As an author, I’m asked many times about my favorite Christmas memories. The questions come from readers, publishers, reviewers, and many others. Those memories tend to wind up being edited down to a paragraph. Maybe two. You can’t really do justice to a memory in that space.
Growing up in the Missouri Ozarks, we often had a white Christmas. Yes, just like the song. The Bing Crosby version. Or The Moody Blues. A wonderfully beautiful time, but mixed now with a little of the bittersweet.
At the time, I didn’t understand that my parents scrimped and saved for a long time to make Christmas happen. Looking back, they spent a lot of money we didn’t have on Christmas, and I’m not talking about just on gifts.
My dad’s birthday was December 18th. Just a week before Christmas, his birthday present was always a Christmas tree.
We lived in a house that had high ceilings. Really high. About fourteen feet. Such a house today would have the ceiling lowered somehow, if for no other reason than to save on heating costs. And wallpaper costs. But our house had the ceilings clear to their full height. Added to this was a good deal of dark woodwork. I later learned that most of the houses of the period from when ours was built had mahogany woodwork. The carving was intricate with lots of roping and circular features.
Our home was the second floor of the building. The stairs were a straight shot from the front door, but at the top of the steps, there was a ninety-degree turn into the hallway that led to living room at the front of the house, and the kitchen toward the rear. My room was off the living room.
Between the living room and my room was a huge door. It reached nearly to the ceiling and was about eight feet wide. Made of the same dark wood, it had carved panels inset on its surface, and it slid on rollers to disappear into the wall. Oh, that’s called a pocket door. I usually kept it closed.
At least on nights other than dad’s birthday…on that night, the show was too good to miss by closing the door.
The annual floor-show we called tree shopping always started the same way. Dad would swear that we would get a small tree this year. I never figured out his definition of a small tree.
We would pile in the 1967 Dodge van and head out to the tree lots. This was one of the old vans, not like today’s minivans filled with soccer players and their moms. A big thing, based on a big truck, the van had two seats up front and the engine sat back a little, between the seats. In fact, there was room to pass from one seat to the other by walking between the dash and the engine box. The box lifted up so you could check the oil from the driver’s seat.
The back of the van had no seats. Just a huge open area, a lot like a metallic football field. Since there were no seats, we didn’t need seat belts. No one wore them back then anyway.
We went to the same lot every year. It was called simply “Ron’s”. I assume the greasy old man who drooled when he stared at mom was Ron. Anyway, dad said Ron had the best trees at the best prices. I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t very old, I had never been to any other tree lot, and the prices must have been secret since the trees all had little colored tags on them. I guess Ron had the code to break the cipher someplace.
In late December in Missouri, it gets dark about four in the afternoon. Dad didn’t get home until about four-thirty or so. By the time we ate and hit the streets, it was full dark. We usually took several hours in the dark, using flashlights and the several bonfires Ron kept burning, to pick out a tree.
This was no small task, nor was it one to be taken lightly. While dad stood shivering in the cold wind, mom made him hold the tree upright. She then stared at the tree with a practiced eye, making dad turn it this way and that. Most of the time, she would shake her head and mumble something about a flat or bare spot. Dad would go back to the racks of trees for another.
Did I make it clear these are real trees I’m talking about? Many people seem to think that Christmas trees come from the garden center at the local Wal-Mart. You know…the ornaments are where the fertilizer was stacked in August. No, these trees didn’t come in a box.
Just a short time ago, these trees were living, growing things. They were snatched from the forest by force and brought by truck to Ron, and others like him, for sale to folks like us. Sort of an evergreen slave trade.
Ron had racks built from 2×4 lumber that held the trees. To a kid like me, there seemed to be a million trees there. Maybe there were a few hundred, but the smell still lingers in my head. The pine scent was almost overpowering. Ever open a new bottle of pine cleaner and take a really deep whiff? That’s not even close. At times, when standing close to one of the racks, it could actually get unpleasant.
Ron had several types of trees. I remember spruce, Scotch pine, blue spruce, and a few others. Dad liked the Scotch pines, and that’s where the efforts focused.
Often, mom’s thumbs down for a tree came because it was too small. Now, dad wasn’t a big man, only about five and half feet tall. But unless the tree was at least a foot over his head, he knew better than to waste mom’s time. She wouldn’t even speak then. She just gave dad “The Look”.
