Tis the day before Christmas here in Misawa, Japan. As I looked out at our snow covered lawn, a Spirit of Christmas Past reminded me of my family’s first Christmas on the farm. I wrote this account a couple of years ago, but I have made some recent revisions. Merry Christmas!
Mama’s Christmas Tree
“Boys, wake up. Greg. Brian. It’s time for Greg to get ready for school.” My mom’s voice boomed from the kitchen. “Look out the window!”
I turned over and pulled the covers up around my chin. It was a cold, December morning. We shared a rollaway bed in the living room because during the winter the bedroom we shared lacked proper insulation and was too cold to be in for very long. As soon as the weather and economics permitted, dad promised to remodel. As I swung my arm to the side, I expected a cry of protest from my little brother, but he was not there.
“Greg it snowed!” my little brother exclaimed as he jumped from the window to the bed. “Maybe there is no school!”
“What do you care midget. You don’t even go to school yet!” I replied and pulled the sheets above my head, only to be pounced upon.
“Turn on the radio,” Brian squealed. “If you stay home, we can build a snow fort!”
I could hear my mom out in the kitchen banging skillets and plates. “Let’s go guys. If you want breakfast jump to it.”
I sighed the sigh of every kid forced to get out of bed on a possible snow day. I peeled back the covers and looked for my socks. I must have kicked them off in the night, but now my feet were freezing. “Is the heat on?” I managed through shivering teeth.
“It’s time for it to come on, hold your horses and start getting ready for school. You’ll warm up.” My mom said her standard phrase as she guided Brian into the bathroom.
Our farmhouse did not have central heat. What it did have was a big propane heater located in the living room with a blower that would come on when the air dropped below a certain temperature determined by my father. In the evening as we all watched TV, my brother and I would lie on the floor with our feet underneath the big contraption as it forced dry a dry heat over our toes. We would lie there, shoulder-to-shoulder in our socks, happy as clams as we watched the all-too-perfect Brady Bunch or the police detective adventures of Starsky and Hutch, oblivious to where the propane came from or how much it cost. Our feet were toasty and that was all that mattered.
I drug myself out of the warmth of the bed, shuffled over to the stereo cabinet, tuned the radio to KARE (the local AM station), and with high hopes made my way to peer out the slightly frosted window. It had snowed a decent amount during the night, but it did not look like it snowed enough to call off school. In fact, I saw fresh tire tracks in the tundra of snow that used to be our driveway. “Did daddy go to work today?” I questioned my mother.
“Yes, he did honey,” my mom replied as she broke two eggs on the edge of a skillet. My high hopes sank and I resigned myself to brushing my teeth and dressing for school. Not enough snow unless it drifted in some of the roads, which could be a possibility. I could hear the radio in the background. No announcement yet.
I walked past my parent’s bedroom and jumped into the frigid room my brother and I shared during the summer months, grabbed some clothes, and put them on top of the heater to warm them up. In a matter of minutes, I grabbed my Levis and pulled them on, careful to keep the hot metal buttons from touching any skin. The radio in the background was now playing Christmas songs. As the Vienna Boys Choir sang my mom’s favorite Christmas tune “Little Drummer Boy”, I slid into a blue plaid long sleeve shirt. The holidays would soon be upon us and the Christmas of 1972 would not be much different from other Christmases my family celebrated when I was little, except this one was our first Christmas on our new farm.
When I was in the 2nd grade, my parents uprooted our little family from the small town of Atchison, Kansas to the even smaller town of Effingham, Kansas. We did not just move from small town to speck on a map, but we moved from town to country. My parents purchased their “American Dream” and it came in the guise of an eighty-acre farm in Northeast Kansas. Well, it was my mother’s dream anyway and we were all enticed to join in on that dream with her.
My mom grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri and Atchison, Kansas, two “asphalt jungles” of the Midwest. Her mother’s brother, Harold, owned a farm in Horton, Kansas. It was one of those farms you picture in your mind when someone talks about a farm in the Midwest. Big, white three-story farmhouse complete with screen door and a cellar. When you walked into the house, it always smelled like whatever was cooking on the stove and roses. Outside there was a huge multi-storied red barn complete with haylofts and chutes. The place was speckled with fruit trees, trees for climbing and fort building, and the softest grass. There were also other out buildings: a henhouse, tractor shed, and work shed. They all smelled of work and dirt, but were always as neat as a pin, even the dirt floors looked clean enough to eat off.
