There wasn’t even a small pitiful Charley Brown Christmas tree in sight, yet on a ninety-five degree August afternoon, I sped across Lake Clinton in a ski boat with Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree how lovely are thy branches meandering through my mind. My wake touched the shore spraying water on oak, maple, elm, and walnut trees. They formed a dense forest where deer hide and fisherman cast their fishing lines from fallen branches. There would be no pine trees cut from this forest to decorate come Christmas.
I thought maybe I could figure out where the tree farm had been before the lake filled in the bottom land. I remember it was at the hill top on saw mill road, right before you went down the hill that led to the gravel pit, and the old one lane metal bridge with wooden runners on it. The one I was afraid to cross on the school bus.
Stopping the boat, I gazed into the still lake waters. I could hear kids crunching the wet snow, calling to their parents lagging behind with a heavy axe or cumbersome saw. “Dad, come on. I can see a big tree over there. It looks just right.”
With exhaled breath like a steam train, the dad sighed before speaking. “It doesn’t look any different than the trees back there at the edge of the forest. What was wrong with them?” All the while he was trying to remember how much rope he brought. Could he drag the prized tree back to the car? He stops and speaks with all the conviction he can muster. “Hey kids, these trees look good.”
Without stopping his kid’s pointed ahead. “A little further Dad. The trees are really big back there.”
The closest thought to Christmas on Dad’s mind is a prayer. He fervently petitioned God. Please let the tree fit on top of the car, and on the way home, can You place Your hand on the tree to secure it. Don’t let it fall off.
Mom’s Christmas thoughts were also petitions to God. Could the tree remain fresh till I take it down? You know I work hard God. I don’t need pine needles to clean up. If it is in Your power, could the season move along a little faster. I could use a new year, some champagne to toast its beginnings. I’ve got a lot of old acquaintances to forget and new resolutions to begin. Sorry God, but Christmas for me is a holiday to get past. I don’t think Your son will mind. After two thousand years you’d think he’d be tired of celebrating.
Those would not be my parents walking among the pine trees. We had a tree, but it was never big. Ours was not exactly a Charlie Brown tree, it did have some green, but we had to place it on the coffee table so it could be seen in the window, windows that even a small kid could see out of without a stool.
No, I was talking about hunting for the perfect tree with Grandpa and taking it home to Grandma who’d always complain, but she would have enough lights and ornaments to decorate it. Grandma and Grandpa seemed to welcome Christmas and appeared to be sad when it was over. It meant the four kids, three sons and one daughter, would be at their house for dinner with their spouses and the grandkids. Grandma would make biscuits, goose, noodles, mashed potatoes, and everyone’s favorite desert: Lemon pie for Uncle Earl, coconut pie for Uncle Mike, buttermilk pie for Dad, chocolate meringue pie for Aunt Bessie, and cherry pie for me.
She didn’t seem to bother with the in-laws favorite deserts. They had to fend for themselves: Earl’s wife, Mary, brought mincemeat pie, Mike’s wife, Carol, divinity, Bessie’s husband, Clarence, had devil’s food cake, and my mom, pecan pie. Grandma also never seemed to worry about what was her other grandkid’s favorites, or at least I didn’t notice. I didn’t care, because a cherry pie was always waiting for me.
Grandpa’s job, other that getting the tree into the house, was to light a fire in the formal front parlor. Christmas was the only time it was ever used. It had a bay window, where I thought the tree should go, but Grandma wanted it in the west window, so it could be seen from the road. That meant Grandpa would have to move the heavy library table from in front of the west window to the bay window. My job was to hold the family Bible as he shoved the table across the floor. When Grandpa was done with the move, I’d place the Bible back on the table. He’d breath deeply and exhale loudly through his nose. It was a thanksgiving to God. Grandpa was happy that he could still get the job done. I’d listen for the end of the exhale. It meant we were to both place our hands on the table and, with an Amen, end Grandpa’s prayer of thanks.
