I remember that day as if from a dream, a memory plucked from time with misty edges and yet so vivid that I can almost taste the cold, gray Mississippi morning.
The adults were worried, and yet I knew not what about, but this was the first year that we had waited so late to fetch a tree. My grandmother, who always fussed with delight over every detail surrounding Christmas, looked drawn and tired. Christmas was only a few days away, and no one had bothered with any of the preparations.
I must have been around fourteen, old enough to date, but young enough to be thinking mostly of myself.
So on the Saturday morning before Christmas, my grandfather announced that his friend who owned property in the country would let us cut down a tree. In Mississippi, that meant cedar or scotch pine. I stood in the living room with curlers in my hair pondering the situation, but the adults insisted that I go, so my grandfather and I loaded a few supplies into his truck and headed for the woods.
The first twenty miles or so took us along the familiarity of the freeway and over the Pearl River, before exiting onto a country road. As we neared his friend’s house, we passed a field with large rectangular cage like hoppers containing the remnants of the cotton season, the harvest having long since been transported to the cotton gin.
Growing up in the city, I had never seen the machinery of the cotton industry. Maybe I had seen cotton growing once or twice, but as I said, I grew up in the city, and when I did leave town, it was for exotic places like New Orleans, the Smoky Mountains, and the American West. The loneliness of the field with it’s giant rectangular monsters leaking wisps of cotton, crept into my fourteen year old soul.
We pulled up in front of my grandfather’s friend’s place, a typical one story ranch house nicely decorated inside. His wife wasn’t there that day, and I felt awkward standing in this man’s living room with my hair in curlers. I wanted to feel pretty. My grandfather kept referring to me as Betty, my aunt’s name. Is my grandfather OK?, I wondered. The idea that he could get me mixed up with his own daughter was scandalous. I worried that he might have dementia or hardening of the arteries as my grandmother used to say about my great-grandmother. I do this with my own children now. I get their names all mixed up.
The three of us headed up the driveway in two separate vehicles to a dirt road that led into the woods where my grandfather’s friend left us at the gate. It wasn’t a good year for Christmas trees, or at least not here, for we looked for quite some time, both of us not saying much but silently sharing our disappointment. My grandfather was a man of few words.
We were just about to leave and try the remains of the city tree lots when I spotted the one. Well, what I spotted was the top one third of a tall cedar. “Look,” I said hesitantly, testing the waters. “Wouldn’t the top of that tall one make a perfect Christmas tree?” To my delight and mostly to my surprise, my grandfather replied, “Well, sugar (shuga), I think you’re right. Let’s see if we can get some help.”
His friend pulled up about then to check in on us, and with a ladder and a saw, the two men felled that tree, or at least the top third, and loaded into the back of my grandfather’s truck. I’m not sure why to this day that I had to ride in back of the pick up truck with the tree all the way home, but I did, and the wind just about tore my face off, not to mention my curlers. Those were different times.
But the effect the perfect top of the cedar had on my grandmother was priceless. The lines on her face eased, and I swear I might have seen a tear. I don’t know what had transpired between the two of them earlier, but I do know that it was serious as life changed for all of us not too long after, and this would be the last Christmas spent in the old house. But at that point, with less heavy hearts on the part of my grandparents and relief in my young heart, the Christmas preparations commenced.
That evening, I enjoyed the bounty of the tree on the couch with my boyfriend, safe from the lonesome dinosaurs of the cotton field. Relieved of my curlers, I reveled in the warmth as the fire crackled and popped across the room from where my boyfriend and I kissed late into the night by the lights of the Christmas tree.
My grandfather was the catalyst that set my grandmother in motion that Christmas and probably part of the discontent that had settled between the two of them. But children and even young teenagers who feel awkward in curlers and are partly thinking of cutting down a tree and partly thinking of their boyfriend who will arrive by night, remember the feeling of security that results from carrying out traditions.
Merry Christmas Granddaddy. Although you’ve long since moved on to another place, thank you for the top of that tree. And most of all, thank you for keeping the rituals of the season at a time when my grandmother and I were about to lose hope.
Regardless of the holiday that you celebrate this time of year, if any, I hope that you hold the memories of those that you’ve loved close to your hearts while creating new memories for all to cherish.
And now, I would like to hear from you. What are some of your favorite Christmas memories?