Uncle Harold’s farm was a place my mom used to go and just get lost outside playing in the hay barn, helping Uncle Harold with the cows, collecting honey from the five or so hives he kept, and picking apples and apricots from the small orchard at the side of the house. Occasionally she would assist her Aunts, Mildred and Esther, in gathering eggs from the henhouse or cutting roses and other flowers from the colorful and odiferous front yard. She loved farm life and could not wait to move to a farm so she could share her love of country life with all of us.
Brian and I looked at each other and said, in unison, “Time to get the tree!” Jinx. Buy me a Coke. Jinx was just the beginning.
I remember, vividly, lying in bed months before the move, listening to my mother weave tales about how living in the country would be heaven on Earth. We could run and play just like she did as a child on her Uncle Harold’s farm. She told us tales of tree climbing and fort building and feeding livestock. And how, at Christmas time, Uncle Harold would search his property for the perfect Christmas tree to cut down and display prominently in the living room to celebrate the birth of Christ. She promised we could do all of that once we moved to the country. And we could have our very own dog, too. So, that October, my family moved to a farm complete with eighty acres, a wooded area we called the timber with a creek, a big barn, and an old farmhouse. My little brother and I were getting used to a different house, a new town, and, for me, a new school.
As the Vienna boys finished, the radio announcer grabbed my attention, “And the school closings due to snow for today are …” Yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah… “USD 3-7-7…” blah, blah, blah. Did I hear it correctly? My heart leapt! “Once again those closings are…and USD 377. Stay tuned to this station for the latest in school closings and livestock news,” and fade to a commercial for the local TG & Y store. I looked out the window as my breath started to steam it up and secretly thanked the snow for a day of no school. As I danced around the living room and jumped back into the rollaway bed, I shouted to the kitchen, “Mama, no school today! Did you hear the radio?”
My mom walked into the living room and stood at the window, peering out into the winter wonderland. “I heard. Shall we go get it today?”
Brian and I looked at each other and said, in unison, “Time to get the tree!” Jinx. Buy me a Coke. Jinx was just the beginning.
Time to go get the tree meant my mom’s plan for our first country Christmas was about to take the first steps to becoming a reality. My little brother and I had been waiting for what seemed like an eternity to hear those words. In reality, the wait had only been two months, but now the time was at hand. The tree would soon grace our living room complete with icicles, twinkling lights, and presents underneath. We just had to go get it and the snow gave us the perfect day for the task. The tree was located about a mile from our house on the hill that led to the Grants, our closest neighbors. The hill was peppered with average sized Evergreen trees and ankle high grass that was now weighted to the ground under five to six inches of snow.
I’m not sure who was more excited as we donned layers of clothes to embark on our snowy adventure, my brother and I or our mother. She was the one who had found the tree a couple of months ago on our bi-weekly trip into town for necessities and to visit my Grandma Moody. On that day, we had just crossed the old wooden and metal bridge that spanned the constantly wandering Stranger Creek and had begun our ascent up the hill, when my mom suddenly stopped for no apparent reason.
“Look there, boys. That is a good-looking tree. In fact, it looks like it would make a perfect Christmas tree,” my mother stated as she opened the car door and got out, oblivious to the cold, rainy weather that had made the gravel road we traveled a mudslide. She made her way through the mud, grass and other non-Christmas worthies to a finely shaped tree about six feet tall. She looked back at my brother and me still sitting in the car. “Greg, turn the car off and you and Brian come over here a minute.” Brian was already out of the car and halfway to her. I quickly followed.
The tree looked much better up close than it did from the road. I don’t know how my mother even spotted it as special, but as I walked closer, it’s Christmas worthiness became apparent. Soft needles, the truest green, and a symmetrical shape, it was the perfect tree. We all stood there in silent awe of the tree that would be our first Christmas on the farm. Brian broke the silence. “How will we remember which one it is by Christmas?” he innocently questioned.
