I don’t remember the exact year that we went “artificial” with our Christmas tree, but it was most likely a year or two after mom had it out once and for all with a tree that refused to stand up straight.
Mom never had much luck when it came to choosing the best tree. I mean, they always looked good in the parking lot of Moore’s A&W, located on Columbia Avenue in Oglesby, Illinois (a town of 4,200, approximately 90 miles southwest of Chicago) where they were sold, usually the first week of December (back when people started thinking about Christmas after Thanksgiving). However, more often than not, once we got that “good-looking” tree back to our house, it wasn’t as good as we had thought when we picked it out.
Maybe it was choosing the tree at night when it was too cold to spend a little extra more time scrutinizing that Douglas fir. Maybe it was the poor lighting; you know the strands of 60-watt bulbs illuminating the lot created a lot of shadows that could make any scrawny, crooked tree look good. Then of course there was the timing—get to Moore’s too late and all the good trees were already picked through.
There were one or two good Christmas tree years when the tree cooperated when Mom placed it in the stand and screwed in the three butterfly-like screws to hold the tree up.
And even if there were some bare spots in the tree, we could always turn the tree around so they would face the back or fill them in with some extra ornaments. Problem was you sometimes didn’t know what the tree was going to be like when you did get it home. Once that tree “warmed up” inside bare spots suddenly appeared.
Then there were the needles. Unless you cut down your own tree there was no way of knowing just “how fresh” that tree really was until after you got it home. It smelled fresh at Moore’s—you know that wonderful and delightful Christmas tree smell that is one of the top ten great smells in the world, just after a new car smell.
Needles that might have seemed fresh when first inspected before buying the tree now suddenly appeared dry. It was not like you could go back to Moore’s and exchange the tree for a fresher one; nor could you get your money back (at least I never knew anyone of trying) for having been sold a potential fire hazard. Caveat emperor as far as I know does not include Christmas trees.
“We just won’t be able to leave the lights on too much,” Mom would say when it was determined that the tree posed a potential fire risk.
At night, we could hear the needles dropping—gave new meaning to the expression so quiet you could hear a needle, in this case, needles dropping. Of course, you could keep your tree “fresh” if it hadn’t already been dried out by filling up the stand with water and countless tips for keeping the tree fresh through the holidays, at least until the day after Christmas when most trees were thrown out. Mom always swore that plain tap water and a few Bayer aspirin worked best to keep the tree fresh.
That was a lot to keep in mind when it came to having a “real” Christmas tree and if one were lucky, the tree would be fresh, would stand up straight, and have minimal bare patches.
That was not the case the Christmas Mom threw the tree out the door. I know it was tough for mom being a single parent and when the holidays rolled around it got tougher for her because she always went all out for my brother and I to give us a good Christmas.
Nothing it seemed was going Mom’s way two weeks before Christmas that year with the tree she had bought at Moore’s. A friend from work had taken up to Moore’s one night after work and she picked, what she thought was a decent tree, but when she brought the tree home and started to put it up, it just wasn’t going to cooperate.
It all started when she couldn’t get the tree to stand up straight. No matter how many times she positioned the tree in the middle of the stand and tightened the screws, the tree kept on leaning to one side. Finally the tree cooperated and stood straight up but then she noticed the bare spot. When she tried to turn the tree around it started to lean again and she couldn’t get it to stand up straight. That must have been the breaking point.
“Open the door,” Mom said as she grabbed the tree and started toward the door.
“What?” I asked, looking up from the box of ornaments I had been going through.
“I said, open the door.”
“Mom, you’re not serious are you?”
Suddenly, I had this terrible image of a tree-less Christmas. My younger brother, waiting in the wings to start hanging tinsel knew that something was up when he heard the tone of our mom’s voice.
“Out of my way,” Mom said.
And that’s when Mom threw the tree out the door.
Well, not exactly threw out. The tree still had some fight left in it and refused to go through the door. Had my mother given the one tree one more chance to stand upright and spread its branches she might have kept it. Instead, the tree was halfway out the door now. Two hard pushes later the tree was out the door and its wake a trail of needles and broken branches.
My brother and I were too stunned to say anything. Then my brother started crying when he realized that Santa might not come because we wouldn’t have a tree.
“What are we going to do,” my brother sobbed. “S-s-s-s-santa won’t come now because we don’t have a tree.”
“Shh,” I said. “Don’t worry, Santa will still come.”
After mom had cleaned up the needles and the broken branches she started to fix dinner. Not another word was spoken about the tree that was still on the front porch. She hadn’t put away the decorations so that was still a good sign that all was well and that Christmas for the Miller family had not been canceled.
The next day was Sunday and the tree was still on the porch but on Monday when my brother and I woke up the tree was gone.
“Oh, no we’re doomed,” I said doing by best Dr. Smith (Lost in Space) impersonation.
“What are we going to do?” my brother asked.
There was only thing we could do now: call our grandparents. They would know what to do.
“Don’t worry,” I assured my brother, “everything’s going to be okay.”
I called our Grandmother Miller and told her what had happened. Of course she told me how terrible it was and that I shouldn’t worry.
When my brother and I came home from school that afternoon we were surprised to see another tree on the porch.
“See, I told you that everything would be all right,” I said.
My brother grinned. He knew that Santa would be coming.
Mom had already gotten home from work and had started dinner when my brother and I walked in. She didn’t say anything about the tree.
“Wash up boys,” she said. “Dinner will be ready soon.”
I knew if Mom found out that I had called my grandmother she would be angry so I decided not to say anything about it at all. Better off that way.
Dinner that evening was meat sauce over mashed potatoes. Kind of like Shepherd’s Pie. It was served to us in the school cafeteria and I liked it so much that I had persuaded my mom to cook it for us at home. I was probably the only kid in Illinois who liked cafeteria food so much that he could persuade his mother to cook the same dish.
“That’s a nice tree on the porch,” she said. “That was very kind of your grandmother to get us a tree this year.”
“Huh?” I asked. Was there something I didn’t know?
“She wasn’t sure of we already had a tree and wanted to buy one if we didn’t,” mom explained. And then she looked at me and smiled. “Don’t worry if some things don’t always go the way you want them to at first. And thank you.”
Nothing more was said about the tree that was soon put up and decorated with all its lights shining brightly.