A CHRISTMAS TREE MIRACLE

 

A version of this story has been broadcast several times on North Country Public Radio. It was also published in the Nov/Dec, 2003, issue of Adirondack Explorer. People said they liked it, so here it is again. .

 

Some years ago, Ann and I set about to realize a long-held dream. We were, by God, going to have a Christmas right out of It’s a Wonderful Life, one so chic and trendy it would make Martha Stewart envious. At the heart of it would be a BIG tree.

We had lived many years in Texas and other places that were never visited by real winter. Between us we’d endured somewhere around seventy Christmases when it was up to sixty degrees too warm to snow.

Not anymore. It’s a foot deep outside the erstwhile monastery, and it’s still coming down. Cold too. Around zero every night.

In the past, we’d seldom had a fireplace, and “the stockings were hung from the doorjamb with care” had never quite satisfied. Well, that pitiable deprivation is behind us. Our historic house in the Adirondacks has not one, but four, fireplaces. (Not enough; later we will add a Franklin fireplace and an 1896 Glenwood parlor stove.)

I’ve always preferred trees with long needles and dense with branches. Still do. Ann likes the kind with skinny little branches, spaced wide apart and the trunk plainly visible. Still does (she says). In a fit of Christmas good will, I agree that this year we’ll have her kind of tree. I promise myself that even if it doesn’t have but four or five branches and a total of ninety-one needles, I will spend the entire holidays saying, “My what a beautiful tree.”

We sing “O Tannenbaum” as we drive to the tree farm.

Ann’s eye falls immediately on an Adirondack beauty the size of a small Sequoia, with limbs remarkably dense and thick. It can hardly be more different from the tree she says she’d always dreamed of but that I’d been too – I’ve forgotten whether the word was “stubborn” or “spoiled” – to agree to. It takes two strong men to move it to the trussing machine. They heave and tug mightily to get it to pass through. Branches snap and the air is filled with the sound of mechanical whining. The men grunt and swear oaths inappropriate to the season.  At last, the thing emerges netted with many, many rounds of twine, but hardly defeated, and looking like it might burst its bounds at any minute.

The two trussers draft another guy, and the three of them hoist it up onto the top of the Suburban. I tie it on the best I can, but my fingers are too cold to do it properly. Onlookers mutter disagreeably about how “seasonals” (a pejorative term for those of us who don’t live in the Adirondacks year-round) can’t even tie a Christmas tree on top of a car. I think they’re jealous. Anyway, we drive away from the farm with the tree barely hanging on.

I take the half-hour trip back to town at twenty miles an hour, telling myself that the cars behind us are queued up there to see the magnificent thing home with proper ceremony.

In our driveway, I wave goodbye to the honor guard and get to work. I reach up to pry it off the roof, and that’s when I realize how heavy it is. (A more observant person would have put that together when a third brute had to be drafted in order to put it up there.) It’s fresh cut and full of sap, and most of the snow that had sat prettily on the tree’s stately, outstretched branches while it was on the lot, had been bound up inside. When a tree has a girth like that one does, it can hold a lot of snow.

I get its trunk over the edge of the luggage rack, and when critical mass is reached, it comes down easily – right on top of me. Fortunately, the big rocks under the snow at the edge of the driveway do nothing really inconvenient, such as snap my spine, but the heavy end of the tree does have its way with my wrist.

I lay in the snow for a few minutes and plead with Ann to stop with the questions – are you hurt? – is it your back?

I pull my glove down a little and sneak a look at the wound. It isn’t as serious as it felt.  Once I empty out the pooled blood and tie on a Boy Scout tourniquet with my one good hand and my teeth, I’ll be fine. Meanwhile, I’ll just leave my hand in the snow and continue the numbing that has afflicted it all afternoon.

Ann develops a sudden need for something from the grocery store and leaves me to deal with the thing on my own.