Mom was quick on the response. “Greg, see if daddy left a rag or chalk or something in the car,” she said.
I was off like lightning. I searched the front and back seats as well as the floor. Nothing. I got the keys out of the ignition and opened the trunk. Stuck in the spare tire, for no apparent reason was a red bandana, my dad’s. “Will this do?” I asked as I waved it for my mom to see.
“That’ll do!” my mom replied.
I trudged through the snow and gave her the red bandana. “Where should we tie it?”
“How about down here at the bottom like a belt?” Brian suggested.
“What if it snows dummy?” I quickly regretted the use of the word dummy. My mom grabbed my arm and scolded my use of the adjective.
“I don’t want you to call your brother dummy. Say you’re sorry,” she demanded.
“Sorry midget, ” I mumbled.
“I just thought it would be the best place, that’s all,” he whispered.
“It’s a good idea Sweetie, but if it were to snow, we would not be able to see it. How about if we tie it up on this branch?” my mom stated as she began to tie the red cloth on one of the lower branches away from the road. We made our way back to the car as it started to rain and my mom took one more look at the tree. “Perfect,” she whispered as she slowly pulled away with a smile on her face.
So the tree waited in silent vigil and we went about our daily lives of school, chores, and watching television. And now, a couple of months later, we had a snow day.
After multiple layers of protection against the elements were adorned, we raced to the barn to get the sled. Not just any sled, but our Yankee Flexible Flyer! It was the sled that would get the job done. The Flexible Flyer had a wooden platform base with red, metal runners that could glide effortlessly through the new fallen snow. Once cut down, the tree would safely rest on the Flyer, held with carefully tied twine to keep it in place.
Sled in tow, we began the walk to get the tree. This would not be a walk for the faint hearted. We had to walk down our very long driveway, take a right and walk for about two tenths of a mile where the road curved to the right. At the curve, the road split into three directions. If we went to the left, that would take us up Ten Mile Road, straight would take us down to Low Water Crossing, and right was the path to the bridge and then up the hill to the Fitzpatricks. The hill was where our tree was waiting. It only took my little brother until the end of the driveway to decide he could not walk any further and he plopped down on the sled. I was pulling the sled with my mom leading the way to the tree. When we reached the bridge, I was pooped out! Mom took over the towing responsibilities and led us up the hill to the tree.
Excitement penetrated the frozen air and became the fuel that powered us up the hill. As we inched along, we were all scanning the side of the road for our tree with the red bandana. We kept walking and kept looking. Before we knew it, we were almost to the Fitzpatrick’s driveway. We must have missed the tree in our fervor. My mother turned us around and we headed down the hill in search of our perfect Christmas tree. Suddenly, my mother stopped.
“What is it mama,” I asked with trepidation.
“Well, honey, I’m not sure. Our tree should be right around in this area,” she said as she waved her arm in a circular motion. “Do you see daddy’s red bandana?” I scoured the area looking for the sure sign of red. Nothing.
“Where’s our tree?” Brian asked with a tremor in his voice.
It has to be here somewhere I thought to myself. Trees can’t just get up and move whenever they want. It had to be here. It was our tree on our land. We found it. It was meant to be in our living room holding our Christmas ornaments. Where could it be?
My mother left us at our sled and walked into the untainted snow. Her first steps were solid and then it seemed like she tripped.“Ruts! Tire ruts,” I heard her murmur through gritted teeth. We could not see the tracks in the snow from the road, but they appeared as I walked closer to where we thought the tree should be. “There are tire tracks from a truck or something here hidden in the snow,” she said. Then her face caught up with her thoughts and she began to frown. She turned slowly to face my brother and me and stated with one of the saddest voices I had heard, “Someone has already cut down our tree.”
“Did daddy already come and get the tree for us in the truck?” Brian asked with innocent hope.
“No sweetie. He didn’t. Someone else came and cut down our tree for themselves,” my mom explained with a quivering lip.
I looked at my little brother and then looked at my mom. An icy wind blew across my face as I looked at where the tree used to be. It was my brother who broke the silence.
