Christmas has always been a special time of year. Some of my favorite memories are rooted in the Christmas holiday. You can call me a hopeless romantic if you want to but I love that ‘Christmas feeling.’ The sight of holly, snow-laced spruce trees and logs burning in a fireplace stir something deep inside of me. Perhaps it’s growing up in Norman Rockwell’s America that I cherish so much. Yes, I grew up there and was fortunate enough to experience firsthand all the trappings of a New England Christmas—even the roasted chestnuts on an open fire. Christmas always brings a hopeful, optimistic promise of good things. I see the good in people that I often miss during the other parts of the year. That’s my shortcoming, not theirs.
As I grow older, memories flood my mind, particularly during the holidays. Those memories converge around people more than anything else—mostly people who are not with us anymore. As much joy as there is at Christmas, for me, there is always a twinge of sadness. My parents are gone several years now. I miss them more than ever at this time of year. It’s because those lasting memories of Christmases past almost always includes them.
As with much of my writing, something comes from out of the blue and inspires me to start jotting down thoughts. Usually, I have no idea where it will lead. This time the thought of Christmas has moved me to share with you a Christmas story. It’s a simple snapshot in time written for sharing with my children, family, and my cherished friends.
Most families have their own holiday traditions and legends and rightfully so. This is one of ours. I promise every word is true. It’s too ‘out there’ not to be true. It begins on a cold grey Sunday afternoon in November in Sanbornton, NH. My stepdad, Hal, who for some reason I cannot truthfully remember to this day why but I called him, ‘Pop.’ He and I drove up to his parent’s farm in Sanbornton with plans of chopping down our own Christmas tree. The homestead goes all the way back to the days of the French and Indian War. In fact, it was built by one of ‘Roger’s Rangers.’ Kenneth Roberts wrote a book called, Northwest Passage which later became a movie starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Young and Walter Brennan. Apparently the group actually existed or at least, one just like it.
The farmhouse sat on 180 acres on what was the Old Concord Coach Road that traversed the forest between Sanbornton and New Hampton. The Concord Coach House where the coach ride began was situated on the road, now called Plummer Hill Road, at the bottom of the hill about a quarter of a mile below the house. The farmhouse itself was built by a Mr. Plummer who served as a ranger in that militia group. He rests in the family cemetery in the woods about a hundred yards behind the farmhouse. I spent many summer afternoons back in the old family cemetery trying to visualize what his life must have been like—still watching for marauding Indians in the woods.
Pop and I drove up there one cloudy, gnarly, cold Sunday afternoon in 1965. Our mission was to find and cut down a stately, well-proportioned Christmas tree from our own farm. How difficult could that possibly be? He parked the big, maroon, whale-like 1962 Mercury on the side of the seldom traveled road. We began our search on the steep incline in the field below the road.
It takes time to find the perfect Christmas tree. Even though the cold passed through our layered clothing, we pressed on. We would spot a tree standing like a sentry off to one side or the other and approach it with the eager anticipation of a child—only to turn it down because of some perceived flaw. I cannot tell you how many times we put ourselves through this process; easily dozens. It must have been 90 minutes later; when we realized that it was getting late in the afternoon and we were going to lose daylight if we didn’t make our decision soon. You would think standing in the midst of 180 acres of trees finding a ‘perfect’ tree would have been a no brainer. We began to get in touch with reality. This was an exercise in futility…”For God’s sake, pick a tree!” I’ve never been one to feel comfortable in the ‘settle for’ mode but we really did have to make a decision.
Finally, about 50 yards down the side of the hill we found a likely suspect. As I stood slightly behind it on the side of the hill, it was just a tad taller than me. I was 5’9’ with my stocking hat on. I stood there with my arm standing straight out and I was holding the middle of the tree. At this point, I’m considering neither the geometry nor the size of our prize. The tree was pretty. No, it was magnificent. It had a perfect shape. It was what Pop called a ‘Bastard Pine.’ It was a mixture of pine, spruce and some other kind of evergreen. It had long, supple, multi-colored needles. It was a naturally colorful tree. This tree was going to look spectacular in the front window of our living room in the house at 69 Lincoln Street. I just knew Mom was going to be so proud of us for finding such a superb specimen.
We attacked the 10 inch base of the tree with the hacksaw. In a minute or two of furious, sweaty effort, the tree twitched, made a cracking noise and fell to the ground with a loud resounding swoosh! We had our tree. Now only the simple task of hauling it up the hill and placing it on the roof of the old Merc remained. Little did we know at the time, this was only the beginning of a growing list of troubles.
Pop moved to the base on the right side of the trunk; I to the left. We looked at each other and reached down to grab the base. We wrapped our arms around the bottom two branches and lifted the cumbersome trunk. On the count of three we both lunged forward. WE lunged forward…the tree, stayed put. Not believing or accepting the previous outcome, we tried the same ploy again with the exact same results. A third attempt found us no closer to perceptible movement. Yes, this was the definition of insanity personified. You know, doing the same thing over and over expecting different results? As the old joke goes when the box fell out of the back of the long car, someone remarked it was time to rehearse this thing. This plan was not working.
