo like whiskers on a hobo.
Dad grabbed the odd pieces of wood that accompanied us on the trip. On the concrete floor of the barn he made a primitive cross with the pine 2×4’s. My father did not believe in fancy store-bought stands. He made his own. Since he was a civil engineer, his daughters didn’t question his motive. Then he rested the horizontal snow-dotted tree on two saw horses in the barn. Dad drove three 20 penny galvanized nails through the bottom of the new rustic stand straight into the freshly cut tree’s base. The force knocked off the remaining clumps of snow.
“There, that should do it,” Dad said with confidence.
Mom opened the back family room door. A cloud of hot chocolate escaped along with a wave of warmth from the blazing fire in the fireplace.
“Don’t scrape the wall paper,” she commanded. Now we were in her domain.
Along with Dad’s firm grip, four sets of little cold hands lifted up the perfect tree as it passed through the doorway. Like a chain gang in lock-step, we transported our bounty across the braided rug to the far corner of the family room. The furniture had been moved aside and a wide open space welcomed the perfect tree to our home.
Dad set down the wooden cross on the bare floor and pushed the perfect tree upwards. The top branch almost touched the beams on the ceiling!
“Stand back kids!” he barked. This job was only for Dad.
We formed a semicircle and watched in awe as the perfect tree once again resumed its original upright position that we saw a few hours earlier in the woods.
Dad took a few paces backwards.
But then, the perfect tree slowly started to come towards him.
Dad stepped forward and pushed against the perfect tree with his flannel shoulder and reached in and turned the trunk a ¼ turn and stepped back a second time.
Slowly the perfect tree once again leaned his way.
As we stood in silence this procedure was repeated three more times. Each time the same thing happened.
I dared only to whisper to myself.
“Hmm-mm. No problem,” my eternally optimistic father muttered.
“Marge, hold the tree up, I will be right back,” he instructed Mom.
Frozen in place I watched in silence. I concentrated with all my might. And then, next to Mom’s apron pocket, a slight S curve came into view in the middle of the trunk of the perfect tree. I had been so busy looking for birds and skunks at the tree farm that I neglected to adequately inspect the quality of the trunk!
Suddenly I remembered the sign at the farm.
Pay Here. Cash. No Refunds. No Returns.
My heart started to race. My neck started to feel hot and itchy again. I picked at my thin dried booger moustache to occupy my nervous hands.
Within minutes Dad came back from the cellar with a hammer, a coil of wire and a stainless steel lag eyebolt.
With one hearty hit, Dad pounded the eyebolt directly into the wall-papered wall at eye level and twisted the metal fixture firmly into place. He took the spool of thin, exposed wired and threaded the gray filament through the small circular opening. Then his nimble hands ushered the wire around the top portion of the trunk several times and returned the final piece to the bolt and secured it to the ring in the wall.
“There she is,” he proudly said as he stepped back.
A familiar Christmas Carol played on the record player and broadcast through the built-in speakers flanking the fireplace. It was the only sound in the room. No one said anything for a few minutes as each one of us mentally processed the stabilization procedure that just occurred before our eyes.
Once the crisis had passed, Dad strung the colored lights. He avoided the newly created obstruction and looped the cords over and under the infamous support wire.
I only wanted to hang ornaments on the opposite side of the wire. For me, the menacing support system signaled danger and shouted stay away like the coiled barbed-wire fence in Germany that I read about in my Weekly Reader. I was afraid I would be decapitated if I got too close to that side of the tree.
When it was time for the tinsel and after a few sips of my hot chocolate, I was starting to feel a little more comfortable with the guide apparatus. So I pulled a chair over to the once forbidden side and gingerly draped a few strands on the exposed wire. The silver filaments hung like tiny icicles and made it look more friendly and festive.
When we finished the decorations, Mom turned on the wall switch to bring our Christmas tree to life. The four of us declared, “Oh what a perfect tree!”
And it was.
Maybe sometimes perfection needs a little support.
May your holiday season be filled with special, perfect memories that will live in your heart forever.
Kim, I don’t have interesting childhood Christmas stories to share, so thank you for taking me along with your perfect family to find a perfect tree. Your mom must have been an angel to put up with what happened to her wallpaper. So much for Mom’s domain. Merry Christmas and Blessed Solstice.
My memories brighten with each passing year. Thank you for reading them!