Nearly each year at Christmas, my father and I went out into our woods and cut a cedar tree. I only remember us having a store-bought pine tree a handful of times. So the cedar tree was sort of a Christmas tree, but not really—not a red pine, or a white pine, or a scotch pine; not even a spruce or a fir. Just a common cedar tree, the sort that grew abundantly in the woods and the fence rows in our part of southeastern Illinois. As such, our “Christmas” tree was never as shapely as those shorn for retail sale. I never thought much about it at the time. We were country people, accustomed to using what we had on hand.
We lived down a quarter-mile lane off the County Line Road—a flat lane with a dip and a slight rise just before the curve into the farmyard. Those winter nights, I imagine that folks driving by on the County Line might catch a glimpse, if they looked hard enough, of the lights on the cedar tree at our front window, just a wink of blue or green or red light to let them know that someone lived down that lane. We lived in a box house with a front room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, a wash porch, and a pantry. It was a modest house on eighty acres of farmland.
The house is a pile of debris now, but the last time I visited, I could make my way to what would have been the front door, and I could see the oil heating stove still in its place and an old couch and chair. At the back of the house, after making my way through the brush, I could see the refrigerator and the cook stove. I could see where the kitchen counter had been with the hand pump at the lip of the sink. It wasn’t hard to imagine my parents and I moving through that house all those years ago. We had no idea, then, the roads we’d travel and all we’d endure, or the ends we’d come to; we, like everyone else, did our best to ignore time and all it does to us.
We were a family of three in a small house in the country with a cedar tree decorated with those big teardrop lights, and Christmas balls and bells in red and blue and green and silver and gold, and plastic icicles, and lots of tinsel. The winter winds rattled our storm windows in their frames. Sometimes snow drifts filled our lane and made it impassable, but I remember the heat from the oil stove, and I remember the lights of those cedar trees, and I remember the feeling of being with my mother and father those cold nights just before Christmas.
My father brought home paper sacks of candy: ribbon candy, chocolate drops, peppermint sticks, orange slices. We had peanuts and walnuts and tangerines. Whenever I begged for a particular Christmas gift—a rocking horse on springs and a Bobo doll are on my list of toys-I-always-wanted-but-never-got—my father would say gruffly, “If ifs and buts were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.”
I like to think, despite how sour he could sometimes be, that he and my mother were as happy as the circumstances of his accident that cost him both his hands could allow them to be. My mother, the spinster schoolteacher, who married my father when she was 41; my father, the bachelor farmer who found his life-long love at the age of 38. They had no idea that four years later, I’d come along. They had no idea that they’d be parents in the middle of their lives, buying toys for their son, taking him to visit Santa, decorating a tree. They had no thought of the small graces that can come to us when we least expect them, and the way our lives can open up into something new and wondrous.
At the time, I had no thought of that either. I was too busy being a kid. But now, when I think back to those Christmases, I see the grace that was ours. I want to say we didn’t deserve it—this father with a bad temper, this mother who could be too timid, this son who could be too whiny and selfish, but then I think of all that we suffered in the aftermath of my father’s accident, and I give thanks for those small blessings of time when we were nothing but a father, a mother, a son—when we found pleasure in a tangerine, a piece of candy, a cedar tree. When we found pleasure in being together.
In my imagination I put us all into motion in that house. My mother is wrapping presents, my father is asking me to put a chocolate drop in his mouth. The radio is playing Christmas songs. The oil stove comes on with a whoosh. I stand in front of it, warming myself. My mother lays the packages under the tree. The radio says that radar has picked up the track of Santa’s sleigh. I put cookies and milk out on the kitchen table. Come morning, there will be an empty glass and only a few crumbs on the saucer, and under the cedar tree more presents, all of them for me because I’m a little boy, the son of this damaged man and this middle-aged woman for whom life must sometimes seem overwhelming but a little miraculous, too, and we’re together again in the dark of the country, and we’re thankful, so thankful. We’re sending out blessings to your house and your house and yours. From our house to your house. All the blessings of the season, until we have the chance to meet again.