This was first published in the Toronto Star, Christmas, 2007.
“When I grow up, I’m gonna be so rich I’ll be able to just buy the best Christmas tree there is,” I fumed, trudging along in snow past my knees, futilely trying to match my father’s determined strides.
It was a week before Christmas, 1971. As a 7-year-old, it seemed like we had driven for hours for the annual torture of selecting the perfect Balsam Fir. The parking lot had been crowded with families perfectly content to select from the precut trees neatly stacked around the fence of the farm.
My father stood at the back of our station wagon, patiently pulling out yards of yellow rope, the toboggan, his medium bow saw (he had three – I was born knowing this), and an axe.
I was already cold. Snow and wind were met with wool. My hand-me-down red plaid coat had large buttons up the front where the wind crept in. My mother had buttoned my cardigan in the back, and I had on two layers of her hand-knitted mittens and my matching pompom hat. My little sister would get to ride on the toboggan until we found the tree, so I’d whined for – and won – the coveted red mittens.
I was thoroughly jealous of my best friend. Her family had a Volkswagen Beetle, and they just pulled their Christmas tree from the crawl space in their basement every year. My father insisted on buying cars so big just so we could do things like carry Christmas trees on them.
Our neighbours got a new car every year, because they knew someone “in the business.” All that meant to me was we had to keep having the same old car every year, while everyone around us got better ones. Our 1966 Rambler station wagon was beginning to get harder and harder to start on cold mornings. My father would pet the dash of his Betsy, muck with the pedals, and it would whistle to life.
As always, my father took the path less travelled, and we headed out through unbroken snow. Chugging along, out of breath, with snow pouring into my red boots with the gold buckle (you wore them over your shoes, which meant whenever you arrived at your destination, your shoes were wet as well), I asked questions. What kind of bird is that? What are those tracks? Will we see a fox again?
My father knew everything about farms and forests. He’d been born on the prairies, and later in life traded open fields for deep forests. I’d once seen where he was born, a shack with a dirt floor. This knowledge was breathtaking; it caused one of the only silences between us that I could remember, and I grew up unable to grasp how little he’d been born into, and he rarely found the words to tell me more.
“Why can’t we get one of those fat Christmas trees?” I panted. I didn’t like the short needled fir trees he insisted on. Their branches were too sparse for my sense of Christmas splendour, and my mother’s beautiful ornaments, brought all the way from England, seemed unable to overcome the gaps.
“There is only one proper German Christmas tree,” he replied. I wasn’t sure why this mattered. I didn’t feel particularly German, especially at Christmas.
My mother’s traditions overflowed our home, and the smells and sights were as British as the woman imbuing them in her children. With my mother trailing far behind, hauling my sister on the wooden sleigh, my father abruptly stopped and turned to me. Leaving the bow saw looped over his shoulder, he leaned on the axe and stared at me.
“No matter how poor we were, we had a tree. My mother saw to that,” he told me. Before I could get a word out of my unhinged mouth, he’d spun around and kept walking. My father had lost his mother when he was 12. Barely a year later, he had been thrust into the world on his own. He never spoke of this. All I knew then was that there were few, if any, presents under any of those trees.
What I didn’t understand until much later was that there are seldom any traditions a 13-year-old boy can bring with him, including precious ornaments. This tree was all he had for me, and I was complaining that the wind was chapping my face.
Nearly an hour into the middle of the silent forest, we found the perfect tree. My sister and I each got to walk around surveying it, my mother just nodding in frosty agreement to try and speed things along. It would be her who would be trying to rub some warmth back into our feet when we finally returned to the car.
I got to help dig out the snow around the trunk, and once he got the saw started I would be permitted to give it a tug or two. Holding a branch, I helped pull the tree along, until my mother suggested I walk with her to speed things up. My mittens were wet from digging, but I knew the trip back would always be faster than the one that had had no clear destination.
Back at the lot, I watched people settling for the smaller trees that their smaller cars could accommodate. The tip of our tree extended over the hood; my father began a cat’s cradle of rope configurations to hold it on, and I stared at the raw wound of the freshly cut stump.
His devotion to station wagons was a joke among my father’s friends. They laughed at his refusal to waste a nickel on luxuries like fancy trim, air conditioning or power windows. He would drive a car until it owed him nothing, and even then he would cannibalize it, demanding new life from its old parts. At our cottage, the towel rack in the hallway is the grab bar from behind the back seat of that ’66 Rambler.
He required his cars to be workhorses; we would get our cottage the following year, and I remember getting stuck going down roads that weren’t roads yet. He would haul wood and pull stumps with that fading Rambler, its three-in-the-tree transmission wheezing and shuddering. My mother would wince, my father would ignore her and carry on. That car wasn’t just owned by my father; that car was my father.
As I pestered him to let me help, he secured the tree to the car. One end of the rope disappeared under the front hood somewhere and the rest was knotted through the roof racks in an intricate series of loops. Again I asked for a job. He looked at me with some consideration, and then said he needed me to hold onto the end of the rope from the back seat.
I liked this very much. In the summer I loved going to the lumber store, and holding the end of the rope. Except this wasn’t summer, and after a few minutes of driving on the road, sitting on my knees beside an open window, the idea was losing a little of its charm.
Terrified of letting my father down, or worse yet, admitting I couldn’t do something, I held that rope in my wet red mitten. With my other hand, I tried to wind the window up a little more, but only managed to nudge the plastic core piece out of its arm. The piece had been loose for years, but we got in trouble for playing with it. Now, it sat on the floor, and to reach it I would have to let go of the rope. And if I let go of the rope, our perfect Christmas tree would fly from the roof racks.
Thinking my hand might be warmer if I pulled off the wet red mitten, I slowly inched it off while still clinging to the rope. As the red mitten sailed out the window, I realized I would now have a new problem; I was forever losing mittens, and my mother was forever knitting to replace them.
All the way home I held that rope. I switched hands, I shifted positions, but I held tight. I would be like that tree, like this car. I would not let him down. Shivering as we pulled into the driveway, I finally relaxed. My father came around to my side and started the unknotting. As I scrambled out of the car, he patted me on the head.
“You did good, kid,” he smiled.
I will never be rich enough to afford a tree like the one my father cut for us that year.