Realizing we might have bitten off a bit more than we could chew, we approached our tree with a new determination. This time we placed an extra tight grip on the lower branches and picked the tree up to about shoulder high. This time we actually got it to move–maybe a foot. We must have been a sight. Pop said we looked like a couple of monkeys trying to hump a football. Imagine watching a man and a boy trying to muscle this forest up the side of a steep hill. Words were muttered, energy expended while inching this behemoth up the hill. At one point we realized there was an easier way. That was to lay the tree on its side parallel to the road and roll it up the hill. We would have to adjust the top of the tree after every couple of turns of the tree. Remember, the tree was a lot wider at the bottom than the top. Our method might not have been pretty but at least it worked.
We easily consumed more than 45 minutes to finally get that tree the fifty yards or so up to a stopping point on the side of the road. When we reached the top of the hill, we were both out of breath and hunched over like a couple of arthritic old men. “Thank God that’s over!” Pop said as he lit a cigarette. I was cold but I recall not minding sitting on the cold ground clenching my knees close to my chest just to stay warm. I was plum tuckered out.
Next came the task of loading it onto the roof of the car. Hal and I were gassed from the trek up the hill. Rather than drag the tree to the car, Hal backed the car beside the tree. I think this was the first time we began to get a sense of the actual size of our hard won greenery. The tree was longer than that big ‘ol Mercury. The bottom branches, even in the prone position, were taller than the car itself.
We had worked too hard to turn back now. If we can get this thing to the house, it will make a magnificent tree. If is a little word consisting of two letters that can often take on implications on par with quantum physics. I can prove it. Having the tree beside the car was no guarantee that we would ever get it home. We only had to raise the tree up the four or five feet onto the roof of the car. It might as well been a mile. This would prove to be a challenge greater than finding the tree and far greater than coaxing it up the hill.
Again, we approached the problem in a manly way—brute force! We bent down, grabbed the tree and tried to hoist it upon our shoulders for the final push onto the roof. Did I mentioned before, we were gassed? After a couple of futile attempts, it was obvious; we just didn’t have the strength to pick it up. It was way too heavy for us. There had to be another way, but how?
For several minutes, we stared, perplexed, at the tree and then at the car and back at the tree all the while secretly wishing that somehow magically it would climb up there by itself. Suddenly a light went on in our brains. Granted, it might have only been a 40 watt bulb but a glimmer of an idea flickered to life. We did have in our possession a piece of rope about twenty or twenty-five feet in length. I tied one end around the trunk and the bottom branches of the tree. Meanwhile, Pop tied the other end around a rather stout looking tree beside the road. There was sufficient slack in the rope so that I could lift it over the hood and roof of the car while Hal maneuvered the vehicle between the upright tree and our Christmas tree.
Pop inched the car forward, then backward and forward again until we had the length of rope running over the middle of the hood and roof and down over the trunk to the base of our tree. At this point, Pop and I switched assignments. He stood behind the car as I slowly inched it backward while Pop lifted the tree trunk and lower branches onto the trunk of the Mercury. He was huffin’ & puffin’. As with many great plans, it didn’t work the first time. The tree simply rolled off the other side of the trunk when it reached the rear window taking the radio antenna with it. That’s OK we weren’t listening to the radio anyway. However, the plan did show promise. We went at it again.
I pulled forward and then back again. Pop once again took a mighty breath and hoisted that tree back onto the trunk with every ounce of strength he had left. Eureka! It worked. We were able to get the tree onto the roof, grinding and scratching paint every inch of the way. That big ‘ol Mercury actually groaned as the shock absorbers bottomed out. With the car running, I hung on to the tree while Hal undid the knots at both ends. We quickly tied the tree to the roof by running the rope through all of the open windows of the four door sedan and over the top of the tree in several locations. Although we still had twenty somethin’ miles to get back to Laconia, that puppy wasn’t going anywhere. The Mercury took on the appearance of an old fashion East Texas logging truck. I wish you could have seen it. It was a sight–Just this big green & Maroon massive growth rollin’ down the road.
Because we had to run the rope through the interior of the car, we made the trip back to town with the windows down. It felt like 20 somethin’ degrees. In those days, we didn’t know anything about wind chill. It was just damned cold. I was already at the point of not feeling my fingers. So there we were coming back to town with a monstrosity of a tree dwarfing the car underneath it with the windows down and the heater on full blast laying our hands on the closest dashboard heater vent. On the ride home, I remember looking over at Pop every now and then and sharing that look of intense pride. We smiled like a couple of Cheshire cats. We were pretty proud of ourselves. The feeling would last until we got home.
