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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11 Comments

  1. Roberta W. Coffey on December 21, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Dear Lee,

    What a hauntingly beautiful reminiscence, written from the depth of your soul. It brought me to tears.

    Merry Christmas!

  2. Lee Martin on December 21, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    Thank you, Roberta. Merry Christmas to you, too.

  3. Jeanne Voelker on December 21, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    What a beautiful and appreciative reminiscence! It made me think of the warm Christmases of my own rural childhood. Our parents had four children at that time, so our gifts were simple, and the one special Santa gift (a baby doll or roller skates) were provided by grandparents. We had a tree, with tinsel carefully saved from year to year, good food, and Christmas carol chimes my dad broadcast from the dormer window. Only as adults do we realize what energies our parents expended to bring us a magical Christmas.

    • Jeanne Voelker on December 21, 2015 at 2:50 pm

      “was provided”

    • Lee Martin on December 21, 2015 at 5:17 pm

      Thank you so much, Jeanne, and thank you, too, for sharing your own Christmas memories. You’re so right that as children we didn’t think a thing about what it took for our parents at Christmastime. I hope that you and your lovely family have a very happy holiday!

  4. Jeanne Voelker on December 21, 2015 at 10:17 pm

    Thank you, Lee! We’re fielding Santa questions from the tiny believers here. Their excitement level should be captured–it could power a small city!
    Wishing you and Cathy the best Christmas ever!

  5. cinnamonb on December 21, 2015 at 10:48 pm

    Wonderful essay, very evocative. You and Jeanne are correct, we often don’t appreciate right away what our parents did to give us those childhood memories.

    Sorry, I can’t help but notice your story is quite similar to mine. My Mom was also a teacher, born the same year as your Mother! Dad was eventually a brick mason. I grew up as an only child as well, since my bother, in Heaven now died in childbirth a year before I was born.

    And as far as Christmas, we had cedar trees, too, mostly. We lived in the “boonies” – a rural or semi rural place and Dad would cut one down. Probably my favorite Christmas memory is that one year, Mom and Dad went to the Midnight Church service and came home to find Nanny (Mom’s Mother) and I up and invading the presents!

    Oh, and I can’t resist adding another one: I was a bit older – maybe late teens or so and Mom, Dad and I got back from Midnight service and were opening presents. We had the tv on and this music video from the band Rush came on: “Closer to the Heart.” I really thought that song had such a great message for the day even though it wasn’t a Christmas carol.

    And of course peace and many blessings to your family and your home and everyone. Can NEVER have enough “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men (and I have to add, Women 🙂 )”

    • cinnamonb on December 21, 2015 at 11:00 pm

      Oppps, shame on me: of course Mom and Dad are in Heaven now, too —- just absolutely.

    • Lee Martin on December 22, 2015 at 12:31 pm

      I love reading your Christmas memories! Thank you so much for sharing them.

  6. Robert Sykes on December 24, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    Cautiously sifting through holiday memories has allowed me to gain a perspective that brings closure to some difficult chapters…conditions and circumstances of the past have allowed wisdom and forgiveness to emerge…thanks Lee…

    • Lee Martin on December 28, 2015 at 3:18 pm

      Isn’t it amazing what time can do? You probably remember this quote from Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

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