Back in the good old days, when our kids were young and I had not yet become old enough to know better, a favorite holiday tradition of ours was the yearly hunt for our family Christmas tree.
That sounds harmless enough, I know. But looking back at it, I wonder how close we came to permanently scarring those young lads as we pursued an annual quest that easily managed to make the hunts for Excalibur, Moby Dick and The Holy Grail seem as simple as a visit to the grocery store in search of something as rare as canned peaches.
We would spend hours trudging through the deep, cold, snowy woods, endlessly bickering over life-and-death details like height, fullness, color and species. The boys and I would start the day filled with Christmas spirit and boundless enthusiasm, only to be driven into the kind of chilly exhaustion more often experienced by those hardy folks who climb Mount Everest without oxygen or compete in dog sled races near the Arctic Circle.
She, on the other hand, never gave up until she found the perfect tree. It had to be big--massive, in fact--in order to just brush the eleven-and-a-half-foot ceilings in the front room of our big old house. The color had to be just right, and at least one side needed to be without bare spots, holes and other obvious flaws. Once it was finally chosen, I would be dispatched underneath the tree where, saw in hand, I would wriggle through the snowy slush and do my best to cut it down without incident.
That's where things always got tough.
Biology, botany, ecology, dendrology and a whole host of other sciences I know nothing about all dictate that a big tree requires a big trunk to keep entire forests from toppling over at the first light breeze.
She: How's it going under there?
(more sawing sounds)
Me: I can't feel my fingers.
Once it was finally felled, it was then my job to drag the prickly leviathan out of the forest, pay for it, precariously lash it to the top of the car or jam it into the cargo space of our much-maligned baby-blue mini-van, and head for home. Mom and the boys would sing carols and chat excitedly about how good the tree was going to look.
I, on the other hand, would already be pondering the words that have haunted dads ever since Joseph dragged a palm tree into the manger.
"How am I ever going to fit this big sucker into a stand?"
You see, that's the ultimate question for those of us who are married or otherwise attached to ardent big-tree fans. And even if you managed to jam a huge, peculiarly shaped trunk into a poorly engineered, way-too-flimsy, four-legged contraption, what absolute miracle of physics would enable an oversized evergreen to actually stand upright without resorting to a sensible, but forbidden, solution like leaning it against a wall or wiring it to a doorknob? Every year, I would anxiously wander the aisles of hardware stores and Christmas shops, desperately seeking the monolithic, extra-heavy-duty stand I dreamed of. At holiday gatherings, when wives and girlfriends would ooh and aah over each other's tree-decorating skills, guys in the know would look low and close, and ask the essential question:
"Where'd you get that stand?"
As expected, once we got our tree home, I would discover, right off, that the base of the thing was about twice as big as it needed to be to fit into my latest red-and-green support system.
Warming to the task, I would fire up my trusty chainsaw and start whittling away at the poor pine as it rested on our front porch. Caught up in an extreme level of noise and sap-lust, I'd soon forget I had an audience until I'd look up and see my wife and our sons looking through the window at me and the object of my Christmastime fury, shocked, wide-eyed and worried as if they'd unexpectedly come home early from school and caught me dismembering the neighbors' cat in my basement workshop.
Eventually, I'd get the darn thing into the stand, whereupon phase two would begin. Guys in the know already know the drill:
She: Move it to the right.
No, MY right.
No, not that far.
You're tipping it!
Don't tip it!
Does that look straight?
Me: How would I know? I'm lying under the tree.
Our sons finally aged out of the tree-getting process, and when our last live-cut tree dropped all its needles in the week before Christmas, we became confirmed fake-tree fanciers.
At least for a while.
We're spending Christmas in North Carolina this year, and she decided maybe we should let our youngest grandsons share in that old tradition. It was small-business Saturday when we all went to the Justice Tree Farm, a multi-generational, family-owned-and-operated place that is a fine example of the very best things about small businesses. The Justice family has, I discovered, upgraded things quite a bit since the last time I visited a cut-your-own place and was sent staggering into the deep, dark woods to fend for myself.
First off, you don't have to. Cut your own, that is.
While I was welcome to borrow one of their hand saws once we had made our selection, they indicated they'd be happy to cut it for me.
"I think grandpa should cut it down," said grandma, thinking, I guess, that seeing the old man crawling through the brush like a wounded gopher would somehow enhance the holiday experience for the little guys. My rescue came in the form of a winding little train-like contraption, pulled behind a small tractor, with just enough room left in the trailing cars for grandma and her two little elves.
"All aboard the Christmas tree express," cried the driver merrily.
"Yeah, whatever," I muttered. "Quick, where's that kid with the chainsaw?"
Not only did the helpful tree guys cut, bale and securely attach the tree to the roof of our car, but I was happy in the knowledge that the smallish, beach-house-size tree was in no way too big for the sleek, sturdy, modern-day tree stand I had discovered and purchased at a local big-box store the day before.
When we got the tree home to our beach place, I found I was right. The tree was not too big.
Instead, it was too small.
I searched high and low for the shims and other small hunks of wood needed to jam the skinny, crooked trunk of the tree into the massive, too-big stand. Once I did, grandma was ready with her phase two instructions, while two little boys stood poised with armloads of shiny balls and glittering pine cones, plus a precious collection of just-right shells, sand dollars and sea stars.
"Move it to the right. No, MY right. Now back. No, not that far. You're tipping it! Don't tip it! Now back. Now forward."
I looked up at her from where I lay, under the tree.
"Does that look straight?" she asked.
I smiled. She smiled back. We had been there before.
"Close enough," I said.
Close enough for Christmas.