We pulled into the drive way on Lincoln Street. Our house was a gray two story house with enough room in the attic to have made a nice apartment had it been finished out. I used to practice my trombone up there. The roof of the house, like most houses in that part of the world, had a serious pitch to it so that the snow would fall off and not put so much stress on the roof. The downstairs rooms were fairly large with the living room in the front of the house, the dining room in the middle and the kitchen in the back.
Pop pulled the car to the back door off the kitchen. I ran into the house with excitement and called my Mom to come and look at our Christmas tree. I will never forget her reaction as she walked through the back door onto the porch. “What the hell are you going to do with that thing?” She asked with more than a touch of sarcasm. I was crushed. My expanded chest quickly deflated. Pop looked hurt too.
Mom continued, “How do you expect to get that in the house? Look at that. It won’t fit through the door!” Pop and I looked at each other and in a manly saving face kind of way, we said, “Oh we can get it in—the boughs will bend.” Yeah, right. I untied the rope holding the tree to the roof and Pop pushed the tree toward the porch. Again, with a heavy swoosh, it found the ground. I think I heard the Mercury catch its breath and raise six inches higher. Pop pulled the car away and then we approached the immediate problem at hand–getting it up the back stairs and into the house.
Having already had the experience out in the field of trying to pick up the tree and move it without much success, we were determined to get it through the doorway. We muscled it to the back door. Oh that idea of the boughs bending at the doorway? That wasn’t going to happen. Getting that monstrosity into the house was simply an obese possibility. Obese possibility—FAT CHANCE! As much as I hated the idea, it was the only thing he could do; Pop broke out the hacksaw again. He cut just above the lowest spray of branches. Keep in mind the trunk of this tree was easily 10 inches or more. Still again, the tree would not go through the door. He then moved the hacksaw about two feet further up the trunk and started driving the saw through the soft wood. The next section fell to the ground with a heavy sounding clunk. This time we got it through the door—barely.
Mom had to move the kitchen table and chairs out of the way or we would have surely knocked them all over. Pop and I manhandled the tree through the dining room into the living room. By now the tree was considerably lighter. We laid it down by the front window and both bent over, got a good grip and stood it up. Or should I say, we tried to stand it up? Now the tree was too tall! The tree started to bend about half way up the tree. The top of the tree stretched across the ceiling parallel with the floor. There must have been four feet of tree running along the ceiling. Mom just sat in the corner chair shaking her head reminding us just how stupid we were and how silly we looked. Mom never suffered fools lightly. If you knew her, you know that about her.
It was time again for the hacksaw. A couple of more cuts had indeed cut that tree down to size. Even after cutting easily four or five feet from the top, it went from the floor to the ceiling. Understand, we cut enough off the top of this tree that if we had cut a circular hole in the ceiling instead, Mom & Pop would have had a full size Christmas tree downstairs in the living room and a full size tree upstairs in their bedroom. And it would have been the same tree!
The tree trunk, despite all the cutting, was still too large to fit into the tree stand. We had come this far…this tree was our tree and there was no backing up. Pop went outside to the garage and came back with some wooden slats to nail to the underside of the trunk. Once we stood the tree back up, he then nailed that puppy to the hard wood floor. Mom likely went nuts over that but Pop was NOT going to be denied. This was war. We then took a piece of clothesline, wrapped it around the middle of the tree, and then tied off each end to nails Pop had driven into the window and door frames.
It was time to stand back and admire our handiwork. This gorgeous Christmas tree in the wild now had no shape! It was just one continuous wide piece of green pipe that ran from the floor to the ceiling. I’m not kidding. There was NO Shape. There was just this massive green growth in the corner of the room. You have never seen anything so ugly in your life! Mom claimed she hated it but as the years passed, I always knew that, secretly, it was special to her too. We never had a Christmas together after that when that tree didn’t come up in the conversation. It was my favorite Christmas tree of all time—ugly as it was—no tree ever meant more to me and our family.
Mom passed in 1998, Pop in 2002. Just before he died, we knew it was the end game for him. I drove to New Hampshire and spent 11 days with him while he was in the hospital. We talked about everything and everybody. Finally, on my last day before I left to come back to Texas, we talked again. I knew it would be the last time we would ever see each other. He knew it, I knew it. Tears were easy to find. I couldn’t leave it that way. I was determined to get him to laugh one more time.
The conversation turned to that wretched Christmas tree. It had become a family legend. Pop and I bonded because of that tree. He truly became my dad on that hillside that cold November day. As we reminisced one last time about that pitiable pine, we laughed until we cried. It was the ugliest Christmas tree ever displayed in Laconia, NH—or for that matter, perhaps, anywhere at any time. But in reality, to this very day, for me, it remains the most beautiful Christmas tree I ever saw.
Have a Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year. In the meantime, take care of your precious selves.
© 2007 by Tweed Scott