I make a plan. So I won’t have to pick it up, I’ll slide it over the snow, up the steps, across the porch and through the big front door.

Halfway there, I look back on a trail of needles, globs of dirty snow, and an angry chlorophyll smear. Hmm. It’s probably not a good idea to drag it into the house and across the newly refinished floors brushing as I go the hideously expensive and difficult-to-hang William Morris wallpaper, which Ann has given such care to selecting. Better to leave it out on the porch and melt the bound-up snow with a hair dryer. I have never used a hairdryer. I don’t know that they blow warm air, not hot, and that they do it in a broad, diffuse pattern, not the bullet of heat that I need.

After an hour or so, it comes to me that it would be better to take the tree through the side door into the mudroom, which has a slate floor. There it will rest in state until the next day. I’ll put up a velvet rope to keep order among the throngs of villagers who will crowd in to view it. Overnight, the snow will melt, the thing will become lighter, I’ll be able to move it easily, and I won’t drip sticky, melting snow all over the house.

I drag it up the driveway a few inches at a time, leaving drops of blood on the needle-strewn snow thereby creating a festive green and red pattern. I make it from front porch to inside the mudroom in just under an hour.

I put doormats of various sizes and types in the middle of the floor. Using sandbags, a couple of sawhorses, and odd scraps of building materials, I manage to prop the tree in an upright position. (I can’t recall why I thought that important; It surely wasn’t.) I envision the thing neatly drip, drip, dripping onto the mats all through the night, while Ann and I sleep the peaceful sleep of an honest squire and his lady. I turn the two nearby radiators to their highest levels and retire to administer first aid and start working on removing pine resin from my hands. (Later I’m told by the people at the Christmas tree farm that the best way to remove it is with peanut butter. I mean to try that one of these days.)

I get up a couple of times in the night and go down to see if the snow is melting. It is. A large and growing pool of nasty looking liquid is spreading steadily over the floor.

Next morning, I put on resolve along with long underwear and gather up tools. I set out our family-treasure-cast-iron stand, WD 40 to persuade the rusty screws on the stand to turn, pliers, and work gloves.

Ann says we can just do what we do when removing a tree at the end of the season. We’ll simply turn it on its side on top of an old sheet and slide it into the living room. There it will reside in majesty in the south-facing bow window until Epiphany, all the while shining its blessing of light down the hill onto the Burger King customers wending their holiday way to the drive-up window.

First, though, I have to reduce the circumference of the trunk so that it will fit into the family-treasure-cast-iron stand. Shouldn’t take long. I get my hatchet.

I wrestle the thing back outside. Not a lot of thinking goes into that decision. It’s sixteen degrees out there, and the mudroom is already such a mess, I wouldn’t have made it much worse by doing the work inside.

At least it isn’t difficult to get it out. Once over the threshold, it shoots down the icy steps like an Olympic luge and comes to rest in the ice field below.

My plan is to hold it up with one hand and chop away at the base with my other. (I suppose all that cold weather has diminished my ability to think straight.) The hatchet doesn’t look like much – a consequence of having been left in the yard the previous autumn and not being seen again until the snow melted in late April. It’s a little dull, too, but I’m not about to go to the hardware store for a file. Then I’d have to buy a vise to hold it and a work bench to mount the vise on and no telling what else. I was more than a year into renovation efforts before I realized the importance of staying focused and not getting distracted by ancillary projects. That way lies endless trips to the hardware store.

It becomes apparent fairly soon that my plan is misguided. On the ice, I can hardly keep my feet, much less hold up a giant Christmas tree while whacking away at its trunk with a dull hatchet. I lean it against the house, but it’s no more able to stand on the ice than I am. It slides down, almost severing the phallic tip-top that is perfect for holding a star. I had carefully measured the tree, including the phallus, to be sure the star would almost, but not quite, touch the ceiling. I lash the tip back on with fishing line.

