Christmas and the Scrub Tree (Part One)
As I walked through a Christmas tree lot I couldn’t help but notice a scrawny tree lying on its side and it reminded me of a poor country Christmas long ago. Perhaps it was a glimmer of light through the fog, or wind moving the branches but at that moment I could smell the scent of crushed cedar and I could see a Christmas season long lost except in warm memories.
From my childhood I could recall another scrawny tree, a cedar, one that was transformed by a gift which answered my sister’s dreams.
It was a cold, wet winter in the Ouachita Mountains. The trees were beautiful in summer but now, except for the tall pines and the straggly, dwarfed cedars, the trees were almost bare. The cottonwoods with their parasitic crowns of mistletoe, the oaks, the walnuts, and the hickorys stood stark against the sky.
Like most of the area’s residents, our family struggled through the first eleven months of the year. December, with Christmas, was a special month. It was a time for beautiful thoughts and a beautiful world covered with snow. My family was ready to give up its daily rations of beans, fried potatoes, and cornbread. It was the time to fatten the old red rooster for Christmas. It was also a time to forget harsh realities, to dream and to expect better things. To that extent, the Christmas was a symbol of those dreams.
My parents had planned the day we were to get the Christmas tree long in advance of the event. Fortunately, the weather was dry but very cold. Frost striped the windows with silvery tentacles and the cold nippy air forced me deeper into the covers. Willis, my older brother, had already slopped the pigs and fed the chickens at daybreak. Now he burst into the room.
“Hey, day’s abreakin! Possum’s on the limb and his tail’s ashakin!” He was shouting in his usual fashion because it was his duty to get me up. This morning he sounded even more excited because today was a special family outing to get the yearly Christmas tree. Seeing no response to his greeting, he pulled the covers from my inert form.
“Get up. Get up, you sleepy head. Today we go get the Christmas tree. Are you going to stay in bed all day? The sun’s already up.”
As I studied his muscular frame, I thought of kicking at him but groggily decided to hold back the impulse. “No,” I reasoned. “He’s got a temper, too.”
Silently I slid out of bed and pulled on my jeans. Already I could hear the sounds of chairs scraping on the floor as the family gathered. I shuffled to my seat. We were all there, stationed at the rectangular table. Willis was across from me while my three older sisters sat on my side of the table. My younger brother, Billy, on the same side as Willis, leaned against Dad. Dad and Mom sat at the ends of the table, directly across from each other.
Dad began with a prayer and Mom followed by reading the Daily Bible reading. Then it was Dad’s turn again. “We’ll go above the old Morse farm today. I saw some nice trees there a couple of weeks ago.”
We split steaming hot biscuits and ladled hot milk gravy over them. While my parents sipped coffee, my brothers and sisters and I drank the warm Jersey milk Dad had strained and skimmed earlier. The biscuits became dessert too, with butter and blackberry jam.
“Didn’t we get the wild plums at the Morse place last year?” I asked. My oldest sister, Sue Ann, shook her head. “Nope. Just the blackberries.” I looked at the last biscuit and hesitated when I saw my mother’s face. “That’s for your Daddy,” she asserted.
Right after breakfast my older brother, sisters, and I piled into the back of our blue pickup truck while Dad, Mom, and Billy climbed into the cab. We readied for the cold trip by bundling up with a patchwork quilt made from old jeans. The pickup sputtered and coughed and gradually began to drone monotonously.
“Over the hills and through the woods,” we sang as the pickup twisted up the muddy road. After “Silent Night” and a few other songs we felt the pickup slow down.
Dad pointed out of the window and shouted, “The river is rising. We don’t want to be gone too long today.”
From the pickup bed we could see where the swollen muddy water was lapping at the concrete bridge. For the past two days the Kiamichi River had been fed by rains that had drenched the surrounding hills. Now the sun was shining and the clouds had disappeared.
“I hope we get some Christmas weather,” Betsy said. “A couple of days of sunshine and then some snow.”
As the truck cautiously crossed the bridge over the swirling water we gazed at the trees on the bank ahead of us. We murmured over the mistletoe laced trees and bright splotches of scarlet holly berries. “Remember where you saw them,” Willis said. “We’ll get some on our way back.”
We were stiff and cold when we arrived at the Morse place. The Morse house, its paint peeling and weatherworn, was really nothing more than a two room shack that had given up its last occupants years ago in the Depression. With its dark vacant windows I was sure it was another ghost house left to guard the mountainside. I steered clear of the broken picket fence as we walked by.
Dad led the way up a well used deer trail that twisted through the thick brush. We padded along on the moist spongy carpet of leaves. In the places where the ground was bare Dad stopped occasionally to show us where deer and rabbits had crossed.
Once he bent and said, “Look at the baby’s hand print.” As I studied it I could tell he was teasing. I had seen skunk tracks before.
Near the top of the ridge we came to a glade fringed with oak, persimmon, hickory, and dogwood. The glade itself was almost barren. The only plants thriving in the exposed rocky soil of the glade were prickly pear cactuses and stands of red cedar. It seemed evident that the cedar trees were gradually reclaiming the clearing.
We fanned out to look for a tree, not just any tree, but a tree that would fit in the corner or a small living room. “I wish someday we could buy a beautiful pine tree like I’ve seen in the magazines,” Betsy said wistfully. “I’m tired of these scrub trees.”
The tiny cedar trees were to her just scrub trees, but I thought they were special because they were hardy and fragrant. Of course I had no other trees to compare them with so the cedar trees won hands down. We selected and sawed the best tree on the hillside. The tree looked almost uniform on three sides, but one part looked very scraggly.
“The other side won’t show in the corner, anyway,” Mom said.
Willis dragged the cedar to the pickup and threw it in. Then off we went, slowly bouncing along the road. Returning to the bridge we could see the water had risen another foot. The water was washing over the roadway and we looked at the bridge dubiously.
Dad checked the water line from several angles. “I think we can make it. The water doesn’t seem to be rising too fast.” While we were waiting for his decision Willis skinnied up several trees and brought down large armfuls of mistletoe and branches of holly. He tossed them into the pickup bed in front of our feet.
The truck launched into the water covering the concrete bridge and gave a little lurch as the rubber tires slipped and then grabbed solid ground. We felt the pickup slide momentarily but then the pickup was on the other side and back on the road. A few minutes later I could see our house nestled in the valley between the small two story brick school and the diminutive store with its signs proudly proclaiming opposing products, Pepsi-Cola and Coca Cola. As the pickup slid to a stop, I sang out, “Home again, home again, jiggidy jig.”
Later that day we backed the tree into the living room corner, took down the mouse chewed cardboard box of ornaments from the attic, and began decorating the tree. Pine cones and fir cones were placed on the branches. Paper children holding hands were cut out of catalogues and pasted in a long chain that curved gracefully around the tree. Christmas ornaments, their paint worn thin in spots, our whole collection, were taken from the box and hung in strategic locations. With needle and thread we laced popcorn and cranberries in a ratio of three to one. This tree rope was strung through the other decorations and gave the tree color. We stopped occasionally when the thread broke and sent red cranberries and white popcorn scattering across the floor. When the tree was decorated and finished, I stood back to admire it. Kathy, Betsy’s twin, would only say, “It’s still a scrub tree. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
Christmas and the Scrub Tree (Part One)