“But that was our tree,” Brian gurgled choking back tears.
“Yeah, our tree,” I echoed my little brother’s statement. That was all I could think to say. I mean, he said it all.
“Yes, it was,” my mother said in a shaky voice to match her quivering lips. “Well, get on the sled Brian. Greg, you pull your brother and stay close to me on the way home. It feels like there is a snowstorm heading our way.”
“Okay mama. C’mon little buddy. Let’s go home,” I said to Brian, while I made sure he was on the sled. As we made our way home, the wind became sharper and as we finally turned to walk up our driveway, it began to snow. Only this was not the happy snow of a snow day off from school anymore. This snow was heavy with a sudden sadness that burdened all three of us. As we walked inside the house, the warmth of the kitchen stung my cheeks.
Due to the snow, my dad returned home from work earlier than usual and my mother told him the tale of our missing tree. My dad gave my mom a hug and she broke down in tears. It was late afternoon and my brother and I sat in the kitchen playing the card game Uno. My mom walked in after talking with my dad and asked us what we wanted for dinner. In unison, my brother and I both said, “Spaghetti!”
My mom looked at my dad and in her eyes I remember seeing only love.
Before the word spaghetti could leave our mouths, my dad entered the kitchen in his standard blue denim overalls and said, “Well, the spaghetti will have to wait because we have a tree to find. Whose with me?” My brother and I were both out of our seats before he could finish his sentence!
“Larry, our tree is gone,” my mother reminded him.
“I know that tree is gone and it was the special tree you were watching, but we have a timber full of trees. So why don’t we all go out together and find a new tree and cut it down this afternoon while we still have a few hours of daylight?”
My mom looked at my dad and in her eyes I remember seeing only love. And before you knew it, we were all outfitted in bulky winter gear and in the truck headed for the timber. We took the same course we took with the sled, only this time we stopped at the bottom of the hill closer to the bridge. My dad made us form a line and we plodded through the snow on the ground and peered through the snow falling from the heavens and made our way forward into the trees. As we walked into the timber, the snow seemed to bring a peaceful silence to the world.
My mom broke that silence with four little words, “Look at that tree!”
We all gazed at the tree she was pointing to and Christmas was saved! We walked over to the tree for a closer inspection. This tree was even better than the first tree. Perfectly shaped and the perfect height. My dad looked at my mom and Brian and said, “Well, this is it then. We’re burning daylight! Kaye, you and Brian stay here and guard the tree. Can you do that m’boy?”
“Yes!” my brother squealed.
“Greg, we’ll go back to the truck and get the saws,” my dad was in total control of the situation. On the way to the truck, he put his arm on my shoulder. “I think I know what happened to that first tree. Can you keep a secret?”
“Yes, I think I can,” I replied.
“No, there is no think you can. Either you can or you can’t,” my dad fired back.
“Yes sir, I can keep a secret,” I finally admitted. And with that, my father stopped in his snowy tracks, leaned in, and told me the tale of what he thought happened to our tree. And I had to promise never to utter a word of his theory to my mother, brother, or anyone. Why did he have to tell me? I wanted to know what happened to our tree, but now I did not want to know what happened to our tree. I wanted my mother to know, too, but now, how could I tell her? What a burden to place on a second grader’s shoulders!
We gathered the saws and were back at the new tree. My mother was simply ecstatic that we had our own tree from our own farm. We loaded the tree into the truck and were back home before we knew it. My parents put the tree in the corner of the living room where the TV sat, so now the TV was in an awkward spot, but still good enough for viewing with our feet under the heater.
As we decorated the tree while listening to Christmas music, my mom had tears in her eyes. I thought of my mom’s tears only a few hours earlier. Those tears were not really for the tree, but for what she perceived my brother and I would have missed out on by not choosing and cutting down our own tree. She thought she had let us down. This time, her tears were tears of joy knowing that we had not missed out on our own tree on our first Christmas on the farm. My mom stepped back and looked at the tree. “Beautiful,” she whispered. My mom was happy. We were all happy. And my dad’s secret deduction of what happened to our missing tree?
I’ll never tell!
© 2018 Gregory Vessar