You know the one. All mothers know how to use The Look. Yes, you mothers out there reading this know what I’m talking about. It’s the expression that, when aimed at the man of the house, says without words, “Are you out of your mind?” The same look, when aimed at the children, says, “That’s very sweet and cute, but if you don’t stop now, I’m going to slap your face off.”
No matter who The Look was aimed at, it worked.
Dad knew better, but he always tried to sneak a tree shorter than himself into the game. I think it’s like a pitcher in baseball trying to doctor the ball. Sometimes, you get by with it. Most times, you get caught. When you did get caught, you usually paid a little fine, maybe sat out a game or two, and then all was forgiven. I wonder how many games dad sat out over the years.
The lot was pretty slow this particular year, and Ron was helping dad pick out trees for evaluation. After looking at several dozen, all rejected because they were too small, Ron told dad he could give him a good deal on a larger tree since only a few remained and it was only a week until Christmas.
With mom’s smiling approval, we followed Ron to the high rent district.
The trees towered over my seven-year-old head like redwoods. Reaching so high in the air, the tops were lost in darkness because the light of the bonfires just couldn’t reach that far. Dad frowned and turned his flashlight to the sky, but the light faded before it found the tip of the trees.
While Ron still had several trees here in the Beverly Hills part of the lot, only one fit the bill; a Scotch pine, the only one there. The trunk near the base was too big around for Dad to grip fully with both hands. Some of the lower branches were bigger than a few trees we looked at earlier. Processed and cut into lumber, the tree could have built at least two homes.
Dad and Ron wrestled the monster from the rack and balanced it precariously on the ground. The tree swayed in the wind, causing the men to struggle to keep it upright.
Mom, taking pity on them, walked around the tree instead of making them turn it for her.
Her smile said it all. This was the one.
After a few minutes of negotiation, dad and Ron settled on the price. The tree was soon tied with bailing twine and ready for loading.
With the mighty pine tree resting on the ground, the problem became obvious. The tree was about twice the length of the old Dodge van. There was no way it would fit inside unless the windshield was broken out. Maybe not even then.
Dad decided to tie the tree to the top of the van.
Ever see the Oscar Meyer Weiner-Mobile? The van looked a lot like that when Dad and Ron finished. Well, other than the moldy green hot dog drooped down toward the street at the ends.
And away we went, driving through the dark streets with a dwarf redwood on the roof.
Those old vans were top-heavy when they left the factory. Dad nearly flipped ours over several times on turns long before this night. With who-knows how many tons of evergreen tied to the highest point of the vehicle, it became very top-heavy.
It took about thirty minutes to get to the tree lot. It took more than an hour to get home. When added to the time at the lot, we finally arrived back home at about nine at night.
And the fun had only just begun.
I’m an only child. No big brothers to help. Mom was less than five feet tall and weighed perhaps ninety pounds. Soaking wet. With her clothes on. I was not quite seven.
What I’m trying to say here is that dad was on his own.
He managed to wrestle the baby sequoia from the van and get it on the ground. He had the idea of putting the tree on a big canvas tarpaulin so he could drag it instead of carrying it. It seemed like a good idea to me.
He began pulling. The tree did well, sliding along the ground and up the five steps to the door. It fit through the door, barely, and dad backed up the main stairs, pulling and sweating and saying bad things about the tree’s parents not being married.
I remember mom and I standing at the foot of the stairs watching dad. His face looked like traffic signal stuck on stop. In the rain. He was really sweating. I recall not understanding why, because it was maybe twenty degrees outside.
He was a little past halfway up the steps when the top of the tree went through the door. Dad gave a mighty pull, and the tree lurched up the steps nearly a foot. Dad sat down hard on the steps. The jolt made him lose his grip on the tarp.
The tree came sliding down the steps, top first, like a runaway train on a mountain. The bottom of the tree bounced on the steps as it descended, and I imagined the sound to be like restless cannibal pygmies deciding whose house to meet at for dinner.
I watched all this from my position on the steps leading from the sidewalk to the door. Directly in front of the door. Right in the path of the humongous tree.
