Maybe you’ve seen those movies, most notably made during the 1950’s when everyone was on a post war, sugar is no longer rationed, high; where the entire family bundled up in their winter coats and merrily went in search of the perfect tree. Well, that wasn’t my family. No, my mother, who loomed large in personality and held the final say in all matters, picked out the tree, set it up, and then decorated it with ornaments and volumes of tinsel so you couldn’t see the enormous “bald spots” included in the discounted price. And that was that. No. Questions. Asked.
Little girl me would never have thought to mention the inequity of such a system, but that didn’t stop me from making a silent promise that when I had my own family, we would be just like a Norman Rockwell holiday painting, living a It’s a Wonderful Life kind of existence. Like those perfect families encased in celluloid and oils, my husband and I, along with our perfect children, would put on our own winter coats and boots, pile into the family station wagon, and head to the snowy mountains to enjoy hot cider as we combed the forest to find the perfect Christmas tree to take home.
My childhood dream came true in 1979. Kind of…sort of…well, you’ll see.
It was a cold, bright, sunny day when we headed up to the mountains of Northern California in our Volkswagen bus to a Christmas tree farm where, as a family unit, we would vote on the perfect tree to take home. During the drive, Bill and I sang every Christmas carol we knew, while Nate, bundled up in plaid flannel shirt, Osh Kosh B’Gosh overalls, and toddler down vest, enjoyed the view from his car seat. Everything once held in my little girl dream was in place.
When we arrived at the Christmas tree farm, dogs were yipping and chasing gleeful children, the smell of hot apple cider tickled our noses, and jingling bells filled the brilliant blue sky. A happy-go-lucky sort of fellow, wearing a bright green elfin cap, greeted us with a hearty smile and handed us a saw. “Go on out there and pick your tree, cut it down, and bring it back. I’ll help you put it in your bus.” Norman Rockwell was smiling down on me.
So off we went – my toddler riding on his daddy’s shoulders, and me with a saw in my hand and a song in my heart. Down the road we found so many folks vying for the nearby trees, we decided to walk on a little farther, until we came to a lovely patch of woods where a small house looked out over the forest. I was so taken by the vastness of choice, I didn’t notice Norman Rockwell’s smile turn to a frown, or things may have turned out differently.
I turned, and there it stood in all its splendor — the tree from my childhood fantasy. The all time, hands down, most beautiful tree of them all — perfectly spaced limbs, not a bald spot to be found, needles fresh and firm; its scent, pine sharp. We didn’t even need to vote, but we did. Once the votes were tallied, Bill immediately set to work sawing on the trunk until the most perfect of all trees was felled. So that we might look back on this most joyous day forever and ever, I took pictures of Nate on the left-behind stump, a ray of sunlight streaming down on my angelic lumberjack.
And then I heard George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life muse, “This is an interesting situation.”
You see, now that the tree was lying on its side, it turned out to be so much bigger than it looked standing in a forest of peers. When we found the tree was far too large and heavy for the two of us to drag down the hillside, we had to seek out the help of the cheerful fellow who greeted us upon our arrival. Mr. Happy-go-lucky turned whiter than the fur on Santa’s suit when he saw the tree. I thought we had perhaps chosen the very tree he had in mind for his own holiday, but when, in a horrified voice, he asked, “Where did you get that tree?” I saw Norman Rockwell duck behind the old gent carving the Thanksgiving turkey.
“Over there,” Bill pointed, his jacket buttons still popping with pride. “Over there” it seems was still the private property of that small house overlooking the forest.
We were ushered away from the rightful owner’s property faster than a runaway sleigh down a mountainside. Gone were the yipping dogs chasing gleeful children, gone was the sweet smell of hot apple cider; gone was the song in my heart; gone was that lousy Norman Rockwell, who I would be told years later by Stuart Smalley, “paints lies.”
Stripped of our saw and our dignity, we watched as several once smiling Christmas tree helpers, tied the “it’s never going to fit inside that vehicle” tree to the top of our VW bus, and even then a healthy four feet hung over the back-end. After a whopping fifty dollars changed hands, along with the promise we’d never return, we headed down the mountain road to the long drive home. My childhood dream turned nightmare, I fumed about how things could never be easy, how I just wanted to cut down our own tree, how I wanted my little girl dream to come true. I’ll admit there was even a moment during that dark ride when I almost gave in to the reasoning behind my mother’s solitary Christmas tree shopping.
Fortunately, by the time we got home I had calmed down and knew all would be wonderful once again when we got the tree inside and decorated it (as a family unit) with lights and ornaments. Just one little problem faced us at the door. Here’s an important fact that I will share with you: before cutting down a tree in the woods, consider the size of your living room, height of your ceiling and, more importantly, the width of your entry door. I’m not placing any blame here, but Bill was the math teacher in the family. Before we could even get the tree into the house we had to cut off almost four feet from the base.
After tying up the tree’s limbs and wrangling with it as if a wild bucking bronco, we eventually got it inside the house. Once inside, the tree was so large and cumbersome we had to tether it with wires to the walls. So wide at the base, we had to inch our way around the tree and squeeze through the door to the hall and bedrooms. But after a few days, and more than a few hot buttered rums while retelling the story of our disastrous trip to the Christmas tree farm, and the ensuing laughter it garnered, I, too, learned to laugh.
We kept our promise to the happy-go-lucky fellow and never returned to the mountains to cut down a tree, but we did keep up the family tradition of picking out the perfect tree together every year thereafter. And though Bill, Nate and I spend our Christmases far apart from each other, I can still see my chubby toddler in his lumberjack outfit, the sun shining down on him; I can still see Bill’s pride as he felled that tree, and my heart fills with a glad memory of a little girl’s dream coming true.
Norman Rockwell didn’t paint lies. I have the pictures to prove it.
Photo © Michaelene McElroy – All Rights Reserved
A version of this story was originally published at Greetings From Coupeville
Guest Author Bio
Michaelene McElroy is the author of “The Last Supper Catering Company.” At present, she lives in the woods on an island in the Puget Sound where magic is ever present.
Blog / Website: www.michaelenemcelroy.com/