I succeed in whittling down the tree’s base just as full-body frostbite begins to set in. I drill a hole for the stand’s spike and drag the thing back up the steps and into the mudroom.

Ann comes in with a sheet. She’s been busy all morning wrapping gifts. She likes wrapping gifts, and I’m glad. It kept her occupied while I was slipping and falling as I whacked at the tree’s lower extremity. Had she not been thus occupied, I’m pretty sure she would have pointed out that I was in danger of chopping my leg off – a job even a dull axe could manage. (Ann and I differ in our tolerance of risk.)

We roll the thing onto the sheet, and away we go, bound for the living room. Nothing to it.

I get my legs under me and heave the giant up and into the family-treasure-cast-iron stand. If it had been a single ounce heavier, I could not have done it. But there it stands, straight and promising and still straining at its fetters like a rodeo bronc, quivering and wild-eyed, waiting for the chute to open. All that remains before putting on the ornaments is to cut the heavy twine that keeps it from expanding to its full majestic girth.

Starting at the top, we cut, and branches spring open happy as kids on the last day of school. About halfway down, the remaining intact strings give way all at once in a combination of exploding and unraveling. Every remaining branch pops out angrily, spraying snow and ice wall to wall, floor to ceiling. It was no more willing to thaw than a Christmas turkey. In no time at all, puddles of ugly water begin forming all over the room.

Just as Ann races in with towels and rags, the thing falls over in a dead faint. The bottom of the stand has too little circumference to hold it up. Even if it could, I’d been too cold to reduce the size of the trunk enough so that it’s possible to pour water into the receptacle, and water is going to be essential. Epiphany is a long way off, and until then the tree will stand midway between the life-threatening dryness of a nine-foot radiator and the biggest fireplace in the house.

We consider solutions as we watch the snow that had refused to melt while in the mudroom with its slate floor turn into sticky little gray-green pools on the newly finished maple floors of the living room. A guy wire attached to the ceiling? Over my dead body (not that hard to come by, it seems). New sheetrock had been installed there twice already. A guy wire to the radiator? Yes, but there is nothing to attach a second one to, and a single guy wire would be no help. Make a stand out of a washtub full of sand? That would be outstandingly decorative, but I wouldn’t be able to lift the tree high enough to get it in.

We need help. Father Dan, across the street, is both a priest and a triathlete. Just the man for the job, but he isn’t home. Nor is David next door. Neighbor Brian has a bad back. Oh well, even a seasonal ought to be able to put up a Christmas tree without sending out for help.

Ann sweeps wet, sticky needles into piles, aggravating her back condition, and I suck them up with a Shop-Vac, and we – well – we bicker.

I think we should take the thing out onto the front porch and leave it there till we can come up with a plan. Maybe someone will steal it. That would solve our problem nicely. Ann is determined – as in clenched jaw – that the solarium is the proper place. We only argue over important matters. Especially at Christmas.

In keeping with the magic of the season, Ann comes up with a new idea, a bright shiny Christmas vision that happens to be a variation on my idea.

“Let’s leave it out on the porch for the whole season. We can attach it to the porch swing’s eyebolt with a wire. Put outdoor lights on it. And then get a more manageable tree for inside.”

“Great idea,” I say.

On the drive back to the city, Ann decides she’d been rash.

“That’s such a fine fat tree, let’s keep it inside.”

“Fine with me,” I say.  Actually, that has been my plan all along.

Then, “we’ll just buy an extra-large stand,” she says with finality.

During the week, we find a stand that attaches to a four-foot-square piece of plywood and has a large reservoir. Problem solved.

And so, it comes to pass that at dusk on Christmas Eve, we receive a miracle. With snow falling dreamily and angels singing to beat the band, we stand with our backs to the fireplace and admire the BIG Christmas tree we have always wanted. It is beautiful. We feel blessed and contented and most of all – this is the Christmas miracle – we feel not to have to put up a BIG Christmas tree ever again.