Dad always called me ‘Mel’. Mom gave him The Look every time he did. She never failed to call me ‘Melodee’. I hate it when people call me ‘Mel’. Only three people can get by with it, and I like it. Dad was one. Hey? What little girl wouldn’t like her Daddy to have a special name just for her? A close business associate is another. She holds the purse strings, so she can call me anything she likes. The third is someone very special to me. But I digress.
Mom said only one word. “Mel!”
Remember the scene in the movie Vacation when Clark falls asleep at the wheel and leaves the freeway? Remember when the man walking his dog snatches the pooch back by the leash, thus saving it from being crushed by the Griswold Family Truckster? Mom did the same thing to me, only using my arm instead of a leash.
And I reacted the same way as the dog. I yelped. Loudly.
The tree shot past mom and I at a high rate of speed. I guess being tied tightly to the trunk, the branches offered less wind resistance. The canvas slide probably helped. When the bottom of the tree exited the door to the house, it was moving much faster than I could walk. Probably faster than I could run.
The inertia, a function of the mass of the tree (large) and the velocity of the tree (also large) carried the tree all the way back to the van. It stopped when the first four or so feet of the treetop was under the van.
Dad stumbled down the steps. He stood next to mom and I, his breathing a ragged pant, with his hands on his hips. I think he used up all the good words already, because he didn’t say a thing. He just glared at the tree.
Finally, dad’s breathing returned to normal, or at least as much as a fifty-five-year-old obese smoker can breathe normally, and he smiled down at me where I still stood holding mom’s hand. “You OK, Mel?”
He got The Look from mom.
I smiled. “Yeah, Daddy.”
He messed my hair and went after the tree.
The second assault on Mount Aaron went pretty good. At least dad made it to the top of the stairs with the tree in tow. It was here that a major problem was encountered.
Remember that ninety-degree turn?
How do you get a monster conifer around not one, but two such turns?
I was wrong…Dad hadn’t used up all the good words. At least not yet. Even today, I don’t understand what they mean when people say someone is ‘turning the air blue’. Mom said dad was doing that, but I didn’t see it.
Dad was a machinist. More accurately, he was a precision machinist. All machinists work with tolerances measured in thousandths of an inch. Dad dealt with dimensional clearances on the order of a few ten-thousandths of an inch or less.
The tree had far less clearance than that to get around the corner and out of the stairs.
I’m not sure if the cussing or his skills as a machinist helped more, but dad managed to get the tree from the stairway into the hall. It was a relatively simple task to get it into the living room.
It was after ten by then.
After some careful measuring and a couple of tests, dad finally cut several feet from both ends of the coniferous monster and was ready to attach the base and stand the tree up.
The trunk was far too big to fit into the stand.
Again, the air didn’t turn blue, but I came to understand that the supply of good words is all but infinite.
I had a cat. His name was Jessie, and he was just your common feline mongrel. When you have a cat, you also have a litter box. A litter box implies cat litter. But cat litter is expensive. Instead, dad would get a fifty-pound bag of something called Speedy Dry from where he worked as we needed it. It looks, feels, and smells, at least before the cat gets to it, just like clay cat litter. We had a new bag.
Being ingenious, dad got a five-gallon bucket, put the base of the tree in there, and filled the bucket with Speedy Dry. Adding water made the mixture like cement. It also weighed more than mom and I put together. That’s a good thing, because the huge dwarf redwood needed the weight to hold it upright.
When dad finally stood the tree up, it was about quarter past eleven. The treetop ornament, a hideous yellow and purple thing my grandma gave us, was less than an inch from the fourteen-foot ceiling.
Dad cut the rope holding the branches and the tree unfolded majestically, nearly filling the entire room with long green needles reaching in every direction. The already strong scent of pine intensified in the air, and sent us all the same message…
Christmas was actually coming.
Mom brought in the boxes of ornaments and lights. As mom picked out the ornaments she wanted on the tree, dad played with the strings of lights, making sure they all worked and the cords and plugs were in good shape.
I sat down on the couch and watched my parents.
The last thing I remember is the old mantle clock above the gas fireplace chiming midnight, signally the end of my dad’s fifty-fifth birthday. But his night had only just started. By the time I woke up in the morning, still on the couch, the tree was trimmed.
Dad died in 1987, but even now, I get my Christmas tree on December the 18th.
Happy birthday, Daddy.