“I know exactly where the Christmas tree will go.”
It is an odd sentence to choke out in a whispered sob. But that is exactly how I said it, four years ago, upon walking into the living room of the next house for sale we were investigating.
A change in jobs required a move to the region overlapping northern Pennsylvania and southern New York. Husband Bob and I were on the second day of a two-day blur of available homes. In the golden light of an August afternoon, we were being driven up a steep hill while the real estate agent issued a string of disclaimers.
“I hesitate to show you this house. It’s a bit…different.”
The pause between “bit” and “different” was wide enough to drive a herd of cows through, and Bob’s curious glance caught mine in the side view mirror of the SUV. When pushed, the agent ticked off an itemized list of the challenges that awaited us.
“It’s an older house, kind of a throw-back style. It’s on a dirt road that is private, no municipal services, and there are only three other homes. It hasn’t been lived in for a while and,” he paused and dropped the vehicle into an even lower gear as the homes and businesses gave way to state land and forest, “it’s a little out of the way.”
When we dropped down from the road onto a banked gravel drive, the house was about as impressive as Miley Cyrus’s credentials to join the DAR. One story, overgrown field, no access from the road other than the driveway, which abruptly stopped at the door with no other option for exit besides backing up.
While Bob tried to get a bit of perspective on the degree of slant into which the house was built, I went in. When he joined me a few moments later, he wrinkled his forehead at the sight of me stopped in the entrance to the living room as though nailed to the floorboards. Tears were threatening to spill at any second, and I looked out of breath. Before he could question, I turned to him and sobbed out my Christmas tree prophecy.
Then Bob turned his head. The entire front of the house was glass. Floor to ceiling windows showcased a view of green-carpeted hills, cascading forward to a sky painted a blue from a child’s storybook. Hardwood floors, a brick fireplace that offered a buffer between living and dining areas, and a descending staircase filled his gaze. Snapped out of his trance, he raised his hand and indicated the exact spot on the floor where a glistening evergreen stood in my mind’s eye.
Fast forward to a brisk autumn morning as we rolled down the interstate, congratulating each other on the brilliance of our plan. No more stomping our feet on the frozen parking lot of a local business, as we had for countless Decembers. We were going to cut down our tree for the upcoming Christmas, but schlepping through the snow comparing spruces was for amateurs. We were going in the fall, tagging our desired tannenbaum in dry conditions and coming back in December for a fast cut and drag that would be surgical in its precision. As we got out of the truck, I asked my beloved if we had a tape measure handy. His response is one of the entries in the “Great Book of Phrases Uttered by Husbands That Give Wives the Heebie-Jeebies.”
“Nope. I know how high the ceiling is.”
This statement, when coupled with our mutual desire to attain “one honking big Christmas tree,” should have been an indicator of what lay ahead. (On a related note, I am sure the Captain of the Titanic slapped his First Mate heartily on the back and said, “That iceberg don’t look big, son! In fact, cut close to it and we will use the shavings to make margaritas tomorrow. Good night!”)
Selection of our tree was a true team effort. I would attempt to gauge its shape and fullness. Bob would stand beside it, calculating its height by raising his arm over his head and doing the math based on his personal stats. Through this highly scientific method, we tagged a beauty estimated in the neighborhood of twelve feet tall. Perfect.
On the appointed day, deep into the holiday season, we returned, chopped the tree down, and dragged it between us to the truck. We decided to forego the shaking and binding that the tree farm offered. To be honest, neither of us can recall now why we did that. (I think it’s the residual shock suppressing our memories, but I digress.) The tree snuggled comfortably inside the eight-foot bed, with a dainty section of about a foot jutting over the tailgate.
“Drat! We miscalculated! It can’t be but nine feet tall!” I jammed my gloved hands into my jacket pockets and turned to Bob with a scowl. “That’s going to look pretty stumpy in our front room.”
Bob was quiet, the usual sign that his brain is analyzing the situation like an MRI on caffeine.
“It’s just fallen deeper into the truck bed than I thought it would. It’s still at least ten feet tall and, either way, it’s ours now. Let’s go.”
At home, we propped open the front door, dropped the tailgate of the truck, and hauled that evergreen into the middle of the living room floor. And that’s when it happened: the moment our kids refer to as the “Magic Morphing Christmas Tree of 2011.” I prefer to remember it as the moment I turned to my husband and demanded, “Just how tall do you think you are?”
The beast, for that is surely what it had become, obscured the living room floor for a solid five feet from side-to-side and a mind-blowing fifteen feet from bottom to tip. It was an endless mass of forest green boughs. I swear to you I heard it growl. One of our cats had ventured out to investigate and when the tree did its “Creature from the Black Lagoon” impersonation, she dropped her ears flat, hissed like a busted boiler, and shot back down the stairs.
I wanted to go with her.
“Babe? Did somebody swap trees on us?”
Bob rolled his eyes and said, “Yep, that’s it, Mags. There is a band of tree swappers who must have hung off an overpass on I-86, grabbed our tree and replaced it with this Sequoia. Call CSI: Kings’ Canyon.”
Our usual tree stand looked like something from the Barbie Playhouse when we tried to jam it on the stump of the trunk. I could see the blue-eyed MRI cranking up again and a trip to the garage produced a large bucket, a couple of bricks, and a sack of sand, all remnants from the extensive remodeling we had done.
The tree was nearly impossible to subdue, and the fact that it smelled like every good childhood memory you ever had did not negate the fact that it was stabbing me a hundred times a minute. On the count of three, the tree went up, up, up and into the bucket and down. The down was not near as impressive as the up, and, to my horror, the evergreen from hell bent at least two feet of its crowning points against the newly painted ceiling in my dream home. Had it been metal-on-metal it would have made your teeth hurt to listen to. The needles cut a delicate pattern into the beige paint and came to rest at a painfully cockeyed angle, causing the entire tree to list fifteen degrees to port.
The rest of the day is a blur. It took us four hours, two additional stump trimmings, three bags of sand, and enough high-gauge fishing line to hog-tie a sumo wrestler to secure the tree. The two of us fell onto the sofa in an exhausted pile, silently surveying the wreckage. Chunks of hacked-off boughs and trunk littered the floor along with yards of fish line and bailing twine. About a half gallon of water had sloshed out of the bucket at one point, bringing with it enough wet sand to nest a family of pelicans. A paltry box of ornaments, more than adequate for all of our past trees, looked like it would, maybe, cover the top third. If we put a string of lights on every available bough, confused pilots would overshoot the Elmira Corning Regional Airport and try to land DC-9s on our deck.
“You know,” Bob gasped between gulps of air, “I think the natural look is the best for this Christmas. Less showy decorations. Maybe just an arm’s length of garland and some pine cones. What do you think?”
I nodded, being unable to form words. My lungs had crawled out my mouth to see what the heck was going on. My face felt perforated, like someone was going to tear it off a college bulletin board advertising for roommates.
When I could, I squeaked, “Is this a Scotch pine?”
Bob rocked his head no.
I was crestfallen.
“I was hoping that would be justification for a glass of Dewar’s.”
The MRI had enough juice left for one more calculation.
“Actually, Honey, it’s a rare species. A ‘Bourbonite.’ Yep. And I believe tradition dictates a glass of Maker’s Mark for toasting it.”
He may think he is only four feet tall, but I still love the way his mind works.