MY FATHER AND HIS SIBLINGS PLANTED THE CHRISTMAS TREES UP BY THE CORNER CEMETERY UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF THEIR GRANDFATHER, PAYNE HEATH. I imagine Great-Dad giving stiff orders, tossing bundles of bare-root white pine seedlings into 8 piles, kneeling in the soft earth to straighten a crooked tree, bending slightly to pat one of my aunts on the head, stifling arguments amongst the kids with a firm look. I am, of course, idealizing the story, but I can clearly see the patriarch with his grandchildren in the sun on the terraced land. My great granddad was a learned man, and I’m guessing that my father inherited his love of nature and of teaching, from him. I’m sure that tree-planting day included lessons in soil make-up, tree identification, agriculture, and history. In those days, the farm had fences and hedgerows, but they, along with the terraces, were plowed under long before I arrived on the scene. Only the terraces hidden in the piney woods remain.
My dad once told me that selling the Christmas trees was to furnish college tuition for the grandkids, and were to be harvested the year I was born. My dad was the oldest, my youngest uncles not much older than I am. Unfortunately, that was also the year Great-Dad died—he and I shared a mere six months on this planet—and the trees never got harvested. Instead they quietly grew to great heights of 40 to 50 feet.
I remember the first time I saw them as a child. One Christmas my father brought us out to cut our tree. Perhaps they were not as tall then as they are now, maybe only 20 or 30 feet high, but to my eyes they were giants. You cut a tree, and then top it. To me it didn’t matter that the branches were crooked and showed a lot of bare trunk, or that it was not really shaped like a Christmas tree or that the needles were too limp to hold an ornament; going out in the snowy woods to cut a tree was quintessentially romantic. I think we probably did this only once when I was growing up, but when we moved out to the farm we continued the tradition.
Once home we stand it in a tub of water and weight it down with bricks and stones, balancing the trunk carefully. We wrap it in garlands and strings of lights, hanging the strange ornaments we’ve collected over the years. We hang stockings by the wood stove and string up Christmas cards in all the doorways. I’d like to say that this year we had hot mulled cider and cookies, but our decorating was accompanied only by chamber music on the radio and me, reading some of the more interesting letters inscribed in the Christmas cards, explaining to Ellis who sent some of the older ones—friends we may have lost track of before he was born. I smile at the messages, the pictures, and think fondly of these friends, enjoying my annual visit.
PERSIST IN PEACE