We usually got the tree at a lot, but one year we got it from a tree patch. Grandpa and I were the only ones that went to pick it out. We got into the 48 Chevy truck for the trip, Grandpa with an unlit King Edward cigar in his mouth, and me with a candy cane in mine. There was an axe and string in the bed of the truck.
Grandpa knew the man who owned the land. When we arrived, he greeted us from the door of his rusty trailer home. I played with his dog, Jake, while he and Grandpa had a Christmas shot of Jim Beam. The man said, “The trees are out yonder. Pick whatever one you want. No charge. It’s my Christmas present to you, your grandma, and grandpa.” With an offer like that, I wasn’t going to get any little tree.
There was fresh white snow in all the trees that floated to the ground as Grandpa and I brushed by. We walked by a lot of trees before I found the perfect one. Of course it was at the far end of the lot. “Grandpa this is it. It’s the tree I want. Won’t it look good in the window.” It was beautiful and fully decorated with glittering snow.
“Are you sure this is the right one Timmy Joe?”
“I’m sure Grandpa.”
“Sakes alive, it’s so tall; I can barely see the top.”Grandpa asked again. “Are you sure it’s the right one before I cut it down with the axe.”
When he was young, Grandpa had been a woodsman in Kentucky, but it still took a good half hour to fell the tree and another forty-five minutes to get it back to the truck. I carried the top. Grandpa said. “Be careful with that top. It’s where the angel goes. Can’t have Christmas without an angel on top of the tree.”
Grandpa and I were proud of our tree. Everyone we passed on the road turned to look at it. When we got to Grandpa’s house, I climbed up into the bed of the truck. He handed me his pocketknife and let me cut the string holding the tree in place. We took it out of the truck, and as we got it to the door, we knew we had a problem; because of it’s size, it was going to be hard to get it through.
In the kitchen, Grandma peered from the other side. She wore a Christmas bib apron with a Santa Clause on front, and a skeptical frown. The smell of freshly baked biscuits passed her and mingled with the pine needles. With hands on her hips, she asked, “Lordy, Sherman, what have you let Timmy talk you into? How in heaven are you going to get that tree into this house?”
Grandpa took off his hat, rubbed his baldhead, chewed a bit on his King Edward cigar and then spoke. “Myrtie, stand back. We’re going to get it in.”
We heaved it into the porch, through the kitchen, dinning room, and into the front parlor. We tried putting it in the tree stand, the red one with green metal legs and big screws, but it wouldn’t fit. We had to put it in a bucket and wire it to the window frame. It smelled like we were in a pine forest, including my sap-covered hands. After I cleaned them, Grandma let me string the lights, even though I didn’t get all the sap off. She put on the fragile ornaments, and I got to put on the silver icicles. Grandma wanted them placed one by one, no throwing bunches of them. The angel needed a ladder.
Once Grandma made some adjustments to the ornaments, she stepped back to admire the tree, saying, “ It is a big tree. I didn’t think we’d have enough lights and ornaments, but it’s just right.” Then she brought out the manger scene.
We set it up together while Grandpa sat on the couch and watched. First I unwrapped the lambs with their white plaster wool. I had to hunt for the shepherd’s staff. Once I found the curved wire, I put it in his hands and placed the shepherd near his sheep. There were three brown camels and three wise men. One wise man was dressed in a blue robe with a gold crown and was kneeling with a box of gold beads. The two other wise men were standing, one in a red robe and the other in purple. There was a rusty colored cow lying down. Her face and feet were white. We placed her just outside the manger. When Grandma was satisfied, she let me put Jesus in the brown, cardboard manger. It had real straw. Lastly, I put the glittered white star on the stable.
Grandpa got up to help with the final touch. He pulled a white light from the string and put in the hole behind the star. The star glistened in its light. It made me think of the snow-covered trees we left behind.
Grandma must have been happy with the tree. That year she made everybody’s favorite desert, even her daughters-in-law. After our Christmas dinner, Grandma played the juice harp while Dad strummed guitar, Uncle Earl played harmonica, and Aunt Bessie played piano. We sang Joy to the World, and we all were happy.
I’ve never found another tree as perfect as that one. I think they’re all below Lake Clinton.