They stand tall. Carved by nature. Shaped by buzz saw. Perfect specimens of vibrant dark green waiting for adornment. Balanced. Symmetrical. Perfection. But the perfect holiday tree can also be hideous, outlandish, and, yes, Virginia, even scrawny.
Did I say scrawny? I meant gawd-awful ugly.
Such were the trees that graced my childhood holidays. My father, God love him, had a knack for dragging home trees of the most hideous kind. To him, searching lots for the perfect tree or hiking the frozen tundra to chop down ‘O Tannenbaum’ was ridiculous. No, he didn’t have a soft spot for ugly trees; gawd-awful ran deeper than that.
They were cheap.
Every Christmas Eve in our Long Island, N.Y., suburb, Dad would roll up to the tree lot, Pall Mall cigarette dangling from lips, and barter with the frantic tree lot dealer eager to go home. That’s when the deals are made, you see. Dad pulled out a hard-earned dollar and came home with two of the most hideous trees that side of the Rockies.
Did I say hideous? I meant dead as in almost needle-less.
He had a plan, one that cheap tree putter-uppers have used since the dawn of tree-putting up and it went like this – drill holes into the straightest trunk of the two and fill it with branches from the leftovers.
Kids, God love them, only see perfection. They also embrace tradition and although Dad was simply following his Delaware farm boy practicality roots that said the perfect tree was a perfect waste of money, his kids turned decorating the tree the night before St. Nick’s arrival into a tradition.
This age of innocence was swept away, however, in the angst of adolescence. We discovered our sacred tradition was born from miserly moments and cried out, “No more ugly trees!” A plan was devised – every holiday, one of us had to go with the man who thought paying five dollars for a tree was akin to buying it before the Dec. 24 panic.
One. Just. Didn’t. Do. It.
My turn to chaperone came in the winter of 1971. By then, we had moved to California. My husband, God love him, drove Dad’s old pickup while the three of us sat in the front like grumpy bumps on a bench seat. Lot after lot produced heavy sighs and “just pick one!” outbursts. I stuck to my no-gawd-awful-tree guns.
We drove into a grocery parking lot and cruised by the trees at a snail’s pace while Dad stared at the price tags with disgust. A van in front of us was perusing the trees as well. Then … its door slid open, an arm stretched out, and, Lord have mercy, an innocent tree was snatched.
My mouth fell open. My husband’s eyes bugged out. My father’s arched eyebrow declared “Now why didn’t I think of that?”
The tree guy ran to our window. “Get that license number and you can have any tree on the lot,” he screeched.
Dad’s old GMC burst to life as my husband hit the pedal and peeled out of the parking lot. An hour later we arrived home with the perfect tree at the perfect price.
It was a joyous holiday that year. A beautiful tree and an abundance of food and laughter filled the season because, although Grinchly, Dad had an uncanny ability to laugh at himself.
In January Dad was feeling a bit off. We figured his working-two-jobs-till-he- dropped mentality was catching up with him at the age of 60.
In February he was diagnosed with cancer. By June, he was gone.
Time moves on and for too many years I focused on the perfect tree making its way into our imperfect lives. You see, the meaning of tradition was waylaid in the turmoil of loss and desire to return to normalcy. Years later, after our own nest had emptied, I realized my chance to pass the legacy torch had slipped by, lost in a wellspring of change.
And every year, memories of my father and those hideous trees stir.
Did I say hideous? I meant wonderful.
How I miss them both.